Flying the Schnozz

Here's what it's like to fly championship aerobatics

September 1, 2003

The Russian aerobatic team attacked the world championships in Lakeland, Florida, in July with total dedication and growling radial-engine Sukhoi aircraft, flying away with most of the honors. We'll give you the results later, but first maybe you would like to try one of the maneuvers yourself.

Fifty-six pilots from 10 countries put themselves in contention for Olympic-style gold, silver, and bronze medals and a chance at the prestigious Aresti Cup, a trophy named after the Spanish pilot who invented the aerobatic notation system still in use today. Want to know what goes on in the cockpit during such a competition? Here's how it's done.

First, what does a champion aerobatic pilot have in the cockpit that you don't? Nothing. There are, of course, important differences between competition aircraft and the one you own or rent. Instead of a control yoke, a stick is used to facilitate extreme control inputs. There may be a few more horses under the hood, and the aircraft's stability is just barely legal — not a good instrument platform. It's most likely a flapless taildragger design, while you probably fly an airplane with a nosewheel. The remaining difference is that the aircraft is designed to withstand high G loads.

Britain's sole competitor and an author of authoritative aerobatic books — Alan Cassidy — dubbed one of the maneuvers in use in Lakeland the Schnozz because it appears to outline in the sky a caricature of the late entertainer Jimmy Durante's nose. Cassidy represented Britain and later acted as the competition's announcer for 100 to 200 spectators. Let's fly the Schnozz.

Basically you'll flip inverted and dive down the underneath side of the proboscis, rolling upright before you reach the nostrils, and then loop around to the bridge of the nose, snap rolling (a spin) as you go. Ready?

To start, flip upside down by pushing the stick hard to one side and rolling, remembering to push as you reach the inverted position to maintain level flight. When you are upside down, of course, you push to go up, pull to go down.

There are some physiological factors at work now. The blood is draining from your body into the head. The brain senses this and starts shutting down blood vessels to prevent high blood pressure from rupturing tiny blood vessels in the brain. Never mind that. Rock your wings three times as you enter the aerobatic box to signal to the judges that you are starting the 12-maneuver performance.

The aerobatic box is an imaginary cube of air 1,000 meters on a side (3,280 feet), suspended only 100 meters above the ground (328 feet). There are markers on the ground to show pilots the boundaries, with judges sitting at each marker to determine when the competitor leaves the box. This year the box was above the grounds of the EAA Sun 'n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland's Linder Regional Airport. During the fly-in this chunk of airspace is filled with ultralights.

This is one time when thinking outside the box will cost you points. So you're upside down. Now pull the stick to pitch the nose 45 degrees down — that's 15 times steeper than the approach you normally fly and twice as steep as a space shuttle approach.

You're drawing a line 45 degrees to the horizon to please the judges, and now you are going to roll right side up. Use nearly full deflection of the ailerons to make it look sharp.

The aircraft is gaining speed and it's time to half-loop around the tip of the nose. Make sure the wings are level before you pull to avoid going off heading. Wait one pull back hard. You're right side up, remember, so back is up. Most competitors experience at least six Gs at this point — some say eight. You'll now climb inverted at a 45-degree angle.

Back to physiological issues for a moment: Remember how your brain had to shut off vessels to prevent too much blood from entering the head? That alone left you a little light-headed. There hasn't been time for the vessels to fully reopen and increase the brain's blood supply, and now you've just pulled positive Gs draining even more blood from the brain: You could pass out. Even temporary unconsciousness here can be a disaster, given that you are close to the bottom of the box. A sign that you could be in trouble is the loss of color vision — if you're seeing everything in black and white you may go to sleep soon.

Assuming you're still awake, continue climbing and perform a half-snap roll on the way up. Here's how. Pull the stick violently all the way back to your chest and a millisecond later shove the left rudder flat against the floor. You're cross-controlled, the perfect ingredients for a spin.

The left wing stalls suddenly as though it has broken off. When you feel the airplane bite into the air and start to spin, immediately get off the controls. The airplane will flick upright and the trick is to stop it there: These airplanes can roll at 300 to 400 degrees per second. Reapply opposite controls to stop the rotation. Cassidy suggests closing the throttle at the moment the snap roll starts, and reapplying it again as it ends. Other aerobatic experts such as Patty Wagstaff say they don't do that.

Assuming you got it stopped in the upright position, you're just above a stall now, right side up, and the Schnozz is almost over. Push level, playing with the rudder to keep from dropping a wing due to the low speed. That's it!

Don't relax, though. You're only one-twelfth of the way through. Stay slow, stall and spin immediately, beginning another sequence that Cassidy has named the Depth Charge . It requires diving vertically after the spin, then performing an outside loop — blood crowding into the brain again — before climbing vertically. Airsick yet?

The competitors who endured all that while performing the most precisely were from Russia. As in past years, the Russians, Americans, and French took nearly all the medals and trophies among the 10 countries represented. The overall best performer and winner of the Aresti Cup was Sergey Rakhmanin. If it weren't for Rakhmanin, a woman — teammate Svetlana Kapanina — would have beaten all the men for the first time in the contest's history and taken the top award. She has been something of a phenomenon on the world aerobatics scene in the past decade, emerging as the top woman performer four times in previous world competitions, including this year's. She was originally trained as a world-class gymnast. The mother of an infant, she hopes to perform on the airshow circuit one day and supplement the $70 per month given team members by the Russian government. In Russia, one observer said, $70 goes a long way.

Robert Armstrong was the most consistent performer for the U.S. team, ranking fourth in the world overall behind three Russians. However, he won the first unknown compulsory program while team captain Kirby Chambliss won the known compulsory program. The top U.S. female competitor overall was Debby Rihn-Harvey, who placed fifth. The top ranked male teams were Russia, France, and the United States, in that order.

Can the Russians continue their dominance of world competition? The 420-horsepower Sukhoi used by Kapanina and a teammate will be returned to Russia and converted to a 450-hp engine. New aerodynamic changes are planned as well for the ejection-seat-equipped aircraft. Looks like the Russians intend to stay in first place.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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.