Aerobatic Sequences: Construction, Revision and Peer Review

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Whether your indicators of autumn are colorful foliage, a veil of frost or the sound of snowblowers, most of us have buckled down for winter by now. A few air shows hold out well into late autumn, but few performers bother installing seat and engine block heaters to fly for the St. Paul Winter Carnival. It’s the off season, the time of year when most performers review their show from the year past and start thinking of what to do with next year’s routine. Whether the 2011 season is be your first, your first in a new airplane, or the third decade of flying the same routine in the same plane, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how other performers at various stages in their career construct and review their performance sequences.

Putting the rote in routine

Lee Lauderback flies P-51 Mustangs more than anyone in the world today. While he flies plenty of demonstrations a year, it’s not all he does. “My job is not flying air shows every single week. I may fly shows at 10 or 15 sites a year, but much of my time in the Mustang is spent instructing,” he said. He currently averages over 300 hours a year in the Mustang, easily enough to keep him comfortable flying the fabled World War II fighter.

For Lauderback, comfort does not breed a relaxed attitude toward his demonstration sequence. “In flying shows for 25 years, I’ve only changed my sequence three times, and those were small adjustments,” Lauderback said. “In the air show business, at least, change is not always good. In the end, the sequence doesn’t have to change much. It’s a Mustang. All you’ve got to do in it is fly by fast. People love the Mustang!”

Like Lauderback, Michael Goulian flies a routine that doesn’t change significantly from year to year. The Red Bull race pilot flies an Extra 330 on the air show circuit. “Over ten years, I’ve built a solid sequence. It’s like a basic foundation, and it took a while to do that. My routine fits in all types of aerobatic boxes, from a tiny 2,500 foot-long box to all the way up to a 4,000 foot box like you see at some of the military base shows,” Goulian said. “From one show to another, the base foundation does not change.”

Bryan Jensen flies a single-seat Pitts Model 12, dubbed “The Beast.” This is his first full season on the air show circuit, and also the first season that a single-seat Model 12 has been flown full time on display. This required Jensen to first develop his own bag of tricks to draw upon as he started to assemble his sequence from scratch.

“We came up with a routine to showcase the airplane’s power,” said Jensen, who flew in aerobatic competitions for years before moving to airs hows. “This isn’t a sleek monoplane, and it’s not just a Pitts. It’s more of a 1969 muscle car with wings.”

Jensen teamed up with air show veteran Carl Pascarell, who coached his practices as he built his season’s routine. “I really relied on him to see, from the ground, what I could do well with the plane. At first, up high, we worked up some maneuvers through dumb luck and trial and error, until we had them refined into the categories of what worked, and what didn’t. Until I could fly a maneuver 100 times perfectly, we didn’t even consider adding it to the lineup,” Jensen said. He is still working up a number of figures, polishing them to add to his lineup sometime in the future.

Rising through the ranks of aerobatic competition, Goulian said he flew under a coach’s supervision all the time. “In addition to the everyday practice routine I was in for over a decade, I probably flew 150 days — days, not flights — with a coach on the ground watching. That equates to more than 500 coached flights. A lot of what I do now is based on those coached flights. What I do now is watch other performers, and they watch me.” They compare notes on what they like, what they don’t like, and take that into consideration for future practices and performances.

When it comes to length, performers’ opinions vary as widely as their performances. “Seven and a half to eight minutes is enough,” said Jensen. “If you’re over eight minutes, it’s a hotdog show; the spectators are wandering off to find the hotdog stand.”

Goulian agrees. “I watch other performers and gauge how long they keep my attention. Some performers, big name acts we all would recognize, fly way too long. My show is 11 to 12 minutes from the time I go smoke-on until I’m getting out of my plane. A lot of these guys are running 16 to 20 minutes in their routines. One show I was recently at had a performer who ran 24 minutes, and that wasn’t considering the taxi-in time.” The taxi-in and shutdown time is one part of the show that Goulian considers part of his routine, but is often overlooked by announcers, organizers and promoters. “Our show interacts with the crowd until I step out of the plane. I think getting the fans cheering and then running to the fence to meet them and sign autographs is what this business is all about. We MUST create fans of the pilots, not the planes. People inspire, machines don’t. In my opinion, we’re in the inspiration business as well as show business. Flying your plane and then disappearing back to the hangar or “hot ramp” is doing the show and the fans an injustice.”

Gauging the crowd’s response is vital to refining a routine, because what the crowd likes may not always coincide with what the coaches and other performers think shows well. There is always the immediate feedback at the show line after the performance, but Jensen has found a great connection that goes deeper than a quick handshake and greeting from fans. He embraces Facebook, the social network of more than 500,000,000 active users from around the world. “It is a powerful tool for feedback,” Jensen said. “That’s how I found out the crowd loves my hovering maneuvers more than the coaches do!”

Thinking For Two, Flying As One

Keeping tabs on your performance is one thing; sharing the aerobatic box with another performer is a horse of a different color. Dan McClung’s and Buck Roetman are the Red Eagle Air Sports team. They fly highly modified Christen Eagle biplanes, and McClung is the lead pilot.

“I worked to develop an act that is entertaining and safe. You want things to look dangerous, but it is not necessarily so. Illusion is our friend,” McClung said. “Situational awareness is one of the foremost factors in what we do. We have to anticipate what the other pilot is going to do. That comes with hours and hours of practice.”

“In a dual act as opposed to a single act, timing is so very important,” McClung said.  “We use coaching and video review to see how we are doing. Critiques from the team and our colleagues outside of the team help us to improve. In this business, if you have thin skin, you will not make it.”

The Red Eagle team’s opposing maneuvers are flown using a dividing line, such as a runway edge, to define what separates the two planes. After the initial tally-ho, when the performers catch sight of one another, the lines are set.  One flies straight and the other flies with his eyes on the other plane. It’s not rocket science, but from the audience’s perspective, the team produces magic in the air.

Over the winter, McClung and Roetman try to modify their routine to make it tighter and more entertaining. “We never practice a new maneuver at an air show until it has been tested, tried and proven to be safe and then we practice it over and over again,” McClung said. “Did I say safety counts?”

Tweaks, Stretches and Cuts: Mid-Show Adjustments

Adjusting sequences mid-routine is a command decision that the pilot must make after factoring in numerous influences: wind, cloud cover, humidity and temperature all play a role, as do physical limitations of an aerobatic box’s size and nearby obstacles. Performers flying high powered jet demonstrations often have a “high show” and a “low show” that comprise a series of drastically different figures, but in the smaller planes, it’s usually a matter of simply cutting a figure here and there that conflicts with the surroundings.

“The difference in my high show and my low show is three maneuvers,” Goulian said. To make the adjustment for lower cloud bases, he simply removes those three figures. “I can fly with a 1,700 foot ceiling and still fly 95 percent of my show. Or if the situation really demands, I can fly a totally flat show when I have 1,000 feet to work with.”

In the Pitts Model 12, Bryan Jensen faces meteorological challenges, as well. “Only three of my first nine shows this season had weather that allowed me to fly my full routine,” said Jensen. “It was like my plane was a cloud magnet. I need 3,000 feet to fly my show normally, but I can cut my tallest maneuvers completely and fly in significantly lower weather conditions.”

In elevated temperature and humidity conditions, the airplanes’ performance suffers; the air flowing into the engine and over the wing produces less power and lift, respectively, and limits performance for some aircraft at higher elevation shows. Particularly vulnerable are the civilian performers with normally-aspirated engines.

Lauderback’s steed, “Crazy Horse,” suffers significantly less with a supercharged V-12 Rolls Royce Merlin in the nose. “I recently flew a show in Idaho Falls with a 7,500 foot density altitude, and everything in my routine worked as a practiced. Granted, however, I took my first two practice flights up to a higher altitude,” he said.

Safety Margins

Performers acknowledge that some maneuvers have less margin for safety than others. “I have two critical maneuvers I use as repositioning turns: Reverse Cuban- eights,” Lauderback said.  “Everyone knows the dangers…”

Dangers indeed, as highlighted by a shockingly high number of accidents – among both civilian and military pilots, nearly all of them fatal – that occurred while a pilot was performing a Split S or Reverse Half Cuban Eight maneuver. Properly flown, the maneuver is safe, and Lauderback works to ensure safety in the Mustang. He only enters the pull from the top with certain airspeed and altitude “gates.” Even if something goes wrong, he still has two options. “I can pull harder, right to the edge of the stall’s buffet,” Lauderback said. “Or to really tighten up the radius, I can drop the flaps 20 degrees. If you’re down to that last option, you’re really on the line.”

For his high-energy air show routine, Goulian has plenty of safety considerations, as well. To ensure he has adequate margins for recovery, he never starts a tumbling figure below 1,000 feet. “I start at the bottom, before I pull the nose up. If I’ve got 190 knots, I know that I’ll have that thousand feet I need. From that height I can push the rudder and stick in full confidence. If the plane “surprises” me in any way, I have plenty of altitude and the only one that would know the maneuver was a little different would be me. No big deal”.

“Deaf Ballerinas:” Flying To The Music

Most aerobatic performances constitute a show on their own. Some performers take their shows a notch above and beyond; they become the musical accompaniment for their own routine. Enter performers like Will Allen and Elgin Wells, Jr. They face unique challenges when constructing their show sequences.

Billed as “The Flying Tenor,” Will Allen flies a niche performance: He sings the national anthem from the cockpit of his Decathlon to kick off airshows. “It [creates] a high workload,” Allen said. “From the start, timing is obviously an issue. I had to go work through several maneuvers and see how the altitudes for entry and exit worked first, before I tried to work the sequence together.”

Allen admits the parts of his performance when he sings are the lighter figures of his routine. “As I sing, I fly figures that are the easiest, with plenty of ways out if I need them. They all give me the chance to gain altitude as needed.”

Elgin Wells adds a whole new dimension with his performance. Flying his one-of-a-kind Starjammer, the jazz musician takes his routine airborne for ultimate control of his routine and its soundtrack; his airplane is the platform for his light and sound show as he flies an aerobatic routine. “In my routine, there are plenty of long musical holds, what we call fermatas,” Wells said. “I fly to that point, cue the music onto the next track and off we go. My routine and the music synchronize at several points through the show.”

And while Wells has his music tailored to allow for synchronizing routine and music, he said it’s a good thing most performers don’t get caught up in the music. “It’s one thing for a dancer to hurry a step,” Wells said, “but quite another for a pilot to start a maneuver too soon, or too late.”

By the way, don’t bother searching the ICAS Web site looking for the point of contact for the St. Paul winter show. There isn’t one; it’s a running joke among some performers that might well predate the author.

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Jeremy King
Jeremy King is a full-time regional airline pilot and part-time freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.