It's 95 degrees, and sweat is dripping down my face. The box suddenly seems impossibly small. I know that it's 1 km square, but from 4,500 feet AGL, it seems like a tiny little target. How am I supposed to keep my sequence inside the faint corner markers? How am I to perform with the judging eyes below watching my every aileron, elevator and rudder input? Yet here I am, screaming earthward in my Christen Eagle biplane at 180 mph. The wind whistles through the flying wires as fast as adrenaline rushes through my veins. "Keep it under control!" I yell at myself. "Do it like you practiced!" I have become two personalities: the pilot and the coach. "Ready… ready…now pull!"
I had already been flying aerobatics for several years when I flew my first contest, but I hadn't yet taken the leap into competition flying. I had been happy to simply enjoy aerobatics and hone my skills just for the love it. A part of me wanted to keep my maneuvers really high up, where it's safest, and the idea of loops and rolls at 1,500 feet AGL made me uncomfortable, even though that altitude is "high" compared to the more advanced categories, such as Unlimited, which takes it right down to 328 feet AGL. However, having joined up with a band of dedicated aerobatic competitors, and under the watchful eye of our coach, US Unlimited Aerobatic Team member Tim Just, I had come to really enjoy the prospect of practicing for and flying at a contest.
What I didn't know yet was that flying in an aerobatic competition is so much more than just the flying. Since it's a relatively small community, the flying contestants have to fulfill all of the jobs required at the contest when their category isn't flying. What this means is that a participant might be out on a box corner for three to four hours as a line judge, squinting up at the sun and recording "outs." Or, they may be running back and forth for hours in the baking heat collecting score sheets from the five judging stations. If you're not careful, it can be very easy to get sunburned, dehydrated, exhausted and generally frazzled. And then, after all of that, it's time to mount up and fly!
Are we crazy? This gets repeated three times, normally over two days, and here in California, the competitions take place in the hottest places mankind has ever conquered! It becomes very important to stay hydrated, keep a good check on yourself, and keep your airplane and your flying where you want it, in spite of the challenging conditions.
The prospect of having your every move judged by the most experienced eyeballs, and your landings judged by your peers, isn't a fun one. When no one is watching, we all make the most perfect three-pointers! At practice, my loops were roundish, my lines were straightish and my rolls were sharpish. But how would things go under the pressure of a contest?
In contests, there are five categories: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Although I was well versed in all the maneuvers required by the Sportsman sequence, I was convinced by others to do my first contest in Primary, and I was glad I did, because flying the maneuvers turned out to be a small part of my first contest. Since it was my first contest, I assumed that everyone else would grease their landings, and that the criticism coming from the judges' line could be so harsh that I might be singled out and put to public shame for anything that I didn't do well. And so, as I dove down and took center stage in the box with nerves tingling and sweat dripping, I felt a wave of embarrassment as my first big pull in the sequence was too hard.
The wings shudder in a stall for a second before I'm flying smoothly upward again. I'm rushing, even though I shouldn't. I pull too hard again, and the wing "lets go." I can feel the judges' eyes on me, shaking their heads in disgust. Will they tell me I have no business being up in the box? I begin to doubt everything. I complete the last figure and turn final. My adrenaline is still pumping, and my heart is still pounding. I bounce a little bit as I touch down.
You can imagine my elation when I was informed that I had won my category. First place at my first contest! I was ecstatic. The judgments weren't that severe. After running around in the sun for hours, and pulling G's until the sky turns black, pilots have been known to mess up a sequence pretty badly and to "boink" a landing. We were all the same. It was time for me to stop being so hard on myself and to just fly better at the next contest!