He began participating at airshows in 1993 in his Salto glider, and he has done over 750 airshow performances since, both day and night, in the United States, Canada and Australia. Bob always knew that he would fly. His mother says that when he was about 4 years old, she found him on top of the refrigerator, with his arms spread wide, ready to jump off and fly. As a young boy, Bob had recurring dreams of falling from a high cliff, only to spread his arms and swoop to a landing. He designed his first model aircraft when he was 8 years old.
For 28 years, Bob has worked at a large national laboratory with some of the country’s best scientists and engineers. He has learned a lot of skills that he applied to his flying and aircraft design efforts.
When was the first time you ever flew and how did it feel?
When I was 19, I bought a worn out old hang glider from a classified advertisement in the newspaper for $50 and taught myself to fly it. The feeling of leaving the ground in the hang glider was similar to the flying dreams I had. It was amazing!
Bob Carlton in SubSonex JSX-2
What types of planes or helicopters have you flown and what experience do you value the most?
I flew hang gliders for many years from many mountains in the US and Mexico. I dropped hang glider from a hot air balloon, and in 1986, I flew my hang glider over 100 miles. Also in 1986, I earned my airplane pilot license, and a few years later discovered sailplanes (gliders), which ultimately became the mainstay of my airshow career. Along the way, I also earned a helicopter license. Soaring flights (gliders and hang gliders) have probably contributed the most to my overall flying skills, although helicopter flying also provides a unique flight experience.
What does flying mean to you? If you hadn’t become a pilot, what other profession or passion in life would you have pursued?
Flying has been a part of me my whole life. I can’t imagine what else I would be doing if not designing, building and flying unique aircraft.
How important is your plane’s engine while doing aerobatics?
My journey into turbine (jet) powered aircraft began out of necessity. My airshow glider had a huge limitation. I needed a towplane and a tow pilot at every airshow. This was a problem at many places around the country. My first solution was to buy a Skybolt biplane and use it as a tow aircraft. I also built a trailer that could carry the Skybolt biplane and the Salto glider. A good friend, Mike Stogner, joined me on the road as my tow pilot. We had many great adventures. However, the logistics of the two aircraft/two pilot show proved to be difficult.
I discovered model aircraft turbine engines. I mounted two of these on an Alisport Silent glider and performer in this aircraft for several years. This worked fairly well, but the ‘toy’ engines were never quite up to the task. I always carried two spare engines, and on several occasions, swapped them out on the airshow flightline when an engine failed. They also were not enough thrust for me to perform the routine I wanted. A few years later, I discovered the PBS TJ-100. The PBS TJ-100 engine totally changed not only my airshow routine, but also my life.
PBS TJ100 turbojet engine
What would you say about the engine from PBS that your plane is equipped with? In which way did it shape your performance?
The PBS TJ-100 engine was a gamechanger. I now had an engine with all of the power I needed to perform a great low-level airshow, and the reliability to count on it to always be ready for any situation. Be it high altitude, hot or cold weather, rain or shine, the TJ-100 has always come through. Inspired by my airshow performance at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Sonex Aircraft modified their SubSonex design to use the TJ-100 (their experience with another turbine manufacturer had not been good). I went on to be the test pilot for the SubSonex and ultimately added it to my airshow repertoire. We have also installed retractable TJ-100 engines on a number of other gliders. In 2018, one of our customers, flying TJ-100 powered gliders, swept the online contest (OLC), an international glider racing event. We receive many queries about using the TJ-100 on other aircraft, and I can honestly tell prospective customers that the TJ-100 will always perform better than advertised.
Do you still have any dreams that you are hoping to accomplish when it comes to flying?
I still have a lot of ideas for a unique aircraft. I’d like to fly a jet pack of my own design, and who knows, maybe space...
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your life?
I am always seeking new adventures. Since we did not perform at any airshows in 2020, due to the panic associated with COVID 19, I felt I needed to learn something new. So, I began skydiving. I earned my A license a few weeks ago and look forward to exploring the new world of body flight. Of course, much of what I have accomplished would not have been possible without the support of my wife of 37 years, Laurie. We are a great team and are having an absolute blast with our lives on the leading edge of small jet aircraft development. Thanks to PBS for the TJ-100 and their support.
Interviewed by Kateřina Urbanová.
Published in ACE magazine 4/2020