Champion aerobatic pilot to wow crowds at Truckee air fair
Special to the Sun
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman. Wait — it’s Superwoman.
On July 6 at the Truckee Tahoe Airport, the community can look up and watch a woman fly her shiny blue, black and silver Edge 540, and do barrel rolls around Superman — or, rather, her husband — while he freefalls in his wingsuit — an astonishing air show performance like nothing you have ever seen before.
Melissa Pemberton, 28, is a champion aerobatic pilot who, with her husband Rex, will be giving spectators the show of a lifetime at the second annual Truckee Tahoe AirFair & Family Festival.
They will also open the event when Rex parachutes onto the scene carrying a 1,000 square foot American flag, whi.e Melissa circles in her Edge with a smoke trail overhead.
The duo met in 2006 while BASE-jumping in Australia’s Blue Mountains. Only 22 at the time, Melissa was an accomplished rock climber, skydiver, BASE-jumper, as well as aerobatic competitor. She had just qualified to be on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, the youngest woman ever.
That same year, Rex, an avid mountain climber, became the youngest Australian to summit the seven highest peaks on the seven continents of the world, including Mt. Everest.
Based in Groveland, Calif., near Yosemite, Melissa and Rex Pemberton have many friends in the Tahoe area who are climbers, backcountry skiers and BASE-jumpers.
“Gosh, I tell you,” says Melissa, “if I could have good flying weather year-round, we’d probably be in Tahoe.”
Her first aviation influence growing up in Pennsylvania was her grandmother, an avid pilot and flight instructor.
“I thought everyone’s grandma was a pilot, and they lived on airports, and that’s just what grandmas did,” says Melissa. “At grandma’s house, a typical thing was to look at the airplanes in the hangar, and every once in a while she’d take us up for a ride and go for a loop and roll like a roller coaster ride. I just loved it.”
Although her parents were not pilots, Melissa’s father was a rock climber and commercial scuba diver who encouraged her to do everything, but use good sense.
“If we climbed 30 feet up the tree, my parents didn’t freak out,” she said. “They would say, ‘Be safe, be careful what things you do, and be smart about how you do them.’ So, we grew up with a healthy fear of things, but not a fear that would make any of us not pursue something.”
When her grandmother was convinced that Melissa was serious about flying, she paid her granddaughter’s way to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona where Melissa earned her private pilot certificate.
Soon after, inspired by a program called “Stars of Tomorrow” to encourage young air show performers, she began training with some of the best aerobatic coaches in the world, then entered, and won, collegiate and regional competitions.
Melissa compares the focus required for rock climbing, skydiving or BASE-jumping with that of flying aerobatic maneuvers.
“It’s incredibly similar,” she says. “A lot of people will see a video of me flying, and, when they meet me, they say, ‘Wow, it looks like you become a different person when you get into the cockpit.’ I don’t have a choice of losing that focus when doing something where a moment of being distracted could result in an accident.
“Once I sit in the airplane, strap on my parachute, close the canopy, start my engine, I get my peaceful moment — I’m in my element.”
Few people, even in Tahoe, have ever seen wingsuit flying in person, and Rex and Melissa’s unique act is one they created five years ago and have been doing ever since.
What is the audience reaction to their wingsuit and aerobatics display?
“The kids love it,” says Melissa, “because it’s like watching a person fly, but they see him in freefall. They are usually really surprised at how fast he’s going, and the distance he covers.”
Female aerobatic performers are still rare. However, outside of the U.S., they’re even more unlikely.
Melissa performs in countries around the world, including Europe and Central America. She remembers a moving encounter at an air show in El Salvador.
“It’s a country with an emerging middle class where women are beginning to have more opportunities to pursue a career or interest,” she says. “The president’s wife, who is Brazilian, came up to me and said, through a translator, ‘Thank you so much for being here and for representing the women of my country.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’”
Speaking to women or children, especially girls, is important to Melissa because of her own memorable experience meeting Julie Clark, one of the best female aerobatic performers in the world.
“When she wanted to be an airline pilot, they told her they couldn’t hire her because she was a girl,” says Melissa, “and, when she finally got hired, she had to cut her hair so she’d look a boy from behind.”
She continues: “Here’s this incredible inspirational woman in aviation who has paved the way for all of us, and I remember going up to her. She just stopped and took the time to talk to me and to be there and not be distracted. I never forgot that. I thought I always want to try to be that way, whenever I’m out there with the audience.”