Welcome to Get Into Aeros 2021, British Aerobatics’ beginner event of the year, in which 10 private pilots are welcomed to Sleap airfield, Shropshire, UK, and are taught the Club Known sequence (pictured right), and perform in front of the finest judges in aerobatics.
I had arrived at the apparently sleepy airfield deep in the English countryside the evening before the event, and pitched my tent in the drizzle. Appearances can be deceiving however. In daylight hours, a myriad of vintage and aerobatic types are ready to play in the Shropshire skies.
It had been quite the journey to get here. Selected after a written application process, this was my first flight in nine months (save for a one-hour refresher) after temporarily losing my Class 2 medical in 2020.
With two flights scheduled for each competitor, I flew the Pitts S2A for my morning training flight; the performance flight would come in the afternoon. A type unlike anything I’d flown before, I was ecstatic to write this into my logbook.
Strapping back into the Pitts for my performance flight, there was a subtle engine vibration on startup, more than usual. Shutting the engine down, I felt my day was over. Whilst I was grateful for the opportunity to learn the sequence in the morning, I was disappointed not to have feedback on my performance. A cracked spark plug had thwarted my opportunity to perform for the judges.
That was until I met my saviour, taking the form of G-IILX, an Extra 330LX. Strapping the Extra to my back, the last of the day, I contemplated that saying, “strapping the plane to you”. Sitting half lying down in the Extra’s bucket seat, I had a newfound understanding of this adage.
Lining up on runway 05, my instructor firewalled the 315 hp, 6-cylinder Lycoming IO-580, and I was thrust backwards into the moulded seat, becoming ever cosier with the contours of my new “home”. Just seconds after the throttle lever had reached its forward limit, my ears were popping as the altimeter wound through 2-, 3-, 400ft, the airspeed still increasing.
Moving swiftly onto relearning the sequence, we started with aileron rolls. This Extra has a maximum roll rate of 420°/s. Given a Eurofighter Typhoon tops out at 270°/s, safe to say I had no intention of reaching anywhere near the control stops. Yet even with slight side pressure to the stick, the aircraft snapped over, the roll only halting at wings level from sheer luck, with my senses unable to compute the speed with which I was spiraling across the English countryside.
Somehow satisfied with my capability in rolls, my instructor moved me to loops, briefing me that only light aft pressure is needed to initiate the loop.
Nudging the stick an inch aft, the nose ripped through the horizon, the g-meter topping out at 5.5g.
“That was a bit heavy” my instructor informed me from the back. I had to agree.
Running through Half Cubans, hammerheads (or stall turns as we Brits call them), and competition turns, my 10 minutes of practice had come to an end all too quickly and it was time to perform in the box.
“You ready?” asked my instructor.
“Absolutely not” I piped up from the front.
“Good stuff, I’ll fly you to the box. You relax and I’ll pass over when the box is yours”.
Feeling very unrelaxed, and in the time warp of adrenalin-fueled nerves, the command soon came over the frequency:
“Pilot Karmel in Golf Lima X-Ray, the box is yours”.
To this day, this still gives me goosebumps. I’d heard this, playing flight simulator missions as a child. Now I was 2,000ft above the countryside in a piston-powered rocket with wings being given the box for real.
So. Back to it. Showtime.
Banking into the first of the three “waves” to show the judges that I was starting the routine, I entered a state of complete focus, like a sprinter waiting in the starting blocks.
Pitching 20 degrees nose down to build the energy before the first manoeuvre I was ready for the loop.
Gently twitching the stick back, 3.5g pushes me into the seat. I subtly relieve back pressure at the top of the loop to ensure a perfect “sky circle” is drawn, the nose gradually dropping back through the horizon and I re-tense my muscles for the bottom of the loop.
I move to initiate the next manoeuvre, the Half Cuban, as early as possible, rushing to finish the sequence quickly. My instructor however, reassures me to position myself on the other side of the box to set up the remaining manoeuvres in the routine.
A six second wait traversing the box feels like six minutes. I’m ready to pull into the Half Cuban and lifting the nose through the horizon, I’m making accurate shapes for the judges. Entering the downline however, I lose situational awareness hanging upside down, and halt the pull too soon.
Rolling sunny-side up, I knew the pitch change required to level off was far too small. I was trying to forget this error, yet it continued to gnaw away at me as I crossed the box once more. I clenched the stick in frustration.
At least I had the stall turn next. I had practised this some years ago, as an Air Cadet flying the Grob Tutor. Not to say I flew these stall turns with any accuracy or finesse, but nevertheless, this was a familiar manoeuvre. The Extra’s symmetrical aerofoil is designed such that there is no trim change with speed, making stall turns considerably easier than in the Tutor.
Pulling into the vertical I cocked my head left to observe the aerobatic sight on the wingtip hold the 90° up-line. On my instructor’s mark, I booted the rudder left, giving a few inches of opposite aileron deflection and gently altering the pitch to force the nose through the same point on the horizon that the wingtip had just left.
Into the downline now. The temptation to pull up straight away and reset the familiar straight-and-level picture is immense. Forcing myself to hold the downline I verbalise, “1, 2, 3, UP!”, tensing my legs whilst pulling through a 3g recovery to a straight & level attitude.
A solid manoeuvre, much better than the Half Cuban. I’m back on track.
Next up, the competition turn, a deceptively unfamiliar manoeuvre, not like the coordinated PPL steep turns. An uncoordinated roll to minimum 60° bank is flown, continuing to track straight, before pulling to sustain a constant rate level turn.
With the relief of completing the stall turn I let my guard down and fly an elegant “PPL turn” at a gentle 50° AoB. Great in my skills test, not so great for competition.
Rolling out of the competition turn for my final trip across the box, I wait until I’m opposite the judges and audience, before giving a bump of aft stick and slapping the stick left.
Rolling out bang on wings level, this was better than any roll I’d performed in training. Content with this last manoeuvre, I still can’t relax just yet. I need to finish off with 3 wing rocks. Exhausted from the last 120 seconds’ concentration, I give three tired tip-overs to the judges and then it’s all over.
My instructor relieves me of the controls and I feel the pressure fall away. My performance is done. I’d left it all in the box. Lots to improve upon but plenty to be happy with.
Back on the ground, I step out of the bubble canopy and shuffle down the wing onto the grass. With a big sigh of relief, I shake hands with my instructor and it’s straight to the aero club garden for the results.
Still recovering from the flight, I’m shocked to hear my name read out at the top of the list – I’d come in first position! As if this flight hadn’t been memorable enough, I’d just won my first ever aerobatics competition, my second flight in nine months! Maybe I should fly less – it seems to make my aeros better…
With feedback from the judges, there was lots to take into subsequent performances, but at this point it didn’t matter to me! I was thrilled to have scored 80.8% on my routine, and to have won Get Into Aeros 2021.
Driving home that evening I could feel I’d been bitten. The aerobatics bug had embedded itself in me, and I was certain that this was not going to be my last visit to an aerobatics event.
- Beginner’s Luck: Winning my first aerobatics competition - April 3, 2023