My First Aerobatic Competition (24 kb)

I was climbing vertically, looking over at the left wingtip to hold the plane vertical as the airspeed unwound down through 60 mph, then 50, 40. My palms were sweating, as they always do whenever I am doing aerobatics after having putting something new on the plane, and my senses were on hyper-alert.

Suddenly, I sensed something wrong. The engine note was rising! Normally, as the plane decelerates in the hammerhead, the engine slows until, at the top of the maneuver, with airspeed almost zero, the whole airframe is shuddering as the engine tries to make power at a speed well below its power band. Now, the engine was speeding up. My left hand poised over the throttle, ready to pull it back to save the engine from destruction if the revs went over redline. But the revs stablized at 6300 rpm, 500 below redline.

With the revs staying right in the power band, and the engine still making its full rated power, the speed bled off much more slowly than normal. I waited what seemed like a long time before I finally kicked right rudder to swing it around at the top, and as I did, I realized I'd still kicked too early.

I pulled out of the vertical dive and leveled off. Everthing seemed perfectly normal. I took a few moments to think about it. I realized that the engine speed had stabilized at exactly the same rpms as what I'd seen in a static run-up with the airplane tied down, minutes before. As I thought back to the takeoff, I remembered that the rpms had gone to 6300 at the start of the takeoff roll, and had dropped to 6000 as the plane accelerated through about 30 mph. They had remained at 6000 rpm whenever I gave it full throttle in flight, until, in the hammerhead, the airspeed had dropped to below 30 mph which point they had risen to 6300 again!

This was my first flight with a new, high-aspect ratio carbon fiber prop, made by Warp Drive. My friend Jeff Harris, who had installed one on a slightly smaller aircraft recently, had told me that it behaved like a constant speed prop, always keeping the revs within the power band, no matter what the airspeed. I had to conclude that this was indeed what was happening with my plane, too. Through some black magic, the prop was loading the engine in such a way that it dropped slightly from static rpm above 30 mph, and went back up when the airspeed dropped to near zero.

I landed, made some minor adjustments, and proceeded to "wring her out", throwing the airplane through every maneuver I typically fly - loops, rolls, hammerheads, Cuban 8's, split-S's, Immelmans, wedges, and maybe a few more. I was stunned at the difference in the airplane's behavior, particularly in vertical maneuvers. With the engine pulling strongly no matter what the airspeed, I could make bigger loops, much taller hammerheads, longer vertical and 45 degree uplines. I no longer had to manage the throttle, backing off on the downsides of maneuvers, or when I dove to gain airspeed. I could leave it firewalled all the way. Even descents were easier; there was no longer any risk of over-speeding, and the EGT's, normally critical in descent, were 10 to 20 percent lower, almost too low!

Top speed was now over 10 mph higher, and the plane would cruise comfortably 10 to 15 mph faster than before. As I got used to it, I found myself flying around easily 10 to 25 mph faster than I normally did before. This new prop was the biggest single improvement I have ever made on my plane.

My purchase of the prop had been precipitated by an upcoming IAC competition at Orange County, NY. This would be my first competition, and I was not a little anxious, both about the competition, and about the trip there and back. I figured the 200 mile trip from my home on the seacoast of New Hampshire to Orange County would take over 3 hours at 85 mph against a 20 or 30 knot headwind. My little RANS S-10 is dynamically unstable in pitch and roll, requiring constant corrections if there is any turbulence. When you are flying with a two-stroke engine, you must be constantly looking for a place to land in case the engine quits. The two tasks, in addition to the normal workload of navigation, watching for traffic, watching the instruments, etc, add up to a very stressful level of activity on long flights in this airplane. A 3 hour trip can be exhausting.

After two years of wanting it, but not being able to afford it, and being a little sceptical of claims I'd heard about the improvement in cruise performance it gave, I had finally put the new prop on a charge card. I had tried to limit my hopes to a 10 mph improvement in cruise. The extra 5 to 10 mph and phenomenally improved aerobatic performance were a real bonus.

In the following days, I anticipated the upcoming competition. It would be my first, and I was eager to show that my little 475-lb, 65 hp airplane was a respectable aerobatic performer. Its new-found vertical performance would go a long way towards reinforcing that impression, I felt. I daydreamed pleasantly of the hammerhead in the Sportsman sequence, ideally placed right in front of the judges, where the new prop's performance would be perfectly showcased.

On the Friday before the contest, I departed my home field of Hampton at about 9:15 am, as the fog was burning off. Visibility was poor, about 6 to 10 miles in haze, and I had about a 25-knot headwind. I stopped for fuel at what I thought was Southbridge, MA, after about an hour. The place seemed deserted but eventually I found some gentlemen willing to turn on the gas pump for me. They seemed to not quite know what to make of me and my tiny airplane, sounding like a giant chainsaw, and trailing a delicate cloud of pale blue smoke. One of them asked me, "How did you find this place?" I proudly told them how easy it had been, flying along the Mass Pike until I saw the interstate to Hartford, and then turning left to find the airport. Simple! How could anyone have trouble finding it? "I fly by here all the time," I bragged, exaggerating a little.

Cocky as hell from the success of the morning's adventure so far, I put 5 gallons of 100LL in the right tank; the left was down only 1 gal so I left it alone. I was burning about 6 gals/hr instead of the normal 5; I surmised that this was because the prop loaded the engine more at lower RPM, making for a richer mixture and higher fuel burn.

I departed "Southbridge" and about 15 minutes later, I began to become frantic as nothing on the ground matched my route on the chart. Finally I realized I'd actually been at Oxford, MA instead of Southbridge. I'd now gone about 15 miles out of my way by following the wrong interstate. You can imagine how foolish I felt! Such a mistake would be embarrassing for a student pilot but is humiliating for a grizzled veteran of 450 hours. Recalling my cocky attitude while being blissfully unaware of the fact that I was already quite lost did not help me feel any better at all!

I headed up another interstate to get back on my route, and stopped at Waterbury-Oxford, CT. Here I put 10 gals of 100LL in, 5 gals per side. On takeoff, the engine was down about 150 rpm and seemed a little rougher, but at first I put it down to a flaky tach (a screw had fallen out of its face, and its predecessor, of the same make, had been notoriously erratic, so this seemed like a reasonable assumption).

I made it to Orange County, in Montgomery, NY, at about 2:30. I practiced the Sportsman sequence once in a makeshift box at a nearby abandoned airfield when it became clear that there were too many planes to get through the official practice session at Orange. There were more planes than sometimes show up at Fond du Lac, which is a week-long event, but we had only 2 days of questionable weather.

As I taxied the plane around at the end of the day to find a hanger space, it began to fail to idle, even though I had not changed the carbs from the previous 3000 rpm setting. I could no longer deny that something was wrong with the engine, and I began to suspect lead fouling from the 100LL (I'd always used high test Mobil autogas before). I went to bed at a local motel in a state of high anxiety, fearing the lead might have already started to "stick" the rings, and wondering how I would get a dead S-10 across the 200 miles between me and home.

I staggered out of bed at somewhere around Oh Dark Thirty on Saturday morning in order to make the briefing at 7:30. At 7:20 we were informed that the briefing was postponed until 8:30 because there was nothing but fog outside anyway. I thought longingly of the motel bed.

I pulled the plane out of the hanger, removed the cowling and pulled the plugs. All four were coated with a thick, almost-white layer of crud. Lead fouling, after only 2 1/2 hours on avgas! I borrowed some gas cans and hitched a ride to a Mobil station for 10 gallons of good old Mobil Super Premium, and a mechanic from the local FBO kindly picked me up some new spark plugs on his lunch break. The contest director approved me for a technical safety flight.

The plane flew normally again, pulling full revs on takeoff and climb, and feeling smooth in climb and cruise, but idle was not quite back to normal. I found that it would not quit in flight at idle, however, and landed, much relieved.

The Unlimited category, consisting of Sukhois, Lasers, and Pitts with huge six-cylinder engines, started ripping up the sky about noon, after which the Intermediates and Advanced categories went up to play. I was too nervous to watch any of it, though.

There were so many planes that I didn't get to fly my sequence that day. I did meet a number of interesting people, however, including an unlimited pilot who flies a Pitts S-2B, and a retired nuclear physicist who I'll call Ruth, who wants to build a RANS S-10 and was delighted to have a "tour" of my plane and hear RANS building and flying stories.

The Pitts pilot, named Martin, gave me a tour of his plane, and awed me with an explanation of how he flies the unlimited sequence. The Pitts is a phenomenal performer but is not quite the equal of the modern monoplanes, which requires him to fly it harder. He routinely pulls plus 9 G's and negative 7, which is hard for me to imagine, being used to only plus 4.5 and minus 2.5, myself. More intimidating are the nature of the maneuvers and the sheer number of them. I got tired just watching him hanger-fly them! Try to imagine doing a snap roll while going straight up, and recovering after exactly 360 degrees, and continuing perfectly straight up for another few seconds...and then remember that the blue sky ahead of you has no reference points!

Martin was most informative about the various models of Pitts. It seems I could get the least desirable, a homebuilt S-1C with flat-bottomed wings, for about what I have in my plane, $20,000, or maybe even $15,000. But according to one of the self-appointed experts I met, the typical S-1C hasn't got much better roll performance than a Decathlon, and doesn't even typically have inverted systems. Such a plane might, in some ways, be a step down from the S-10, which has inverted systems and a decent roll rate.

At the other end of the scale, a factory-built, six-cylinder S-2B is in six figures (my mind couldn't retain the exact amount) new and at least $60,000 for a flyable beater. *Sigh* I guess I will just have to keep trying to learn to like mixing 2-cycle oil into my gas. At the banquet that night, the rowdies got drunk while the restaurant people tried to cook for three times the expected number of people, so we all sat around for about three hours before the meal finally got served. But I was talking aerobatics with aerobatics people, so I didn't care.

Overnight the weather changed from warm and hazy to crisp and cold. I made another forced arising at Oh Dark Thirty, but this time they really did have the briefing at 7:30 because we could actually see the sky, and by 8:30 the Basic category planes, consisting of Decathlons and mostly smaller Pitts, were gently puttering around the sky. Still concerned about lead fouling on the flight home, when I might need to stop and put in some avgas, I leaned my mixture a little, forgetting about the leaning effect of the colder weather today.

My new friend Ruth asked me to video her getting into her Pitts S-2B, and doing her sequence. I'd just gone around to the front of the plane for a final shot of her strapping in when, without warning, she started the engine. I was standing about a foot from the enormous prop when it swooshed around and whacked me with a blast of air as it passed. I jumped away, and Ruth looked up and said, "Oh my God, Alison was right in the prop area!" Not wanting to upset her before her routine, I said, "It's all right!" and smiled.

But I was lying. Shaken, I walked back to a secluded part of the hanger and started to cry. The shock of the sudden almost-lethal incident in the bright innocence of the morning brought up emotions which I'd had after two other brushes with death earlier this summer.

Martin, the Pitts pilot, came up and let me cry on his shoulder, and after a while I stopped crying. It was too late to video Ruth's flight, though, and as I fumbled with the video camera, I heard someone say, "Oh, she did another Ruth!" "What does that mean?" I said. "She did a 1 1/4 turn spin instad of a one-turn spin, and zeroed the maneuver. She does that all the time." So she has a history of being a little absent-minded, I thought. Had I known, I would have been more careful around her plane.

Eventually, I started to get mad, and this helped me to get out of my upset as I prepared for my own flight. Martin helped me with some advice on how to fly the maneuvers, and even got me to hand-fly the sequence out on the ramp, visualizing how the landscape would look at the beginning and end of each maneuver. He stressed the importance of not missing any maneuvers, and of taking the 5-point penalty for a break or an out of the box in favor of zeroing a maneuver. Confident that my week of practicing the sequence had adequately prepared me, I listened, but determined that I wouldn't break, no matter what.

I cleaned the bugs off the prop, and went through my little ritual of strapping into my chute, strapping in, and going through my checklist. I taxied out to the end of the runway, listening on the radio to the chief judge instructing the "launcher" to launch the planes before me. The launcher was Ruth, back from her flight! I got a little madder, and when she failed to launch me on the chief judge's instruction, I launched myself, feeling somehow vindicated. The wind was brisk, and my little plane got beat up by the turbulence roiling over the ridge to the west as I climbed out. Dismayed, I found that the EGT's were too high for comfort, the front cylinder flirting with 1200 F in climb. I'd gone too lean! I could land and readjust it, but then I would have to fly last and might not get to fly. I decided to keep an eye on the EGT gauge and go for it.

Up high it was a little smoother, and as I circled in the the holding area, waiting for a Decathlon to finish, I felt very calm and peaceful. They cleared me into the box, and after a final one-negative-G bash, the turbulence seemed to leave me alone for my flight.

I flew the first maneuver, a two-point roll, just as Martin had told me, with a one-second pause at the point, so the judges would see it. I used just the right amount of rudder and forward stick (often I am yawing all over the sky in aileron rolls), stayed perfectly level, and came back around exactly on heading.

I flew the rest of the sequence like that, better in some of the maneuvers than I had ever flown it, and always just in the right place in the box. I found myself keeping my eye on the EGT instead of checking the card between each maneuver. flying the sequence by memory, but I was calm and confident, and the sequence flowed like never before. Every time I pulled out, my wings were perfectly square with the box. I was "in the zone", as race drivers sometimes say, and it felt wonderful!

On final, the ridge turbulence beat me up again a little, but I didn't care. When I landed, the contest director, Diane Hakala, who is one of the top women pilots in the country and a member of next year's World Championship team, was the first to greet me. She was delighted with my flight, saying that I really knew how to fly the plane - better than any other RANS pilots they'd seen. She said I flew a lot better than a lot of the men out there, who only think they know how to fly. A group of excited women were standing around me in a circle, delighted that I had done so well, listening to me answer questions about how I had learned to fly. It was a golden moment for me.

Things started to go sharply downhill after that. Martin came up to me and asked me if I was aware of missing any maneuvers. Not wanting to leave my pleasant, euphoric glow, I said no. "You forgot the hammerhead," he said, not unkindly. The glow went away. The hammerhead was the maneuver I'd most been looking forward to, the maneuver which best showed off the new prop, and one of the easiest in the S-10. I was devastated!

The rest of the day was an anguished blur. Emotionally drained, I lugged gas cans and refueled in the gusting wind, getting fuel and oil mix everywhere, exhausting myself physically as well. I hauled my stuff to the plane, schlepped the borrowed fuel cans the 1/4 mile or so back to their home, bolted the tool box to the floor and started strapping parachute and bags and stuff in, all the time the 200-mile return trip looming longer, and the remaining daylight getting shorter.

I stopped only to watch Martin fly his free sequence, and he flew beautifully, the manuevers smooth and flowing and more square and perfect than anyone I'd seen that day. I don't know where he ended up, but I thought he deserved to win.

The scores were posted, and someone gave me my scoring sheets. I'd flown well for a first-timer, even getting some 8.5's and 9's on some manuevers, but the missing hammerhead left me 27th out of 35 instead of solidly mid- pack, where I'd have been if I'd done it and gotten a decent score. Well-meaning people kept stopping by my plane as I struggled to get ready to leave, and offering critiquing. None failed to mention the missed hammerhead.

Things hit bottom when, urged on by some enthusiastic but misinformed supporters, I applied for an IAC achievement patch. The official I approached, who had so kindly driven me to the Mobil station earlier in the day, ripped up my application before my eyes, informing me that the patch was not for those who'd zeroed a maneuver. Aghast, I wanted the concrete ramp to open up and swallow me up.

I went to call Flight Service for weather, and found myself in the ladies' room, crying again. After a bit of that, I felt better, called FS and got a forecast for strong tailwinds at 9000 feet but crosswinds at 6000 and 3000. I bought an apple and a can of selzer for a late lunch, to go. I pushed the plane down the ramp before I fired the engine, so I wouldn't disturb the trophy presentation, under way as I departed. Everything was now seeming like a silent rebuke for my missed hammerhead.

The wind beat me up a bit as I climbed out behind a pair of Decathlons. They left me in the dust, but they stayed low as I climbed to smooth air at 7500 feet and into the 35-knot tailwind. As I passed 5 miles southeast of Poughkeepsie, I heard one of them tell the tower he was clear of their area to the northeast, so I had a little satisfaction, knowing that my "crawling S-10", as they'd called it, had outdistanced them for once, by using its superior climb.

The view from that altitude was spectacular. Munching on the apple, and the remains of a three-day-old peanut butter sandwich, I watched 747's climb majestically out of Brainard and Kennedy. From over Hartford, I could see Worcester; a few minutes later, I could see Boston. The awesome view almost made me forget my slowly chilling feet (ambient was showing in the high 30's as the sun went down, and the S-10 has no cockpit heat), my more-quickly-filling bladder, and my anxieties about the engine.

I figured I'd need less than 2 hours for the 200 miles with the tailwind and my 95 mph cruise. At 5 gph, I should be able to stay aloft for about 2 1/2 hours, and I had just that amount of daylight left when I departed.

Fuel burn with my lean mixture was going well, but the tailwind turned to a crosswind and then a headwind. As I passed over Lawrence, the Hampton water tower, my landmark for my home airfield, was visible in the distance, but time was getting short. There would not be time for a precautionary fuel stop, but there was enough fuel left if my bladder would hold out. The apple and soda water were beginning to seem like a very bad idea.

As I descended through 5000 feet the trashy air beat me up again, but I was almost home now. I called downwind at Hampton and my friend Jeff Harris answered from his S-9, "Alison, I'm 2000 feet overhead!" His voice was welcome and reassuring. Home was inches away, and my bladder gave me no choice but to save a crummy approach and plop it on. I won't describe the next few frantic minutes, but suffice it to say that by the time Jeff taxied in, I was feeling almost human again.

Time in flight was 2 1/4 hours. I had 15 minutes of daylight and 3 gallons of fuel left. I told my airplane I loved her, and shut the hanger on one of the memorable experiences of my life. In the glow of the setting sun, the day didn't seem so bad after all.