Anyone who’s been to an airshow or aerobatic competition, may have seen participating pilots do what is called “the dance” before strapping into their airplane.
What is the dance?
It could be a solo dance, with the pilot pacing up and down energetically next to the aircraft, with hands gesticulating wildly. He looks a little like a demented break-dancer. Or it could be a team dance. Here, the flight leader walks through the upcoming display, pacing around an imaginary mini airfield often marked with stones on the ground. He is dutifully followed by the wingmen, who resemble a cute gaggle of ducklings.
The French Airforce jet team (the famous Patrouille de France) have an unusual preparation style. Team members sit on chairs in a circle. The flight leader stands in the middle and quietly recites a series of simple radio calls, (gear up, left turn, pitching, etc). The team sits with eyes closed, I assume visualising their specific flight trajectories with each call the leader makes. All this happens with classical music playing − possibly to ensure a rhythm and tempo. The wholes scene looks very much like a conductor with his orchestra. I’ve only seen this on video, so can’t judge if it’s showmanship or real mental preparation. Either way, it looks very impressive.
“Sports psychologists have recently written about the importance of detailed visualisation, and the more detailed the better.”
My first dance
I remember my first competition at Baragwanath Airfield FASY. I was flying a De Havilland Chipmunk in the Graduate Class and was parked on the flight line between a Zlin 50 and the first Extra 300L seen in South Africa. The pilots of these planes were seasoned campaigners flying in the Advanced Class. They were both furiously pacing up and down the flight line, making robotic movements with their hand. Occasionally they referred to the small sequence cards they held, trying to memorise their complex 14 figure sequences.
My graduate sequence that day comprised just four basic figures: a one-turn spin, a vanilla loop, a simple stall turn, and an aileron roll. You couldn’t forget such a simple sequence if you tried. There I was − parked between two hot shot aces − at my first real aerobatic contest.
Well, I thought I might as well look the part and at least go through the motions of being a bona fide competitor. And so I too began furiously walking through my four-figure sequence with earnest determination and much gusto. Everyone knew that I was play-acting the role of aerobatic pilot. The two aces gave me amused grins coupled with a few of the good-natured mocking comments so typical of sport aerobatic pilots the world over.
Why do pilots do this?
Even after performing this ritual regularly for the last 22 years, I still find diving into the aerobatic box for a competition flight or an airshow display exciting, and often also a little intimidating. There is no doubt that good mental preparation is critical. If done correctly, it will make the difference between winning and losing − and perhaps even more.
There are several objectives when mentally preparing for a flight. The first is to ensure that you know the sequence perfectly. A pilot needs to be able to rattle off all the figures very quickly without a second’s hesitation. If you can’t get it right on the ground, there’s little chance you’ll know what to do in the air. Due to the intense focus required and the immense sensory overload, thinking capacity is reduced during an aerobatic flight. This makes it so easy to forget the sequence. Everything must be second nature, and detailed mental preparation is crucial.
“… you need to have all scenarios and contingencies carefully thought through.”
But do you really need to dance around just to memorise the figures? Yes, because here’s another consideration − positioning. It’s not good enough to merely know what figures need to fly, you must also understand precisely where each figure is to be placed in the aerobatic or display box. Moreover, you need to have all scenarios and contingencies carefully thought through.
For example, what if the wind blows the aircraft too close to the judges or crowd line, what will you do to correct it? Rolling left or right in a cross-box manoeuvre could be a solution, but this can be immensely confusing to figure out in the heat of the moment. This is why pilots dance around an imaginary box to orientate their position.
A different dance for every pilot
I’ve been fortunate enough to train with a few world champions, and while all of them will do the dance when they visualise their flights, they each do it slightly differently. One pilot may imagine his entire flight from an external judge’s perspective, while another pictures it from the in-cockpit pilot’s perspective. Others prefer to sit in their cockpits with hands on throttle and stick, and eyes closed as they hand-fly their routine while on the ground.
The key to success
Sports psychologists have recently written about the importance of detailed visualisation, and the more detailed the better. Perhaps because of the physical nature of flying, aerobatics pilots have been doing this for decades. But it’s more than just a cognitive and procedural exercise as there’s an emotional element too. A seasoned competitor will use “the dance” to attain the ideal emotional state. This is where you are relaxed yet alert, calm yet excited, slightly anxious yet confident, but never blasé, arrogant or scared. It’s a delicate balance and when you get it just right, it’s quite intoxicating.