How does one get to the World Aerobatic Championships (WAC)? Practice, practice, practice….or you catch an airline out of Jacksonville, fly to Charlotte then to Dulles, pick up British Airways to London-Heathrow and then on to Paris. Meet up with your cousin; spend the night at a boutique hotel. Walk a mile through the maze of Gare Montparnasse to rent a car while taking many wrong turns; then drive three hours to Châteauroux in Central France. It’s a long trip, indeed. However, if you’re competing at the WAC, you’ll spend at least seven years of training, burn hundreds of gallons of 100LL, devote your life to finding the right airplane, get critiqued and coached, and compete at the U.S. Nationals in order to make the U.S. Aerobatic Team. Then it’s a simple matter of taking your airplane apart, boxing it up and sending it to France or wherever the WAC might happen to be.
WAC 2015 was the 28th World Aerobatic Championship (WAC). Held every other year, the first official WAC was held in 1960 in Czechoslovakia, and since then, it has been held in Russia, the U.S., Canada, France, Hungary and Switzerland, to name a few. Any country can bid to have the contest, and I recently heard that South Africa’s bid for WAC 2017 was successful, which will make it the first WAC held in the Southern Hemisphere. This contest will be really interesting, as the South Africans are known for their hospitality and also have quite a large aviation community.
In recent years and also this year, U.S. Team members have had to disassemble and ship their airplanes to the contest site. This is difficult, not only because it’s expensive and requires downtime for the pilots to practice, but there’s also the potential for damage. During the years I competed, I never had to disassemble my airplane. We were extremely fortunate to be able to lease a USAF C-5/A Galaxy, the only airplane in which we can put our aerobatic airplanes without taking the wings off. This was thanks to a wonderful gentleman named Paul Erdman, who has since passed away. When we lost Paul, we also lost the C-5/A.
Putting 10 competition airplanes on the C-5/A was always exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. In earlier days when most of us flew the little Pitts biplane, it was pretty easy to push them straight on and strap them down for the flight over the Pond. When we started flying monoplanes, the wingspan and length of airplanes made it more difficult. We had to take off rudders and spinners, wheel pants and occasionally the prop, then push the airplanes up the big C-5 ramp sideways, with barely inches of clearance on either side of the wings. I’ve helped load airplanes onto a C-5 many times for international competitions and to perform at airshows in Hawaii, and as edgy as it is, I’ve seen very little damage to any of the aircraft we’ve loaded.
We also rode along in the C-5, usually to Ramstein AFB in Germany, from where we’d launch to our various destinations. One of the best views I’ve ever seen is looking down into the cargo hold from the upper deck and seeing my airplane cross the Pacific. This always led me to wonder, what if I pushed the airplane out the door in flight? Would it tumble or…? Normally, the flights went off without too much trouble, but there was the year when the C-5/A broke down on the way home and made a precautionary landing at Frankfurt/Rhine-Main. Most of the Team had to go back to work, leaving three pilots—myself and two others—to escort the airplanes back to the U.S. As we waited in our hotel for word that the big cargo jet had been fixed, the Captain visited us early one morning, informing us that we had to unload all 10 of our planes. His crew had been called out to an unnamed location in the Middle East. The three of us, with help from ground crew, unloaded our airplanes, put them in hangars and then waited for a week to get word that we could reload them and fly home. I digress! There isn’t nearly enough room here for the whole saga, so I’ll save it for another time.
Competitors, who arrive in the country up to two weeks prior to the contest, train at suitable training sites provided for by the Host country. The training sessions are always more fun than the actual contest. The camaraderie of getting together as a Team—pilots, family members, Team manager and mechanic—and getting to know our local hosts are really what make the experience so memorable. Once everyone arrives at the contest site, the Team starts getting wound tighter as things get more serious.
Aerobatics is a very physical and tactile sport. It involves sight, sound, touch and feel, and a never-ending conditioning process for G tolerance. When pilots are in top shape, even more than one day away from flying can have a detrimental effect on their ability to work the split-second timing; they need to be at the top of their game. On the other hand, there’s the temptation of over-training, and I’ve seen exhausted pilots peak before the contest, so there’s a balance to be maintained. We’re also in danger of wearing out our airplane’s engines in addition to our own, and our Team mechanics carry spare cylinders with them, just in case.
There are so many variables to doing well at the two-week-long World Championships. The weather is constantly changing, perhaps giving you or your competitor an advantage. There are other variables, too—what order of flight we draw, mechanical issues with airplanes, conditions of the day—so there’s always some luck involved. I competed on six U.S. Aerobatic Teams, and while I would have loved to have won first place overall, my more realistic goal was to be in the top 10.
In 1996, my last year on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, I was lucky enough to win the first Charlie Hillard Trophy, awarded to the highest-scoring American pilot. Charlie, a former World Aerobatic Champion (and one of only two Americans to have won it), had sadly died just a few months prior, and his wife Doreen was on hand to give this first trophy in his honor.
I was to fly my third and final flight of the contest, which would then decide my placing, and it was particularly difficult because I had sat on the ground for an entire week waiting for the weather to improve. This also put me at a distinct disadvantage over other closest competitors who had already flown. It took everything I had to do well, but I have to admit, I had a little help from Charlie. As I taxied out for the flight in still-marginal weather, I strongly felt Charlie’s presence in the cockpit with me. He was telling me to go for it and that I could do it. It was more than a feeling—it was an awareness that he was flying with me. Thanks, Charlie. I became the highest-scoring U.S. pilot that year, and Doreen presented me with the beautiful trophy.
This year, the U.S. Team consisting of pilots Rob Holland, Brett Hunter, Jeff Boerboon, Goody Thomas, Mike Gallaway, Mark Nowosielski and Melissa Pemberton, flew under the guidance of former World Aerobatic Champion Coco Bessiere. Coco is well known in coaching circles for having guided the French Aerobatic Team to victory several times. Our dedicated Team flew extremely well, and as usual at these long contests, had some good luck and some bad luck, and brought home their fair share of hardware!
Team pilots make great personal sacrifices to get to the top and to stay there. To do well in any sport takes personal sacrifice—constant and consistent training, a willingness to be critiqued, a belief in yourself and an ability to control your emotions when entering the “aerobatic box.” I found this quote from Aude Lemordant, who came in sixth overall at this year’s WAC and was also the top-scoring female pilot: “Unfortunately, luck (or not) is a big issue in aerobatics (weather, flight order), so better not focus on the results!” These are wise words from a top competitor. But it’s harder said than done with so much at stake.
At the end of the contest, when the pilots start packing their airplanes up, and after weeks of training and competing, the feeling is akin to breaking up the crew of a movie set. The makeshift family goes their own ways. It’s a little lonely, perhaps depressing, but in a week or two, everyone will be talking about Team Selection and looking forward to the next WAC.
I claim to be a terrible spectator as it’s very hard not to jump in the ring when I go to a contest, but competing or not, I’m definitely planning on being in South Africa for WAC 2017 to watch the best flying in the world.
Why not plan to be there too? It’s a great excuse to plan a safari! Whatever you decide, the U.S. Aerobatic Team needs your support—so when you see their ads asking for a little help, give them some or give them a lot. And remember, it’s not too early to mark WAC 2017 on your calendar.