Jelly Belly takes to the air

DAYTON — It’s Dayton air show time! If you’re the type to gasp in horror and clutch your pearls, have I got an act for you.

His act in three parts consists of a beauty of an Interstate Cadet that will lose parts, an engine that will quit in high flight and can’t be restarted, and will land on a moving truck.

But don’t freak out, he insists. He’s here to teach you a lesson by proving that airplanes can do amazing things despite what might look like a catastrophic failure. He’s been doing this far longer than Sullly Sullenberger’s famous save, but Sully is more widely know. Because you know, bigger plane.

Winner of the Bill Barber award for Showmanship, the Art Scholl Memorial Award for Showmanship, honorary Royal Canadian Snowbird, and a member of the Air Show Hall of Fame, the 48th annual Dayton Air Show has finally been able to bring in the extraordinary Kent Pietsch and his Jelly Belly airplane.

What drew him to the air show side was noticing how some of his passengers over a 28-year career would get extremely nervous at the thought of any little thing falling off the airplane and how-sorry, he interjects- the news and movies make you think that the situation is far more dire than it actually is. Part one of his act is dropping an aileron which is for flight control, and makes the plane turn (look to the moveable flaps under the wings).” Remember folks, if you lose a major flight control you can still fly pretty good.” Then he’ll drop a tire out, which is admittedly pretty funny. “You gotta make it funny, or people will freak out. This is the reason I got into it, to show people that , but it ended up being fun.”

The next portion of his act is to go about 6,000 feet up and shut off the engine. He walks us from the wing of the Cadet that he built, over to the propeller. He points out that it doesn’t have an engine starter, and mimes pushing the prop, which is how the World War I era planes had to be started with a second person assist. After shutting off the motor, he will do aerobatics all the way to the ground — remember, with no engine power — and at the end of the act, a person will be standing at show center with his hand held out, and Kent will deliver the hub of his propeller directly into the waiting person’s palm to show that it isn’t the engine that keeps the plane flying but rather the wings. If you lose an engine, it’s not a problem and you can get on the ground to within an inch of where you want to be, and nobody’s going to get hurt. Knowing the secret beforehand, it truly was a beautiful thing to watch from the ground. Such an elegant, graceful act with the important message of stop being afraid; assess your situation, have faith in your abilities, and glide back home.

We had to pause our interview multiple times to wait for the F-16 Demo team to roar past, which is just another fun part of the air show life. We laughed because this happens all the time. Kent nodded, pointed to the sky and asked, “You know what that is? That’s the sound of freedom.” He gestured upwards again and told us, “that’s a girl. That’s a girl flying that baby. I gave her one of these [Jelly Belly] hats at a [pilots] briefing in Louisiana. I said I wanted to give it to the best pilot in the room.” He doffed his own hat and gestured to the northeast, where she just flew past. “I gave it to her ‘cause she’s really smooth on that thing.”

What’s the best thing about air shows? “Performing. I’m shy. And I give away Jelly Bellies.” He also enjoys talking to the kids, because “they say the darndest things and they’re so happy. They’re out there with their parents having a family day, it’s pretty nice.”

2007 brought about the Jelly Belly sponsorship and allowed Kent the opportunity to interact one on one with a lot of people by giving out Jelly Belly samples. As you can imagine, he can’t toss them out of the plane in flight because of the sharp edges on the packaging. The samples became a bit of a running joke throughout air show grounds as we were all waiting for a fistful for days. When they finally arrived, as luck would have it the first one I popped into my mouth without looking was black licorice. I hesitate to ask what I did wrong to deserve that. I asked if he was ever tempted to go after the big gun sponsors like Hershey and despite us both wearing dark sunglasses, pretty sure he gave me a disapproving glare and rightfully so, because everyone needs Jelly Bellies in their life.

The current Jelly Belly owner who hired Kent told the story that he was friends with Ronald Regan, who called him personally and requested blue Jelly Bellies, saying he needed them now. Under a tight deadline, they were able to create a blueberry flavored Jelly Belly and sent them directly to the White House. So now the President had Wild Cherry, Blueberry, and Coconut-red, white and blue-in a little glass. “Remember that?” Kent asked us. He mimed handing us a jar and continued, “And Regan said, Mr. Gorbachev, have a taste of some capitalism.” After that, Regan would present guests with red, white, and blue Jelly Belly candies as gifts. “And I’m very proud to represent that taste of freedom.”

We now glide — see what I did there – over to another aspect of preshow fun; the interview bomb from another pilot. It was a perfect segway with the question of what’s fun about the air show grind. Kent’s answer was the friends you meet along the way, as pilot and founder Darryl Fisher from Dream Flights strolled into view. The two reminisced about a few stories which were great, but that I can’t share. Nicknames and patches were involved but we cannot disclose more. The conversations were at times poignant and hilarious, but personal, and it was clear to see how friendships turn once strangers, into family.

So, if Kent had to fly cross country and could take any passenger with him, who would he choose and why? His wife, he answered promptly. Because in back of the Cadet, there are the fuel pumps and she could pump gas to the front. We assumed it was because she was a wonderful person who makes his life complete. He did agree that she’s a wonderful person, and he wants her to have a good time so he takes her on vacation with him to these things. He leans forward. “And she says this is not a vacation!”

To her point, air shows can be a grind sometimes, but Kent keeps at it because he loves what he does. He truly enjoys entertaining and teaching people, with humor, about redundancies to let them feel more comfortable about flying. Also, he’s glad he gets the opportunity to inspire people to do more than just sit around. One song he uses in his act is “Wild Hearts” by Keith Urban, and it talks of how anybody can do anything, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do somethin’! Always press forward. I hope that helps people, I’m not doing that for me, I’m doing it for them.” For his truck top landing, he uses “Born Free” by Kid Rock. He had thought Rock was a wild man but eventually changed his view, because that song talks about our country, how he’s blessed to live in the United States and no one is going to take that away. Kent starts his show telling the audience thank God I’m born free, that I can continue my passions and dreams in this, the greatest country in the world, and God bless America.

With profuse apologies to the person who was scheduled to go up with Kent and couldn’t, I took their place. You guessed it, Dramamine for lunch, and not a single quiver of trepidation climbing into the back of the Interstate Cadet that Kent built; in addition to his many roles, he holds a license in Airframe and Power Plant Mechanics. We taxied a bit down the pavement but paused, as a nearby Apache helicopter starting spinning it’s blades. Kent casually made a turn and we looped back round to our starting position, because we didn’t want to potentially get blown over by the prop wash. We then tooled over to our designated runway and waited for clearance, as a commercial jet was due any moment.

Once up, we had a delightful time circling the airport, always cautious to stay on the southern side as military jets were practicing over the northern space. Eventually Kent tells me it was time for me to take the stick. He asked if I knew how to fly. Well, in theory. I mean, push the stick forward you go down, pull it back you go up. He had me hit the throttle a little then told me it was time to learn and go ahead, take the stick. I admitted that that’s probably not the best idea but he insisted. We did a few leisurely loops and I gazed down at a cemetery we were about to fly over and wondered if that was a classic example of foreshadowing and belatedly noted that I probably should’ve gotten a few Hail Mary’s under my belt before this adventure.

Kent was no doubt bored with my little old lady style of flying so he wisely — in my opinion — took back the stick and said I needed a few shakeups to see what the Cadet could do. The Interstate Cadet cruises at about 95 mph with a top speed of 107, and has a range of 350 miles. They were originally produced between 1941 and 1942 for the war and when pushed, can reach a force of 5G’s.

Everyone should experience positive and negative G’s at some point because if you don’t you’re missing out and your life won’t be fulfilled, so Kent banked hard and we hit a gentle 2G (think of two times your body weight pressing down on you). He leaned back a little and tossed over his shoulder an apology that since we didn’t have any parachutes, he couldn’t do any rolls for me. Alas, stupid rules. Regardless, I tried to be professional and not laugh like a loon at the fun of it all. Joyriding on a beautiful day with a guy who has a wicked sense of humor and is a major talent in the air show industry, fighters practicing off in the distance, being allowed to take the stick and fly… it doesn’t get much better than that. When it was time to get back down, he did one final shake at the runway approach just for the fun of it, but I felt my seat jolt forward a bit. He casually asked if my feet were blocking the stick and I replied negative, that the seat came forward. He got us down safely and asked again if I might have been touching the stick. Nope, though the seat did shift. He casually responded that he should probably tape that down again. And I was perplexed, wondering if part of the seat really needed some duct tape maintenance or if he was pulling my leg with his dry sense of humor.

At your next air show, be on the lookout for Kent Pietsch and his Jelly Belly Airplane and truck and camper. His three act performance is a thing of beauty, and if you can, stop and talk to a patriotic man with a wicked sense of humor. Be prepared for pauses in the conversation because so many people want to talk to this fabulous guy, and don’t forget to ask for a few samples of Jelly Bellies.

An estimated 80,000 were in attendance for this year’s show. Believe it or not, plans are already underway for the 2023 season, with the United States Thunderbirds to be the headliners. I suggest reserving vacation time now and come out to meet the fantastic men and women- performers, mechanics, volunteers- of the CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show. Everyone’s got a story here.

Calling herself a “nerd,” the writer is a graduate of Lehman Catholic High School and has been employed for 27 years at FOX19 in Cincinnati. An aviation enthusiast thanks to her dad, Bill Nuss, who is an Air Force veteran. For the record, she’s also a Navy, Army and Marine aviation enthusiast thanks to family veterans!