JON MELBY: Grounded through flight
Grounded through flight
By Doug Padilla
Hangar 24 Craft Brewing
REDLANDS, California – There are some idyllic scenes distinct to North America — unique visuals that define memorable locales. In the mountains outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, the combination of Douglas-fir and western red cedars is unmistakably western Canada. In Mexico, a boat gently bobbing in Acapulco Bay invokes equal parts warmth and relaxation.
For pilot Jon Melby, however, those exact visuals have become anything but peaceful. They have developed into reminders of danger and vulnerability.
Going on 16 years now, the 56-year-old Melby has been an air show pilot, delighting crowds with speed, skill and deft aerobatic maneuvers. For the past year, he has flown the Hangar 24 Craft Brewing Muscle Bi-Plane, a Pitts S-1-11B made of metal, wood and fabric. It is a 350-horse power dynamo that climbs at 4,500 feet per minute.
While controlled chaos is the aim of the air show pilot, real chaos has a way of announcing its presence from time to time. Melby says he has lost 66 pilot friends, most in his 16 years flying air shows.
“One is from natural causes and the rest from airplane accidents,” Melby said, who advocates a clear mind when flying, never underestimating the importance of physical well being and to respect weather conditions, even if it means toning down a routine . “All my mentors, all the ones that taught me the business, taught me to fly, they’re all gone.”
Melby recalls two distinct days within the last three-plus years when he thought his time had come as well.
In 2014, as Melby recalls it, he was flying in an air show in Acapulco, Mexico, carrying a full load of fuel since the performance was out over the water and a decent haul from the staging airport. His front flip maneuver was derailed by the extra weight of the additional fuel. Melby went into an inverted flatspin.
“And as I was going down – I still remember this – there was a boat underneath me, a mini yacht, and I’m in an inverted flatspin toward this guy because I can see him through my canopy as I’m facing down,” Melby says with a bit of wonder attached. “And I’m like, ‘I’m going to hit this guy. Why would he put his boat out there?’ That’s the stuff that was going through my mind.”
Like taking your foot off the brakes when skidding a car on ice, Melby rectified the situation by letting go. He released the controls and cut the power. As if his bi-plane was a cat, or a piece of buttered toast, Melby’s fortunes quite literally flipped, and he escaped danger.
“It was just slow motion and I got out of it,” Melby said. “And if you look at the video, it’s about six seconds long. That’s all it was. But it felt like forever.”
In August 2016, Melby’s second brush with fate came during a performance at dusk in Quensel, Canada. An updraft of wind off a nearby mountain peak created a circular vortex just as Melby pulled himself from a mid-air hover. His plane was flipped upside down.
This time, there was no boat beneath him to judge his altitude. The tips of the pine trees below were barely visible in the fading daylight. Melby had no way of knowing how close to trouble he really was.
“I was at about 1,100 or 1,200 feet and I thought, ‘I’m a dead man,’” Melby said. “So what I did was kind of like what I did in Mexico, and just use muscle memory. And it got out of it by itself, and I look over to my left and I see a little bit of light.”
The light was the remaining glow in the west as the sun set. A symbol of new life, as it were.
Far from home, on his daughter’s birthday no less, a shaken Melby returned to the airport with another scare behind him. Sure, he had some soul-searching questions. But those questions always come back to the same answers: “This what I have to do because this is what I was born to do. It is my gifting.”
Typically gregarious, these brushes with mortality might be the only times Melby is at a loss for words. He is full-throttle confidence, enthralled by meeting people and seemingly capable of carrying on multiple conversations at once.
He will take his solitude in the cockpit. Outside of the plane, he seems to be making up for the lost time when he was flying solo. He dabbles as a writer, a podcaster, a mentor and a lifestyle coach. Outside of that, he is likely meeting people, whether they approach with a hand extended, and even if they don’t.
Representing himself and Hangar 24 Craft Brewing at the recent Miramar Air Show in San Diego County, Melby’s charm was on full display.
“They had a couple of Marines out there just watching aircraft all day,” said pilot and air show announcer Jon “Huggy” Huggins. “The Marines are up there early in the morning being really stiff security guards with the airplanes. Well, Jon’s over there talking to them and learning about them and palling around.
“Within about three or four hours those guys had lightened up and were laughing with Jon and their body language was all relaxed. It was typical Jon.”
At an early age, Melby knew the pilot lifestyle was for him. As a boy, Melby had a poster of pilot Manfred von Richthofen on his bedroom wall. Richthofen is better known as the “Red Baron.”
That Melby’s wife Joy is a nurse practitioner does not seem to be an accident.
“I knew the Red Baron story well,” Melby said. “(Richthofen) had a girlfriend who was a nurse, so I always said, ‘I want to meet a nurse someday.’”
Melby also did all he could to be a pilot. His family moved from Minnesota to Arizona when Melby was in high school and after meeting a classmate whose father gave glider lessons, he signed up. Never mind that the 15-year-old Melby had no way of getting to those lessons, over 20 miles away. He improvised.
“I rode my bicycle out there because my mom and dad just couldn’t do that,” Melby said. “So I rode, in Arizona … in July. It was 45 miles (round trip) on a bicycle. And it was funny because when I rose, I packed a dozen eggs. Not the sharpest tool in the tool shed. I had a backpack so I put in a dozen eggs, some water, some beef jerky. There was no way to cook it or anything but I brought it all out there and it was a bumpy road and all the eggs broke.”
His will remained intact.
“Normally, you solo in a glider in about 25 flights,” Melby said. “I soloed in about eight at (age) 15. That’s when I realized, ‘Wait a minute, this is my kind of deal.’ So that was the inspiration.”
As he got older he earned an instrument rating, eventually took a flight in a competition plane, fell in love with it and bought into a partnership to fly in competitions. He exchanged that partnership for one in a plane to do air show aerobatics, and worked his way up from the bottom of the air show pilot rung to a regular on the West Coast air show circuit.
Melby is now lined up for at least a dozen air shows in 2018 flying his Hangar 24 Muscle Bi-Plane and could not imagine life without performing. He could also not imagine meeting, what he calls, the heart and soul of every city and town that opens his door for him to perform.
Those close to Melby accept that stunt flying is not only what he does, it’s what he needs.
“There is our regular, everyday life, and then there is the transformation of what happens when he puts on that flight suit and gets into the airplane,” his wife, Joy Melby said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Is that hard to handle?’ I enjoy it like anybody else does. He entertains me.”
Melby’s current partnership with Hangar 24 was a natural fit. He can talk flight with Hangar 24 owner Ben Cook, himself a pilot, or the two can switch gears and talk beer. Melby is lined up to appear at the May 19, Hangar 24 AirFest and 10th Anniversary Celebration, his sixth AirFest with Hangar 24. He has appeared in all five at the Redlands Municipal Airport and the one in 2017 at the Lake Havasu City Airport.
“I’m a follower of Hangar 24, the whole story behind it, how it started in hangar No. 24 of the local airport, sitting around just having a homebrewed beer,” Jon Melby said. “And I believe in sitting around at the end of the day over a beer talking about where life might take you.”
And for Melby, life in the pilot’s seat has taken him far. His stunt flying only makes it look like he is out of control.
“Most people, when the meet me, the first impression is they think I’m crazy,” Melby said. “You have a family, you have grandkids and you want to put your life at risk and kill yourself?’ And it’s not really about that. If they understand the personality behind this and why I do this, there is so much more than flying airplanes.
“I’m not a crazy man, I’m a family man. I’m a musician, I live a normal life, but I just like to go out there and fly airplanes and I have been gifted to do that. Not everyone can do this. When I go out and fly aerobatics, I come back and I’m all fired up and I have color in my face.”