Smoke On Go

Tried, tested and definitely found wanting

My fellow teammates – Barrie and Tristan Eeles – and I are still trying to figure out exactly what happened at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships held in Las Vegas, Nevada last month.

By Elton Bondi

I think we are getting closer to understanding a few important things about the way we train and fly competition aerobatics in South Africa that may have to change if we hope to be globally competitive in future.

The international field started with around 60 entrants but, as inevitably happens, the field was whittled down a little as one or two contestants were disqualified or withdrew along the way. The South African contingent ended the competition hovering around midfield, placing 24th, 25th and 33rd– not at all what we were hoping for. So, what went wrong?

Of the three members who made up the 2023 SA team, one was a rookie and, for his first international, he did very well by any standards, a rising star for sure! But us two other members were relatively seasoned campaigners and ought to have placed higher. 

The quandary

For several years, all members of our three-man team have consistently scored in the upper seventies and low eighties at all local regional and national contests. So how was it that we ended up scoring high sixties and low seventies at the world championships? Is aerobatics so different overseas?

We all accept that judging in this sport can be subjective, but a 10% variance between our local and international score is significant. How can this be when many of our local judges are internationally acclaimed? It was certainly not due to any deficit in our local judging.

It is understandable that judging is always harsher at a world championship. In addition, the mental pressure is significantly greater than at a local contest, so it is possible, even likely, that you will not fly as well as you normally do at home. But still, a 10% variance off our norm is huge – why? 

None of us “zeroed” a figure or received a penalty for some infraction of the rules, such as flying too low. This meant our relatively low scores reflected the quality of our flying and not some or other mistake. Moreover, it is notable that in a field of 60, we all placed within nine positions of each other, indicating our flying has something common.

I wish we could blame the aircraft, the conditions or any other extraneous factors outside of our control, but I can’t. We all flew wonderful airplanes and had some great flying weather.

The gameplan

Before we arrived in Las Vegas, we agreed that we would “self-isolate” and not focus on watching other competitors’ flying, nor would we become obsessed with “scoreboard watching”. We would simply stick to our game plan. All three of us have been flying and training together for several years, and we know each other’s flying strengths and weaknesses intimately. 

Our training and competition formula is very simple and effective (or at least we thought it was). We start every flight by briefing the sequence thoroughly beforehand and then, while each pilot flies his training flight, the other two team members provide a critique from the ground using a combination of a handheld radio and a voice recording. After landing, the two observing (or coaching) pilots both conduct a thorough debrief with the pilot who had just flown. The 30-minute debrief (for a mere 12-minute flight) comprises much attention to detail and copious notes being taken, with past notes being reviewed.

This training formula has won the three of us a number of victories at regional and national contests, and so we thought it ought to work at the world championships, too.

The good

After a few logistical and other “national security’”-related hiccups (story for another day) the team met up at Jean Airfield a few miles from the (in)famous Las Vegas strip. 

Jean is a dusty desert strip with a huge and very hot tar apron, two large parallel runways and pretty much nothing else, save for a humble sky diving clubhouse. No hangars, no tower, nothing. All we saw for miles around was empty desert, lots of cactus trees and tumble weed, a majestic mountain range, a large prison, a small courthouse and an abandoned and dilapidated casino hotel called Terribles. That was all. It was the perfect setting for a cowboy movie, where you could “do the crime (at the casino), get convicted and do the time” all within a two-mile radius.

But the rustic facilities were more than made up for by the great organisation and warm hospitality of the very capable Duncan Koerbel (contest director extraordinaire) and the entire American aerobatics community.

After a few days of hard practice, the South African team felt ready for the contest. We were used to the small quirks of our rented airplanes and our flying flaws had been worked out – we were bristling with confidence. 

Barrie, our most senior pilot, flew first and, as I watched him from behind the judging line, there was little with his flight I could fault – it was a cracker and it left me excited and confident for my flight. We were all anticipating a return to the halcyon days when the likes of Glen Dell, Patrick Davidson, Mark Hensman, Nigel Hopkins and Mark Sampson once flew our colours high in the international aerobatics arena.

Next, our junior rookie Tristan flew another scorcher of a performance. By now we were all feeling really good and I was raring to go, as I was scheduled to fly much later. 

The bad

As I was preparing my aircraft for my first competition flight, my two fellow teammates approached to help me strap in. Without either of them saying a word I could tell that something was wrong, and I suspected it was their scores.  

“Scores posted?” I asked. “Forget about it, just fly your flight, we can chat when you land,” was the reply.

But I insisted on knowing how they did and, there and then, their reply blew the wind right out of my sails. I was told their scores were in the mid-low seventies. I watched both flights, they were almost faultless. I was flabbergasted; how could this be? In an instant I went from a confident campaigner raring to enter the gladiatorial ring, to someone about to face a firing squad. My teammates were right: I should not have known their scores before I took off. 

The rest of our flights continued like this – we all consistently scored in the low-seventies to high-sixties, without really understanding why. It was time to come out of our sworn mode of self-isolation and pay close attention to the top international stars. Despite knowing that regardless of what we saw there was no way we could change our flying styles mid contest. 

And in watching the top pilots we learnt some valuable lessons which can be summarised in four words – “shorter lines, faster rolls”.   

In South Africa we tend to dive into the aerobatics box at VNE (never exceed) speed and draw long vertical lines. Not so with the higher scoring international pilots. They tend to enter the box at a slower speed and draw shorter vertical lines, but they appear to roll much faster than we do – they have to, to get all the complex roll combinations into a shorter line. 

The same was true for their horizontal lines. I tend to draw longer lines to give myself a small mental break between figures. Not them – their entire sequence seems to be flown at a faster tempo.  

Another surprise was their use of throttle. Flying up here on the Reef there are only two throttle positions – full or idle (for spins). But at the Worlds the top pilots throttle back on all down lines, again making the entire sequence tighter, and they even throttle back on some of the uplines too!

The overall effect is a faster paced, but much more compact, sequence. Where we use the entire box, they contain their sequences to within just two-thirdsof the total box space. It looks much more controlled and yet, at the same time, very explosive.

The not so ugly

The contest was disrupted by three days of high wind, which was out of contest limits, so no flying could take place. This meant there was only enough time for the top 25 pilots to fly the final programme. I just missed this cut, thereby ending my campaign after flying only three programmes. My teammates were fortunately able to fly the last sequence.

While we were disappointed with the results, there were many lessons learnt and, as I admitted at the beginning of this article, we are still reflecting on what we saw and trying to figure out the important learnings.  

For me, there was one key rule I learnt back in 2009 at the SA Nationals in Potchefstroom, which I had forgotten for the 2023 world championship. This, I believe, accounted in part for my less than stellar performance.  

And that rule is: “Whenever you fly at any aerobatics contest, don’t compete with the other pilots, forget about them totally. The only competition is with yourself.” There is only the sequence card, the aeroplane, that 1,000m box marked on the ground and you – nothing else matters in those seven or eight intense minutes. Ignore the unfamiliar scenery, ignore the judges, ignore the competitors and ignore the scores. But I didn’t, and instead became overwhelmed by the gravitas of a world championship.

Although I was not happy with my performance, I do not regret going. It was a wonderful experience and the three good friends who made up our team became even closer.  

Would I go again? Yes, I believe I very well might.

It would be highly remiss (and perhaps even dangerous) for us to not acknowledge the Partners who support us in our passion for sport aerobatics and who kept things ticking over at home while we had fun drawing (overly long) vertical lines the desert skies of Nevada. We don’t take this for granted  – thank you!




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