Aerobatics Team includes, from left, Gene McNeely, flying
right wing; Mark Henley, flying lead; and Steve Gustafson,
flying left wing. The group is performing at EAA
AirVenture Oshkosh as a three-wing formation team after
Mark's brother, Alan, was injured in a fall as he played with
AeroShell Aerobatic Team's Steve
Gustafson and Mark Henley were on a family vacation in Florida when the
phone call came. Their teammate and Mark's brother, Alan Henley, had
injured his neck and head when a chin-up bar gave way as he played with
As it became apparent that Alan was
seriously injured, the two realized they had only one option-to come to
EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2008 as a three-ship aerobatic team vs.
four-ship. McNeely agreed.
"We had to go," Mark said.
"Our business and our relationship with our sponsors required it.
AeroShell's customer base is here."
"And we still have bills to
pay," Steve added.
So they made about 150 phone calls and
sent countless e-mails redoing their schedule at AirVenture so they
could accommodate every autograph session, appointment, media interview,
even an airplane ride being raffled for Challenge Air.
The easiest part was actually flying in
three-ship formation vs. four in their vintage North American AT-6
Texans. Mark took over lead, Steve stayed left wing and Gene moved from
slot to right wing position.
established for Henley
A non-profit foundation has been
established for AeroShell Team Lead Alan Henley and his family.
Contributions are tax deductible and checks should be made out
to Lake Crest Presbyterian Church, with Alan Henley Foundation
in the memo. They can be mailed to Pastor Thomas Joseph, c/o
Alan Henley Foundation, Lake Crest Presbyterian Church, 560 Lake
Crest Drive, Hoover, Alabama, 35226.
"Obviously we don't like it because
it means our fellow pilot/friend/brother is down," Steve said.
"But we have always had a contingency plan for a three-ship
formation for things like maintenance issues."
The group has flown three planes before,
like when a cylinder or a counter weight bolt blew at past air shows,
they said. And they practice swapping positions regularly to stay
In fact, it was only seven or eight years
ago the group evolved from a three-plane formation to a four, Mark said.
But it is a little more difficult to fly with another in the lead.
"It's like dancing with somebody," he said. "When you
have a different dance partner, you may not be as smooth."
"If this would have happened to the
Thunderbirds or Blues, they would shut down for the rest of the season.
They don't multitask," said Gene. "But we have all flown each
others' positions for just this type of contingency."
Steve said their show will be similar to
their four-ship show, except that they will start with a double
formation loop. But after that, the routine will basically be the same,
minus one airplane.
The three said they are not doing
anything special to honor their teammate. "Being here is
special," Mark said. "What happened is a tragedy. But if we
didn't come, it would be another tragedy. And if the shoe was on the
other foot, Alan would be here, too."
In fact, Alan has said he will be back in
2009 so Steve and he can celebrate their 25th season together. "He
desperately wants to do that," Steve said. "And I sent word
back to him that I'm counting on him."
The team is asking for everyone's prayers
and encourages friends and fans to e-mail Alan at www.caringbridge.org/visit/alanhenley.
His condition is also updated there. On Monday, doctors inserted
breathing and feeding tubes and he was struggling with a fever.
Although it's been difficult for Alan to
speak because he has been on a ventilator in recent days, Mark said his
brother said he will be back. "The doctor's prognosis is not very
good, and he will have beaten the odds if he makes it. But if anybody
can do it, Alan can."