Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Aerobatic Boxes

The airspace of the air show world

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.

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