Here we go, this is it, the real start of my aerobatic season for 2013. This weekend is the first Intermediate level competition of the year (the first, first competition was cancelled due to a blizzard) and the following weekend yields my first ever, official, proper flying display. To say I’m nervous is an understatement!
I’m not entirely sure how well the competition is likely to go for me on Saturday, there have been a whole host of reasons I’ve not managed to get in anywhere near as much practice flying as I really needed – unserviceability of the aeroplane, illness, a waterlogged runway, work, too much snow, too much rain, too much wind, too much weather in general! That said, I’m not making excuses, I will go into the competition fully aware of my limitations and my capabilities, I know where my weaknesses are and how to play to my strengths. We’ll just have to see how it all goes.
Meanwhile it’s not that I’ve had any real time off flying, I’ve just been doing ‘other things’ than competition practice. Display practices, experimentation flights, smoke system testing, flying other aeroplanes and microlights and even the odd smidge of staring at instruments in wonder have all been done over the past few months, so flying the machine isn’t anywhere near as much of a scare factor for me this year as it was this time last year (whilst I was still very unfamiliar with ‘KDR). I hope I’m not digging myself into a hole here, but despite my lack of focused training and total lack of critiqued flying, I don’t feel entirely overwhelmed and there may even be the tiniest hint of inner confidence – one thing I am now very much aware of about myself is that I am a competent and capable flier, and that if I really put my mind to it I can do some pretty amazing things.
So any of you reading this, do me a favour and cross your fingers for me on Saturday and wish me luck!
Here we are, late December of 2012. What a year it has been!
Firstly, the little red beauty entered my life. The Pitts S1 has completely revolutionised my flying and in turn my life. Learning to own, run and maintain my own aircraft, alongside learning to fly her, has been a very steep curve and at no time easy.
I also embarked on my first true competition season – beginning with Standard level competitions and ending up competing (and doing well) at Intermediate. I owe the speed of my progress to the fantastic little aeroplane and also the wonderful people helping me on the ground. Come the end of the season I had won the Diana Britten Trophy (highest scoring female competition pilot in the UK).
After all the competitions were out of the way for the year, my mind turned toward the possibility of gaining a Display Authorisation in order to fly display aerobatics in 2013. This was for me, probably the biggest challenge of my aviation career to date, and not something I necessarily expected I’d be able to achieve so quickly, but by early December it was done and the piece of paper from the CAA arrived promptly in the post.
So next year I will be focusing hard, both on competition aerobatics as well as my newest flying endeavour – flying displays. Becoming a display pilot is a course I’m not taking lightly, as not only is the flying itself difficult but the process of becoming established and gaining bookings is something that will take a huge, huge amount of effort. To that end I’ve launched a new website, Biplane Displays. Please take a look, and if you know of anyone that might be interested in having a private display (at a wedding or birthday perhaps) then please point them my way.
So, happy 2012 everyone, I hope you’re looking forward to 2013 as much as I am!
The last aerobatic competition of the year has now been and gone, with me once again having a bit of a ‘brain fart’ and missing out on a win simply due to a momentary lack of concentration. It’s a shame, but everything is experience, and this time the experience taught me that next year there may well be a reasonable chance of me doing alright at Intermediate!
The year has certainly been a busy one, with lots of big events from learning to fly new aeroplanes, to moving airfields, to scaring myself silly trying to perfect new manoeuvres. It’s been fun, challenging, exciting, frustrating, scary, boring, and inspiring in varying measures.
With the competition season being over until next year, I’m now going to be concentrating on learning to fly more of the Intermediate figures, along with a good handful of Advanced ones, alongside [hopefully] working toward getting my first Display Authorisation. I’m keen to expand my skill set and the types of flying I do, and starting to do simple displays is certainly one of the first stepping stones I wish to jump onto.
I’ll be writing more soon on some more of the interesting aspects of flying various types of aircraft as a relatively novice pilot in the UK, so keep checking for more updates over the next few weeks.
Tins, tents and aeroplanes – life in the aerobatic world!
06:45 “Ugh”. I am not a morning person at all. In fact I really think mornings should be banned from the working day, hence my initial reaction upon being woken up by the alarm was not one of “yes! Competition day!” but more of an overwhelming reluctance and a desire to just bury myself back under the duvet. I hit the snooze button.
07:00 This time I had no choice but to actually get out of bed. ‘Wheels up’ at 0800 was the brief in order to get us up to the competition in plenty of time to have a cup of tea and register before the briefing. A painful session packing spare underwear, shirt and toothbrush ensued as I desperately struggled to wake up and deal with the concept that not only did I have to fly the aeroplane to another unfamiliar airfield with a tarmac runway, but I also had to go and fly my first ever competition sequences at the higher ‘intermediate’ level.
07:30 The aeroplane is out, checked and ready. My bag is squashed into the miniscule cubby hole behind my head and I’m nervously bantering with the other guys I’m travelling over in formation with. They probably don’t realise I’m nervous, or maybe they do? It doesn’t matter, everyone gets nervous before a competition I think, or is it just me? The sky is seriously uninviting – the cloudbase is fairly obviously going to force us to ‘scud run’ for at least a little while, and the light drizzle just adds to my desire to back out and just go back to bed again.
08:00 “Formation rolling.” We’re off. I’m number two – I’m formating on Phil in the yellow Pitts S2A and Adrian is number three in the Extra somewhere behind me. We climb and very soon find out exactly how high the cloudbase isn’t. We drop down a bit to keep out of the mizzle and after two or three minutes we’re descending even more. Looking ahead I rapidly make an internal decision – “I’ll follow for a little longer, but if that wall of cloud doesn’t change I’m heading back”. A couple of seconds after my little mental process finishes Adrian calls from behind that he thinks we’d best call it quits and try again later. Phil’s machine seemed to breathe its own little sigh of relief as we started to turn away.
08:30 Time for tea and a chat with the competition contest director on the phone. It seems the weather isn’t competition flyable over there either so we can just relax for an hour or so before having another crack in the hope that we may find a gap.
09:30 We’re off again, the weather looking fractionally less impassable but still really rather unpleasant. For some reason when flying in poor conditions my mind tends to wander to all manner of worst case scenarios. I never seem to start worrying about engine failures when the sun is shining, but somehow, even though the likelihood of something falling apart is no higher, when I’m buzzing along underneath gloomy grey scud I can’t help but worry myself sick looking at just how tiny all those fields underneath me are.
Eventually we arrive, make our way down onto the ever-so-welcoming tarmac of Leicester’s runway and buzzing over to find our parking spaces. A late briefing and a very nice cup of airfield tea are the order of the day. Next I have a few hours of sitting waiting for the weather to improve and then watching the other categories fly before I really have to panic – I’m 9th of 10 in the Intermediate flying order.
After several hours of mildly insane conversation, far too many cups of tea and several unfortunately necessary trips to the toilet (I still don’t know quite what I ate that gave me so much internal trouble) the Intermediate competition got under way with the ‘Free’ sequences. The basic premise of flying a free is that you have a sequence that you’ve tailored to suit you and your aeroplane, however I’d only decided to make the step up from the Standard level of competition about a week ago – hence I had no real choice but to fly the rather difficult ‘Default Free’ written by the BAeA and designed to be really easy to lose points on. It also contains a 1 1/2 turn inverted spin – I knew before I even started that this figure was going to defeat me as I’ve not yet managed to master flying them in ‘KDR (she has some unusual quirks when it comes to spinning). I admit now I was not really ready.
Off I went, many words of encouragement from my fellow competitors ringing in my ears. Sat doing my power checks at the side of the runway as I try to watch the guy before me finish led my already troubled mind down all kind of bizarre alleyways about the state of my engine and whether or not I was about to just make a total fool of myself. Once I pushed the throttle forward everything was gone though. Suddenly I was there.
Smoothly accelerating along the runway, feeling the lift beneath my wings building until we were gently climbing away all I can remember is being in a sort of numb state of awareness. I was totally focused yet strangely somewhat oblivious. The sequence came and went. I pushed, pulled, racked up a unanimous ‘did not spin’ from a position of viewing the world upside down, pulled and pushed some more, somehow managed to keep everything in the box and somehow managed to fly everything else well except the ridiculously hard rolling circle (these will improve with practice). I floated back down to earth, not only on wings, but on a deep feeling of relief and satisfaction.
I didn’t score particularly well really – I zero’d the inverted spin as I knew from the start I was going to do, and I also made a bit of a hash of the 180degree rolling turn. Happily my other figures scored well though, and I even managed to keep it all in the box.
Sadly the weather didn’t allow any of us to fly the ‘unknown’ sequence we were assigned after finishing our first sequences, but I learned an enormous amount through doing all of the preparation and visualisation needed to fly what, for me, was an incredibly intimidating sequence. Intermediate is hard, it’s a huge challenge and the learning curve is almost as steep as some of the manoeuvres. I’m really excited to do more and keep pushing myself beyond what is currently comfortable – I simply love the challenge.
After all the hubbub of the Nationals was over and I’d spent some time away working, it came to mind that perhaps I should be pushing myself to learn more rather than just play the perfection game with the Standard level figures, hence my attention lately has turned to learning to fly Intermediate figures – so lots of inverted stuff, rolling turns and flick rolls.
The learning curve to get from Standard to Intermediate is steep, very steep. Thus far my success rate on stringing together sequences successfully whilst staying within the bounds of at least the relevant county is far less than ideal. I’m not really thinking of throwing myself at an Intermediate level competition quite yet, although the entertainment factor and learning experience could well be worth the relative humiliation. We shall see.
As it stands the current main challenges for me are:
1) Flying inverted turns in the correct direction. For such a low difficulty figure, my abysmal success rate here is shocking – I mean, just how hard can it be? It’s not that I can’t actually fly an inverted aerobatic turn, but simply that I’ve yet to quite develop the mental capacity to cope with coordinating myself correctly whilst mid sequence. As it stands it’s pretty much a 50:50 chance! Hopefully a bit of careful preparation and some more visualisation will help with all this.
2) Inverted spinning. Now, in theory this shouldn’t really be much harder than flying erect spin manoeuvres, but for some reason I’m having issues sorting out a good clean, consistent spin entry. More practice will hopefully be the remedy for this once I’ve settled on a precise attitude and speed for entry.
3) Pushing. Negative manoeuvres are tough – not only do you have to do everything inverted (see issues with inverted turning), but it also gives you a headache if you push as hard as you actually need to. Oddly (or not) though, the more I do, the more I enjoy it. Perhaps I really am into pain after all?
4) Flick rolls. For a long time the mere thought of trying to snap/flick roll an aeroplane terrified me (avalanches not included). Whether it’s the sheer violence of the manoeuvre that scares me I’m not entirely sure, but right now I’m on the threshold of actually starting to enjoy them. Admittedly I’m not yet at the stage where I’m even vaguely consistent with my flicks, let alone able to actually stop them wings level where they need to be, but they are getting more consistent and slightly quicker the more I practice. No more than 5 or 6 flicks per sortie though or I end up feeling extremely jaded…
5) Rolling turns/rolling circles. These are just hard. My main focus has been on either doing 1 roll during a 90 degree turn or on 2 rolls during a 180 degree turn. Keeping everything coordinated (roll rate, rate of turn, speed, radius and altitude) is just technically very difficult (and of course I’m practicing them equally in both directions). Simply remaining aware of roughly where you are during one of these is tough. Rather good fun once you get past the ‘washing machine’ feeling though!
6) Stringing everything together in a sequence and staying in the box. Need I say more?
Anyway, as tough as I’m finding it all, I did manage to fly this year’s Known BAeA sequence well enough and safely enough to get myself signed off as an Intermediate level competition pilot this weekend. Brilliant fun and now the decision simply is when to start the competition!
This time next week (assuming the weather plays ball) I’ll be off over at Fenland Airfield to compete for the McAully Trophy – the last competition before the British Nationals. Of course, it’s always in the back of my mind that I’d like to actually do well. Ok, so maybe, actually, deep down I’m harbouring a desire to win, but the reality of things is that I’m young, inexperienced and up against a good number of very capable pilots who have been doing this aerobatics lark a lot longer than I have. As such, I’m more than aware that for me to have any chance of winning is going to take some real doing and some real effort, which is in essence what this whole project is about – I’m willing and able to put in the effort necessary for as long as I can find ways of affording to do so.
Every flight I take these days is targeted, pre-structured and prepared. As often as possible I’ll fly with someone on the ground watching me, radio in hand, telling me where I’m going wrong – what shapes I need to change, whether my lines look steep or shallow, whether my rolls are in the right places and whether I’m sinking or climbing where I shouldn’t. These flights are all short but very, very intense, and I love coming back down, climbing out of the cockpit feeling tired mentally and worked physically. I also love coming back to hear people tell me what needs work and where I can improve – the people who help me all know more than I do, are all better than I am and have a great deal more experience than I do, and yet are willing and keen to help me.
There’s something truly fantastic about the aerobatic community – we’re all wildly competitive, we all want to do well for ourselves and we all chuckle inwardly when we see one of our competitors mess up in training. Yet, everyone also wants everyone else to succeed – so whilst the competitive edge is there, in my experience the real competition is with yourself. The people around you who can, will help you put forward the very best performance you can. I’ve met some absolutely fantastic people within the community, and am regularly given help, guidance and advice by pilots who are in some cases, of a world-standard themselves – guys who, despite their status and standing want nothing more than to help those of us new to it all but working hard and enthusiastic.
I’m just at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and rewarding journey. Every flight is a learning experience, every piece of advice carries something that can help me, and every trip to the airfield makes me feel at home. The real competition is mine and mine alone – the only competitors being my own feelings, emotions and motivations. Maybe I’m a little over-confident at times, a little under-confident at others, but somehow, I think I can put forward a good fight, just you watch!
This weekend happened to be my second competition of the year, up at my ‘home’ airfield of Sleap in Shropshire (officially I will be based there, but I’ve had the aeroplane down south all year so far and as such this was in fact only my second visit to the airfield). Lots of people came to watch the proceedings, with the Advanced and Beginners flying before us, and despite the weather slowing things down considerably everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
Now, last time I wrote about my competition flying I was talking about my aim to not zero a figure at my first competition, and failing. This time I had another simple aim – not to end up on the wrong runway heading in the box. Guess what? I failed that one too! By some miracle this time I didn’t actually zero any of the figures though, I just scored really badly on a few…
Picture the scene – you’ve been sat around the entire day waiting to fly, watching everyone else battle a really strong on-judge wind, gradually getting more and more ‘off the boil’ as the day has progressed. It gets to your turn to fly, you are still running through the sequence in your head as you taxi out, finally ready, and then you end up sat, engine running, waiting for a very long time behind the guy in front who has seemingly not quite worked out the point at which he should have launched (don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming him in any way, but all of these little irritations do add up). Your mind now just isn’t quite where it should be and you can’t quite work out why.
You finally take off, on a runway that runs diagonally through your competition box and is not the runway against which you will need to be aligning yourself. You then fly up, through and round the back of the box, constantly trying to work out what the wind is doing to you and where you need to be in order to make everything work. Somehow your mind still isn’t 100% where you need it to be. You wobble your way round the box and begin your first flight through, on axis, with two half rolls in front of the judges that allow you to make sure that your straps are all done up properly (if they’re loose you’ll soon know it while you’re upside down and hanging in them) and that your engine systems are all operating as they should whilst inverted, and also give you a feel for what the wind is really doing to you. Once upright and back outside the box you know it’s on and you know what you’ve got to do, and yet, even now there’s something just a touch lacking in your focus.
It begins. You’re sort of where you want to be and you dive for speed, remembering your final “I’m starting” wing-rock a little late. Pulling up into the first few figures everything feels ok until you get to the only manoeuvre where you have a decision to make, and in fact because of the wind there really is no decision – your 180 degree turn HAS to be to the right or you’ll end up out the front of the box and everything will be a mess. “Turn right, turn right, turn right” is your mantra, and yet, in a moment of self-doubt, glancing at the judging position and suddenly not being sure you’re heading the right way, your brain instinctively shuts down and somehow, by some sub-conscious reflex, you feel your arm pull the stick to the left…
The next few moments go by in slow-motion, your brain kicking in to yet again lead you astray (they do say that in the air you lose the vast majority of your IQ points, and that during a competition sequence you’re basically reduced to the state of some kind of genius root vegetable…). You convince yourself that you’re still just about in the box (you’re not) and that the rest of it will still work out ok. The next two figures surprisingly do work with no major dramas, but after your biggest mistake of not taking a break after that incorrect turn, somehow something else goes wrong and in your half loop with a roll off the top and you end up lost, unsure of your heading and finally grasping onto the only runway you can see. You finish the final two figures, look down and notice the runway numbers, suddenly feeling an overwhelming sense of devastation and humiliation. You’ve just failed to meet your most basic of aims and have gone off axis during your sequence.
I did not enjoy my Known Sequence, and you can probably imagine that once I’d finally managed to bounce the aeroplane back down to the parking area (tarmac landings are still remarkably foreign to me) I wasn’t a happy bunny. Even now I’m kicking myself over the bizarre stupidity of the whole thing – turning the wrong way, and worse still, not taking a ‘free break’ and salvaging the sequence. Still, at least I’ve learned a few major lessons from the whole thing.
Being placed 9th out of 10 after the Known, I no longer felt any real pressure for my unknown sequence, and funnily enough when I got to fly the next day, things just worked and I came away with a good score.
Life is full of mistakes, and competition flying is one of those pressure cookers where decision making becomes intensely difficult. I suppose with more experience I’ll start developing my own coping mechanisms. Who knows, one day I may fly a competition without making any basic critical errors!
Competition report will be found here.
It’s not often I find myself feeling nervous to the core – terrified that everything I’ve been working for may be about to be proven to be a waste of time and effort, but this weekend I spent rather a long time feeling exactly that. It was all worth it in the end though.
I’ve spent several months now trying to get used to my aeroplane – ‘KDR is a phenomenal machine, and one with an incredible competition pedigree and history, and a machine that I’d really like to do some kind of justice to with my performances. The learning curve has been, and still is, incredibly steep – far steeper than anything else I’ve ever experienced, as this weekend’s competition very ably demonstrated. Nothing was helped by my little incident on Tuesday last week – a stone chip to ‘KDR’s propeller that yielded an epic cross country journey from Hertfordshire to Norfolk then down to Shoreham and back up into Cambridgeshire to find a replacement and get it fitted (many thanks must go to Adrian Willis of Adastral Flying, and Mark Jeffries at Little Gransden amongst others for saving my bacon). Thus, onn Thursday I was flying an aeroplane with a different propeller that had slightly different flying characteristics to that with which I’d been training. I’ll be honest here though, the performance is actually slightly better in some ways, and wasn’t a huge hindrance to my flying – the stress and timing of this little issue really wasn’t helpful though!
Friday evening: Arrival. I’d not been to Breighton airfield before, and it’s a rather lovely place actually. A nice grass runway with a few hangars full of incredible aeroplanes and a rather entertaining bunch of Yorkshire types running the place. A formation arrival with Adrian and Mark in the Extra approximately 6 minutes before a huge hailstorm engulfed the airfield, was a somewhat chaotic affair as more than one of us ended up totally confused by the wind conditions vs. runway in use vs. flying order in the “oh my word that’s a massive scary black cloud of doom I’d really rather not get sucked into” evening atmosphere. I’ll be honest – seeing the airfield’s two windsocks pointing directly AT EACH OTHER did leave me feeling more than a little nervous as I managed to very nearly nose ‘KDR over on landing. Not the most auspicious arrival really.
Saturday: cloud, rain and the Standard Known Sequence. Nerves. Massive nerves. All the stress, trauma, elation and effort of the last few months were about to be put to the test, and the weather was to be typically British – meaning that despite a 09:30 brief the competition didn’t actually kick off until well into the afternoon. As it happened I didn’t get to fly until gone 18:00, meaning that the entire day was spent nattering, panicking, drinking tea, nattering some more, drawing sequences, doing walk-throughs, more panicking, more tea drinking etc, etc. Eventually though, I strapped into the aeroplane, ran up the engine and taxied to the end of the runway before waiting for the chap in front of me to exit the competition box, spent several minutes checking and re-checking my straps, my sequence card, my canopy catches, my engine temperatures and pressures, my parachute straps and anything else I could think of before lining up, taking off and heading out to do my first ever solo competition sequence…
The take off was fine, despite what was not actually a trivial crosswind, and as I climbed out toward the competition box I changed my radio frequency to let the judges know I was with them. I then tried my hardest to calm my nerves as I hunted for my position around the box. I climbed, found the box edges and did my initial run through – two half rolls with some basic engine and strap checks conducted whilst inverted, my eyes keeping my brain in check with the position of the bright orange judge markers below me as I rolled back upright and flew may way round the back of the box to begin my run-in…
I honestly don’t remember much about the sequence – I flew it, I didn’t feel like I’d performed particularly well, and I landed – simply relieved I’d got it out of the way and not embarrassed myself too badly (especially with the entertaining gusty crosswind landing). It turned out I’d actually done rather well, I was in second place with a score of 79.3% – way above anything I’d even dreamed of being capable of achieving at this stage. Awesome. With only 1% between me and Richard the leader, the pressure was on for the Unknown sequence the next day…
Sunday: my first Unknown sequence and the art of messing up. I’d had one simple aim for this competition: not to mess up and zero any figures. I’d not even really considered that there was any possibility of doing well, all I wanted to do was learn how to fly at competition and not mess up too badly. Unfortunately a myriad of small things all added together to equal one big brain fart right smack in the middle of my Unknown sequence – I flew the wrong figure. It could have been a whole lot worse – instead of flying a Q loop (a loop with the exit on a 45 degree down line) I managed to come out on the wrong 45 degree tangent and fly a half-cubany thing that left me heading in completely the wrong direction. In fact, the first I knew of my stuff up was when I instinctively rolled on the 45 and went “oh sh*t!”. A penalty free break from the sequence to fly around and figure out how to limit the damage ended up with me thankfully flying back in the right direction to finish the sequence, all be it a little higher than was really necessary.
Upon landing I was more than a little annoyed at myself for having zero’d a figure and failed in my one simple aim, but I was also oddly relieved in a way – I knew I’d screwed up, but I also knew I’d managed the mistake in the correct way and still managed to fly the remaining figures reasonably well. A lot of laughing ensued as I resigned myself to having thrown away my good score from the previous day and decided that I was happy with coming last anyway – it didn’t matter.
When the scores came out and it turned out I was still sat in 3rd place, despite being the only pilot to zero a figure in that sequence, I could barely believe it.
The weather ensured that we didn’t get to fly our second Unknown sequences, and I have to admit to being a bit relieved (although the opportunity to redeem myself would have been nice). Hence, by some miracle I came away from my first competition with a shiny medal, more fantastic new friends and a great big grin.
Walking away from my first competition with a Bronze medal was far, far more than I ever hoped for. I’m absolutely delighted, and determined to do even better in the future.
(The competition report, with some rather lovely photographs of me and ‘KDR can be found here.)
G-SKNT is now out of the air for a few weeks for her annual inspection, so for now I’ll have to be content with mental preparation and study, along with some general cross-country flying in the C152 or PA28 on occasion. This is no bad thing actually, as it now means I have some time to sit down and work out where my concentration should lie in terms of training, writing and contacting people with regard to gaining some assistance with the project (if you’re interested in helping out in any way, please have a look at the ‘can you help‘ page).
Anyway, yesterday the BAeA released what will be next year’s Known competition sequences across the board. I’ll be entering myself at ‘Standard’ level, so for me this is the sequence I need to learn and practice:
- Half cuban
- Stall turn
- 180° aerobatic turn
- 45° climb
- 1 turn precision spin
- Immelman (half loop/half roll)
- Split-S (half roll/half loop)
- 4-point hesitation roll
The Known sequences for the 2012 competition season are now up on the BAeA website, here.
I’m looking forward to flying the Standard Known. It looks something like this:
News and blog updates
- Living the dream and becoming an airshow pilot
- Support from the Air League: the day I met HRH the Duke of Edinburgh
- Another step forward – my first air display
- A fresh season
- News: Feature at Global Aviation Resource
- Testing the Smoke
- Modifying a Pitts in the UK: smoke systems!
- 2012 Year Review
- Competition vs Display aerobatics
- End of the 2012 Competition Season
- June 2013 (1)
- May 2013 (2)
- April 2013 (2)
- February 2013 (1)
- January 2013 (1)
- December 2012 (1)
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- August 2012 (1)
- July 2012 (1)
- June 2012 (2)
- May 2012 (1)
- April 2012 (3)
- March 2012 (2)
- February 2012 (1)
- January 2012 (7)
- December 2011 (9)
- November 2011 (5)