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Aerobatics: Extreme Pilots and Types of Flight


The jaw-dropping rolls, loops and slides of extreme flying are more than just crowd-pleasers at air shows around the world. They actually began as life-saving combat maneuvers in World War I. Back then, extreme flying was one of the few ways a pilot had to give himself the best chance of evading enemy fire. A century on, aerobatics in competition and at airshows is wildly popular and big business. Here’s what you might not know about crazy, exciting, life-saving extreme flight.

The maneuvers: aerobatics pushing the limits

Close up of former Red Bull Air Race World Champion Hannes Arch
Close up of former Red Bull Air Race World Champion Hannes Arch

If you can do it on skis, you can do it in a plane, as former Red Bull Air Race world champion Hannes Arch proved when he flew slalom through a wind farm in Austria’s Styrian Alps. This meant controlling his plane – moving up and down and twisting and turning through 230ft-high spinning turbines – at almost 200mph while coping with the kind of weather you get at 6,000ft above sea level.

In other daring Red Bull stunts, Paul Bonhomme and wingman Steve Jones flew their Xtreme Air XA41 planes through a hangar at Llanbedr Airfield in North Wales, traveling at 300km/h just 3ft off the ground; while the Red Bull Air Force team pulled off eight aerial disciplines in one continuous sequence in the Moab Desert. The sequence involved skydivers/high-speed parachute flyers, wingsuit pilots, BASE jumpers and aerobatic plane pilot Kirby Chambliss.

The aircraft: capable and specialist fire power

There are two types of aircraft used in aerobatics: specialist aerobatic planes and aerobatic capable aircraft. Specialist aerobatic planes like the Pitts Special and Sukhoi Su-29 are modified for aerobatic performance; while aerobatic capable aircraft like the Cessna 152 Aerobat or R2160 Acrobin are still fit for general use – in other words, they can perform aerobatics while still being equipped to carry passengers and luggage.

Jets are used in aerobatics mainly for formation flying, because they can’t use the gyroscopic forces that a propeller driven aircraft can exploit and their speed increases the size of aerobatic figures and the amount of time a pilot must withstand increased g-forces.

One of the most popular aerobatics airplanes is the Extra 330SC, favored by many aerobatics stars including “first lady of aerobatics” Patty Wagstaff. Patty’s achievements include winning three U.S. National Championships and many awards, such as the Charlie Hillard Trophy for being the top-scoring American pilot at the 1996 World Aerobatic Championships. Other popular choices include the Sukhoi Su-26-M and Sukhoi Su-31-M, XtremeAir Sbach 300, Mudry CAP 332, Extra EA-300SR and MX Aircraft MXS.

The pilots: a motley crew

Russian aerobatic pilot Svetlana Kapanina in flight in white aerobatic plane
Russian aerobatic pilot Svetlana Kapanina in flight in white aerobatic plane

Taking a look at some of the world’s top aerobatics pilots shows a diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds with a common love of aviation:

  • Italian Mirko Flaim is one of only five pilots in the world to hold an aerobatics license for helicopters. His love of flying began when his godfather gave him a helicopter sightseeing flight as a gift.
  • Cecilia Aragon holds the record for the shortest time taken to progress from first solo flight in an airplane to joining the U.S. aerobatic team, achieving the feat in under six years. The computer scientist and academic professor was a bronze medalist at the 1993 U.S. National Aerobatic Championships and the 1994 World Aerobatic Championships and has since won over 70 trophies in regional aerobatic competitions.
  • Briton Paul Bonhomme is the owner and race pilot of Team Bonhomme, as well as Red Bull Air Race World Champion for 2015. The commercial airline pilot comes from an aviation-crazy family; his father was an airline pilot, his mother was a flight attendant and his brother is a commercial pilot.
  • Russian aerobatic pilot Svetlana Kapanina went to medical school and graduated in pharmaceutical sciences. By the age of 22, she was already an instructor pilot at former Soviet paramilitary sport organisation DOSAAF's Irkutsk club, and also became a member of the Russian national aerobatic team.

Aerobatics shows: the world’s biggest and best extreme flying

There’s a whole host of aerobatics shows taking place around the world. Some of the most popular include:

  • The EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, held in Wisconsin, is the world’s largest airshow of its kind. More than 10,000 aircraft and pilots take part and the event attracts 500,000 spectators each year.
  • Every year on the third weekend of July, the Royal International Air Tattoo takes place at RAF Fairford in England. It is the world’s largest military air show, held in support of The Royal Air Force Charitable Trust, and draws crowds of 150,000.
  • Canada’s biggest airshow, the Abbotsford Airshow, treats 125,000 plus spectators to performances by Canadian Snowbirds, the SkyHawks parachuting team, Thunderbirds and Blue Angels.
  • The U.K.’s Bournemouth Air Festival is one of the most popular free annual airshows in Europe, combining four days of fun at the beach with daring aerobatics displays.
  • The Paris Air Show is the world’s largest aviation expo, treating crowds to spectacular aerobatics flying displays as a selection of the 150 aircraft on display take to the skies every afternoon over the historic city.

The future of extreme flight: drone aerobatics and racing

One of the most exciting new sports around is drone racing. The Red Bull DR.ONE event, held for the first time in September 2017, featured fantastic speeds, displays of incredible talent and a spirit of aviation innovation. Held in Austria, the event tested the navigation skills of some of the world’s best pilots on a fast, technical track with weight and height as the only limits.

In fact, there isn’t another area of model flight that has expanded so quickly in such a short time. According to DR.ONE Race Director Jörg Bumba, the possible speeds and maneuvers are mind-blowing and he sees parallels with races like Formula 1 or Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. With the constant developments in drone technology and the training and talent required by drone pilots, he’s optimistic that this niche sport will go mainstream in years to come.

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