Marty Flournoy explains the amount of power the propeller generates for his Extra 300, a two-seat aerobatic monoplane. Flournoy is competing in the U.S. Aerobatic Championships at North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field this week.
An airplane spinning and rolling in the sky may seem effortless to spectators, but each flight is a physical and mental challenge that aerobatic pilots willingly accept. The idea of delivering a precise performance is what keeps pilots coming back for more.
“I flew competition myself for over 20 years and you never quite have the perfect flight,” International Aerobatics Club President Mike Heuer said. “What we often say is when we’re flying nobody beats you, you beat yourself because you don’t fly to your full potential.”
More than 90 pilots, ranging from rookies to seasoned veterans, will be flying powered aircraft and gliders in categories based on the difficulty of maneuvers at the U.S. National Aerobatics Championships at North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field this week.
The first flight is a routine published in advance by IAC, then the pilot prepares a routine to perform for the second flight. The third flight is called “unknown” because it is not given to the pilot until the day of competition, Heuer said. Although they don’t know the order of the sequence in advance, he said pilots already know the elements and techniques.
“Most people do this because it makes them better pilots,” Heuer said. “’Not everyone wants to join the competition, but they want to learn aerobatics because it makes a difference in how good of a pilot you are. It makes you understand the entire flight envelope of the airplane in the skill and maneuvering of the aircraft.”
Marty Flournoy of Georgia said the anticipation is tough, but when the engine cranks the pilot’s blood really starts to pump.
“You go into fighter pilot mode and know you have a mission,” Flournoy said. “Your feet start tingling because you’re almost cutting the circulation off (with double seatbelts) because if you don’t, you’ll be flailing around the cockpit … when you launch — the acceleration of the airplane is phenomenal.”
Aerobatic pilots find a moment of peace for a second before they start, Flournoy said. In the midst of the ups and downs, the pilot has to remain focused on the sequence card even if he or she has memorized it before the competition.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Flournoy said. “You love what it does and the challenge, but in the middle of the flight, you can’t think of anything else. … For a lot of us, it’s great thing to do after work because even if you got economic problems, can you jump in that airplane and feel like Walter Mitty for a few hours.”
Visualizing the flight is what helps Ben Freelove of California prepare for the competition. He said everyone has their own rituals, but it’s important to remind yourself that you are just a pilot so “check the winds, dive into the aerobatic box and let it all rip.”
The biggest challenge of the aerobatics is the cost of time and of money, Freelove said. Over the years, he said pilots start to feel some wear and tear from aerobatic flying. There are some days he has to take easier than others.
“Every time I feel like I can’t afford it anymore or my neck is hurting too bad, I always find myself doing it again,” Freelove said. “I think most aerobatic pilots are control freaks so the idea about aerobatic flying is this idea of doing something perfectly and having a machine that’s capable of doing it. The little taste of success always keeps you coming back and wants you to do better next time.”
As far as economic costs, Freelove said there is a big range of price to buy an aircraft for competition. A cheaper airplane could range from $20,000 to $25,000, while the top of the line would cost a pilot about $500,000.
Depending on how much a pilot practices, Freelove said it could cost $400 to $500 per hour to operate the airplane. In order to keep costs down, he said he borrows airplanes from his friends to compete as well as trading parts with other pilots.
“I think it’s hard sport for people who aren’t pilots or people who haven’t flown aerobatics because it’s hard to connect since it seems so abstract,” Freelove said. “What I would love to do is share with people is the idea of how to do this kind of flying. It’s such an absolute feeling of freedom, self-control and self-confidence. It would be awesome if you could give everybody a taste so they could see that.”
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Ben Freelove shares his thoughts of the different types of aircraft pilots can use for competition. Freelove is competing in the U.S. Aerobatic Championships at North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field this week.