My First Aerobatic Competition

My First Aerobatic Competition

By Karl Gashler, EAA 881671,  IAC 438689

I just got back from my first aerobatic contest, the Hammerhead Roundup in Borrego Springs, California. I would like to describe what a contest is like from the perspective of a new guy. Until recently, I knew nothing about the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) or how to get involved in competition aerobatics. Are you like me? If so, I hope this is helpful.

Beginnings

I flew my Van’s RV-8 to Oshkosh last year and happened to stumble upon Ron Schreck’s RV aerobatics presentation at the IAC building. I was awestruck. For the first time I realized that it is actually possible to compete in the RV and to join the ranks of some of the most talented pilots in the world.

Preparation

I joined IAC for free for six months, bought a parachute, installed an inverted oil system, and fabricated a simple canopy quick release. Then I jumped in with both feet.

With my new member card in hand, I logged onto the IAC website and read everything I could find. I also searched for old posts on the topic on the Van’s Air Force website, and then introduced myself to some RV aerobatics experts to ask questions (thanks guys for your patience!) Of course, I also got in touch with my local IAC chapter to get on their radar.

Then knowing that progress needs a goal, I signed up for the Hammerhead Roundup and circled the dates on my calendar.

Practice

The Aresti symbols looked like Chinese to me, so I found a very informative video series online called “The Aerobatic Textbook” put out by IAC Chapter 34. Then I downloaded the Sportsman Known Sequence from the IAC website and used the videos to figure out the sequence. I did order the latest Aresti catalog online, but it had not arrived by the time I was ready to compete.

I need to mention my training background. I flew lots of aerobatics in the Air Force. From my past life, I generally knew how to do everything in the Sportsman category except for a competition style slow roll and a hammerhead. I also needed work on precise lines, timing, and crisp rolls. For all this, I read articles and books, watched videos, and then taught myself. I do not recommend this approach for everyone! Get coaching and instruction if you haven’t been around aerobatics already. Really. In fact, now that I’ve flown a contest I see the need to attend an aerobatic training camp or two simply because there’s no substitute for having a coach on the ground giving real-time pointers.

My sighting device — made from window tint film — on the canopy, with the Salton Sea in the background.

Off the soap box. The next big thing for me to figure out was how to stay inside the aerobatic box: 1 kilometer square by 2,000 feet vertical (1,500 to 3,500 feet AGL). It’s not easy, but it’s a fun energy management and strategy challenge. Add a stiff wind and it gets downright silly for the uninitiated. First I learned to laugh at myself, and second I learned everything I could about energy management in the Van’s RV-8. I no longer look at it as just a box. I now see it as a chess board.

With the figures learned and the box tamed, I set out to practice the sequence as much as possible. I spent the last month flying once or twice a day for 20 minutes at a time. I would bang out three or four sequences per flight, shooting video and taking notes on each flight.

Arrival

My RV-8 on the flightline at Borrego Valley Airport (L08) near San Diego.

Landing in Borrego Springs, I felt like a kid going to his first day of school in a new town. I really didn’t know what to expect. And here is the main point I want to get across: it’s no big deal! I met some of the most inviting, friendly, and supportive people I’ve ever flown with. From organizers to judges to contestants, everyone was an absolute pleasure to be around. They even assigned a mentor to show me the ropes. Mike Mohn, EAA 1042628 and IAC 435530, volunteered for the job and went out of his way to teach me how to go about this new competition thing. What a great guy!

All you have to do is take the first step. Show up and introduce yourself and then you’re “in” — just like that. I told everyone that I am new and would have many questions. Answers and advice flowed freely, and I soaked up more in three days than I had in three months prior.

The Contest

In line, waiting my turn.

I was immediately impressed with how organized everything is. An IAC sanctioned contest is the real deal! Everything is official, organized, deliberate, and run according to the rule book. This is definitely not a bunch of guys showing up to informally flop around in the sky. To me it felt like a college track meet, and operated with the same clockwork precision.

Pilots compete in different categories: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Our RVs can compete well in Primary and Sportsman, and Intermediate too with some skill and the right equipment. The only reason I decided to go for Sportsman on my first contest was that it looked like more fun. Otherwise, Primary is a very reasonable starting point.

This guy is the very picture of dedication. Kentaro flew all the way out here from Fukuoka, Japan, just to fly in his first Sportsman contest. After I met him, I knew I had no more excuses — ever.

In Sportsman there’s the option to fly all “known” sequences, or you can add a “free” sequence of your own design. As the new guy, I decided to keep it simple and just fly three known sequences in a row. I flew the Sportsman Known twice on the first day, and once on the last day. I flew Sportsman with an Extra 300, a Christen Eagle, three Super Decathlons, and a Great Lakes. Each flight was judged by a panel of five judges, who were each accompanied by an assistant and recorder.

Everyone is a volunteer — the contest cannot run without full participation from all the pilots. When not in the lineup to fly, I had the privilege of being a recorder. This was an excellent education. Between sequences, the judge took time to explain the finer points of aerobatics and what they were looking for. Of course, I took all this to heart to improve my own figures and presentation.

Awards and Rewards

IAC encourages contests to assign a mentor to new participants, and Mike Mohr (left) volunteered. Mike was a huge help and showed me the ropes every step of the way.

I placed third in the first two flights, and then came in first place on the final flight. I ended up with an overall second place in the Sportsman Final standings. I also got the Best First Time Sportsman Award and the Grass Roots Achievement Flight Medal.

Those were just the awards, but the real reward was being able to rub shoulders with some aerobatic legends and world-class pilots. I got to ask questions of the experts in a relaxing and fun atmosphere, and the whole time nobody treated me like an outsider. In fact, many people told me flat out that they want to see more RV pilots in the IAC. As we all know, there are thousands of RV pilots out there who just need a little nudge to join IAC and have some great aerobatic fun! Even if you’re not interested in competition, IAC is for people who may want to practice non-competitive “sport” aerobatics or who just want to be more capable pilots by learning more about the flight envelope of the RV.

I hope to see you at a future IAC contest. It’s a ton of fun!

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