World class stunt pilot and New Bern resident Hubie Tolson entertained Friday’s Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation’s annual dinner fundraiser by telling his life story.
Through an interview format in which he was questioned by retired Major General Tom Braaten and retired Lt. Col. Barry Fetzer – both members of the Foundation — Tolson gave a brief rendering of his life:
His love of stunt flying began, he said, as a teen when he went on a dare to ride in an airplane.
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"The instructor I rode with was a bit of a cowboy and he did a loop. It took my breath. It changed my life," he recalled.
Loop-flying instructor or not, Tolson already had a family heritage that helped bump him into the flight lane. His mother was the first woman licensed to fly at the not yet named Coastal Carolina Regional Airport.
He took a job at the local airport washing airplanes and pumping gas in exchange for flying lessons. He soloed in December, 1974.
He worked to buy his first airplane that he described as "underpowered and covered with fabric." Although he was already dreaming of stunt flying, he added that his own "stupidity was just astounding." He packed his bags after high school and flew off to see the country – and, most especially, any airshow he could find.
In Michigan he set his airplane down where an airshow was beginning, setting up camp by spreading a tarp over his wing. "Two days before the airshow two men came up and said they needed my airplane," he said. "Theirs was broken. So I let them borrow it." After the show the men gave him their business cards and said to contact them if he ever needed anything.
Finding himself broke, he took early advantage of the offer and asked them if they could find a job that would keep him from having to return home. They agreed and he found himself in Ann Arbor. There, he said, he attempted to impress them with a low-flying stunt in which "I almost killed myself." They agreed to teach him to fly safely and made him promise never to try such a stunt again.
For a time he was hired flying pilots’ planes from show to show while renowned stunt pilot Bill Barber took him under wing.
When he flew home from Michigan to visit his family one year, he said, "I got in a lot of trouble for doing illegal acrobatics," including barrel rolls down the highway. As a result the FAA yanked his pilot’s license.
For a time he decided to settle down: "I went to work, then to college where I met my wife. Aviation kind of came and went during these years." But he didn’t give up his dream and began trying to think of finding an airplane with structural integrity that his earlier planes did not have.
He found it in a Russian Sukhoi airplan that was described as "a magical airplane. It’s impossible to break unless you hit the ground hard. The airplane’s limits are your creativity, not (the limits of) it’s strength." The airplane was difficult to learn to pilot well, however.
A Russian pilot who had fled Russia and moved to America heard about him and came from California to New Bern to join him and his team. "We made an agreement that we would teach him America and capitalism if he would teach us how to fly these planes," he said.
It wasn’t the easiest thing: that pilot couldn’t speak a word of English. But somehow things worked out. "It was a life changing agreement with him," Tolson said. "He increased my skills from a regional to a national level. He’s now in DC and has an aerobatic training business."
Tolson has regularly competed in airshows across the country and the world. He will appear in the May 1-3 airshow at Cherry Point and, on July 4th, will perform in a 7 p.m. airshow over the Neuse along the New Bern waterfront, along with other stunt pilots and a simulated USMC helicopter rescue.