One of the best things about being a pilot is we can choose where we live, especially aerobatic pros who like to live close to their work. Leo Loudenslager moved from New Jersey to Nashville because he could draw a line from Nashville 500 miles in any direction and find an air show to fly.
I live in Florida for the weather and the ocean but, more importantly, to be near the FAA-approved and waivered-to-the-surface aerobatic box within five minutes of my house and 30 seconds from my hangar. I need to perform like I practice, and to do that, I need to be able to fly to surface level on a regular basis.
The FAA governs where we can perform aerobatics. FAR 91.303 states: "No person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight—(a) Over any congested area of a city, town or settlement; (b) Over an open-air assembly of persons; (c) Within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport; (d) Within four nautical miles of the center line of any federal airway; (e) Below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the surface; or (f) When flight visibility is less than three statute miles."
The rules are simple, and I've found it's best to heed them. I know more than one person who has been asked to do a roll on takeoff when flying cross-country. It's tempting, but you never know who's watching. A friend of mine honored the request at a tiny airport in podunk Texas when a vacationing FAA inspector from his home state happened to be driving by. Now, I think because he was off-duty, he should have stayed off duty…but he noted the N-number, made a call to the owner, who passed it on to my friend, who called the FAA and got his wrist slapped. Just sayin'…it can happen.
If you stay above 1,500 feet AGL, it's not hard to find a legal place to fly aerobatics. Sometimes, I have to practice near a congested area before an air show. A few years ago, I was flying the Chicago Lakefront Air Show, and I had to find a spot to practice far enough from the lateral edge of the Class B without infringing on Gary, Indiana's, Class C airspace. I found a small triangle of airspace to practice between the two. Of course, I scanned carefully for traffic, but what bothered me the most was that there was nowhere safe to land if I had an engine problem.
If you want to be a pro, you have no choice but to find airspace that's waivered to the surface. Air show pilots fly to the surface, competition pilots in the unlimited category fly down to 328 feet AGL. Competition pilots in the intermediate category fly to 1,200 feet AGL and advanced to 800 feet AGL, but air show pilots start at 800 feet AGL. That might seem high, but pilots need to train to fly lower, in case they inadvertently find themselves down there. The ground looks mighty different when you're low—the horizon disappears, and there's a feeling of ground rush. Pilots finding themselves lower than they've trained for, unaccustomed to the sight picture all too often, have pulled back hard on the stick rather than relaxing and flying out of the maneuver, sometimes with ugly results.
Some aerobatic boxes are permanent fixtures, but most of them are activated for an air show or a contest. A competition box is always the same dimension —a 1,000-meter or 3,300-foot cube of airspace. Big white markers on the ground delineate the boundaries. Boundary judges, volunteers who sit out in a field and watch through a "sighting device," note whether the pilot goes "out" of the box. The box looks like a postage stamp from altitude, and the pilot has to take into consideration the speed of the airplane, energy management and crosswinds. It's hard to stay in the box, and many championships have been lost by one 30-point "out."
Staying in the box is part of the perfection of competition flying. I hated the idea of the box when I bumped up against it and went out, but have come to realize that the idea of staying in a lateral boundary adds to the precision, the discipline and the difficulty of the sport, and ultimately, the beauty of three-dimensional flight in a space that judges and spectators can see. It also makes top-level competitors excellent and safe, precise air show pilots.
I worked with a coach named Bill McIntyre who'd stand at the end of a road and let me know when to "pull" down from inverted and when to "push" over from upright, to let me see how close I could come to the boundaries of the box. That study in precision has served me well for many years.
Competition boxes are always the same dimensions, but at air shows, the box is always different: The dimensions depend on the length of the runway, nearby buildings, obstructions and even roads that will remain open during the show. Sometimes, the box is at an angle to the crowd or has a bend in it, sometimes it's long and narrow, and sometimes it's over the water. One of the most challenging things about flying air shows is that you can't practice for every variable, because things are always different—especially the box and the weather. Strong crosswinds can be a big challenge: The all-seeing eye of the Air Boss sometimes calls us discreetly on the radio when they see us unintentionally push the boundaries or drift over the crowd.
When flying the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget, I found that only perfection is tolerated. The pilots are expected to stay both laterally and vertically within the confines of very difficult and tight airspace. In order to control this, they have two radar-equipped tanks positioned on either end of the field. After each flight, the pilot is individually debriefed and is given a computer diagram of their routine with their flight path marked by green lines = good; yellow = marginal; and red = you're out! When the show starts, if you go "out" more than once, you're grounded. But, let's not get any ideas about getting any of those radar-equipped tanks here at U.S. air shows, Okay?
So, where are these FAA waivered-to-surface-level practice boxes located, and how do aerobatic pilots find them? Good question! The FAA currently doesn't have a database of boxes around the country, but there's some indication that they're working on it. For now, it's word of mouth. The International Aerobatic Club (www.iac.org) is also a great resource. Since the akro community isn't very large, a resourceful pilot should be able to find one nearby, that is, if they're lucky. There aren't nearly enough boxes. They're hard to get, sometimes hard to keep and have to be renewed every two to three years.
Any pilot can use any aerobatic box because they're government-approved entities, as long as it's open, and you have the appropriate briefing as to airspace and radio procedures by an informed party who's usually a local listed on the waiver. I once had a problem using a box nearby, and the FAA told me that if the locals didn't want to play nice in their sandbox, they'd take their toys away. That's just how it works.
Every spring, pilots from the northern states migrate south to California, Arizona and Florida for spring training. To fly in a box, you need to talk to one of the locals who are able to "open the box" for you and give you a briefing about boundaries, upper altitudes, potential noise complaints and radio requirements. Good manners regarding noise is always appropriate, and pilots generally dial their props back a notch or two. Generally, we're well-accepted, but there was that time I was practicing in a box near Calgary, Alberta, and couldn't help but notice a huge two-word obscenity plowed into a field whenever I came in to land. I guess they didn't like us.
I find it incredibly ironic that air shows are said to be the nation's second-largest spectator event, while waivered practice areas are few and far between. We're expected to perform low-level precision aerobatics in front of millions of people a year, but God forbid we make noise that might disturb a housing development. Air show pilots must practice at the same altitudes they'll fly at an air show and not just once in a while. I have a lot of respect for a friend of mine in California who flies a Pitts. I asked him why he decided to stop flying shows, and he told me that because he doesn't have a practice box nearby, he felt he couldn't be a safe air show pilot without one. To fly a safe show at or near surface level, you need to train there.
It's not always easy being an aerobatic pro, but I'm not complaining. I'm one of the lucky ones who lives near a box at an airport with a control tower that keeps me safe while I'm flying in it. My flights are usually short, and I turn my prop back for noise, but even though we occasionally get a noise complaint, I think we've done a good job of educating people to understand what we're doing. Not long ago, I got a letter saying, "Thank you. The beautiful sound of your Lycoming engine is like music to my ears." I forwarded that one to the FAA and then framed it.