Why Would a Museum Hang an Airplane Upside Down?

The inverted display of Patty Wagstaff’s Extra 260 celebrates her aerobatic career

Dorothy Cochrane with Extra 260
Aviation historian Dorothy Cochrane is the curator of the Extra 260. Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Have you ever seen an airplane perform an inverted ribbon cut? The maneuver—often seen at airshows—occurs when a pilot flies an airplane upside down at low altitude, using the aircraft’s spinning propeller to slice through a ribbon strung between two poles.

If you haven’t experienced the thrill of a ribbon cut, an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum offers a prelude. Suspended from the second-floor ceiling in the Museum’s far west end is an Extra 260 that once belonged to pilot Patty Wagstaff. The 260 hangs inverted—the way Wagstaff so frequently flew it.

Wagstaff, a longtime airshow pilot, was a world-class competition aerobatics pilot 30 years ago. In September 1991, she was the United States National Aerobatic Champion, competing in the Extra 260. She defended her title in 1992 and again in 1993, this last time in an Extra 300S. Notably, Wagstaff is the first woman to win the combined men’s and women’s U.S. competition title.

Aerobatic pilot Patty Wagstaff is photographed with her Extra 260 airplane. National Air and Space Museum Archives (NASM-94-9327)

In its inverted presentation at the Museum, the 260 appears to be at the start of a low pass. Visitors can see into the airplane’s cockpit, which has a protective frame around the pilot’s seat and clear plastic panels on the sides of the floor, which helped Wagstaff maintain situational awareness during aerobatic flight.

The Extra 260 is a one-of-a-kind prototype created by premier aircraft designer Walter Extra and his Extra Flugzeugbau firm of Dinslaken, Germany. In 1982, Extra—himself an aerobatic pilot—competed at the World Aerobatic Championships in a Pitts Special biplane. The experience made him recognize the limitations of the biplane design for aerobatic flight, with two wings generating more drag. Extra soon constructed a single-wing monoplane—the Extra 230.

In 1986, he designed and built the 260, purchased by Wagstaff four years later. The 260 is a blend of traditional and advanced aircraft construction. The fuselage is made from steel tubing, while the wing’s box spar is constructed from Polish pine. The wing’s solid wood ribs are encased in birch plywood and covered with Ceconite fabric. These traditional materials contrast with the composite used for the 260’s landing gear and horizontal and vertical tail surfaces. In addition, the wing features an almost full-length carbon-fiber aileron.

Patty Wagstaff's Extra 260 hangs inverted at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Extra designed the wing to give the 260 lateral instability so that—unlike other aircraft—it does not stop slipping and skidding maneuvers by rolling against them. The result is more maneuverability and a faster response to input from the pilot.

Wagstaff was living in Alaska when, in 1979, she earned her private pilot’s license in a Cessna 185 floatplane. She began flying aerobatics in 1983, and in just two years started competing in the Unlimited category.

I first saw Wagstaff fly at Lakeland, Florida’s 1991 Sun n’ Fun fly-in. Though I knew little about aerobatics then, I was certainly impressed. I was introduced to Wagstaff by veteran aerobatic pilot Duane Cole, one of her many mentors. Cole considered Wagstaff the best of the few women flying competition aerobatics at the time.

After Wagstaff won the 1992 title, I sensed she might move on to a new aircraft. I told her I was interested in collecting the 260 because it had a winning, next-generation aerobatic design and because it symbolized her milestone accomplishments. Wagstaff’s achievements were the culmination of years of aerobatic flying by the women who preceded her, including champions Betty Skelton and Mary Gaffaney. In their day, though, Skelton and Gaffaney flew in aerobatic competitions segregated by gender.

Sure enough, in June 1993, Wagstaff retired the Extra 260, registered as N618PW. She flew the aircraft to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where she performed one final show in it—her signature hardcore aerobatic routine flown below an altitude of 2,000 feet. In 1996, Wagstaff retired from competition, but she continues to perform at airshows. She also runs a flight school in St. Augustine, Florida, where she teaches aerobatics—and how to recover stable flight after a loss-of-control event such as a spin.

Patty Wagstaff performs an inverted ribbon cut.  Patty Wagstaff

Back to the inverted ribbon cut. The maneuver unfolds as an airplane flies down the runway toward a string fastened between two poles held in place by two people. On approach, the pilot rolls the airplane 180 degrees around its horizontal axis; establishes level inverted flight; aims at the string’s center point (usually marked with a colorful ribbon); and cuts the ribbon with the propeller. Did I mention this all happens at a height of 20 feet?

As far as the two people holding the poles, they have the best view of the show. The airplane rushes past your face, the air punctuated by the chop of the propeller on the ribbon. It’s a heart-pounding moment, but worth every second. Hint: You must have complete faith in the pilot.

I trust Patty.

Dorothy Cochrane is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department. She oversees the general aviation aircraft collection.

This article is from the Fall issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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