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InterView Magazine

All eyes turned skyward as Dr. Frank Donnelly (better known to air show aficionados as “Dr. D”) and his 1946 clippped-wing Taylorcraft T-Cart performed a series of graceful loops, rolls and maneuvers, reminiscent of the aerobatics of days gone by. Then came Dr. D’s impressive, heart-stopping signature engine-off finale; first, climbing high in the air, then shutting down the engine and diving straight down to pick up airspeed for yet another series of breath - taking maneuvers before a deadstick landing in front of the cheering crowd.

“As a little boy growing up during World War II, it was probably inevitable that I became interested in flying and aviation,” says Donnelly. “Plus, I was always one of those kids who loved playing with toy planes.”

At age six, Donnelly’s father took him to his first air show. Completely captivated by the show, Donnelly yearned to fly from that moment on. And, when he was 10 years old, his wish came true. “In those days, pilots would fly around the country and operate in a farmer’s field for a day or two selling airplane rides.

“So, when the local show came to our town, I bicycled out to the field and used the money I’d saved from my paper route to fly on the plane, a Piper Cub,” says Donnelly. “It was wonderful!”

Born in Maine, Donnelly grew up in Eastern Connecticut and, as a young man, lived near the sea port town of New London. Later, he moved to California and settled in the San Gabriel Valley to pursue his passion for flying in earnest and, in
1968, Donnelly earned his pilot’s license.
“I didn’t start college until 1965, when I was in my late twenties,” says Donnelly, noting the delay afforded him the advantage of enough time and money to be airborne as much as possible. And, not only did he eventually go to college, Donnelly became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and later at Azusa Pacific University (APU) in Azusa.

“I’d always liked aerobatics and every plane I owned was capable of aerobatics, so I’d go out and practice loops and rolls whenever I could,” says Donnelly. “But, for a long time, it was mostly a hobby. I had to make a living.”

The Cable Airport in Upland had long been Donnelly’s favorite stomping grounds. So, not surprisingly that was where he met his wife, Geri and they married in 1982. Also a pilot, Geri flies her own plane, a Decathlon—and the two, who reside in San Dimas recently celebrated their 29th year of marriage. He is now 75, and Geri is “younger.”

“We didn’t have children,” says Donnelly, “but I always thought of the many students who passed through my class - rooms over the years as my kids. We also have Penny, a dog that we rescued from a shelter. She’s what I call a ‘pound dog’ because she’s a pound of this and a pound of that. Plus a recent rescue, Stella.”

As Donnelly got closer to retirement from APU, he began working with instructors to develop and hone his aerobatic skills, and to learn good safety techniques in order to pursue flying in air shows.
Donnelly says his inspiration was Duane Cole, a pilot who flew a clipped-wing Taylorcraft—with his name written upside down on its fuselage—all over the country in the 1950s, 60s and beyond. Donnelly subsequently revived Cole’s classic act and developed his own unique flying style in order to show people what an old-time airplane can really do.

He began flying aerobatics in a World War II era PT-26 Fairchild Trainer. Later, he graduated to a 1952 British Royal Air Force de Havilland Chipmunk (DHC) and, ultimately to his current 1946 Taylorcraft N6588C, which he purchased in 2000. All told, the Taylorcraft took Donnelly three years and approximately 800 hours to restore.

Since his retirement six years ago, Donnelly continues to take great satisfaction in recreating the classic, graceful sights and sounds of old-time aerobatics, which contrast sharply to the fast-paced and abrupt maneuvers of contemporary acts. In addition to his daytime show, he also performs a uniquely dramatic night show with more than 30 strobe lights to illuminate the night sky. A third show variation combines the day and night shows to especially “wow” the crowds.

In addition to flying airplanes, Donnelly also services them. He holds the highest FAA mechanic rating possible; Aircraft Inspector Authorization and Airframe/ Powerplant. He services the couple’s own planes as well.

The Donnellys, who recently returned from a trip to the state of Washington, also have a some what unique approach to traveling. “Usually, when we go on trips, we take two planes —my Taylorcraft and her Decathlon,” he says. “That’s because we both want to be the pilot and make the decisions.”

When time permits, the Donnellys also enjoy heading to Tehachapi, where the couple enjoys glider flying. They take turns flying their glider (he has a private pilot glider rating and is certified as a glider tow pilot), both enjoy soaring in the sparkling blue skies above the Tehachapi valley.

Beyond his passion for flying, Donnelly says he’s been an avid dirt bike rider even longer than he’s been flying.

He started riding and racing dirt bikes while in his late teens and, over the years, still makes time to head to the desert—usually El Mirage or Mojave—to play in the dirt and camp for a day or two. All, told, Donnelly has now been flying for 43 years includ ing six years in shows. And he has logged more than 70 air shows and more than 150 performances to date including seven shows throughout California this year. And today, Dr. D’s Taylorcraft T-Cart con tinues to delight and astonish crowds with a brilliant red, white and blue reminder of days gone by—but not forgotten.

To learn more about Dr. D’s Old-Time Aerobatics, visit his
website here.

And, to see “Dr. D in action,” you can watch videos of some of his performances here:

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