I was circling at 4,500 feet in the designated contest holding area for the Borrego Springs Akrofest while another competitor finished his routine in the aerobatic box. As I waited for my turn my mind was racing, my heart rate was soaring and the heat index in the cockpit was hovering around 130 degrees F. The deafening growl of the Lycoming AEIO-540 motor turning 2,700 rpm on my newly acquired Pitts S-2C was interrupted by the calm, soothing voice of the Chief Judge over the radio:
“Pilot Sigari, this is the Chief Judge.”
“Chief Judge, this is pilot Sigari, go ahead.” I replied.
“Pilot Sigari, the aerobatic box is clear.” A slight pause. “The box is yours.”
And with those four simple words: “The box is yours,” began my career as a competition aerobatic pilot. After completing my preaerobatic SAFE checklist: Seat belts, Altitude, Fuel and Egress (review of the procedure in the unlikely event of a bailout), I began my dive into the box while simultaneously letting out a raucous howl: “Wahoooo!” My adrenaline glands began pumping harder than my engine-driven fuel pump.
In an effort to carry as much energy as possible into the box, I accelerated to the Pitts’ redline of 185 KIAS. I could hear my coach’s voice in my head saying “Cyrus, relax, have fun and fly the parts.” During the dive, I completed the requisite triple wing wag to advise the judges I was beginning my routine. As soon as I entered the east boundary of the box, I began my first of 10 compulsory maneuvers with a 6-G pull to a 45-degree up line.
Is It For You?
Competition aerobatics isn’t for everybody. It’s expensive, time consuming, psychologically and physically challenging, and at times very frustrating. However, for those who are attracted to the sport, the rewards can be endless. I’ve personally recognized a significant increase in confidence and precision in my flying skills. The flying benefits aside, the single, most rewarding facet of flying competition aerobatics has been the new friendships developed within the aerobatic community. From first-time competitors to seasoned professionals, the bond between competitors is something truly unique.
If you’re interested in flying competition aerobatics, the first thing you should do is go up for a flight with a trusted instructor to ensure aerobatics is right for you. From there you should hook up with your local International Aerobatic Club (www.iac.org) chapter to get introduced to the aerobatic community. Attend a chapter meeting where you’ll meet local competitors, and find out when and where the next local contest is.
Volunteer At A Contest
Aerobatic contests are typically 100% volunteer-run and can require up to 30-50 volunteers to run properly. Few contest directors will turn down an able-bodied and willing volunteer. Though some of the volunteer roles, like Chief Judge, require very specialized training, first timers can fill many of the required spots. In particular, volunteering on the Judge’s line as a recorder for a Grading Judge can be one of the most educational roles at a contest for a new competitor. A recorder’s job is quite simple: Write down the judge’s comments and scores when they’re announced as he or she analyzes a competitor’s performance. Volunteering as a recorder will quickly help you recognize both the obvious and subtle things that judges are looking for.
For instance, a hammerhead, also known as a stall turn, begins with a quarter loop to establish a vertical climb. At the top of the vertical line when the aircraft reaches zero airspeed, the pilot pivots 180 degrees around the yaw axis by kicking full rudder and establishes a vertical descent. The figure ends as the aircraft completes a quarter loop back to level flight. The pilot will typically use a sighting device on the wing to set a perfect up and down line, however, it takes a tremendous amount of practice to hit exactly 90 degrees on the way up or down without making noticeable adjustments to the judge’s eye. For every five degrees of variation off of the vertical, a one-point deduction (out of 10) is made for the figure. Furthermore, if the pilot kicks the rudder too early and “flies through” the turn, the deduction can be anywhere from one point to three points, depending on the severity of the delay.
As a volunteer, you’ll also get a lot of practice reading Aresti figures. Aresti figures come from the catalog, notation and scoring system developed by José Luis Aresti of Spain in 1961. Not too dissimilar to reading music, the catalogue is used to depict competition aerobatic figures in a systematic way. Each figure is assigned to one of nine families of maneuvers and given a unique catalogue number and difficulty factor (“K”). It’s common to see competitors walking through their routines by using their hands to simulate different figures. Watching a hangar full of aerobatic pilots dancing by themselves as they work through their maneuvers can be quite an entertaining spectacle!
There are five categories for powered aircraft: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Pilots new to competition should start off in Primary or Sportsman initially, and then slowly work up to the more advanced categories as they build competition experience.
A typical competition lasts a total of three days, usually conducted over a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a banquet on Saturday night to hand out trophies and celebrate the weekend’s activities. The first day is registration and practice. Getting practice in the competition box is very important, as the atmospheric conditions and visual references can vary significantly between contest locations. For example, the Paso Robles aerobatic box is directly on top of the Paso Robles airport, however, the crossing runways don’t line up with the x- or y-axis of the aerobatic box. Therefore, it’s relatively easy to become disoriented as to which direction you should be flying after coming out of a rolling or spinning maneuver—the natural tendency is to line up with the runway. Going the wrong direction after the completion of a figure is one of the quickest ways to score poorly during a contest.
Get In The Air
Once you’ve watched a competition, it’s highly recommended you go out and get some dual training at a reputable school in the type of plane you plan to fly, particularly in the areas of spin training. If you can’t find a specialized school nearby, you may want to consider traveling to air show performer Sean D. Tucker’s Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety (www.tutimaacademy.com) in King City, Calif. Tutima’s initial aerobatic course takes six days to complete, after which you should have the skills necessary to compete at the Sportsman level.
Once you’ve completed your training, it’s time to sign up for a contest. If it’s your first time competing, you’ll be assigned an experienced competitor as a “buddy” to help you get oriented with the process. When starting out, it’s important to focus on having fun and enjoying the experience. Take lots of pictures, drink lots of water and have fun!
The rest of my first-ever competition flight at Borrego Springs was a complete blur of loops, rolls and spins, as I subconsciously worked through the known sequence from memory. After completing my routine, I exited the aerobatic box at 1,500 feet at the maximum design speed of my little biplane, sweat pouring into my eyes, adrenaline still flowing, having just flown my first aerobatic contest flight. I made a victorious fist pump in the cockpit, privately celebrating an event I had been waiting over a decade to experience firsthand.
Over the next two days, I would fly two more times, volunteer as an Assistant Judge, make new friends and ultimately finish in 11th place out of 18 competitors in the Sportsman category. I was quite happy with the results for my first contest, and the experience itself was, without a doubt, unforgettable. With a deep-down desire to keep flying contests (and win), I’ve subsequently flown a total of five competitions and managed to take home a couple of first-place trophies. Though still early in my aerobatic career, I’ve enjoyed every step of the journey thus far, and I’m excited about continuing the adventure. Hope to see you at a contest sometime soon!
Cyrus Sigari ([email protected]) is president of JetAVIVA and serves as P&P Light Jet Editor.
The Aerobatic Box
|The aerobatic box is an imaginary box in the sky that competitors are required to stay within the bounds of once they begin their routine. Boxes will typically have nine distinct markers on the ground to assist pilots in staying oriented during a competition flight. The upper limit varies from 3,500 feet AGL to 3,280 feet AGL, and the lower limit from 1,500 feet AGL to 328 feet AGL, both depending on the category in which the competitor is flying. In the Primary category of competition, the lateral limits of the box aren’t required to be adhered to, only the vertical. Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited pilots are required to stay in the box and are penalized for each excursion outside of the box boundaries. Two boundary judges will typically be stationed at opposite corners of the box, advising the chief judge over radio each time there’s an excursion. Maintaining a well-placed routine in the center of the box in clear view of the judges can be quite challenging, particularly if there’s a cross-box wind component. Box management is a skill that takes a lot of practice to perfect and comes with time and experience.|