Going for the Gold

Aerobatic Olympics

July 1, 1996

The aviation world focuses on Oklahoma City, not Atlanta

Going to the Olympics? No, not those Olympics. The real ones — for pilots, at least — are the 18th World Aerobatic Championships in Oklahoma City next month. Normally rotated among European countries, the championships return to the United States from August 18 to 30 after a 16-year absence.

Right from the opening ceremony at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport, you'll notice similarities to those "other" games. Each nation's team marches in wearing matching uniforms. At award ceremonies, a band plays the winner's national anthem as that country's flag is raised. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are placed around the necks of the top finishers. Sound familiar?

More than 100 pilots from 24 countries are expected to compete — dedicated professionals who must fly with robot-like precision if they hope to win. Because they must be able to withstand about 11 positive and eight or more negative Gs, these pilots — like Olympic athletes — must build physical endurance. Yet their sport can never really be in the other Olympics, where mechanized competition is banned. So the U.S. team must settle for far smaller crowds, fewer donors (only 1,200 of you in the United States, to be exact), limited corporate sponsorship, and none of the Olympic publicity that began on television last November.

It's not easy to attract spectators to aerobatic championships. Watching the World Aerobatic Championships (WAC) — at least during the first week — can be a little like watching compulsory ice skating figures that were once a part of the winter Olympics. Pilots "draw" maneuvers exactly as they appear in a rule book, remaining in an invisible box of airspace 1,000 meters on a side. So, the Oklahoma City All Sports Association — the WAC promoter — has planned numerous events in conjunction with the competition to keep everyone, not only the pilots in the crowd, entertained. The events include an international festival of arts and crafts, dancing, and food on August 24 and 25.

There will be no trouble attracting a crowd to the Four-Minute Freestyle, however. It's more like an airshow, but only the best of the contestants participate. A separate event with a separate trophy, the Four-Minute does not affect the scoring that determines the world aerobatic champion. There's no box and few rules. The only requirement is to keep the routine at least 300 feet above the ground, dazzle the judges, and thrill the crowd. "To those who don't know much about competition, that is the most spectacular flying," said Carl Whittle, director of the event. Depending on scheduling and the weather, the Four-Minute Freestyle will probably occur about August 30.

How will the U.S. Aerobatic Team do overall? Put bluntly, they're on the comeback trail. Once the United States dominated the competition: Charlie Hillard and Mary Gaffaney won the men's and women's titles in 1972; Leo Loudenslager and Betty Stewart won in 1980, with Stewart winning again in 1982; Henry Haigh won in 1988. Then the United States transitioned to a team that had neither the most experienced pilots nor the best airplanes. The growling Russian Sukhoi Su-26 had overpowered the Pitts Special. The French and Russian governments were (and still are) sponsoring their competitors. Some of the most talented U.S. pilots — like Joe Frasca, Lee Manelski, and Tom Jones — died in accidents. Clint McHenry and Pete Anderson, among the most experienced pilots, retired.

But now the underdogs look more like the comeback kids. All but one on the team of five men and five women, chosen during national competition last September in Denison, Texas, are experienced in world competition. They include Michael Goulian, the current national champion and an aerobatic instructor for Executive Flyers Aviation near Boston; Robert Armstrong, an airline pilot; Phillip Knight, a past national champion and an electrical contractor; Linda Meyers Morrissey, an aerobatic coach; John Lillberg, an aeronautical engineer; Diane Hakala, a securities analyst and money manager; Patty Wagstaff, an airshow/movie pilot and three-time national champion; Debby Rihn-Harvey, an airline pilot and owner of Harvey & Rihn Aviation in LaPorte, Texas; and Ellen Dean, a computer analyst who placed second in the world in 1988. Only Matt Chapman, an airline pilot from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is attending his first world competition.

Four of the women have previously won medals in world competition, and three of those have won gold medals. Morrissey, who has made the team eight times, has three gold medals. Wagstaff has gone to world competition five times and has won a medal at every one. Rihn-Harvey has attended the WAC six times and also has a gold medal in her collection. Dean got a gold medal for being on the first-place women's team in 1988.

In addition to experienced pilots, the U.S. team now has first- rate aircraft. Four members of the U.S. team fly Extra 300S aircraft, and one flies a 300L (see "Extra Extras," August 1995 Pilot), made by Walter Extra of Germany, while two fly Avions Mudry CAP 231 and 231EX (EX means the wings were made by Extra) from France. There is a rare American-made Staudacher model on the team. Debby Rihn- Harvey flies a hybrid, the Texas Hurricane, made in 1991 and highly modified by her late husband, Dr. Eion (Doc) Harvey, to compete with the best. If you must know exactly what kind of aircraft it is, call it a Harvey/Stephens Akro/Laser/Edge/Texas Hurricane.

All but one of the team's aircraft are monoplanes and should be competitive at the world level, where they will face the Sukhoi Su- 26 and Su-31, products of the Russian government's Sukhoi Design Bureau.

The Bureau completed development of the Sukhoi Su-26 in 1985. A formation of Sukhoi Su-26s — radial engines thundering — arrived at the 1986 championships in Cerney, England, intimidating the daylights out of the Americans.

"The Sukhois were hand painted and kind of funky looking; but, man, could they fly," recalls Wagstaff. "The roll rate was faster than anyone had ever seen. You haven't seen a Sukhoi fly until you've seen it flown by a Russian or Lithuanian pilot who has 10 years and hundreds of hours in the airplane. It sings. It dances. It's awesome!" Now, some of the top U.S. pilots are switching to the Sukhoi, like 23-year-old Eric Haagenson, who missed making this year's team by a tailslide.

While the Russian government developed the Sukhoi, most pilots on American teams were struggling with make-do airplanes, such as the Pitts that Robert Armstrong once used. It looked so rough that competitors called it Road Kill.

An aircraft mechanic for 17 years, Armstrong built a Pitts S- 1C that was obsolete — at least for international competition — before he built it. It had only 125 horsepower, yet he did well in Intermediate competition. (Levels of competition are Basic, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced, and Unlimited. World competitors are chosen from among those who compete at the Unlimited level.) Armstrong put a 200-hp engine on the S-1C because the 125-hp engine wouldn't idle upside down during an inverted spin. "If I needed to cut a hole to get at a bolt, I cut a hole," Armstrong recalls. It didn't look like much, but by the time he was finished with his modifications, it flew him to a spot on the 1992 team.

Swiss competitor Christian Schweizer, seeing Armstrong's airplane for the first time at the 1992 WAC and trying to think of something nice to say, noted that something "picked up off the street" could fly in world competition without having to spend $250,000. That led Phil Knight to quip, "That sort of makes it like road kill," a name that has stuck.

Armstrong flew an Abernathy Streaker, a modified Stephens Akro, to second place at last year's nationals competition. True to his reputation, Armstrong purchased the Streaker from Linda Meyers Morrissey after it was beaten up by Hurricane Andrew in Florida. Now he has a Pitts Super Stinker, modified into an S-1-11B and sponsored by Aviat Aircraft. (It will be the genesis of a new S-2C scheduled to make its first appearance in about two years.) To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the Super Stinker will test whether that biplane, or any biplane so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure in world competition.

Like Armstrong, Ellen Dean also used a well-worn Pitts to make the team her first time. Aero Sport owner Jim Moser promised her in 1988 that if she made the team, he would rebuild her aircraft. She did, and Moser went to the people of St. Augustine, Florida, for funds to make good on his promise. For a $100 donation you could have your name put on the tail. For $500 you got the wing. The Pitts entered competition covered in names, but it came home wearing a medal. Dean placed second in the world. Now she works as a demo pilot for Aero Sport, in return for the use of an Extra 300L.

It was not only the aircraft holding the U.S. team back a few years ago; it was, and still is, the money. It costs each competitor $10,000 to $20,000 to cover WAC practice and travel expenses.

"To get to this level of flying, it takes a lot of money," says Debby Rihn-Harvey, "and unless you are financially established yourself, or have a company to write it off, it is difficult to maintain that level. Most of us have a full-time profession to make enough money to do it. It's a hobby for most of us, not a living. Once you make the team, the U.S. Aerobatic Foundation helps with expenses, such as the entry fee, fuel, and a room at the practice site [immediately before competition]."

When current world champion Xavier de Lapparent of France needed financial aid, he was simply attached to the French air force for 18 months, given a CAP 231EX, fuel, and maintenance support, and "ordered" to win championships. He won and retired at the ripe old age of 25 to run aerobatic schools for the Breitling watch company.

This year, since the U.S. team did not have to pay the U.S. Air Force more than $100,000 for a C-5A to fly the team and its airplanes to Europe, there was extra money to hire past champions, including de Lapparent and Sergei Boriak of Kazakhstan — once a team pilot for the former Soviet Union — as coaches. Boriak, now living in the United States, hopes to fly for the United States one day.

Team member Diane Hakala simply changed careers until she found one that would pay the bills. Currently she manages a mutual fund. The tactic seems to work; she has made the team twice, but she broke her ankle in a crash following an engine failure in 1994 and wasn't able to compete the first time.

After Hakala obtained her private certificate and asked for aerobatic training, her instructor refused. (That was back during her days as a computer programmer in New York City.) His reasons? She had only 50 hours, and worse yet, she was a girl. (Still is.) "Go fly to your Aunt Tilly's," he growled.

"Greater or Lesser?" an angry Hakala shot back.

So she went to the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, New Jersey, and asked Rolf Nelson for spin training. Once she had learned to recover from all types of spins, she would teach herself aerobatics. ("Talk about dumb," she says now.) When Nelson found out about the plan, he suggested it might be better if he did the teaching.

Of course, there are costs other than financial for those seeking to become the best in the world. While they love aerobatics, they do not necessarily love negative Gs.

"Negative Gs make aerobatics a job," admits Mike Goulian. "I need a lot of speed for a snap roll on the vertical upline — 190 knots. The pain is unbearable; my head feels like it will explode."

Intense negative Gs may lead to a condition known to the aerobatic community as the dreaded wobblies, an inner-ear condition akin to that experienced by a child who spins round and round and then tries to walk. It's funny for the child, but deadly for the pilot trying to land, and you can't just fly around for a few minutes until things calm down. One pilot was bedridden for two weeks, unable to walk. The cause is unknown but may be related to a thickening of fluid in the inner ear. It may be brought on by dehydration or by inflammation of the inner ear. The phenomenon has been reported by people who do not even fly.

Positive Gs aren't all that much fun, either, but are less dangerous.

"Our pull is of very short duration — portions of seconds or a few seconds — but always less than five seconds," says team member Debby Rihn-Harvey.

Aside from the financial and physical strains, team members also dedicate considerable personal time to training. For that reason, Knight said that he is committed to only two more world championships.

"There are a lot of things I would like to do besides practice every day," Knight said. He practices for 35 minutes a day after work, but with preflight it takes nearly two hours.

John Lillberg noted that preparation for world competition takes years of planning, following a training syllabus he wrote for himself. Additionally, there is a lot of pressure at a world event, and handling it can require practice as well. For Lillberg, adjusting to the pressure meant entering competition a year ago in Europe in order to size up the opposition. "I went to the European championships in the Czech Republic to get used to the pressure of flying in a big contest. All the opponents I will see in Oklahoma City were there."

U.S. Aerobatic Team members make just as many sacrifices as Olympic athletes, must train as hard or harder, and face the same mental and physical pressures. But since powered sports are not allowed in that other Olympics — the one in Atlanta — aerobatic pilots will have to be satisfied with the World Aerobatic Championships in Oklahoma City.


For ticket and hotel information, call the Oklahoma City All Sports Association at 405/236-5000 or 800/434-5000. For fly-in information, call 405/685-9546. There is room to park 200 aircraft on the grass at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport (F29). The airport will remain open during competition and will have a temporary tower operating on 134.6 MHz and 236.7 MHz. Pilots must supply tiedowns and chocks. Camping under the wing is encouraged, and RV parking is available. Tickets are available by the day, or $50 (advance purchase) for the entire event.


< Sensitive>A Sukhoi Su-29 flown by the author during a demonstration proved to be an arrogant aircraft that flies much better than most pilots and knows it. It probably would prefer to fly alone.

During an aerobatic flight provided by Pompano Air Center owner Brian Becker, it became clear that the aircraft does not suffer novices gladly. The Sukhoi rewarded a pilot's first-ever attempt at a four-point roll by attempting to launch his head through the canopy.

Some competitors say that it takes 200 hours of practice to control the Sukhoi, whatever model it may be, and 600 to master it fully. — AKM

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.