Bethpage Air Show’s only female aerobatic pilot has ever been afraid to fly

As a child in Colorado Springs, Colorado, aerobatic pilot Jessy Panzer hated amusement park rides — and was terrified of flying in a plane, let alone piloting one.

Panzer is the only female aerobatic pilot scheduled to perform at the 18th Bethpage Air Show Memorial Day weekend at Jones Beach State Park. Panzer, 43, of Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the few active female aerobatic and air racing airshow performers in the United States, had reason to be scared.

His father, Raymond, and five others were killed when the corporate turboprop he was piloting crashed in a hailstorm and blizzard in mountainous terrain near Price, Utah on May 7 1986.

“It was the day before my seventh birthday,” Panzer said. “And I was scared, very scared of planes after that. I was crying when I got on an airliner. It was traumatic, that’s for sure.”

How far Panzer has come since then.

She first took flight lessons at age 18, earned a degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona; began aerobatic flying in 2000; flew his first airshow at the Nebraska State Fly-In in 2003; joined the US Advanced Aerobatic Team in 2012; and competed in the Reno National Championship Air Races. She first flew at Bethpage in 2019 as part of a Team Oracle-sponsored tandem event with legendary stuntman Sean D. Tucker.

These days, she flies a Pitts Special, a single-seat aerobatic biplane that she had custom-painted in what she calls “a kind of pink-purple hot rod thing.”

“I was so nervous that first flight,” Panzer said of her first lesson in a single-engine, high-wing, fixed-gear Cessna 172. “Scared, but excited. It was the craziest mix of emotions. I thought, ‘My dad died on a plane.’ But, I was immediately hooked and wanted to know all about planes.”

Pilot Jessy Panzer performs a maneuver in his Pitts Special. Panzer is the only female aerobatic pilot to perform at the Bethpage Air Show on May 28-29 at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh.
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Panzer has flown Learjet, Gulfstream and Sabreliiner business jets, helicopters, recreational aircraft, aerobatic planes – even a WWII T-6 Texan and the legendary P-51 Mustang.

She says flying solo airshow events is very different from being part of an act.

“Training stuff is usually a lot smoother,” Panzer said. “You’re flying with someone right next to you, so you can’t make erratic movements…You have to understand what the other person is thinking. It’s like dancing. There’s a leader and a follower…When you fly solo, you just have to worry about yourself… It’s much more gyroscopic, with quick movements.”

Panzer says his favorite part of his eight-minute routine is a “torque roll.”

She points her Pitts Special into a vertical climb, flying straight until she runs out of airspeed and lift and begins an aerodynamic stall.

“You don’t have unlimited power,” she said, “so at some point you’re going to stop. At that point, there’s nothing to counter the torque of the motor, so the The plane starts spinning in the opposite direction, gravity takes over and you start falling backwards.”

As the Pitts Special falls, she flips the plane, regaining speed. Continue his routine.

“It’s kind of like balancing on a bowling ball while standing on your head,” she said. “It’s great fun.”

On the ground, Panzer is much more reserved. She drives an old Honda.

Panzer said she decided to try flying because she looked at planes and thought of her father.

The US Navy Blue Angels will make their ninth appearance...

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will make their ninth appearance at the Bethpage Air Show on Memorial Day weekend at Jones Beach. They are featured on the May 25, 2018 Bethpage show.
Credit: Barry Sloan

“My family always told me how he died doing something he loved,” she said. “So I had these good stories. Our house was right under the airport traffic pattern and every time I saw one of those planes I thought of dad and being up there. I thought :” It’s so cool. But how do you do that?’ My imagination took over…I thought, this is a way to get closer to him, to get to know him better.”

Other performers

The Bethpage Air Show will take place May 28 and 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels appear for the ninth time, while the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team makes its 16th appearance. Air Combat Command’s new F-22 Raptor will be on hand, as will the US Navy’s F-35C Demonstration Team, the US Coast Guard and the 106th Rescue Wing New York Demonstration Team. Air National Guard HC-130 / HH-60. Civilian performers include the Skytypers and their five WWII Texans, renowned aerobatic pilots Mike Goulian and David Windmiller, the American Airpower Museum’s Warbirds, and the Farmingdale State College Flying Rams.

Boston native Goulian says what makes the Bethpage Air Show special is that it’s one of America’s “mega shows,” with locations including Chicago, San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, in Florida.

“He’s got this great vibe,” he said. “Pilots are athletes and they feed off the crowd and even though you can’t hear the crowd you can see it… You see this huge crowd and it makes you want to fly.”

Windmiller, 58, of Melville, has flown each of Bethpage’s shows, and the recent Aviation Hall of Fame inductee at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City says he enjoys performing for local fans. He flies an 11-minute route from Republic Airport to East Farmingdale in his Edge 540, which carries just 17 minutes of fuel, giving him valuable margin for error.

“It’s a really cool thing,” he said of the show. “There’s the jets, with all the noise and you get the speed and the rigmarole… With my flight, I can take this little plane and do somersaults and backflips and I make that plane stay still in the air with everyone watching. It’s just really cool.”

Like Panzer, Windmiller lost his father in an accident. Her father was killed on TWA Flight 800.

“Every time I fly along the beach, especially when I’m heading east, I think of him,” he said. “Absolutely… That’s a phone call you never expect to get.”

American female pilots

  • America’s most famous aerobatic pilot is Patty Wagstaff, a three-time United States aerobatic champion, inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio in 2004. She is honored there along with aviation pioneers like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and WWII Republic ace P-47 Thunderbolt and former LIRR President Francis (Gabby) Gabresky.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration said that in 2021, only 9.02% of all licensed pilots – and 3.97% of sport pilots – in the United States were women.

  • One of the first airshow pioneers was Bessie Coleman, the first black woman and the first Native American to hold a pilot’s license in the United States – and the first black person to hold an international pilot’s license. Her fame preceded fellow Aviation Hall of Fame inductees Amelia Earhart and aerial racer Jackie Cochran. Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman played the role of “Queen Bess” and died when her Curtiss JN-4 Jenny crashed while training on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida. She was 34

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