TRENTON – Kathy Leff helped me up into the cockpit of the vintage plane on the tarmac of Trenton Airport.
The plane had been completely polished and reflected the sun with blinding rays. Her husband Bill was in the front of the two-seater.
“Put your left foot here and your right foot on the seat,” she said with a smile. “Then have a seat and get yourself buckled in.”
After attaching the half dozen buckles and latches, Kathy pointed to a metal ring attached to one of the many straps over my shoulders.
“You see that?” she said. I nodded. “That’s for your parachute but you won’t need to use it. It’s just something I have to say.”
After that 10-minute flight over Pictou County in a Second World War-era North American Aviation T-6 Texan, it’s clear why no one has had to use the parachute. Bill Leff is one damn good pilot.
That flight, by the way, included a barrel roll, aileron roll and four-point roll.
Keep your eyes on the skies in Pictou today for Leff’s must-see airshow, held in conjunction with the Pictou Lobster Carnival. He’ll be performing in an airshow this morning at 10:30 on the Pictou waterfront. The Dayton, Ohio, native knows his stuff, having obtained his private pilot licence at age 16.
He also delivered newspapers as a young boy to the Wright Brothers residence at Hawthorn Hill.
“My dad’s friend had a glider and when I tried it once I was hooked,” he said. “After that it was every weekend.”
Since obtaining his pilot’s licence, he’s flown more than 170 different types of aircraft and has well over 23,000 hours of flying time. The plane where he spends most of his time, including 5,000 hours alone, is the NAA T-6. Kathy calls the plane his first love since he bought it a few years before they were married in 1978.
“He maintains it himself and doesn’t let anyone work on it unless he’s there,” she said. “He knows every sound, every part, every nook and cranny.”
In one incredible incident, Leff’s engine seized on the way to an airshow in Wisconsin, which facilitated an emergency landing on a busy four-lane highway.
His AT-6 Texan with ‘USAF’ on the wings along with United States Air Force roundels reflect what the plane would have looked like during the Korean War. He bought it after the military sold it into surplus for $771.11. The airshow circuit began in 1976.
“After 38 years of doing airshows, I still enjoy them,” Leff said. “It allows us pilots to show our love of flying to the public and inspire young people into aviation.”
His plane may not be the fastest but that’s not really the point. Leff is more into the good old-fashioned barnstorming routines. That’s why he started doing his signature performance, the Starfire Night Skyshow back in 1989.
“When I started there were only a couple pilots doing night shows,” said Leff. “The great thing about my AT-6 is that it’s big enough to hold a lot of lights and fireworks.”
The intricate night show features lights, fireworks all choreographed to music. Kathy helps him set up the pyrotechnics on the plane, which can take up to three hours.
“They’re fired by remote control,” she said. “That’s my job when he’s in the air so he can focus on flying.”
A few of the lights on Leff’s plane came from police cars and acknowledge those who serve the community and the country.
“When I fly, it’s to honour WWII and Korea veterans since there’s so few left,” he said. “It’s also to honour the armed forces, first responders and police officers.”
Though this is Leff’s first airshow in Pictou County, it’s likely he’s been able to see the county from the shows he performed at in Summerside, Moncton and Shearwater.
Leff will also be performing in the Atlantic Canada International Air Show in Dieppe on the weekend of August 23 and 24 at the Greater Moncton International Airport. Also present will be the Snowbirds, CF-18 Hornet Demo Team, the Canadian Army SkyHawks Parachute Demonstration Team and other civilian performers.
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn