In this article I’ll try to describe as palpably as I can, both the physical and mental aspects of flying a competition sequence.
I’ve been building up to this point in my previous articles by describing the history of competition aerobatics and explaining the difference between airshows and competition flying. I’ve also discussed how aerobatics are judged, as well as the all-important mental preparation required for competition.
But before I take you further − a caution and a disclaimer!
First the caution…
If you’ve been schooled in aviation the way that I was, you may not enjoy this article. I, like most pilots, was taught that airplanes must be handled with due care, and that a competent pilot will always be smooth and gentle on the controls, resulting in comfortable, controlled and fluid flight.
Well, there’s very little that is smooth, comfortable or gentle about advanced or unlimited competition aerobatics. If my early instructors and mentors saw the way I fly a carbon-winged monoplane in competition, I’m sure that they’d shake their heads in disgust.
And now the disclaimer…
These aircraft are designed to be flown in the way I describe here. In fact, their great strength, controllability and power combine to enable this type of flight. It’s fair to say that it is the progress in aircraft technology that has ushered in this new, more precise and yes, more violent style of aerobatics. The machines can definitely handle the abuse; I’m not so sure about all pilots. Let’s get to the flying now.
It’s fair to say that it is the progress in aircraft technology that has ushered in this new, more precise and yes, more violent style of aerobatics.
A competition flight is preceded by “warm-up” figures, these are two or three very simple pre-set figures designed to achieve several objectives.
The first is to assess the serviceability of the aircraft − to ensure that it runs inverted, that seatbelts are tight, and that there are no loose items in the cockpit.
The second is to allow the pilot to assess wind drift at altitude, and finally to test the physical resilience or G fitness of the pilot, because it may have been several days since a pilot has flown aerobatics.
These figures are not judged, but are still worth flying accurately as they contribute towards creating an overall positive impression on judges.
The all important “wing wag”
After the warm-up figures I dive into the box from between 3000’ and 3800’AGL (depending on the demands of the sequence) and level off between 1100’ and 1500’. I dare not forget to “wing wag” or rock the wings three times during my steep, full-power dive. This signals to the judges that you’re about to commence your flight. Forget this and you won’t be scored.
The sequence begins
Just before centre box, at just one or two knots under maximum speed (VNE), I start with a hard pull into the vertical, and wow, I’m still way to wound up! I know this because as I pulled, I felt a slight buffet, the onset of a high-speed stall − a sure sign that I’m too tense. A quick glance at the G metre confirms this. It was a 10G pull, and I’ve got to relax.
Now I focus hard on holding the perfect vertical by aligning the sight gauge attached to the wing tip on the horizon.
Going in hard
A quick count to three and then with feet locked hard on the rudder, I smash (yes, smash) in full aileron for a quarter roll in the vertical! If you don’t have bruises on the insides of your legs from the stick hitting into you hard, then you simply aren’t flying hard enough.
A quick count of two and again, smash in aileron, and almost immediately stop it hard after a 90° rotation to complete a ‘two-of-four’ vertical hesitation roll.
Now as the airplane slows down, I need to feed in right rudder to counter the prop torque. I’m too fast and I’m aware that the line after the roll will be too long and the figure unbalanced. I’ll lose points for this.
I should have waited a bit longer before I started the roll. To correct it, I quickly pull back the power a bit, and then smoothly add it on again to ensure that I have full prop wash for the stall turn at the top. As my speed falls to zero, I kick in full left rudder, nearly full right aileron and a touch of forward stick as I pivot around.
I’m no longer tense and after the first figure, I already feel that this is going to be a high-scoring flight as long as I don’t mess up.
Now facing straight down, I take a quick look at the wing tip sight gauge to ensure I’m perfectly vertical. Then looking over the nose straight down at the ground, a count of three and, at about 90 knots and accelerating fast, I pull back on the stick as hard and fast as I can with two hands. At almost the same time, I smash in the right rudder. (We change rudder cables once a year in an Extra!)
Then immediately, it’s nearly full forward stick to unload the half-flick roll in the vertical down line. It’s over very quickly, much like switching a light on and off. You rely on cadence and feel to get the plane to stop perfectly.
I hold the vertical line count to two and pull out of the dive smiling as I happily note that visibility is excellent. There’s a crisp clear horizon, which bodes well for accurate geometry. I’m no longer tense and after the first figure, I already feel that this is going to be a high-scoring flight as long as I don’t mess up.
There are figures that are very complex and technically difficult to fly, while others are physically painful to accomplish or are challenging to keep in the box. And then there are those figures that combine all three of these challenges.
I have one of those monster figures coming up in the next 30 seconds and I can only really enjoy the flight when I get past it.
But I can’t worry about that now. I need to focus entirely on what I’m doing at this moment: a quick glance at the sequence card and I quickly smash in the aileron for a four-point hesitation roll. I’m in full flow.