Flying high, above in the sky, it's a bird... no! It's a plane... yes! Suddenly in an apparent free-fall, it twists back up at a sharp angle. While at first glance, this airplane's pilot is seemingly losing control, closer inspection reveals they are exhibiting expert mastery of their craft.
Aerobatics is the demonstration of intricate flying maneuvers using specialized planes and technique to manipulate the movement of these aircraft. Often performed for one's own enjoyment or as a sport in competition, the activity often awes and baffles onlookers as pilots complete moves with intriguing names like the Cuban Eight, Tailside and Pugachev's Cobra.
The planes used in aerobatics vary from one's normal commercial airliner, glider or personal plane in several ways. The planes are stress-tested for more G-forces than normal planes to withstand maneuvers like sharp climbs or going upside down. The engines, unlike conventional engines, are also designed to run upside down. The wings are also designed differently--symmetrically, top and bottom--to make the plane fly the same way upside down as right side up. While not as efficient, it ensures the plane will not go into a free-fall when performing unconventional movements.
"Most of the planes are home-built," says Dr. Ivo Jirasek, a University of Calgary computer science professor and member of Aerobatics Canada. "The guy I bought my plane from said he spent 4,000 hours building it. It's a lot of work. You have to be very dedicated."
Jirasek explains that most aerobatics planes are built from a kit that begins as a rigorously-tested prototype. The plane goes through countless inspections to ensure its safety for the potentially dangerous aerobatics movements.
"[Inspections happen] more than once because as you go through the various stages, once it is built, you can't see what's inside," he says. "Then there is a test flight and the plane has to do 15 or 20 hours close to the airport. Then it gets stamped. It's quite a process."
Groups like the Snowbirds of the Canadian Armed Forces have popularized aerobatics and airshows as a means of entertainment for the masses. For civilians, Aerobatics Canada is the place to go to get involved in the intriguing sport. Their Alberta chapter flies out of Springbank Airport and participates in international competitions, such as the upcoming Advanced World Aerobatic Championship in Pendleton, Oregon Aug. 1-10. Jirasek recalls his introduction to aerobatics, noting the challenges with getting into the sport.
"I got my first pilot license when I was 15 to fly gliders and then planes," he says. "I got bored. Then I saw an aerobatics competition in Springbank and I thought, 'Wow, that looks kind of interesting.'"
He says in order to enter aerobatics, you have to get your pilot's licence, pass several qualifiers and have access to an aerobatics plane to make the whole process work. After that, five to 10 accompanied flight hours are required before students can take to the skies by themself.
Aerobatics varies from the military formation flying air shows seen performed with jet planes. In order to do all the maneuvers, pilots employ the use of a gyro effect that can only be gained with a specialized propeller aerobatics plane. Jets limit movement due do their fast speed and also carry a hefty, inhibiting price tag.
"Even if you wanted to do it [with a jet], the cheapest jet plane would cost $1 million," says Jirasek. "A jet can do a very fast flyover and it has a good rollover rate, so it can do a lot of rolls, but that's about it."
Competitions are divided into several levels based on skill-level. Starting at beginner, the levels move through sportsman, intermediate, advanced and unlimited. For those preparing for competition, like the AWAC in Pendleton, there are several things to consider on top of the normal difficulties of flying aerobatics maneuvers.
"If you are ambitious, you can start to get more into aerobatics and think about how it looks from the judge's perspective," Jirasek says. "You need somebody on the ground to tell you how it looks from the ground. That is consequently more difficult because you think you're doing it very nicely and then from the ground, it doesn't look very good."
Jirasek explained that there is a 1 kilometre cube space the plane must fly in during competition. This makes the maneuvers more challenging and adds to the amount of skill required to complete the movements. Despite all the difficulties of flying at a high level, seeking out other competitions is always beneficial to every pilot.
"You compare how other people fly, how other people fly your type of airplane," says Jirasek.
In the end, whether a pilot is in it to win or to learn, aerobatics will continue to thrive as an unconventional sport and recreation, where it takes skill to look out of control.
Aerobatics Canada's next competition is in Calgary for the Judges School Apr. 19-20.