WEST MILFORD, N.J. (FOX 5 NY) - Those invited to fly with 58-year-old Steve Gustafson in his 74-year-old World War Two-era North American Aviation T-6 Texan two-seater should prepare themselves for this left wing in the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team to first spend a disconcerting amount of time explaining how your parachute works.
"Hey, if it doesn't open," Gustafson said, "when you get on the ground, they'll give you a new one."
And not 10 minutes after that pep talk, without any warning, Gustafson not only subjects his passenger to a 4G loop but also does so in perfect formation with three other airplanes not eight feet off each other's wings.
"I really enjoy formation aerobatics," Gustafson said. "If that ever gets old, you better quit doing it."
When not flying loops, this Tallulah, Louisiana native lives on the banks of the Mississippi River.
"It's a lot of water down there right now," Gustafson said.
He flew up to New Jersey with his teammates for the team's third Greenwood Lake Air Show.
"Bunch of Southern boys up here in this neck of the woods," Gustafson said. "We love it."
Gustafson hesitated before answering when he learned to fly.
"Whew. Legally?" he asked.
He took his first flying lesson from his dad—he says still the best pilot he's ever seen—at 12 years old, started flying the very airplane he still pilots for Aeroshell (and one his dad bought for $1,200) as a 17-year-old and appeared in his first air show two years later.
"Oh, I love it," he said. "Love it. Go all over the country. We been as far south as El Salvador."
Southwest Airlines pilots Mark Nowsielski and Mark Sorenson fly a couple of Tiger Yak 55s at air shows as a hobby.
"We fly them close. We fly them tight," Nowsielski said.
They described their Friday morning arrival from Florida as epic.
"Eight hundred to 1,000 feet over the Hudson River," Nowsielski said, "and do a left orbit over the Statue of Liberty."
Around 20 other pilots join the Twin Tiger Marks, Gustafson and his Aeroshell teammates to perform before an estimated 30,000 people in Greenwood Lake Saturday.
"Wrap your mind around it," Gustafson said. "This airplane weighs 5,000 pounds and it's actually going to lift in this air, this void."
Blissfully back on the ground after a silky landing, with no plan to return to the air again any time soon, it now seemed safe to ask Gustafson the question haunting his passenger for most of those eyes-closed, sweaty-palmed, dry-mouthed minutes above Northern New Jersey: How many times had he deployed his parachute?
The answer: Zero, even after more than 30,000 hours in the air.
"If we had to jump," Gustafson said, "what you to do is slide the canopy forward and roll out."