In 1984, I trained with air show pilot Duane Cole at Luck Field in Burleson, Texas, for the Intermediate category of the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. He stood on the ground with a radio, "critiquing" me while I perfected my maneuvers in the air.
One morning, I followed Cole into the hangar where he kept his famous clipped-wing Taylorcraft. I spotted a sleek little race car of an airplane in the back corner. It looked lonely. I blew some dust off the numerous sponsor decals, and the name "Patti Johnson" appeared on the side of the fuselage. It was a Laser 200 flown by a U.S. Aerobatic Team pilot and gold medalist in international competition. I was in aerobatic heaven!
I wasn't sure where I was going with aerobatics, but if I were to move up to the Unlimited category, there was no question I would have to trade my Super Decathlon in for a Pitts Special, the widely available production biplane and then gold standard for competition mounts.
Designed by Curtis Pitts in the 1940s, the Pitts is strong, lightweight, fun and nimble to fly. This revered little airplane has won many medals for the U.S. in international competition, and when you walk into the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the first airplane you see is Betty Skelton's Pitts, Little Stinker.
Monoplanes were rare in 1984. With no production models available to pilots outside the Eastern Bloc, you had to build one or convince someone to sell theirs.
The few Lasers flying were one-off homebuilt prototypes, and pilots were "test pilots" during the initial phases of flight. Since composite materials weren't yet available, strength was an issue. Patti Johnson's Laser had a cable tied around the engine to hold it to the fuselage in case an engine mount broke in flight. Another consideration was aileron flutter—an unwanted spontaneous unstable divergent oscillation that may occur in flight—causing catastrophic failure. More than one pilot was killed when control surfaces weren't properly mass balanced.
Why were pilots willing to put up with these limitations, and why was the monoplane seen as such an advantage in pure precision flying? Flying a biplane versus a monoplane is a different philosophy. Monoplanes are clean. They slide through the air, pick up speed faster because there's less drag and generally have better vertical performance than a biplane. A biplane has to weigh less and have more horsepower than a monoplane to have the same performance because it has to overcome the aerodynamic drag of the wings, wires and struts.
Little did I know in 1984 that the dawn of the new age of the monoplane was on the horizon, and that the Laser 200 was already an advanced development. Any discussion of the modern monoplane can't be had without acknowledging the vision of Leo Loudenslager. He redesigned and modified just about everything on an earlier design, the 1960s Stephens Acro monoplane, creating the airplane he called Beautiful Obsession.
It was the Laser 200 that gave Leo Loudenslager the edge to dominate competition aerobatics from the mid-70s to early 80s. When he won the 1980 World Aerobatic Championship, one of the pilots who took notice was a young aeronautical engineer and competitor from West Germany named Walter Extra.
By 1986, Extra Flugzeubau of West Germany offered the Extra 230, the first readily available production monoplane, and it was a game changer. Designed and tested as a factory-built (but experimental certified) airplane, each was built and flew more or less the same. They had a U.S. dealer, Pompano Air Center, which assembled the aircraft and provided maintenance and support.
A pilot could buy parts instead of having to manufacture them. The Extra was robustly built and had great performance. And, last but hardly least, the airplane was delightful to fly.
In 1987, I was flying a stock S-2S in the Unlimited category and had started a project with Steve Wolf to build up an S-2S, the six-cylinder 260-hp single-seat Pitts, into a Super Pitts—much like you see some of the pilots on the air show circuit fly today. I still wasn't sure the monoplane was the way to go, but after Clint McHenry offered to let me fly his Extra 230, I knew with certainty after the first takeoff that I had to have one and that it would take me to the next level.
Competition flying is based on achieving perfection—vertical lines, 45-degree angles, perfect snap-roll recovery on all axes—so I have to give a lot of credit to the Laser pilots before me. The Lasers I tried were difficult to fly well. The controls weren't balanced. For example, the ailerons were hard to "center;" the elevator could be rigged so the "pull" was light and the "push" was heavy, making maneuvers like a rolling turn difficult.
The Extra, on the other hand, was a pleasure to fly—there was harmony and balance to the controls that didn't exist in the Laser. The roll rate was quick and the ailerons centered perfectly; the elevator was rigged just right and the rudder was adequate, although you can never have enough rudder!
I bought the Extra in August 1987, a month before the U.S. Nationals, and I was hoping I'd have enough time to train and be familiar with all its nuances. There's always a learning curve in the transition from a biplane to a monoplane. Any taildragger pilot with a little experience can take off and land an aerobatic monoplane, but it takes a lot of practice to fly it well.
A lot of what you learn in aerobatics is where to look—to your left at the wing, over the cowling or behind you, and when to transition to look at another view as the maneuver progresses. The Pitts gives the pilot a lot of cues, like the cabane struts in front of the canopy give a good reference for point rolls. The "I" or interplane struts, designed to transmit lift and load between the wings, are also a good reference and, on a Pitts, add to the side area and make knife-edge flight and rolling turns much easier.
One of the biggest things a new monoplane driver must master is energy management. The airplane is slick and slippery compared to a biplane, so the pilot has to plan power reductions accordingly.
I placed higher at the Nationals than I ever had, and people told me I was flying well, but I didn't think I was flying better than I had been in my S-2S Pitts. The Extra's faster roll rate and clean lines gave me the edge I needed.
In the parallel universe of the Soviet Union, the Sukhoi SU-26 made its debut at the 1984 World Aerobatic Championship (WAC). I first saw it fly at the 1986 WAC. Wow! The airplane was astonishing: all-composite, powerful radial engine and a super-fast roll rate. Soviet team pilots were employed by the State, and the airplanes were designed by the same company that have made fighters and bombers since 1937. If the U.S. recruited Boeing or Lockheed Martin to provide us with the best aerobatic airplane, we might have come up with something similar. This SU-26, combined with the superb training and skills of the Soviet pilots, changed the style and raised the level of competition aerobatics.
Competition pilots are always looking for the best advantage in a competitive-by-nature environment, hence more power and lighter airframes. The next big development in monoplane construction was the use of very strong lightweight composite materials, and this all seemed to happen very quickly. With composite construction, no longer did pilots have to rebuild their airplanes at the end of each season. The aircraft were finally stronger than the abuse the pilots could give them.
In 1988, the Extra factory flew their all-composite mid-wing two-seat Extra 300 at the World Championships. In 1990, they developed the two-seat, low mid-wing 300L, then the single-seat 300S. Sukhoi came out with the two-seat Su-29, and has since added more power and made some refinements, although they aren't manufactured anymore.
The French company Mudry makes the CAP, a great little airplane that can tumble better than most. The Czechs made the Zlin 50S, which I loved watching, but never had the chance to fly. In the U.S., newer designs like the Edge and the MX Series are popular.
As the airplanes have developed, so have their components. Lycoming, which supplies engines to all of the aerobatic airplanes except the Sukhoi, has refined their engine to include the 360-plus hp Thunderbolt 580 Lycoming. This was a first for Lycoming, and they're basically competing against the engine shops that modify the 260 and 300 hp AEIO-540s for greater performance.
MT Propeller has been at the forefront of aerobatic prop development and continuously refines their props. Hartzell Propeller came out with a bulletproof Kevlar prop a few years ago. Manufacturers such as Goodyear Tires, Champion Aerospace, Bose, Concorde Battery, Lord Engineering, National Parachutes, CJ Pumps, Garmin and others seem to enjoy their relationships with aerobatic pilots not only because it's fun, but because we push the limits of our equipment and it gives them important feedback.
In the past 25 or so years I've been involved, I've seen enormous changes in airplane and component development. It's been exciting to witness and be a part of the development of the monoplane and to have flown most of them. Aerobatics has given me so many exciting opportunities to fly all over the world, including training in Russia in 1990 as part of an exchange program with the post-Soviet, then-Russian Aerobatic Team.
I don't know what the next game changer in aerobatic airplanes will be. It's hard to say. At the moment, we're just chipping away at making airplanes lighter and tweaking the control surfaces for faster roll rates. Maybe Loudenslager knows. Just days before he was killed in a motorcycle accident, he was going to test-fly a new design called The Shark, which featured another revolution in control deflection and lighter weight. But, it remains to be seen, and for now, the airplane is on display at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh.
Aerobatic airplanes are about form and function, strength, durability and achieving perfection in the sky. Beauty is also an important part of the equation. I still like flying a biplane: When I'm flying one, it's telling me that I must, above all, have fun. But when I fly an aerobatic monoplane, I sense it's more serious and won't tolerate sloppiness! The monoplane demands perfection.