Becoming an Aerobatics Pilot
If you like to fly, and are not scared of dying, being an aerobatic pilot may be the job for you. This type of flying is for those who seek proficiency, precision and control in their flight skills.
Stunt flying involves balancing the aircraft’s kinetic energy in air speed against its potential energy in altitude. If mishandled, this can overstress the physical limits of the plane and cause an upset, which could lead to disaster.
Aerobatics pilots must be adept at calculating and managing the amount of kinetic energy that goes into each maneuver. The goal is to maximize the stunt’s potential while minimizing its risk to both aircraft and pilot. A disproportionate increase in airspeed or G-load can overstress the plane’s structure and components, leading to structural failure and possibly death.
Aerobics pilots must also understand the roles of their airplane’s controls, with ailerons controlling bank/roll and rudder controlling yaw/side-slip. Pilots should know where to look for accurate visual information, as aerobatic maneuvers often involve unusual pitch attitudes and rapidly changing airspeeds.
A loop is one of the first aerobatic maneuvers fledgling pilots learn, but it requires a lot of skill to execute well. A poorly executed loop can result in a high-speed stall at the beginning, or an ungraceful fall out of the sky as the pilot runs out of speed at the top of the circle. A well-executed loop allows the pilot to achieve a g-load factor of close to 1 throughout the entire circle.
After you’ve mastered basic maneuvers, your instructor may introduce you to snap vertical and hesitation rolls, outside maneuvers, inverted or flat spins, or rolling circles. You’ll learn how to use the airplane’s pitch, rudder, and elevator controls to execute each one.
Once you master these maneuvers, you can fly a routine of “sky dance” movements in your own custom-built airplane during airshows and in competitive aerobatic competitions. The physical demands of the sport require a high level of piloting skill to perform spins, slides, rolls and loops along vertical as well as horizontal flight paths.
To achieve each maneuver, the pilot must balance the aircraft’s kinetic energy-the aircraft’s air speed-with its potential energy-its altitude. For example, to fly a perfect inside loop, the pilot must ensure that the entry and exit of the maneuver are at the same altitude. Pilots who do not follow this rule lose points from judges. The resulting score is a measure of the pilot’s performance.
If you enjoy frolicking in the sky and want to add discipline and structure, you may wish to pursue competition aerobatics. These contests allow you to fly a set of figures under the watchful eye of judges.
Pilots are placed in categories based on the level of difficulty of their aerobatic sequences. The category to which you are assigned defines the flight program that you will perform in competition. The higher the category, the more difficult the figures.
Aerobatics figures are grouped into sets called a “figure catalog” that are judged and graded according to fixed numeric scores. Using a notation system developed by Spanish aerobatic ace Colonel Jose Luis de Aresti, the figures are arranged into sets that are fanned out in order of increasing complexity.
The lowest of the categories is Primary, a level at which many pilots begin their competition career. A second level is Sportsman, a fun-flying category with simple figures that can be flown in nearly any airplane.
Aerobatics pilots must follow strict safety protocols to avoid dangerous mistakes and accidents. This includes undergoing rigorous training, maintaining a safe altitude, and performing a thorough pre-flight check of the aircraft. They also must know how to bail out if they become disoriented or otherwise incapacitated.
Despite these measures, airshow pilots still die in spectacular airplane crashes. One reason is that aspiring aerobatics pilots often fly their stunt planes at altitudes that are too low for the maneuver they’re performing. This is especially common in the UK, where a number of fatal aerobatics-related accidents have occurred in recent years.
Pilots can improve their safety odds by choosing a reputable aerobatic flight school and flying a well-maintained airplane. It’s also important to stay healthy and hydrated and avoid taking medications that may limit G-tolerance. Aspiring aerobatics pilots should never attempt a stunt that is beyond their experience level, and they should avoid flights in weather conditions that increase the risk of accidents.