We had an AMA “Ask Me Anything” with Aaron Fitzgerald, where the members in our Slack community got a chance to ask him questions, live.
Aaron works primarily as a film and television camera platform pilot and aerial coordinator, and has worked all over North America on over 100 film and television projects. His experience includes high altitude and mountainous terrain as well as offshore and desert environment flying operations. He is also an Air Show performer who flies an aerobatic display in the Red Bull BO-105 Helicopter.
- FAA / ICAS licensed aerobatic helicopter pilot.
- Approved FAA Motion Picture Manual and is a member of the Motion Picture Pilots Association and SAG.
- FAA Part 135 pilot continuously since 1999.
- Former Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
- Years of professional experience in the utility and charter sectors of the helicopter industry.
As a utility pilot and IBEW member, Aaron has worked in the power line construction field building transmission towers in mountainous terrain. Formerly the Chief Pilot at Summit Helicopter in Los Angeles, CA with a perfect safety record–no accidents, incidents, certificate actions, or violations. The California State Firefighter’s Association awarded Aaron their Medal of Valor in April 2000 for rescuing the crew of a downed news helicopter as it burned on the ground.
How do you prepare mentally for the insane stunts you do?
The mental preparation is ongoing. I practice as often as possible and I am constantly in contact with my European teammates, discussing ideas and experiences related to helicopter aerobatics.
What’s the thing of your career you are the most proud of?
I am probably most proud of my military service, performing at Oshkosh, and doping aerobatics in New York City.
Would you wonder doing another job, what would it be?
If I had to do another job besides flying helicopters, I would be a fisherman. That is my second love!
How dangerous is your job?
It can be very dangerous if one is careless or overconfident. I try hard to take is seriously and with great respect.
What’s the best thing in your job?
Sharing what we do with the public at air shows.
Do you ever get scared when you do insane stunts?
No, but I get very focused, and sometimes that feels a little like nervousness. Not quite the same, but similar.
What’s your favorite maneuver? Which is the hardest?
My favorite maneuver is the BO Turn. It is the hardest to get just right, so it is a constant challenge. I enjoy trying to always make it look a little better than the last one!
What was it like becoming a helicopter stunt pilot?
It is very rewarding and it is a challenge, no question. Learning to do aerobatics in a helicopter was a great privilege and I tried to rise to the challenge and do the very best that I could.
How do you practice for the stunning stunts you do?
I practice as often as I can! It isn’t quite every day, but I try get up and practice at least 3 or 4 times a week. I don’t ever want to become complacent!
I’ve seen you at Oshkosh, is there anything that makes Oshkosh Special?
Yes, Oshkosh is special. For me, it is because of all the great pilots who have performed there. To follow in their footsteps and perform at the very same place is a huge honor for me. Very humbling!
Can you stall a helicopter?
You can stall the rotor system, yes. If your AOA is too high under g load, the airspeed value for retreating blade stall is reduced.
Have you done stunts with Yes Theory?
Yes I have! Those guys were great. Very nice guys indeed!
Have you ever gotten sick doing what you do?
Not yet! (I have made many OTHER people vomit though!)
How do you become an aerobatic helicopter pilot? This isn’t a traditional job, isn’t it? Was this a childhood dream of yours or how did you end up doing this?
The way I became an aerobatic helicopter pilot is that I was extraordinarily fortunate that Red Bull chose to train me and invite me onto their team, The Flying Bulls. It is not a traditional job at all! I always wanted to be a helicopter pilot, since I was a kid, but I didn’t aspire to this particular job because I wasn’t aware that it was possible until later. I am very happy to be here now!
Who were you trained by?
I was trained by two of the best pilots in the world, Rainer Wilke and Blacky Schwarz.
What are you looking out for before you do your stunts?
Before I do any aerobatics, I of course do a very thorough pre-flight inspection, I am always aware of the density altitude values, and I make sure the airspace is clear and legal for aerobatics.
How are you feeling during your stunts?
I always feel good when I am doing aerobatics. It’s a thrill and a great challenge. It is almost impossible to do a perfect display sequence, so it is a fun challenge to keep chasing it. I am always trying to improve.
What’s the max amount of G’s you have pulled?
The maximum positive G that pull in the helicopter is only around 3g’s. Nowhere near what the aerobatic airplanes pull!
Of all the movies you been a part of, what was your favorite to work on and why?
So far, Extraction was my favorite. We shot our aerial scenes in Thailand and it was a great crew at a cool location. I was hired by my friend and teammate, Kevin LaRosa Jr. to work on that film and I am very grateful to have been a part of a film that turned out to be world wide hit! We recently shot another really big action sequence for a movie that will come out next year. I can’t talk about that one just yet, but I promise that you will like it.
How much free Red Bull do you get?
As much as I want! One of the best parts of this job is how Red Bull treats us all. It is a huge global company that feels more like a small group. The whole company has a great team spirit and Mr. Mateschitz treats us all like family. I am lucky to be on the team.
Which of the two were the more complex events technically and logistically for yourself, the Heaven Sent Project or Red Bull Stratos?
Those two stunts were both great achievements and both set World Records.
For Heaven Sent, I was the Aerial Coordinator and lead Helicopter Pilot. I got to help Luke Aikins turn an outlandish idea into reality. We spent about a year and a half developing and testing the various systems involved. Then, on the day of the stunt, Luke performed what I consider to be the greatest athletic human stunt the world has ever seen. He executed it perfectly on live television with his life on the line.
Stratos was a massive project too! That was closer to seven years in development. For Stratos, I was the lead helicopter pilot, so I flew many test jump flights with Felix Baumgartner in the early stages. As the project continued, my role changed to aerial camera helicopter flying during various test flights. Then, on the day of the jump, I was leading the helicopter team to Felix’s landing area. I was flying orbits around Felix as he descended under parachute. We had four helicopters that day. It was an honor to be part of that project and Felix is a hero for being the first person to do a Supersonic Skydive!
I am proud to be friends and teammates with both Luke and Felix today.
Who was your biggest inspiration to become the man that you are today?
My first inspiration was Clyde Pangborn. He made the first non-stop Trans-Pacific flight in 1931 and that flight landed in my hometown of Wenatchee, WA. I have had many aviation mentors who have helped me and inspired me along the way during my flying career.
What would you tell someone who wants to do what you do? Words of inspiration?
I would tell any young pilot that the most basic method of success in aviation is to be nicer and work harder than everyone else! The aviation industry is a small world and word travels fast, so you can usually assume that your reputation has arrived at the scene before you have.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is trying to fit in everything that I want to do before my flying career is over. There are many things that I still want to experience and accomplish!
I will assume by your name ‘Balloonchaser’ that you will be very interested in our next big (still secret) project. It involves a very high profile balloon flight. I can’t tell you anything about it yet, but it will be very impactful and spectacular, I promise!
I just started my training on the EC 135 for SAR and MEDEVAC missions after completing the Allouette SA 316 training. I was wondering what are the steps someone should take to be able to fly a Red Bull aerobatic helicopter one day?
The EC 135 is a nice helicopter. Congratulations! You will be doing important work. SAR and MEDEVAC are the best things you can do for humanity with a helicopter. The honest truth is that I don’t know what the process is for getting this job. In my case, I was asked by Blacky Schwarz and Helmut Wahl if I wanted to be on the team, and of course I said yes. At that time, I had already been flying helicopters for more than 20 years, so they had a good idea of how I flew and how I conducted myself. I would recommend a visit [to Hangar 7 in Salzburg] for anyone who is at all interested in flying for Red Bull. The Flying Bulls team is based there, so all of them work out of that facility. (Well, except for me. I work in then United States, but in spirit, I am with the rest of the team in Salzburg!) Best of luck in your flying career!
Go check out more from Aaron at airborneimages.com.
If you’d like to join in discussions such as this with like-minded people like yourself and experts in the field, to learn and improve, I’d encourage you to join our Slack community.