Stunt Pilot Retires to Pine Mountain Lake

Pine Mountain Lake, popular in part because of its airport, is now home to one of aviation’s most highly regarded and talented aerobatics pilots. Wayne Handley is an internationally known stunt pilot and airshow performer, a coach for other airshow stars, a former U.S. Navy aviator and a former crop duster. He set the world record for inverted flat spins in 1989 with 67 consecutive revolutions, then beat his own record in April 1999 with 78 rotations flying a Giles G202. In 1999, Handley set many time-to-climb records in his Turbo Raven, an aircraft he designed and software giant Oracle sponsored. Handley also received many aerobatics awards — including the International Council of Air Shows Sword of Excellence for outstanding service and personal contribution to the airshow industry in 2001. He was named to the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame in 2005. In 1996, he was given the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship by World Airshow News, and in 1997, he received the Art Scholl Showmanship Award from ICAS.

Making such honors even more impressive is the fact that Handley was not encouraged as a child to become an aviator. “When I was about 12, I’d chase the crop dusters on my bike and dream about being a pilot when I grew up,” he said, “but my father wouldn’t let me fly while I lived in his house. He thought it was too dangerous.” Handley, originally from Carmel, hooked up with the campus flying club when he went to Hartnell College in nearby Salinas in 1957. Two years later, he had 70 hours in flying time. He used that experience to get into flight school in the U.S. Navy where he trained in, among other things, the Grumman F9F Cougar and F-11 Tiger carrier-based fighters. He had also met his wife, Karen, at Hartnell. They were married in 1961, and she later became his business manager. In 1963, faced with staying in the Navy or taking a crop dusting job back home, he chose to be with his family — by then he and Karen had two daughters — and start crop dusting. The couple’s third child, a son, was born later.

The Handleys had their own crop dusting business in the Salinas Valley for 21 years and built the Greenfield Airstrip, which they sold last year. In 1983, he traded a helicopter rotor assembly for a small aerobatic Pitts SIC aircraft. That was the start of his aerobatics business, which combined crop dusting techniques with his own style of aerobatics flying. “We found out that with sponsors we could make more money doing air shows than we made crop dusting,” he said, “and the time was perfect. Our children were grown, and Karen could go with me.”

While flying was his love, it had its share of danger. On Oct. 3, 1999, Handley was flying the Turbo Raven during an air show in Salinas when the engine failed. The plane crashed and he suffered a broken back. “My whole family was there,” he said. “I think it was harder for them than it was for me. Still, Handley fully recovered. One of his sponsors was the giant software company, Oracle. Handley and Oracle founder Larry Ellison had become friends when Handley gave flying lessons to Ellison’s son. After Handley recovered from his accident, Ellison gave him a $260,000 Extra 300L aerobatics airplane, built in 2002, which is now kept at Pine Mountain Lake, along with Handley’s Cessna. “It was a very emotional moment,” Handley said. “I’ve never had another gift of such magnitude.” He said there are several of the Extra aerobatics airplanes at Pine Mountain Lake.

Handley donated his Oracle Raven, another plane he designed and Oracle sponsored, to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore., on Aug. 20, 2005, where it shares a home with the famed Howard Hughes airplane popularly known as the Spruce Goose. The Handleys first came to Pine Mountain Lake about four years ago to visit friends and fell in love with the area. They visited the area frequently until buying a house in the gated community.

“They are a wonderful addition to the community,” said Dick Collier, a 27-year resident of Pine Mountain Lake and co-owner of Mother Lode Aviation. “They were already part of our pilot’s community before they acquired a home here.” “I guess you could say I’m semi-retired,” Handley said, “but I don’t see real retirement in my future.” He continues to do some aerobatics coaching and gives seminars for pilots on how to react to emergency situations. “Military and commercial pilots are constantly getting training on how to handle emergencies,” he said, “but that kind of training isn’t in place for general aviation pilots.”

Although Handley plans to work some, he and his wife also moved to Groveland with recreation in mind. “We both love fly fishing and skiing,” he said. “Now, we can ski winters and fish summers, and I can work enough to keep my hand in. I still fly every weekend.”

“Santa got me a golf bag, shoes and lessons for Christmas,” he said. “I think that’s a hint of something else I’ll be doing.”

By Lenore Rutherford, the Union Democrat