Eddie Merchant almost wasn’t around to perform aerobatics at this weekend’s Festival of Freedom at the Manassas Regional Airport. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license and began trying stunts at age 17. One particular self-taught stunt almost cost him his life.
Merchant was teaching himself to roll the plane and flying at an “excessive speed,” when he ran into trouble.
“The airplane began to shake really bad,” Merchant said. “I would have used my chute that day, but I didn’t have it.”
When he returned home safely, his father called the airplane designer, who told his father that 9 out of 10 people don’t make it back alive from situations like that.
Now he has 31 years with 11,000 hours of flying under his belt. During the winter, he flies a corporate plane for an Iowa-based company, and from April to October, Merchant still performs tricks in his Pitts Special airplane sponsored by Yellow Book. But he said his overly-daring days are behind him.
“I wouldn’t dream of doing stuff like that today,” he said. “You get a little older, you get wiser.”
Although ongoing construction at the Manassas Airport disallows many aerobatic tricks, Merchant will still perform high and low speed flybys and some banking so onlookers can see the top of the wing.
“We’ll do as much as we possibly can to make it as interesting as we possibly can,” he said.
Retired Capt. Don Rhynald also has an airplane to display for the show. The former US Airways pilot invites attendees to board his fully operational 50-year-old Grumman Albatross, which will stay grounded for the show. But it’s the plane’s history, not it’s tricks, that is the attraction.
“That airplane saved many pilots in the Vietnam War, including a very good friend of mine,” Rhynald said.
Rhynald flies the plane out of the Warrenton Airport, where his daughter Kelly is a flight instructor. The father and daughter pair ask for a $3 donation from adults, and a $2 donation for children.
“We’re taking donations because it’s so expensive to keep in the air,” Kelly Rhynald said.
The plane was expensive right from the start for Rhynald, who spent about $600,000 and five and a half years restoring the relic. A Smithsonian Museum curator told him about the plane, which was stored for 28 years in Tuscan, Ariz., after it was used by the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
Through word of mouth, archives and comparing notes, Rhynald discovered the important history of this rescue plane. He now travels to air shows to display it.
For spectators interested in other forms of transportation, the Prince William County Model Railroad Club will have a display running throughout the festival. Detailed replicas of the Virginia Railway Express, the Manassas Yard, the Fredericksburg Train Station and the Glen-Cary Brick building in Gainesville will be included.
“We think this is a great hobby for families,” said club member Robin Barrows. “There are so many different venues in the hobby.”
Barrows said many of the backgrounds and components of the display are very artistic, but trains also appeal to those interested in electronics and building.
Retired Col. Wesley Fox, United States Marine Corps, a medal of honor recipient and author of a book titled “Marine Rifleman,” will be on hand as a guest of honor, according to event organizer Sen. Charles J. Colgan. Colgan also said The President’s Own Marine Band will play for attendees.
“It’s great for us to have what many think is the best Marine band in the world,” Colgan said. “It will be a full day of family activity.”