Aerobatics started before the First World War. Some of it by mistake, such as Wilfred Parkes first successful, albeit unintentional recovery from a spin in 1912; and some of it gutsy adventurism, for example the brave Russian Nesterov who flew the first loop in 1913 in a fragile 70hp Nieuport.
The courage of these early aerobats has to be marveled at, the aircraft they used were barely airworthy. Flimsy wood and wire contraptions with unreliable powerplants. Many of did not even have ailerons, relying on ‘wing warping’ to bank. These machines would have been barely controllable, demanding great skill to simply get around the circuit safely, let alone aerobat.
It was only after the First World War that aircraft that were both strong enough, and sufficiently controllable to endure more serious aerobatics. The demands of air combat saw the evolution of the four basic aerobatic figures that form the foundation of all aerobatics today, namely – the spin, the loop, the roll and the stall turn. Add to these four just one more genre, namely gyroscopic maneuvering, and you pretty much have all modern base aerobatic base elements.
Coming out of WW1 was also a significant supply of relatively capable surplus military aircraft (and pilots) which, combined with a strong public allure for airplanes, fueled a romantic era of flight that is today referred to as the golden era of aviation during the 1920s and 30s.
Millions of people were quite literally enamored with famous pilots such as Curtiss, Doolittle, Udet, Fieseler, Detroyant, Colombo, Angelis, and others, who were all like modern day international rock stars.
The Americans favored air races with aerobatics being the fillers. The Europeans preferred aerobatic competitions, one even held as part of the Olympics. Spectators on both sides of the Atlantic flocked to these aerial pageants with a fanatic enthusiasm.
Early aerobatic contests were almost gladiatorial in nature and were more akin to airshows than competitions, prize money was large, and national prestige always at stake.
Competing aircraft were varied from 84hp primary trainers (Udets graceful Flamingo), to 500hp parasol wing fighters (Morane), and even a Naval biplane dive bomber (Curtiss) with its 700hp.
Competing pilots were as varied in character as the aircraft they flew, from ex-WW1 military pilots now turned barnstormers, to aristocratic European Counts, and a host other adventurers and showmen. Larger than life extroverts, if not somewhat eccentric characters.
Judging criteria were seldom consistent between contests, and never conducive to objective judgment. Unlike today, individual figures were not judged, but rather the entire flight or sequence. To win one had to pull off some spectacular flying in order to wow the crowd.
But was certainly some extraordinary flying; for example a trick of one pilot was to land his biplane in the three-point attitude, then after touchdown open up full power, drag the aircraft 50ft into the air, execute a full snap roll and then immediately throttle back and land. One pilot even performed what the history books record as a “spinning tailslide” – perhaps this was a torque roll?
Predictably during these interwar years there were many accidents, at one contest, there were three fatalities in just the first morning, but the show had to go on. As mentioned earlier, “gladiatorial” is a very apt term to describe these events.
After the Second World War three things happened that brought about significant changes to aerobatic competition, changes that together ushered in the modern era of sport aerobatics.
Firstly, aviation was no longer a novelty, the public was less enamored with airplanes, (for good reason having been bombed by them for the last 5 years). Airshows were nowhere near as popular as they were during the halcyon 1930s golden age. This meant that aerobatic competitions become less about subjective public showmanship, and very much more technical and objective.
Secondly, the war accelerated aircraft technology and performance. A new genre of purpose-built competition aircraft included the original Little Stinker Pitts S1, the elegant long wing Zlin acrobats, and the Soviet Yak 18 forerunner of the Yak 50.
And the third big change was a Spaniard Jose Aresti, an airforce pilot who in 1961 got the world to adopt his “Sistema Aerocryptographica” or aerobatics notation system. Aresti was not the first person to develop an aerobatic shorthand, but it was Aresti’s system that was, and still is, the universally accepted aerobatic notation.
This was an important advancement because the Aresti system categorized all aerobatic figures which meant that technical criteria could be set out for how each figure ought to be flown. For example, lines had to be perfectly vertical; rolls had to be placed precisely in the middle of a line; etc. It was no longer about impressing the crowd.
Hence aerobatics became very much more technical, less graceful, less artistic, more brutal, and a whole lot more objective. Not only is the original Aresti system still used, it is evolving.
I gratefully acknowledge Annette Carson’s brilliant 1986 publication “Fight Fantastic” as a source of much of this content.