Airplanista Aviation Magazine Feature Story: Mike Goulian: Focus + Drive = Perfection

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the July, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Dan Pimentel, Airplanista Magazine Editor

Among aerobatic pilots entertaining us at air shows around the world, only a tiny handful have earned the reputation to be known as “rock stars” in their field. Mike Goulian is one of those stars. When the announcer says he’s diving the Whelen EXTRA 330SC into “the box” to begin his routine, it’s a call that immediately moves everyone a few steps closer to the flight line, their eyes glued to the sky.

Those who have been lucky enough to have seen Mike Goulian perform an aerobatic routine know his show is always solid, and as far as we mere mortals can tell, the picture of perfection. He commands maximum performance from his airplane, and delivers ridiculously fast snap rolls, inverted maneuvers and other “high G-load” extreme stunts that no human body should be capable of enduring.

Yet, we see Goulian do this week after week during air show season. Many of us watching certainly must wonder what is life like for a major-league aerobatic pilot, asking ourselves how they can accomplish such a high stress, physically-demanding routine while making it look so easy.

To get inside this story, I asked Goulian to stop rolling his EXTRA 330 long enough to provide the backstory of his life to Airplanista Magazine. After reading his notes, the main point that pops out is what you don’t often think about...the business end of a professional aerobatic team. Without the help of dedicated team members, a long list of loyal sponsors, some hot mechanics and team players, and his wife Karin, Goulian might be kicking back next to you on the flight line watching the other acts.

“Make no mistake about it,” says Goulian, “if you’re part of a professional air show team, you’re a marketing company that just happens to use an airplane and the air show as marketing vehicles. The flying performance becomes the smallest part of the job every week. For Goulian Aerosports, I’m guessing our staff of four spends approximately 80% of our time doing things relating to marketing and sponsorship. We focus hard on flying but we focus just as hard on all of the other aspects of our business. That’s probably the biggest misconception about what we do. Remember, we’re at the air show for five days and usually spend just 12 minutes in the air on a performance day.”

But WOW, what a thrilling 12 minutes they are! If you have ever gone through IFR training and did a few unusual attitudes sessions, you might have a microscopic idea of the physiological challenges Goulian faces during a routine. To teach unusual attitudes recovery, the CFI made you close your eyes, look in your lap with the hood on while he/she cranks and banks the plane. When asked to look back up, open your eyes and determine from your instruments - quickly - what the plane is doing, that moment of vertigo and uneasiness throws your situational awareness completely out of whack. So multiply that times about a million and you might understand what it’s like inside Goulian’s head when pulling out of yet another series of crazy maneuvers that should have his inner ear crying for mercy. It is here that conditioning is literally the key to survival.

“For me, the biggest thing is trying to stay oriented with the amount of very high speed multiple rotations I do during my air show,” Goulian explained. “In a modern air show, the pilots are pulling around 11 positive and 6 negative Gs, so when asked the question, do I get dizzy? The answer is YES!! That’s why you see me do a lot of rolls in one direction and then stop and do a couple in the opposite direction. I unwind myself.”

To stay in prime shape for this kind of flying, Goulian stays extremely active, knowing that he is every bit an athlete, and his entire body needs to be toned, fit and healthy. On the road, he says, keeping that level of fitness is sometimes a challenge.

“I think the physical conditioning is more important in the modern aerobatic planes than it was twenty years ago,” say Goulian. “For an exercise program, I’m really looking for overall fitness, which is incredibly important when you’re trying to stay physically fit over a nine-month period of living on the road. The hours in the air show industry are long. Most days are 12 – 15 hours of walking, talking, smiling, and flying. It’s not too bad for a day or two but over a period of time, it wears you down. My workouts usually consist of 30 minutes of cardio on a stationary bike or elliptical machine. As for weight training, I rely on machines more than free weights and try to get in as many reps as I have time for, given my schedule. In the winter, I spend a lot of time in a swimming pool with a very unique professional who trains athletes ranging from ballet dancers to Olympic skiers to the New England Patriots. The water is amazing for keeping my total body muscle strength where it needs to be.”

He needs this level of conditioning because on a regular basis, Goulian pummels his body in ways the average pilot cannot imagine. “Over the last couple of seasons, I have had recurring neck strains from trying to turn my head when under a lot of Gs. It’s been difficult to deal with, as the biggest thing an acro pilot needs to be great in an air show is mobility in the cockpit as it relates to your head and neck. Needless to say, I have spent many hours on the massage table and in the chiropractors office.”

Anyone who has spent time on the road even for a few days knows it can throw your body clock and mental sharpness into a tailspin. So when you spend nine months on the road and your job is to fly airplanes in dangerous ways, what secrets would you need to employ to be able to put your game face on when it’s time to drop into the box at show center? The main thing to strive for is focus.

“Living on the road is more difficult than people think,” explains Goulian. “How you pack, what you pack, what you eat, where you eat etc. are all the little things that keep you “comfortable” on the road. Comfort is key. Everything I do is totally the same and planned at each venue I go to. My team laughs at me because I totally unpack and put all of my clothes in certain piles etc. It all leads to repetition and being in the zone. That’s the key. So when you talk about being focused, it gets as nitty gritty as where I put my shoes each day. Also, proper nutrition is important. I have my own blender that I bring on the road to make my breakfast shakes each morning, and I always have a cooler with me so I can eat the right food each day.”

Being in the zone, staying sharp and making no mistakes are all key elements to Goulain’s life as a professional air show pilot. It helps to have a mind as well conditioned as your body. “Mental preparation for air show flying is really about focus,” he says. “There are a ton of distractions that can be harmful to your performance. I get ready for each flight by taking at least an hour and putting on my iPod to get away from it all. For me, I never “shut off” the mental part of my life. Really, every day as an aerobatic performer, you must think about flying if you want to be at the top levels of this profession. Performance is everything to me so I think about it morning, noon, and night.”

This life might seem like one not suited for everyone, but for this pilot, there was never any question that aerobatics would be his destiny. “I was sure I would love aerobatic flying before ever stepping into that Bellanca Decathlon in 1984 to try my first roll with my first aerobatic instructor, Donald Dutton. In fact, I was taking aerobatic lessons while still just a student pilot. I do not recommend that today, but I was so intent on getting started flying ‘acro’, that I was training to get my private and training in aerobatics at the same time,” Goulian said.

Today, Goulian has about 8,000 hours, holds ATP, SEL & MEL ratings, is type-rated in Lear Jet & Citation 500 series, and owns an A36 Bonanza to fly when not upside-down in the show plane. While the world’s airspace might be his stage and he might be the most visible face of Goulian Aerosports, it takes a tremendous effort all year to keep this show relevant, exciting and financially solvent.

“We are lucky to have a great team, and do a lot with a little,” Goulian said. “My wife Karin really is the GM of the entire operation. She does almost all of the logistics, which is a huge task. She also does a lot for the planning with sponsors etc. We all joke that Karin is “The Boss” but we say that because I think we all know it’s true. Matt Chapman is our Crew Chief and he takes care of the Whelen EXTRA 330 which is no easy task. I spend all summer trying to break it and Matt tries to keep it together. And David Kicklight has a pretty difficult job as well. He actually flies the show plane from show site to show site. Remember, we need good VFR to fly with nothing but a GPS for navigation. We don’t push weather at all. The plane is pretty unstable – it’s like trying to fly a helicopter in turbulence while trying to fold a map. David will do many days of approximately 1,000NM in the air trying to reach a show site.”

As an aerobatics star, we know about Goulian’s job, but personally, he is very much just like everyone watching his act from below. “I am totally blessed to have the greatest family in the world. My wife is so supportive of my flying and our business, and we have a beautiful little four-year-old girl named Emily. She is the light of our life and keeps us on our toes. But when I’m not working, I try and play a lot of golf, and maybe take it a little too seriously for the game to be considered a hobby. I practice like crazy and spend a lot of time with a great coach back in Boston. I guess it’s the Type A in me, but I don’t really want to play golf unless I am competitive in it.” And being competitive is what Mike Goulian is all about.

Throughout his season, one show stands out above the rest, and we all know what that is. “AirVenture is the one place where you want to “rock it” each year. So you had better bring your ‘A’ game to EAA,” he said.

As spectators, we respect the hard work that goes into an air show act like Goulian’s. But as his red-and-white Whelen EXTRA 330 rockets towards you, know this: Its pilot has mutual respect for every set of eyes in the crowd. “The spectators at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh are smart fans, and they know a good routine when they see one. I absolutely HAVE to fly everything to perfection, because they deserve nothing less!”

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