John Klatt is both a heck of a pilot and heck of a spokesman for meat snacks.
Klatt, who grew up in Eagan, caught the aviation bug as a kid when his aircraft mechanic father used to take him to air shows in Oshkosh, Wis.
When he was a teenager, he started taking flying lessons, then followed that with a 27-year career in the Minnesota Air National Guard, piloting everything from big cargo planes to F-16 fighters.
Since his retirement from the military, Klatt has settled down to something quieter in civilian life: flying a jet-powered biplane in air shows across the country.
This weekend, he’ll be performing at the Minnesota Air Spectacular in Mankato in his Screamin’ Sasquatch Jet Waco, covered with the black and red logos of his sponsor, the Jack Link’s beef jerky company.
We got a chance to interview Klatt, 52, in his office — the cockpit of an Extra 300L aerobatic plane, in a flight earlier this week above the Airlake Airport in Lakeville.
But first we had to put on a parachute, squeeze into a five-point harness and get instructions not to touch that red knob or pull that handle or step on those things. Unless something went wrong and we had to jump out of the airplane. Then it’s flip this latch, flip that other latch, yank off that thing, somehow wiggle out of the cockpit and pull the parachute handle.
Our conversation started as we taxied down the runway:
Q: How did you end up doing this for a living?
A: I’ve been flying air shows for the better part of 17 years, doing aerobatics. It’s really fun for me to introduce young kids to aviation. I love Jack Link’s, their product. They have a great company. It’s right there in Minneapolis. A super, super great company.
Q: It seems like performing aerobatics would be a bit dangerous. Is it?
A: You know what? It can be if you don’t take it seriously. Safety is by far the most important aspect of any air show, or any flying, for that matter. I would say when you mitigate all the risk, people think it’s risky but really it’s well practiced, well versed, choreographed flying.
Q: So, what do you like about this job?
A: It’s a dynamic environment. Every day is a little bit of challenge. You have different sky conditions and weather conditions, and I get to fly with different people.
Q: How many other people have a job like this?
A: There’s not a whole lot. There are about 350 SAC [Statement of Aerobatic Competency] cardholders in the country. That would be a variety of different air show performers. There’s a little bit of everything. That’s kind of the exciting part. … But let’s go flying and we’ll talk a little more later.
Plane takes off in formation alongside a photo chase plane on the same runway with a Star Tribune photographer hanging out the door.
Q: Wow. I’ve never flown in formation like this.
A: Kind of special, isn’t it?
Q: When did you first fly?
A: I learned to fly right in this airport. When I was going to high school [at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield], my mom and dad drove me down here and I took my first flying lesson right here. That’d be around 1985, 1986.
Then I joined the military and I was able to serve in the Minnesota Air National Guard. First I was a member of the 133rd Airlift Wing.
Q: You flew a C-130 cargo plane?
A: Yep, I sure did, I flew that at the 133rd Airlift Wing. I did worldwide missions, and food relief and a lot of cool things. And then I switched Guard units and I flew F-16s in Duluth.
Q: And you’ve done three combat tours in Iraq?
A: I did, with the Minnesota Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing, yep. I flew out of Balad Air Base. Just great Americans, proud to serve with the folks of the 148th. Time’s already flying. Those were ’05, ’07, ’09, those years. It’s clicking away.
Q: Tell me a little about this plane.
A: This is the Jack Link’s Extra 300L. It’s built in Germany. It has a carbon fiber wing. It’s very aerobatic. We’re going to show you a little bit of that here in a second. …
We’ll do a maneuver called the Teriyaki Twist. We’re just going to start out with a little loop, then go all the way around. Now we’re going to go straight up. Look out to your left. Eventually we’re going to come backward through our own smoke.
From the cockpit, it looks like the Earth is doing a lot of complicated spinning around.
Q: Uh, how many people throw up when they fly with you?
A: We’ve had a few, but you’re not going to be one of them.
OK, we’re going to do the Szechuan Centrifuge, named after another one of my favorites. So we’re just going to half-roll, then I’ll push the stick right forward and we’re going to go around to the right ...
The Earth does some more whirling around.
Q: And you’re naming these maneuvers after what?
A: My favorite types of beef jerky! Let’s do a couple of aileron rolls here. How are you feeling so far? Feeling OK?
Q: I’m feeling OK. Why did you put a jet engine on the Screamin’ Sasquatch biplane you fly in most shows?
A: It’s a 1929 Waco Taperwing. And we like to say it’s all beefed up in honor of our partner, Jack Link’s. It’s a very robust airplane. It has a piston propeller engine, and it also has a jet engine. It socks the senses. You get to hear two different kinds of noises. And it really performs.
Q: What kind of things does a jet engine allow you to do?
A: Oh, you can make the airplane hover. It flies backward. It does phenomenal things that only the jet makes possible.
Klatt rolls the plane upside down, then flies just under the chase plane so the photographer can get a close-up, then directs me to smile and wave.
Q: Why do you spend so much time up in the air?
A: The gift of flight is just spectacular. I’m just blessed to have a small part of it. When you think about the Wright brothers, 100 years ago, to what aviation is today, it’s truly a miracle, isn’t it?
Q: How do other passengers respond when you take them up for flights?
A: Oh, you know, it’s laughter, you know, fear. It’s definitely a different sensation.
Tell me what you think? I’ve been doing it so long, that I don’t know what it’s like doing it for the first time.
Q: It’s thrilling. Kind of like taking three roller coaster rides in a row. But it’ll be a while before I’ll be able to eat anything, including beef jerky.