What is Aerobatics?
There are dozens of different classes, sub-classes, categories and sub-categories of aerobatics, encompassing all types of pilots in all sorts of lightweight aircraft. But one thing remains constant – it’s one of the most exciting, adrenaline-fuelled sports out there, and every week it attracts vast numbers of fans to airfields all over the world.
Rather sensibly, aerobatics is described as: ‘flight routines or manoeuvres at unusual angles in respect to the horizon that aren’t performed by pilots in the course of normal flight operations.’
While this is technically true, the mind-blowing low-level routines performed the world over by exceptionally talented pilots involve much more than unusual angles! Aerobatics is a graceful and highly-competitive spectator sport which takes years to master, and is considered the zenith of artistic expression in the sky.
The flights can be performed solo, in pairs or as part of a team. Perhaps the most famous aerobatics team in the world is the RAFs own Red Arrows, who have been performing around the globe for fifty years. However it’s performed, it is the ultimate thrill ride for performers and viewers alike!
The Early History of Aerobatics
Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first 37-metre flight at 10.35am on December 17, 1903 – a distance just over half that of the wingspan of a new Boeing 747-400. Ever since, fixed-wing aircraft have been a realistic means of travel. The limits of what aircraft can do has been constantly pushed, but where speed increased exponentially as technology advanced, the real test was of manoeuvrability.
During the 1910s and 1920s, state and county fairs were the breeding ground for this new troop of American and European showmen. They performed to paying audiences who soon tired of seeing the same manoeuvres, so their stunts got increasingly dramatic. The scarier the better, or so it seemed.
One of the first men to embrace aerobatics was Lincoln Beachey, known as the father of aerobatics, the man who owns the sky’ and the ‘Master Birdman. Initially, his feats were dismissed by none other than Orville Wright as mere optical illusions but his doubters, of which there were many, were soon converted during his barnstorming 1914 tour of 126 US cities in which he wowed an astonishing 17 million people in his plane ‘Little Looper’. This was even more incredible given the fact that the US population at that time was only around 90 million.He invented the Figure 8 and the vertical drop, and was the first pilot to achieve terminal velocity by pointing his plane straight down at the ground. In 1914, Beachey mock dive-bombed the White House and the Capitol Building to prove that the government was woefully ill-prepared for such an attack, should one ever happen.
His signature move was the ‘Death Dip’, in which he flew to 5,000 feet, turned off the engine and plummeted straight down to the ground, pulling up at literally the last second. Sometimes he’d add to the death-defying nature of the stunt by flying under telegraph wires or between trees.
Latterly, Wright was full of praise for Beachey’s flying prowess, and even managed to turn Thomas Edison and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg into fans!
At the same time, another American, Walter Brookins was wowing audiences with spiral dives and 90° banked turns (preceding the invention of ailerons). But with stunts getting wilder, more complex and by definition more dangerous, the structural capability of these early planes simply couldn’t keep up. In a six-week period in 1910, three of the most famous aviators of the day – Ralph Johnstone, Arch Hoxsey and John Moisant – died when their airframes collapsed pulling out of steep dives. The press blamed Beachey, suggesting that pilots were trying to keep up with his undoubted skill. They went even further, as any fatal accident was eventually dubbed ‘pulling a Beachey’. It hit him so hard that he went into temporary retirement in 1912 – for three months.
The looping craze was credited with bringing Beachey out of his self-imposed retirement, and soon he was back on the road – or in the skies – performing loops, barrel rolls and spiral dives, while also earning a fortune. He charged $500 for the first loop and $200 for each subsequent loop, and was earning $4,000 – $5,000 per week in 1914 (when average weekly wages were no more than $5).
He died in front of 250,000 people at the Panama-Pacific International Expo in March 1915, when he failed to notice he was only 600m above San Francisco Bay. While undertaking the first public display of inverted flight, the rear spars of the wings strained and snapped, sending him and the plane plummeting into the bay. He survived the crash itself, but quickly drowned.
While aerobatics was the exclusive domain of the Americans and Europeans, the Russians entered the game by way of Petr Nikolaevich Nesterov. Although he invented the loop, his aerobatics career was short-lived.
During the first months of the First World War, he tried to destroy a German plane with his landing gear but misjudged his position and rammed the Luftwaffe plane head-on. He was consigned to history as one of the first fighter pilot heroes.As the war increasingly took battle to the skies, the death-defying aerobatic stunts being performed week in, week out for entertainment became lifesaving manoeuvres on both sides of the battle. Highly-skilled German pilot Max Immelmann gave his name to the eponymous turn and, in one way, aerobatics as a sport was validated by the fact that it was so useful in the theatre of war.
When the war was over, hundreds of airmen realised they had nowhere to fly. To this end, the air show was hurriedly reinstated and the first large-scale international competition was held in Zurich, Switzerland in 1927. It was after this show that aerobatics became ostensibly the sport we know today, in that it was regulated with rules and standards.
The Sport Evolves
Over the next two decades, the sport of aerobatics evolved as planes got faster and more manoeuvrable. Increasingly, pilots found they had to create more and more extreme stunts for their hungry audience.
Just as the aerobatics world thought that every conceivable trick had been invented, the Czechs invented a manoeuvre called the ‘lomcovak’. To try and describe it here would be doing it a disservice, but suffice to say that it is a complex series of gyroscopic twists and somersaults during which the plane rotates through all three axes. It’s widely considered to be the most spectacular of them all.
Despite this European innovation, by the 1960s world-class aerobatics again became almost exclusively American. Legendary flyer Duane Cole was at the forefront of the movement, winning the inaugural US National Aerobatics Championships.
The sixties also saw the introduction of the Aresti Catalogue, a document which enumerates the various aerobatic manoeuvres and describes them diagrammatically using lines, arrows, geometric shapes and numbers, representing the exact way a manoeuvre is to be flown. It was designed by flamboyant Spanish aviator Colonel José Luis Aresti Aguirre, and classifies aerobatic manoeuvres into numbered ‘families’, thus:The ‘Sistema Aresti’ was adopted and evolved into the FAI Aerobatic Catalogue – the last word on the standardisation of aerobatics.
In 1961, a dictionary of every defined aerobatic manoeuvre – around 3,000 – was published. Today, that list has grown to over 15,000, as pilots continue to shift the parameters of what’s possible.
Fast forward to today, and while the classic aerobatic manoeuvres have remained essentially the same for years – Loop, Hammerhead, Immelmann, Roll, (Half and Reverse Half) Cuban Eight, Lazy Eight, Tailslide, Wingover – the focus is on the accuracy of the performance. Perfect circles and figures of eight have overtaken the need to cheat death every time a pilot goes up.
In the US alone, more than 25 million people visit air shows each year and it has become one of the country’s top three spectator sports (behind Major League Baseball and NASCAR). However, it’s also the most dangerous – several pilots are killed every year due to either human error or technical malfunction.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the world governing body for all air sports, and they have a specific division dedicated to aerobatics called the Commission Internationale de Voltige Aerienne (or ‘aerobatics commission’). In addition, each country has their own association, responsible for the scheduling and running of aerobatics events for both powered aircraft and gliders according to FAI rules and regulations.In the UK, the British Aerobatic Association is the national governing body (responsible to the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain) and they run around 15-20 events a year. In America, the International Aerobatic Club has over 40 regional chapters and thousands of members spanning the entire US (and parts of Canada). It’sthe largest club of its kind in the world.
In August 2015, sixty of the world’s best aerobatic pilots will come together for the biennial 28th FAI World Aerobatics Championships in Châteauroux-Déols, France. Recent winners in the Unlimited category include Frenchmen Francois Le Vot and Renaud Ecalle (who did the ‘double’ in 2009 of Unlimited and Freestyle), Russians Mikhail Mamistov and Sergey Rakhmanin (each of whom have won it twice), and Spaniard Ramón Alonso.
While history suggests that the early pioneers of aerobatics – Beachey, Brookins, Immelmann, Curtis Pitts and Betty Skelton – were brave daredevils who disregarded safety in favour of pleasing a baying crowd, today’s pilots are highly skilled, vastly experienced, and understand physics, aerodynamics, performance characteristics and the limitations of their planes.
As technology, materials and mechanics continue to evolve and improve alongside aircraft capability, today’s pioneers take advantage of those improvements, inventing new manoeuvres with precision, skill and above all, talent.