Monday, 19 September 2011


Terrified. Unsure. Alone and trembling, breathing deeply trying to gain composure…

That’s how I sat, in the back seat of a two seater Pitts Special, alone with nothing but the wind and my own thoughts for company.

Sherbern-in-Elmet, Yorkshire. The Tiger Trophy competition. Paul and I had headed up, he flying the Pitts and me driving my new second home (the van). This was quite a big one – all classes competing, from the Beginners (just me as it happened), all the way up to Unlimited. Lots of pilots, lots of banter, lots of flying. The whole thing was a fantastic experience for me, being only the second aerobatic competition I’d ever attended. I managed to fly my Beginners sequence on Friday, admittedly not as well as I was really capable of, but in all honesty I hadn’t prepared all that well and hadn’t really been overly concerned with the sequence – immediately before flying it and being judged I’d been practicing a sequence for the next class up (Standard). Being the only entrant I’m loathe to consider that I won (can you win a competition if there are no other competitors? I don’t really think so…), but despite my woeful lack of preparation and my somewhat distracted state, flying in some thick miserable haze of poor visibility, I still managed to be awarded a respectable 70.7% on my scoresheet.

Saturday’s competition was great. I’d hoped to be able to compete in the Standard class, but paperwork and my lack of endorsement precluded that happening. That’s not to say I didn’t fly, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The competition in itself was for me a wonderful and eye-opening experience – I got to watch some fantastic flying and meet a wide range of amazing and friendly people, pilots, judges, partners – all people enthused about aerobatics and the life that surrounds it (to any of you that were there and kind enough to talk to and make a young, shy pilot feel welcome, thank you!).

Two days previously, I’d spent the day at Shobdon flying circuits with Paul, gradually feeling more and more confident that I actually was starting to get the hang of landing at last. The good landings had continued all day until a moment of insanity clearly struck my normally sane instructor – he got out of the aeroplane and sent me off alone for the first time. (Quite how wise a decision this had been on his part came rapidly into question as I had a rather shocking near crash experience on my first landing, but that’s another story – ever cool, calm and collected, Paul managed to talk some sense into me and sent me back out to make less of a hash of things and as a result salvaged a good chunk of my confidence and esteem, and as such I left the airfield having been signed off to fly the Pitts solo, albeit by the skin of my tightly clenched teeth…). Anyway, my point here is that on Thursday I’d managed to achieve my aim for the winter, somewhat sooner than anticipated, and had solo’d the aeroplane.

Preparation is quite important to me in life. I like to know, as far as possible, what is expected of me and what I have to do, so at the end of the day hearing Paul ask me if I’d consider flying my ‘proficiency endorsement’ flight solo in the competition box, instead of with an examiner in the front seat acting as safety pilot (as I’d been led to believe would happen), I spent a good few minutes stunned and wondering whether this was genuinely the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard, or if his belief in me was justified (could I really do this? Was I really capable? Could I really be ready for this?).

Terrified. Unsure. Alone and trembling, breathing deeply trying to gain composure…

That’s how I sat, in the back seat of a two seater Pitts Special, alone with nothing but the wind and my own thoughts for company.

After a good deal of procrastination and thinking, I eventually swallowed my lack of self-confidence and listened to the voices of the pilots willing me on, and the voice of the man that really knew what I was capable of. Paul and Ron saw me to the aeroplane and then headed to what had been the judging line earlier in the day, off to watch me fly the 2011 Standard Known sequence to prove that I was capable of safely flying and competing at this level. This was my first ever solo aerobatic flight…

Take-off scares me. A 200hp Lycoming engine attached to a big propeller on the front of a relatively light-weight aeroplane with only me in it is not something to be underestimated. Rudder inputs to compensate for the gyroscopic effect of such a big propeller on such a short fuselage, changing as I change my attitude to lift the tail to allow myself to see the runway ahead of me, lumps in the grass throwing and bouncing us around as we rapidly accelerate – it’s a relief when I can finally pull her up and take flight. I start to breathe again.

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve caught the aerobatics bug, but caught it I have and I doubt I’ll ever be cured – not that I want to be. Flight is something special, and aerobatic flight seems to me to be the embodiment of the focus and freedom I’ve spent my life searching for. The mountains are the only other place I’ve ever found such clarity of thought through sheer necessary focus, and only then for an instant at a time. In the air the challenges aerobatic flight presents me are everything I crave – clarity, focus and emotion all folded into one.


The Standard Known Sequence for 2011 – my first solo aerobatic foray

“The box, just find the box. Get higher, just relax, get it done.” My thoughts are my own, my emotions personal and private, but in the following moments they are nothing but crisp, logical necessity.

“Shit, there’s cloud. Ok just keep circling outside the box and wait for it to shift, it’s only momentary…”

Nothing went exactly to plan. My mind was full to beyond capacity, I couldn’t remember the sequence, everything happened too quickly. All I knew was I had to stay in the box, maintain the heights I’d calculated for each manoeuvre and fly everything safely. It all happened in such a blur I barely had time to realise what I was doing and that in those moments everything I’d been striving for over the past year of flying were suddenly being realised…

Landing at a strange airfield is always something that I find mildly traumatic, and being in a high-performance biplane that I’d only solo’d once before wasn’t something that was particularly helpful to my already broken nerves. Yes, my nerves were broken, but clearly not yet shattered as my eventual landing was as perfect as I could ever have hoped for – not so much as a skip, just a nice settled gentle touch down allowing me to roll the nose forward and see where I had to put my feet to keep myself in line. The relief was immense but very quickly replaced by the horrible knowledge that I’d landed on a runway from which I had no clue of where to taxi. Having to ask stupid questions over the radio is something I suspect I’ll get used to doing, but at the time I found myself chattering away to myself in private in between said stupid questions, just to maintain some semblance of sanity as I meandered my way back across the airfield, parking and shutting down my engine.

A few questions later, Ron told me he was happy and that he’d sign me off. Next year I’ll be flying alone and competing with the others at the Standard level.

Still terrified, but now sure. Standing alone and trembling with excitement, I have composure. I am an aerobatic pilot.


  1. they say, the first fix is free!!

  2. Awesome. Keep up the terrific work.

  3. Aerobatics - a bit like crack-cocaine, you can't just try it and walk away!

  4. Of course, crack would almost certainly be cheaper ;-)