FARGO-At the beginning of every air show season, Jim "Fang" Maroney sat down with his wife, Susan, to discuss the "what ifs" of his work as a stunt pilot and performer.
"You have to remember that there's a lot of great pilots that aren't with us anymore, but they were really great pilots," Maroney would tell her. "And you have to remember that when something goes wrong we do our best to try to live and sometimes we don't."
The Fargo AirSho next weekend, the first in four years, will open with a group of planes flying together before one breaks off, a "missing man formation" that salutes fallen pilots.
The maneuver will honor Maroney, a key performer and organizer for the Fargo show who died at age 59 when his plane crashed into a mountain near Knoxville, Tenn., in March 2014. It will be the first of the 12 renditions of the Fargo AirSho without Maroney and his best-known plane, "Super Chipmunk."
Some colleagues think of Maroney's death as a cruel irony because they cite him as one of the safest pilots they knew.
"Jim lived in an airplane," said AirSho co-chairman Darrol Schroeder. "Safety was truly his middle name."
Two love stories
It's true that the Casselton, N.D., native lived most of his 59 years in the sky. Maroney admired his father's work as a pilot and took up the family trade at a young age.
He got a degree in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering from the University of California - Fresno and went on to join the Marine Corps, where he graduated first in a Naval Flight Training class of more than 1,000. He was also rated first at Naval Training Weapons School, also called "Top Gun School."
"I respected him so much because of his love of this country. He wanted to serve his community and his country that's what he did," Susan Maroney said. "He was always looking for ways to do that and I admired him for that."
He and Susan met in 1983 while he was at El Toro Marine Corp Air Station in California, where Susan worked as a veterinarian.
She said she bonded with Maroney, referred to by neighbors as the "cat whisperer," over a mutual love for animals.
"I knew nothing about pilots or flying but we had the core love of animals," she said. "He was such a tender heart about them."
In 1985, Maroney joined the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo, where he'd move up the ranks to become a squadron group commander. Eventually, Maroney was flying not just fighter jets but massive 747s as a chief pilot with Delta Airlines.
"He was 5-foot-6 but he was flying these huge planes," recalled Dick Walstad, AirSho co-chairman and close friend of Maroney. "We'd say, 'Hey stand up, Jim,' and he'd say, 'I am.' "
Maroney postponed his retirement from the Air National Guard Fargo-based 119th Wing after Sept. 11, 2001 so that he could join fellow members in flying patrol missions over the Pentagon. He was one of four pilots charged with defending the empty skies on Sept. 12.
"I remember he called me up and said, 'It's kind of eerie watching over the Pentagon,' " Walstad said.
Maroney retired from the Air National Guard the following year as a lieutenant colonel, but flew as a pilot with Delta up until his death. Even when Maroney wasn't working, his wife says, he still had his head in the clouds.
"If we were going somewhere in the car he'd get really quiet, and I knew he was flying somewhere," she said. "I'd look at him and I knew he was flying in his head."
Toward the last few years of Maroney's life the couple didn't go flying together often, but she recalls "cloud hopping" as a fun pastime.
"We played, we'd just play," she said. "We were in the Chipmunk and I was in front and he was in the backseat, and I'd reach back and he'd take my hand and squeeze it."
Walstad and his wife, Jane, call Maroney their "surrogate son."
Today, it's difficult for either to talk about Maroney without tearing up.
An 'unforgiving profession'
The circumstances of Maroney's accident are still unsettled. Many have accepted the theory that as he traveled over a mountainous area of Tennessee on his way from Milwaukee, Wis., to a show in Florida, he ran into fog.
Walstad says it appeared that Maroney tried to turn around to escape the fog and, unable to see, he hit a mountain no more than 100 feet from its peak.
But Maroney isn't the first of Fargo's Airsho performers to die in a plane crash.
In 2005, Fargo air show performer Jimmy Franklin was in a show in Moose Jaw, Sask., when his plane collided with another plane. Both pilots were killed.
Two years later, 58-year-old Gerald Beck was killed when his plane hit another aircraft during an experimental airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.
The man in the other plane, Casey Odegaard survived with minor injuries, but in 2012 lost his father to a plane crash in Valley City, N.D.
"Flying is a very unforgiving profession," Walstad said. "You can't make mistakes, and if you do it can be disasterous."
Susan Maroney was always aware of the dangers her husband faced as a pilot, but she didn't protest when he left for a show.
"I can't fall apart because Jim would expect better of me than that, because he prepared me, because he wanted me to always be ready and I remember he always wanted me to be strong," she said.
Many pilots recognize the risk that airshows pose for performers, but the exhilarating challenge that comes with controlling an airplane in a show outweighs the threat of a crash.
Kent Pietsch flies in shows all over the country and plans to perform in Fargo's next weekend.
One of his acts involves flying thousands of feet up and turning his plane's engine off. He then loops and twirls toward the ground and lands perfectly on his target.
Part of the act's goal, Pietsch says, is to teach people about the safety of airplanes.
"People think that (when planes crash) it's always a problem with the engine," he said. "The thing that makes the airplane fly is its wings."
Air shows are heavily rehearsed and planned before the show even begins.
Each pilot and his or her plane have to be inspected and approved before they can participate in an air show, said Vance Emerson, supervisor with North Dakota's Flight Standards District Office.
The restrictions put on aircrafts that fly in the shows is typically based on the pilot and his or her level of experience, as well as the weight and speed of the plane they plan to fly, he said.
For example, most aircrafts have to stay at least 500 feet away from the crowd, but a bigger airplane might be farther away based on the amount of room the pilot needs to maneuver and the size of the impact if it were to crash.
"It's all pretty scripted," Emerson said.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that a pilot obtain an aerobatics competency card that confirms his or her ability to perform in an airshow. The card indicates which maneuvers a performer can do, which planes he or she can fly and how close to the ground he or she can get.
During the show, a person known as an "air boss" is responsible for monitoring the performances.
If something goes wrong during a show, the air boss will sometimes try to communicate with the pilot over the radio.
"That's why there's all the preparation and practice so you don't have those issues in there," Emerson said. "The success is based on the planning."
Jim's final honor
This year's AirSho will be prefaced on Friday by a private unveiling of a display set up at the Fargo Air Museum in Jim Maroney's honor.
Susan Maroney said she approached museum officials at a memorial event for her husband and asked if they would take her husband's first aerobatics airplane "Lil Toot."
Even after Maroney stopped flying the plane in performances, he practiced new routines in it before trying them out in the Chipmunk.
Maroney said she put the plane in Fargo's museum for the same reason she buried him here, though they lived in Milwaukee at the time of Jim's death, where Susan Maroney still resides.
"Even though he went all around the world and we traveled all over the United States together, the bottom line was Jim always loved Fargo," she said.
Susan Maroney plans to attend Friday's unveiling and the airshow.
Her husband would be humbled to know the kind of impact he had on the aviation community, she said.
"I know that he would just be so honored that people would want to remember him, I know he would just be grateful," she said. "He was my best friend ... I was just so honored to know him."
AirSho returns after hiatus
Next weekend's show is Fargo's first in four years, though it was for many years a biennial event. The show planned in 2013 was cancelled after a federal budget sequester grounded the Blue Angels.
The first show was performed in 1989.
The show typically draws 20,000 to 30,000 people, said AirSho co-chairman Dick Walstad, and it grows every year.
Walstad said the AirSho budgeted $620,000 for this year's show, which he expects to exceed.
If you go
When: Gates open at 9 a.m. and performances run from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Hector International Airport, 2801 32nd Ave. N., Fargo
Tickets: Admission at gate is $30 for adults, $15 for kids 11 to 17 years old and free for kids ages 10 and younger. Advance tickets are $5 cheaper and can be purchased on the AirSho's website or at Casey's General Stores, the Fargo Air Museum or the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Highlights: The U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team will top off a total of nine acts, including the U.S. Navy Parachute Team "The Leap Frogs" and an appearance from a 22,000-pound AV-8B HARRIER II.