Airshows are a popular form of family entertainment — major shows draw over 100,000 spectators a day — and one of the most popular and unique acts on the show circuit is performed by Dan Buchanan. While most airshow pilots fly high-powered planes, jets and helicopters ranging in cost from hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars, Buchanan performs his routine flying a hang glider that costs around $6,000. Audiences are entertained and amazed at Buchanan’s performance and piloting skill, and even better, the crowd is unaware that Buchanan is a complete paraplegic — until the end of his act in a very cool finale.
Buchanan’s performance starts with his liftoff, accomplished by launching from a trailer towed by a vehicle driving down the runway at 35 mph. Once airborne, a winch on the trailer pays out line, and he steadily tow-climbs to 1,500 feet. As the tow vehicle continues down the runway, a trail of colored smoke and long colored streamers attached to the glider accent his flight.
Buchanan’s main performance is a comedy act where he “mistakenly” launches during the middle of an aerobatic airplane performer’s routine. The announcer and the performer pretend to be vexed with the mistaken timing and exchange banter with Buchanan over the PA, telling him to land immediately, but Buchanan refuses to leave the sky. A police car, lights and sirens blazing, appears on the runway chasing the tow vehicle. The aerobatic airplane tries to chase Buchanan out of the sky, making ever-closer buzzing passes, eventually coming so close it cuts the streamers trailing his glider. Dan attempts to thwart the aerobatic plane’s efforts by shooting special effects rockets and pyrotechnics, his version of a “third world warbird attack.” When the “fight” has ended, Buchanan releases the tow rope, and the announcer makes a proper introduction as he swoops, turns and glides down to a smooth landing on wheels in front of the audience.
But wait — a helicopter appears overhead, dangling a TiLite wheelchair on a cable, delivering it to Buchanan’s hang glider as the announcer explains to the audience that Buchanan is a paraplegic. He transfers to his chair as his “nemesis,” the aerobatic plane — now a friend — taxis up and offers a wingtip.
Buchanan grabs on and gets a tow to greet the audience on the flight line, where he will spend hours signing autographs, answering questions and posing for photos with airshow fans.
Hooked on Flying
Buchanan grew up in Connecticut and made his way to Lake Tahoe, Calif., earning a living as a home builder, dividing his spare time between flat-track motorcycle racing and scuba diving — until he discovered hang gliding, a sport that became all-encompassing. In 1981 during one of his first ridge soaring flights (riding winds that are deflected upward by a ridge cliff), a weather front started moving in, but like Icarus, the joy of soaring temporarily overcame him, and he chose to stay aloft. When the front arrived, turbulent air caused a hard landing, which fractured his spine, resulting in T8 complete paraplegia.
The accident didn’t deter his passion for flying. “While lying in the hospital bed waiting to begin rehab, I started figuring out a way to adapt my hang glider so I could fly it. I was bored and didn’t have anything else to do,” says Buchanan. He did his rehab at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. “After rehab I stayed in the San Francisco Bay Area because the ocean cliffs and surrounding hills and mountains have many hang gliding sites with year-round flying.”
Within six months of his injury, Buchanan was aloft in his hang glider, adapting it by adding wheels for takeoff and landing. He used PVC sprinkler pipe to stiffen up the harness and support his legs.
No longer able to earn a living building homes, Buchanan hooked up with voc rehab, and at age 25 attended community college for the first time. His ability to drive himself seems genetically hardwired — he only requires five and a half hours of sleep a night. He would attend class, then drive to a local flying site, hang glide until sunset and study late into the night. He earned two associate degrees exploring career options before earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, which landed him a lucrative engineering job in Silicon Valley.
Although the engineering job paid well, Buchanan wasn’t cut out for cubicle life. “It was the first time in my life that I was working indoors. I would glance outside and see good flying conditions beckoning, and it was torture,” he recalls.
Bay Area flying sites often attract tourists who come to watch the colorful gliders take off and soar. The attraction is also popular with local media. They would see Buchanan setting up his glider and feature him in many newspaper and television stories. “I thought there must be a way to earn a living by combining my passion for flying with the media attention it was drawing,” he says.
Buchanan’s stars aligned in 1989. “I was setting up my glider at a flying site in Oregon when an airshow promoter came up and asked if it was possible to ‘fly those things from a flat runway.’ The timing was perfect, a friend of mine had one of the first tow rigs, and I said yes.” A month later he did his first airshow in Medford, Ore. It was a success and he knew he was on to something. “At that first show I decided to become an airshow performer.”
Building the Show
Buchanan held on to his day job as he built his airshow business. The following year he tripled his performances — two shows in Medford and one in Redding, Calif. One of his neighbors, Gordon Bowman, a famous airshow announcer and operations director, generously offered advice and also introduced Buchanan to other airshow pilots who shared their knowledge.
The airshow business is extremely competitive, requiring a combination of pilot skill, creativity, salesmanship and showmanship. Buchanan’s work ethic and drive came into play. He would work all day, come home and study airshow industry periodicals, write promotional materials and send out proposals to prospective airshows. He created and choreographed his routine, studied pyrotechnics and applied for and received state and federal pyrotechnic licenses while creating unique ways to attach smoke bombs and launch firework-like rockets and explosions from his glider. To offer more options to airshow producers, he created a “night performance” by figuring out a way to rig a lighting system inside the sail of his glider, making a bright multi-colored light in the sky. When combined with shooting fireworks and trailing sparks from his wing, the spectacle can be seen from 30 miles away on a clear evening.
Airshows traditionally have a patriotic opening, so he created an introductory act, soaring with a large American flag on top of his glider trailing red white and blue smoke and shooting rockets and fireworks — his version of “… the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air …” during the national anthem.
Within four years Buchanan had added enough performances that he gave notice at his engineering job and never looked back. This year marks Buchanan’s 25th year in the airshow business. He has logged over 3,000 flying hours and performed over 1,400 shows in America, Australia, Japan, Thailand, El Salvador, United Arab Emirates, Canada and Mexico. On an average year he performs 80-90 performances at 25-30 airshows, seen by millions of people each season from March through October.
When asked what it is like to perform in front of 100,000 people, Buchanan says, “During my performance, because I’m so focused on flying, the timing of my routine and performing, I never really see the crowd until I’ve landed and wheel to the flight line.”
In addition to getting to see the world, his travels afford him unique adventure opportunities. “So far my most memorable adventures have been scuba diving in Thailand, diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and driving up the entire east coast of Australia,” he says.
Buchanan has had his share of unique show experiences, including making the news as a UFO when people phone police during his night shows. “The ‘UFO sightings’ happen every now and then, especially when the night sky is really clear during a performance. I guess seeing a bright light hovering in the sky, then silently changing directions, could give people that impression,” he laughs.
Another Day at the Office
Traveling the world and performing as an airshow star in front of millions of people sounds glamorous, and Buchanan enjoys it, but behind the scenes it is constant work. “Flying in the shows is the easy part. I do everything from the flying to the business side of things.” he says. Much of his off-season is, ironically, spent in the office working on promotion, website updates, cold calling to get more airshow jobs and accounting. “My success is directionally proportional to the amount of time I put in at the office,” he says.
During show season, Buchanan’s schedule is akin to a modern-day cowboy chasing the next rodeo. Much of it requires driving his full-size pick-up, towing his show trailer from show to show. It is not uncommon for Buchanan to finish a show on Sunday and drive several thousand miles in a few days to get to the next show. In an average year he drives over 45,000 miles.
A typical week means traveling Monday through Wednesday. He splits the drive time with his crew chief, Jason Person. When Person is driving, Buchanan is on his cell phone or emailing airshow producers, the FAA and other agencies involved with the next show, plus hotel planning and cold calling to set up shows for the following year. Thursdays are for media interviews promoting the weekend show. On Fridays the performers do a show rehearsal, getting their timing down before the weekend show.
At age 58, and 33 years post-injury, Buchanan is healthy and has avoided skin and shoulder breakdowns that are common at that age. “I manage to keep healthy because I went to ‘old school rehab’ where they didn’t release you until you knew how to take care of your paralyzed body and keep it healthy,” he says. “I work out to keep my shoulders strong and keep myself lean so there is less body weight when doing transfers. I still do a mirror skin check every night, and from day one I’ve sat on a ROHO cushion. I have one for my vehicle as well. They don’t sponsor me — in fact I paid cash for my last one because I needed it drop-shipped in the middle of airshow season.”
Another unique aspect of Buchanan’s performance is his interaction with fans. When most pilots finish their routine, they have to taxi their planes back to the hangar or tie-down area. Buchanan goes directly from center stage (the runway) to greeting fans on the flight line. He has developed a positive reputation for arriving early on press days and not leaving a show until he has signed the last fan autograph. This professionalism and dedication has earned him three coveted performance awards from the International Council of Air Shows, including “Special Achievement Award” — given to a performer who brings something new and/or unique to the business.
Despite all of the accolades, Buchanan’s income derives from performance fees from each airshow — which is enough for a comfortable living, but the real money in the airshow business is landing a major sponsor. Considering airshow performers offer direct advertising to millions of people each year, it is a win/win situation, but a tough deal to land.
Buchanan’s act also drew the attention of producers making a TV series called Airshow, an eight-episode, hour-long, behind-the-scenes documentary about airshow pilots which was filmed during the 2013 season and is scheduled to air on a major cable network (information unavailable at press time) in January 2015. Buchanan’s appearance starts on the third episode. “At first it was weird having a film crew shoot everything from morning until night for weeks on end,” he says. “After a while, when I got to know them, it became a normal part of my day. By the time they were through filming, we had become close friends, and I’m looking forward to working with them this season.”
Watching the trailer for the series (Buchanan is only seen for a few seconds shooting sparks during a night show), it looks like a hit. If so, it will expand Buchanan’s exposure from several million airshow fans to tens of millions of TV fans, a great draw to help join Buchanan with a major sponsor. And because Airshow is a reality series, television viewers will see a talented performer using a wheelchair who is the real thing.