Your preflight checks are complete. You’ve paced up and down near your aircraft − dancing the sequence umpteen times in your head, and you know it backwards.
Although you are super-focused on your upcoming flight, you’re also aware of another competitor’s aircraft growling and snapping overhead. You look up to assess how the winds at altitude are affecting him, noting the strong cross wind. It’s only a glance though, as you dare not become too engrossed in his flight and risk becoming distracted.
Your flight slot time is imminent, and the ramp boss signals that it’s time for you to strap in. You give him the thumbs up, but decide to wait just a few minutes longer. You don’t want to sit under the bubble canopy with its greenhouse effect in the hot sun, but nor do you want to be rushed, or even worse, keep the judges waiting. Four or five minutes more ought to be perfect timing.
You strap on your parachute and climb into the cockpit. As you settle into the seat, the harness buckle burns your leg. Wincing, you realise you pulled the canopy cover off too soon, exposing the cockpit to the sun. An amateur error! You haven’t begun exerting yourself, and already the sweat is streaming into your eyes. They start to sting from the combination of salt and sunscreen. You remind yourself to try another brand next time.
You try to convince yourself that this will be like any training flight, but it’s not, this is the real deal. You crank the harness ratchet tighter than usual. It hurts, but you know that you won’t feel this pain during the flight. You know you certainly will feel it if your harness is even a little loose in a -5 G push-out, so the tighter the better, suck it up.
Time to fire up. The engine is still warm from the ferry flight, and you’re hoping it’s not so hot that it causes the dreaded vapour lock that makes hot-starting a big Lycoming engine so challenging. An engine that won’t start is a distraction you don’t need right now. Fortunately, it fires first time and keeps running. This is good.
As you taxi out, fellow competitors standing around the apron give you the thumbs up. You wave back, sporting a sheepish smile. The previous competitor is finished and tunes back onto the airfield frequency for landing. Listening to him, you know he’s had a good flight. He’s slightly breathless, but overly confident with his radio calls.
The rule to fly by
You quickly remind yourself of a golden rule in competition aerobatics – forget about the other guy. The competition is always with yourself. You are striving for perfection. You will never achieve it, but you just have to be better than you were last time.
Engine run-up complete, you are ready to take-off. The previous competitor taxies past you, travelling way too fast − a combination of elation and adrenaline. He gives you a cocky “fly good; don’t suck!” over the radio. You don’t reply, and instead offer a wry grin. Game on!
You quickly remind yourself of a golden rule in competition aerobatics – forget about the other guy. The competition is always with yourself.
The Aresti mindset
As you line up for take-off, you remind yourself that for the next 12 or so minutes, until the wheels touch the ground again, you have to be in 100% “Aresti mode”. Aresti is more than a style of flying, it’s a mindset. Every control input has to be super crisp and precise, and foremost in your mind is presentation. How does the airplane appear to the judges?
Competition aerobatics is extreme precision flying. It’s all about geometry, timing and hard, accurate starts and stops to all rolls. If airshows were maths, they would be pure maths. My friend Pierre Gouws calls it “Kung Fu aerobatics”, while Barrie Eeles refers to it as “combat flying”. Both are accurate descriptions.
Things are about to become brutally honest. World-class judges will be scrutinising every movement of the airplane − there is nowhere to hide. You are either in the groove or not, and you’re just about to find out which applies to you.
In the zone
Slowly you open the throttle and release the brakes. Immediately your nerves settle. The engine noise and power give you confidence, and no matter how many years you’ve been doing this, the competition take-off is always a heady mix of nerves and confidence.
Climbing into the aerobatic box, you check temperatures and pressures, and ensure the aircraft is performing well in the climb. You also check the wind drift, and look around for prominent land marks that you’ll reference during your sequence.
And it begins…
A cocoon of focused isolation is forming around you, and you can sense a silencing of the mind. Your concentration bubble is broken for a moment as the Chief Judge calls you: “Delta Charlie Romeo, switch to box frequency and call over!” You switch frequencies and check in. The reply comes quickly: “Judges are ready for you, box is yours”
Your moment of truth is about to commence and it’s a good day for aerobatics.