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British Aerobatics Association

British Aerobatics Association (BAeA) - Sgt Phillip Burgess

About the BAeA

The BAeA is the association responsible for organising aerobatic competitions in the UK for powered aircraft and gliders. Around fifteen events are organised each year with National champions being declared in both power and glider classes, and teams put forward for competition in international championships. Cpl Phillip Burgess and his Pitts

To ensure that pilots compete against others of similar ability there are five entry levels; Beginner, Standard, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Progression requires ever increasing standards in accuracy and presentation, a wider aerobatic repertoire of the pilot and increasingly, greater performance from the aircraft. Usually the Standard Level contests have the best attendance, with competitors flying a wide range of aircraft of varying performance. Despite the need for more capable aircraft at higher levels, the intention remains that competition flights are a test of the pilot’s skill rather than of aircraft performance.

The 2007 National Championship was to be my first aerobatic competition. Surprisingly there’s no formal training required for entry - contestants just need a current PPL & medical and be able to demonstrate they can safely fly the aerobatic sequence to an authorised BAeA official. There are various aerobatics courses that PPL holders can undertake, though they are not a prerequisite for inclusion. Indeed, as is the case with many masters of the sport both past and present, my aerobatic skills are self-taught with the help of some informed advice and a few good books!

Whilst it’s true that if God had meant us to fly He’d have given us more money; flying isn’t necessarily a pastime just for the wealthy. Although stacks of spare cash always come in handy, Roy Castle got it right because in reality; dedication’s what you need. From first solo, through gaining your PPL to aircraft ownership and beyond, each step contains a myriad of hurdles to test your motivation. However, as the addiction takes hold, you might find that your priorities begin to change; why did you ever really need that new car or expensive holiday anyway?

How to get involved

If you are a Serviceman, Ex-serviceman or MOD Civilian you can take advantage of cheaper flying offered by the Royal Air Force Flying Clubs Association (RAFFCA). Individual RAFFCA Clubs operate at many units both at home and abroad and details of your nearest club can be found on the website below. Many clubs can utilise your ELCAS entitlement for training fees and RAFFCA is keen to offer support for competitions and expeditions. Further cost savings can be enjoyed through membership of the Popular Flying Association. Amongst other duties, the PFA is the body that oversees the construction, operation and maintenance of amateur built aircraft in the UK and is the best kept secret in General Aviation. The main benefit of the PFA is that certain eligible aircraft do not require a Certificate of Airworthiness. Instead they are issued a “Permit to Fly” on an annual basis which has similar function to an MOT for a car. This means that you don’t need to be a licensed aircraft engineer to carry out maintenance tasks, so you can save a fortune if you are prepared to get your hands dirty. Couple this with cheap (sometimes free!) hangarage and airfield fees offered by RAFFCA and the cost of aircraft ownership becomes much less prohibitive.

My aircraft

My first aircraft was a simple PFA type powered by a VW Beetle engine providing brilliant fun for less than £10 per hour for fuel and £300 a year for insurance. I have been very fortunate in the accommodation of my aircraft at RAF Cranwell Flying Club which reduces my overheads considerably compared to operating from a civilian airfield. Overall, this route possibly represents the cheapest flying available in the UK and is a great way of gaining experience at minimal cost. You do have to invest some capital, but I view this as an investment as on average these types of aircraft don’t tend to depreciate and make your savings work for you rather than your bank manager.

In April 2007 I bought a Pitts Special, also a PFA permit type. Generally, all costs are around five times that of my previous aircraft; forget cars and holidays, now I’m into being frugal with food and clothes! It’s worth every penny though, as the performance is simply astounding compared with ordinary aircraft. A power to weight ratio approaching 400 BHP per tonne makes the houses get smaller obscenely quickly, and gives a top speed of over 200mph. Aerobatic flight is the forte of the Pitts with the ability of the pilot being the main limit to the manoeuvres that can be flown. Having such an excess of power allows the Pitts to mock of the laws of conventional flight – full control and level flight can be maintained well below the normal stall speed. In expert hands, the gyroscopic and aerodynamic forces created by the large propeller can be used to affect the mind boggling array of spins and tumbles seen at airshows worldwide.

Aerobatic Flying

There are no smooth or graceful patterns flown in competition aerobatics; geometric precision is the order of the day. If a loop is required it’s not just a case of pulling back on the stick and waiting to for it to be over, instead a perfect circle must be described. The actual technique for flying any given manoeuvre varies greatly depending on the weather conditions and the figures to be flown immediately before and after it. Though appearing identical from the ground, skilled pilots use vastly different techniques for looping into wind compared with looping down wind. The mastery of such a manoeuvre to competition standards is much more than simply learning a procedure, it requires great situational awareness and an ability to instinctively evaluate and act on sensory input.

Every aspect of the flight has to be considered in detail before takeoff to ensure arrival at the start of a figure at the optimum speed and position to give the best presentation to the judges. It’s very subjective as a perfectly flown figure can still score badly due to the angle at which the judges see it. In some cases extended 45degree lines must be drawn in the sky, and if they have to be flown anywhere but directly in front of the judges, they can look too shallow or too steep. This is where experienced competitors purposefully cheat by adjusting the actual flight path by a few degrees in order for it to appear correct from the ground. Adding this kind of gloss to a performance is often all that separates the top few rankings and is the most difficult aspect of competition aerobatics to master.

The aerobatic manoeuvres flown at standard level are: inside loops, rolls, stall turns and positive spins interspersed with various straight lines in either horizontal, vertical or 45degree climbing or descending, upright or inverted flight. A sequence has around 10 manoeuvres and each one can contain fractions of rolls, loops or spins. One such manoeuvre I was faced with at the competition was a complete aileron roll followed immediately by 7/8th of an inside loop, then a pause for a 45degree dive before the remaining 1/8th of a loop to recover to level flight…

At standard level, the 2007 National Championships consisted of one sequence published at the start of the flying season, and three that were presented only two hours before each round. The known sequence was the first to be flown and as a result, the average score was very high. It was comforting to have a sequence I’d practiced as my first ever competition flight as I was daunted with mixing with such seasoned company… The timings of when to start-up, taxi and takeoff are not controlled by anyone other than the competitors themselves at these events and with over 140 flights in the course of the competition, you‘d better not keep the judges waiting. My main aim for the first sortie was to not make an arse of myself; the aerobatic sequence being low on my initial worry list. After all the pilots had flown, results were pinned up and I was relieved to see that I hadn’t messed up and had even managed to place ninth out of eighteen entrants!

Prior planning is the key to success in the unknown sequences as there is no opportunity to practise and no time during the sequence to think about what comes next. I learned this the hard way. Halfway through unknown one, I noticed that I was closer to the judges than I had intended to be. Pulling up for a stall-turn with a ΒΌ roll on the way down, I had to change my plan and roll right rather than left in order to fly away, rather than toward the judges. The decision process involved with this change of plan took a fraction of a second but it was enough of a distraction to exceed my mental capacity during the stall turn and I spoilt the figure. Mentally berating myself for the remainder of the flight caused further distraction and ensured that I would finish the first unknown no higher than eighth place.

The Experience

Using my newfound experience as a competition aerobatic pilot (check me out; two flights in and I think I’m ace!) I decided to adjust my flying style to try and move up the leader board. It seemed to me that the more aggressive I could be at starting and stopping the figures the better my overall presentation would be. To achieve this I needed to start figures at the highest possible speed and pull as much G as I could physically manage. My aircraft is limited to +6G and on landing my accelerometer showed I had peaked at +5.7G. I found pushing my own G tolerance to the limit quite tiring, and on more than one occasion during the flight I was aware of being in the early stages of blacking out. My exhaustion was manifest in the penultimate figure as I pulled up for the start, and concentrating more on staying awake than the task at hand, I completed a Half Cuban Eight rather than a Half Reverse Cuban Eight... I wasn’t even aware of the error at the time and it wasn’t until later that I discovered that my mistake had earned a hard zero for that manoeuvre. With competition as close as this, that one error dropped me to 15th place! Apparently the only ass you can kick in an aerobatic contest is your own!

Experience is something you get just after you need it. In the fourth unknown sequence I managed to pull it all together to score a creditable 73.5% achieving fifth place for that flight. This pushed me back up the overall rankings to finish the Championship in seventh place overall, within 1% of fifth place and 6% of first place. Gold and Silver medallists were separated by less than 0.01% which showed this to be the closest fought contest in the BAeA history!

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