Aerobatic aviator

Madison’s Robinson
knows how to put on a show

His father taught him the basics,
but he has perfected it

By Don Ward

(June 2006) – Flying high over the Ohio River each Fourth of July weekend, Cliff Robinson has a bird’s-eye view of the 40,000 Madison Regatta race fans from the cockpit of his 1941 Stearman bi-wing airplane. In fact, he has a side view, a front view, a back view, an upside down view, a spinning view and – perhaps his favorite – an under-the-bridge view.

Cliff Robinson

Photo by Don Ward

Cliff Robinson poses with his
1941 Stearman airplane.

For the past decade now, the Madison native has been providing breath-taking aerobatic air shows each Madison Regatta weekend in between the boat race action down on the water. His airplane streams smoke across the sky as he darts and circles and climbs up and over, while adults and children watch in amazement below. The loud roar of his souped up 500-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine adds to the excitement, as does his low passes just above the water.
“It takes a lot of maintenance to the airplane and a lot of practice. I’m paranoid about doing it safely and keeping this airplane in tip-top shape,” said Robinson, 57, who began flying planes as a youth and later learned aerobatics from his father, Frank Robinson, a veteran aerobatic pilot himself.
While his real job is as a real estate broker-owner at Hoosier Hills Realty, over the years Cliff has emerged as the only aerobatic pilot in southern Indiana. He travels the Midwest conducting about 15 shows a year and even teach aerobatics to a half dozen students in the area.
But his favorite show is the one in his hometown before the large Regatta crowd. “That’s among my biggest shows, as far as crowd size,” he said.
Robinson grew up in near Madison and developed an early love for flying. His father owned several planes and had spent much of his life as a barnstormer, taking off and landing at his own grass airstrip along the riverbottom in nearby Lamb, Ind., in Switzerland County.

Frank and Cliff Robinson

Photo provided

Cliff Robison (far right) is pictured
as a younger man with his father,
Frank Robinson, and brother, Robert.

Frank Robinson spent his early years in Mayfield, Ky., and Evansville, Ind., where he learned to fly against his mother’s wishes. “She wanted me to go to college, but I wanted to fly planes,” recalled Frank, now 87. “I had to sneak away to fly them, but she always found out.”
Frank wanted to join the Air Force and serve in World War II but at that time only college graduates were accepted for the job. He considered becoming a “soldier of fortune” and join the non-military, freelance “American Eagles,” which the British hired to fight the Germans during the war. The commitment to join was two years abroad.
“I’ve always said that my wife (Anna) saved my life because I never went overseas with the American Eagles because I was afraid I would lose her,” Frank said. “And none of those pilots survived the war.” Anna Robinson, a retired schoolteacher and his wife of 63 years, died 11/2 years ago.
Frank spent much of his free time flying aerobatic air shows for the Cole Brothers while working various jobs throughout his life. It was during those years that Cliff and his brother, Robert, developed his fascination for flying.

Cliff Robinson

Photo by Don Ward

Cliff Robinson in action last year.

Robert Rob-inson, who still flies, is a physician in Indianapolis. They have one sister, Joy Stutsman, a retired schoolteacher in Indianapolis.
Cliff, meanwhile, ob-tained his solo pilot’s license at age 16, his private license at age 17, his commercial license at 18 and his instructor’s license at 19. From ages 22-26, he flew commercially as a crop duster. He then began his real estate career but continued flying as a freelance instructor and aerobatic pilot. He still flies just about
every other day, either to practice his aerobatic stunts or to give joy rides to paying customers. He has another trainer aircraft, a 1970 model PJ 260, that he uses for flight instruction and a four-seater Cessna that he and his wife, AnnaBelle, use for long-distance travel. They have two daughters, Kristen Butler of Hanover and Carrie Smith, who married a marine and recently moved to Jacksonville, N.C.
AnnaBelle never developed the same love for flying as Cliff, but she said she was well aware of his devotion to flying when they first began dating. “I’ve always reminded him that flying must remain his second love,” she joked.
Cliff attended Switzerland County High School, while AnnaBelle grew up in Madison. They first met at age 13 at church but did not begin dating until after graduating high school. She recalled their first date when Cliff took her up in his airplane for a night flight. “The stars were out and it was a beautiful clear night – very romantic,” she said.
She attends Cliff’s air shows when she can and says she trusts in the Lord to protect him from injury. “I’ve learned over the years just how cautious he is with the airplane. I have no qualms about him being a good pilot.”

Frank Robinson

Photo by Kim Aldridge

Frank Robinson, 87, still lives on
his grass air strip in Lamb, Ind.

Cliff loves to share his joy of flying with his customers and gives about 150 rides a year. He also enjoys performing his aerobatic stunts for an audience. He says the best part about the Regatta air show is flying under the bridge, a stunt he performs three or four times. “If the conditions were right, I might try flying inverted under the bridge, but so far I’ve never done it under this bridge.” He must apply for special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under the bridge.
He also performs at other Indiana air shows in Versailles, Seymour, Jeffersonville, French Lick, and Evansville, plus Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and Carbondale, Ill. He also participates in contests around the country sponsored by the American Aerobatics Association. He’s even flown at shows that also featured the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.
His friends, Dave Hawkins and Tom Spielmann, often help him prepare the Stearman for takeoff before a show. The job includes filling a 17-gallon tank with a special oil that is pumped into the exhaust system to create the smoke trail, which Robinson controls while airborne.
While Robinson says aerobatics isn’t for everyone, the risk of danger can be significantly minimized with proper maintenance. Some of the stunts can be down right physical, said one of his aerobatic students, Joe Boone of Madison.
“After 15 minutes in the seat, I’m beat,” Boone said. “I’ve learned quite a few maneuvers, but it’s nothing like what Cliff does.”

• Cliff Robinson offers a variety of rides at the Madison Municipal Airport. Scenic rides are $100; a ride with hands-on-the-stick time is $125; and an aerobatic ride is $150. To reserve, call (812) 273-3500.

Back to 2006 Madison Regatta Articles.



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