“Red Devils” History
From 1971 through 1978, the Red Devils – Charlie Hillard, Tom Poberezny, and Gene Soucy – thrilled air show crowds all over North America with their spectacular formation aerobatic routines in their Pitts Specials. One might ask, what became of those Red Devils? Anyone in the air show industry would tell you they became the Eagles, but then that’s another story.
When the Red Devils retired their aircraft in 1978, Charlie and Tom’s planes were put on display in the EAA Museum at Hales Corners, WI. By 1985, all three planes had been donated to EAA and they formed the centerpiece of the grand lobby “bomb burst” display at the new EAA museum in Oshkosh, WI.
Let’s go back to the beginning and have Tom tell you first hand how the Red Devils came into being.
“While flying the Eagle home from Daytona Beach for the last time, my mind started to wander, thinking back to when I started flying aerobatics and how Gene, Charlie and I got together. I remember my first flight in a Pitts Special at the Waukesha Airport. That flight opened a whole new world for me! It was exhilarating and amazing to think that one airplane could have so much aerobatic performance. The responsiveness of the controls was far beyond anything I had experienced before.
Back in the late 1960s, Gene Soucy’s Dad, Paul, owned two Pitts Specials. He gave me the opportunity to ferry one of them to an airshow where Gene was performing. As a result, Gene got me started in aerobatics. I watched him closely, observing his techniques and training. He would teach me on the ground, explaining everything that needed to be done. I would then practice maneuvers at high altitude under his watchful eye. As a result, I flew in my first aerobatic competition in Newnan, GA in 1970.
About that time, my Dad and I built our own Pitts Special (N58J). When it was finished, I competed in a number of contests and earned a spot on the U.S. aerobatic Team at the National Competition held at Oak Grove Airport in Forth Worth, TX, in the fall of 1971. That’s when Gene, Charlie and I flew together for the first time. We all were members of the U.S. Team and decided to perform in the final airshow. Charlie was in the Spinks Acromaster and Gene and I were in Pitts Specials. We did a “loose” formation and the Red Devils (later the Eagles) were born.
That winter, Charlie bought Bob Heuer’s Pitts Special (N442X). The next spring we performed at shows around the country raising money for the U.S. Team’s trip to the World Championships in France. That started our aerobatic career as the Red Devils.
Charlie, Gene and I were fortunate enough to win the World Aerobatic Team Championship in 1972. That, more than anything, caused us to stay together. When we returned home we were known as the “World Champion Red Devils.” I never realized that there would be so much interest in having us perform at air shows around the country.” (Taken from SPORT AVIATION, Jan 1996)
Charlie Hillard began learning to fly in 1953 when he was just 15 years old. He soloed at age 16 and had received his Private, Commercial and Instructors rating by the time he was 18. While an aeronautical engineering student at Georgia Tech, he became a sky diver and was a member of the U.S. Skydiving Team that placed second in the Coupe du Monde in Paris in 1958. Charlie has previously bought Bevo Howard’s Clipwing Cub and had received his initial aerobatic instruction from Frank Price. He was invited to perform at the airshow in Deland, FL and made such an impression that he was asked to become a regular member of Sweet’s National Air Show troupe. With Harold Krier as his mentor, he quickly developed into a world-class aerobatic pilot. His first contest was in 1959 in his Cub. Later in 1967, flying a Krier Kraft, he won the U.S. National Championship. He then became a member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team and competed in contests into the 1970s. In 1972, Charlie flew his newly purchased Pitts S-1S in the World Championships in France. He became the first American to win the title of World Aerobatic Champion. At that same meet, Gene Soucy and Tom Poberezny placed third and sixth which allowed the U.S. to win the Team Championship. Following the 1972 World Championships, Charlie retired from competition flying.
Gene Soucy is one of the most well respected airshow pilots in aviation. He comes from a flying family. His Mother, Pegge, soloed on her 16th birthday. His father, Paul, was a corporate pilot and flying instructor. Gene was an “airshow kid.” His Mom and her friend would load their kids up on weekends and fly off to an air show. With all that exposure, it wasn’t long before Gene decided that he too was going to be an air show pilot. The family had moved from MA to KY and Gene took a job at the airport. He was paid part in cash and part in flying lessons. He soloed at age 16 and had his license by 17. His interest in aerobatics got serious when he bought a copy of Duane Cole’s “Roll Around A Point.” He memorized the book before he ever flew aerobatics. His Dad had purchased a Pitts Special and let his teenage son taxi the plane to get a feel for it. After an “unauthorized” flight, Gene was sent to FL for aerobatic instruction under the watchful eye of Curtis Pitts himself.
Gene’s first competition was near Ottumwa, IA in 1967. He flew many competitions during the 1960s and early 1970s. After only a half dozen competitions he was flying in unlimited-category aerobatics. In 1970, he won the unlimited category at the U.S. Nationals and followed that with another win in 1971 and another in 1972. At the same time, he won the same competitions in the Canadian Nationals, an unprecedented feat still to be matched. He then went on to join the first Red Devils team consisting of himself, Marion Cole, and Bob Heuer. After two years, Heuer and Cole were ready to retire from the circuit. In the meantime, Gene had become friends with Charlie Hillard and Tom Poberezny. The three flew an informal performance together and something just clicked. They first called themselves the “Thrill-Os,” but quickly dropped that name to become the new era of Red Devils and as they say, “the rest is history.”
A final comment from Tom Poberezny, “The Red Devils were an exciting time for Charlie, Gene and myself. It developed out of aerobatic competition, and led us into the air show industry. We were fortunate to become one of the most well-known formation aerobatic teams (civilian) within the aerobatic/air show community.”