Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Aerobatic Boxes

The airspace of the air show world

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 ( 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.

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