Stunt pilots are some of the best fliers around, but when they crash it's almost always fatal.
That's why it is so extraordinary that Rob Harrison survived a crash in his single-engine plane Saturday during an air show in Modesto.
"The planes are meant to fly, not to survive a crash. There are no ejection seats, so accidents are most often fatal," said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, a trade group in Leesburg, Va.
Harrison was "out of surgery, and doing well," according to a message posted by his wife, Susan, on Harrison's Web site. She called her husband "a miracle" in her cell phone greeting. The family declined to comment.
Cudahy said Harrison had been a stunt pilot for at least 12 years, and a pilot for "much longer than that."
"Any air show pilot is among the best of the best. They each have a particularly strong set of flying skills," he said. "Within that group, Rob was one of the most talented."
But even skilled stunt pilots know they're taking a risk when they take off.
"They take every precaution to avoid an accident," he said. "But when they strap in, they know it's a dangerous way to fly."
Strict rules ensure spectator safety during air shows, he said. In North America, the last audience member fatality was more than 55 years ago. That crash led to stringent regulations.
Harrison, 66, of Claremont had surgery on his ankles, according to Jerry Waymire, the air show coordinator for Saturday's event. Waymire said Harrison was "in good spirits" during an afternoon visit Sunday, though he was too tired and sore to talk to the press.
Waymire said Harrison told him he wants to fly again, though aerobatic flights weren't necessarily part of his plans.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash that injured Harrison, known as "The Tumbling Bear." The accident took place during his last maneuver, when Harrison came in low to the ground to perform barrel rolls, authorities said.
Witnesses told authorities that Harrison's yellow stunt plane had been flying too low and that its wing clipped the runway, but the official report could take 18 months to finish.
"Obviously," Waymire said, "the plane was too low. But what caused it to drop too low, we just don't know."
The accident happened about 1 p.m., out of view of most spectators at the 14th annual Modesto Airport Appreciation Day. It was the first such crash in the event's history, Waymire said.
Rob Reider, an air show announcer who has known Harrison for several years, described his friend as "a real gentleman."
Reider heard about Harrison's accident Saturday evening. He immediately called another announcer to tell him the news.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'I hate getting Saturday evening phone calls,' " Reider said. "In the past, it most often meant someone had been killed, so you just build up this nervousness about getting a call on Saturday or Sunday evenings. I told my friend right away, 'This one has a good ending. He's going to make it.' "