It helps to have friends around.
There was Bill Gordon, the veteran of countless aerobatic contest flights (literally, in the sense that no one can say with precision just how many contests Gordon has flown—more on that later) meeting me on the ramp with a smile on his face. He asked me how the flight had gone, but already knew the answer because he had watched.
I knew full well it was far from perfect. I was aware that I had flown a shallow 45-degree downline after the roll to upright in the Half-Cuban, and I knew all about the variance in the roll and turn rate in the 270-degree turn (the easiest figure of the 10 in the Sportsman Known program). My first flight at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships was far from being a podium-worthy performance, and I knew it. He knew it, too. He was still smiling.
He said they’d “ding me” on a few things, some of the lines and some of the loops, but overall it was not too bad. Not bad at all, he said, “for your first time at Nationals.”
Gordon is at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships for his tenth competition against the best pilots in the country, returning to the same airfield where he trained to be a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot in the 1960s before deploying to Vietnam, where he would fly 160 combat missions, not all of them official (students of history will recall that Laos was forbidden territory, officially, at least). He survived 10 air-to-air engagements and shot down an enemy fighter at close range, the minimum possible range for a radar-guided missile, Oct. 26, 1967, over Hanoi.
“My birthday,” Gordon recalled in a conversation we had just before the contest started. “Somebody aborted and I got to go.”
I write all of this so you’ll understand that while Gordon has never won a national title, and certainly won’t this year after making an all-to-familiar wrong turn in his first sequence, there is nobody in this field of 98 competitors who has done more to earn my respect. Gordon has nothing to prove to anyone as a pilot, yet he flies his Pitts S2-B to Texas year after year, crossing half the country from Vermont to Texas by way of Kansas, and spending thousands of dollars each time (about $4,000 this year alone, by his estimate) to match his skills against the best competition pilots in the country. He may well have flown more contests, including national and regional International Aerobatic Club events, than anyone, though confirming that is a task that requires digging into paper records that predate the electronic database, a task that remains incomplete. According to IAC officials, Gordon at the very least is one of 40 pilots who have flown 30 contests or more, and there are 1,200 pilots in the database.
“It gives meaning to all of your flying,” Gordon said, by way of explaining why we do this, why he, in particular, does this, time and time again. He has never won a national title, though he did come away with the highest score of any competitor over age 65 one year, and “I’m respected enough that I’ve been asked to be on the jury for the second year in a row. That means a lot to me.”
And it meant a lot to me that he was waiting on the ramp with a smile and congratulations, the fact that my flight was far from perfect notwithstanding in the least. As it turned out, it was a personal best for me as a Sportsman pilot: 1,032.50 points for the flight, the first time I’ve broken 1,000 at any contest. I still want more. I left a lot of points on the table that are within my reach. Attainable points.
We all make mistakes, with the possible exception of Rob Holland, who is the closest to perfect in the aerobatic box that I have ever seen, making the most complicated routines look effortless as he pushes a 10-G airframe to its limits. Holland has all but locked up his fifth national title, opening a commanding lead with the Unknown and Freestyle flights still to come. It will surprise no one if he walks away with it. He is also a mentor, spending time on the Sportsman starting line Sept. 23 coaching Stephen Fiegel, who works for Holland as a ferry pilot and is among those whose names currently appear above mine (not coincidentally, I am sure) in the Sportsman results.
I am reassured by those in the know that despite my concerns and the fast-ticking clock (the contest flights will end Friday) and slow-moving flights (complicated by a number of factors) there will at least be a second Sportsman flight (though probably not a third, a subject I vented about elsewhere), and a chance to catch some of the others currently ahead of me in the standings. It’s starting to feel possible that I might just get this competition thing down. How did it feel, what was it like in the box, Gordon wanted to know. I felt calm, for the most part, outside of a bobble here and there that I knew about and understood the instant they happened. I felt, for the first time, pretty relaxed, national championships and a brisk crosswind notwithstanding.
“Good,” he said.
He is not my only mentor here. Chuck Cohen, the veterinarian from whom I rent a Super Decathlon back home and an Advanced category competitor and contest judge himself, graded my practice flight and later took time out to review my scores from the first competition flight, with general approval.
“Bob will be proud of you,” he said, referring to Bob Cipolli, who brought me into the aerobatic world with a simple spin lesson back in 2012, and has spent more time flying with me and teaching me than anyone. (The two are partners in the flight school where I train in Westfield, Massachusetts).
Wes Liu, another fellow member of the New England Aerobatic Club (which is also Chapter 35 of the International Aerobatic Club) also has offered many words of advice, and stopped by as I was preparing to strap in to snap the photo at the top of this story and send it through the chapter mail list to fellow members waiting for word of our exploits.
There have been many others, experienced competition pilots I’ve only just met, who have freely offered advice, critiques, and tips. This is the competition world. I don’t yet know all 97 of my fellow competitors, but I know many of them, and if I hang in there for a while I will get to know them all. Helping each other do better, get better, is (pardon the pun) how we roll.
As for my first flight, the judges were not all in agreement on every score, but generally saw the mistakes I knew I had made: I was shallow on the 45-degree downline from the Half-Cuban, my biggest sin of the flight, and while I knew it at the time there’s no sense correcting it once you set the wrong line—you’ll only lose more points. Next time, I’ll have to watch that sight more carefully. I made another rookie mistake: I rolled out some of the bank in the 270-degree aerobatic turn, reducing the bank angle a little below the 60-degree minimum in an effort to get back into the aerobatic box that the Texas wind had blown me out of so I wouldn’t take another "out" (a five-point penalty at this level) on the final figure, the two-point roll. I forgot, in the heat of the moment, that the figure is always more important, that the penalty for crossing the boundary line (as long as it isn’t a deadline or a low line) is less costly than the points lost botching the figure itself, particularly at the Sportsman level. (There is clear space horizontally around the aerobatic box, so safety is not an issue in this particular case; the penalty for flying below the minimum altitude is much stiffer, one of many rules designed to make contest flying safe for all involved. The biggest mistake you can make in the aerobatic box is to fly too low.)
The one-and-a-quarter-turn spin scored better than I thought it might, after spinning away from that crosswind in an effort to maintain position in the box but forgetting that this makes for a sloppy spin entry. The Super Decathlon hesitated and heaved a little before finally dropping its nose and beginning the corkscrew down. Only one of the seven judges really dinged me for that one. Based on the scores, it looked pretty good to the rest. (I did, at least, stop it on the correct heading and recovered without dragging a wing on the downline.)
These are the small differences that separate the top and bottom of the field in competition aerobatics, particularly at this competition, mistakes that might seem pretty tiny to some. There are no small mistakes at nationals. The standard is perfection. One observer, not an aerobatic pilot, even told me I looked “graceful,” which felt pretty good, though tomorrow (or the next day, as the case may be), I want to be graceful and score points. I want to score 1,150 of them, to be precise, which would have been enough for first place on the first flight. There is nothing left to do but fly the next figure, the next sequence, live in the moment, and see what happens. I want to win, and if I can’t win, I want to move up in the standings. It has become incredibly important.
It gives meaning to my flying.