I’ve met lots of different folks out here in California. All kinds, from all over the world who’re doing the sorts of things they ain’t doing back where I come from. It’s why I love it out here in the wild west. You meet wild boys and wild girls chasing wild dreams; You start doing the same, or better yet, you find you’ve always been running down dreams.
Two-time aerobatic national champion Eric Lentz-Gauthier falls right in line. These days Eric’s living up in Northern California, having uprooted from Santa Cruz to live the rambling, hotel life and do all the traveling his sport involves. On a recent spring Monday I spoke with the mild-mannered, soft spoken, thirty-three year-old over the phone while he was driving to Sacramento to pick up building materials for his power plane, which he’s currently modifying.
Born and raised in Davis, California, Eric’s pursuit of flying began at the age of thirteen. The dream started long before that. “You know, the flying thing very much comes from the passion I had as a little kid,” Eric says. “Like a little kid; two, three, four years old, watching Top Gun everyday. I’d dream of flying to Mars!” His voice sounds almost joyful.
“That really shaped my aspirations as far as flying goes. My father was a transport pilot during Vietnam. I dunno how much nurture verses nature has to do with my career in flying. It’s hard to say.
What is aerobatics? it’s spinning in circles and flying fast towards the earth all while a heart shaped trail of white smoke spills out your tailpipe.
‘When I was in high school, I flew a training glider. It was limited in what it could do but it gave me great experience. It was kinda like driving an old Chevelle around a racetrack. I did that for about ten years. Then I had the opportunity to fly a glider. Going from the training glider to the glider was like going from the Chevelle to an F1! Those ten years, driving that Chevelle though, really helped me in the long run when I started flying aerobatics.”
Now, me, I’ve always romanticized the idea of being up in the air, above the clouds, looking down on the expansion of land with the freeness of a bird. But Eric’s views on flying are unique. “When it comes to actually flying,” Eric tells me, “I have kind of a different take than most people. I don’t fill it with the same kind of romanticism. Flying is a pretty isolating activity. There’s all these ideas of freedom attached to it, and I don’t feel that at all. I don’t have any of those sensations. I’m in this little pod. I’m cut off from the world.
“For the pilot who knows how to fly both glider and power planes,” Eric says, “there are two sides to the aerobatic experience. Power planes are are like race cars. You’re basically flying an engine with the smallest airplane possible wrapped around it. You’re crammed in this little cockpit, it smells like gasoline, there’s gas fumes everywhere, it’s hot, lots of vibrations, lots of noise. It’s not so pleasant. Gliding is a million times better. The glider is gorgeous. There’s nothing but air. There’s no loud motor or gas fumes. It’s like riding a car down a smooth highway.”
Summer is the season for aerobatic competition. In May Eric will be competing in Italy and later, in July, he’ll be in Poland for three more events, including the World Championships. “In the U.S.,” Eric tells me, “the sport is on a much smaller scale, with one of the main competitions taking place in Sherman, Texas.”
It’s then I realize just how small Eric’s sport actually is. I’ve been to Sherman before. It’s a one-horse town of about two thousand people. I used to go fishin’ down in the creeks with my buddies, way back when.
“There’s not a big following here in the U.S.,” Eric explains. “The U.S. is kinda like the Jamaican bobsled team. The big players are Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy. It’s really cool to go over to Europe for the summer. You have a little more context. Over there, you feel like you’re part of something, whereas over here you have no context at all. You have to make it up for yourself.”
This will be Eric’s fourth time attending the world event. Last year he placed fifth, overall. “No American has ever won at the world events in the glider sport,” Eric says. “And I’m pretty sure I’m the first American to win an individual flight.”
The competition consists of a group of pilots who, one at a time, fly a sequence in what is called the competition box. They cannot during the flight go outside of the borders of this box which are made known to them by white markers down below. The pilots are given the sequence to fly upon arrival, whereafter the strategies and planning commence. “Experience is the most valuable asset in the sport. Especially when you don’t know your flight sequence until a day or two before,” Eric explains.
In preparing for the flight, the pilots walk through a mock sequence, using their hands as model substitutes for the plane. There’s much to gain from such a seemingly simple preparation method. “You’re trying to mimic the orientation you’re going to have while in flight. You’re visualizing and walking through the sequence. Watch people walk through these routines and you’ll see exactly what that flight will look like. It really helps,” Eric says. “The older guys, man, they’re good. They’re always so cool and calm. Their preparations are always so smooth. The way they run through the air with their hand is the same way they fly. It plays out just the way they planned. Younger guys are always overthinking it, aggressively going through their practice sequence, hands trembling. I really enjoy watching the older guys. You learn a lot.
“The real mental aspect of the sport takes place in the preparation. Once you’re up in the air, you really don’t have time to think. Up in the air I am trying to focus on what’s next.”
On the day of competition, the glider pilot is towed by a larger plane to a certain altitude near the competition box. The glider pilot unhooks the glider from the plane, and begins his flight sequence. Below, judges with a meticulous eye for detail tally up the score. Altogether, the flight lasts only fifteen minutes.
The night before my interview with him I made the mistake of watching videos of Eric in competition, and nearly puked after watching several minutes of discombobulated camera angles and the atmosphere being turned upside down. It looked equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
“There is an element of danger,” Eric agrees, “but I don’t like to think about it. I’m really risk-averse. If I’m nervous I won’t get in a plane; I’m trying to keep it as safe as possible. For the most part, it is really safe. But that’s the way flying is, really safe until it’s not and then… somebody gets killed.”
When asked about the future, Eric tells me he dreams of taking the sport and technology of aerobatic aviation even further. The accolades and titles that come with winning competitions have opened doors for sponsorship and financial backing. These days he’s creating a personal, symbiotic relationship between Eric the plane designer and Eric the competitive flyer. As a child he had dreams of flying to Mars, and based on all he’s achieved so far, I have reason to believe Eric Lentz-Gauthier will one day be flying out, past the atmosphere, into that great spectacle of outer space, fulfilling another lifelong dream.
Over and Out.