Sequence Design: The Voices of Experience

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Debbie Gary

Good sequence design is the lifeblood of your air show. How you arrange it, practice it and perform it affects your safety, the crowd’s safety, plus the quality and tone of the whole air show event. Good sequence design is all about energy management, entertainment values, working with the wind, maneuver displacements, and presentation to the crowd.

Design and perform your sequence so it flows without ever being rushed. Use speed and altitude to keep energy in reserve. Plan your maneuver flow so you recover the energy you lose. Make sure you have a plan for escaping and recovering from blown maneuvers without endangering anyone on the ground. The crowd should never be in danger from your flying.

Planning a good routine involves a series of steps. Learning to fly it well and consistently involves practice, critiquing and work. 

Patty Wagstaff

First of all, there are some basic rules and there are no shortcuts. You start with the basics and build on them. Real good air show pilots know the basics and understand energy management. You’ve got to know the basics.

Every single maneuver needs to be designed and flown with the wind in mind, even something as simple as loops. You want to start your loops downwind so that the top of them goes back into the wind so you can float and you’ve got lots of room there to build altitude at the top, if you need it.

You can’t do snap rolls on steep angles going down because you lose sight of the horizon. You need to shallow your rolls and snaps going downhill. Don’t do anything down low that you know you can’t duplicate every time, plus a million times in a row.

What I do, when I help people develop a routine, is work out something very, very simple, then build on it. Start with a very simple routine, no matter how accomplished you are, or how capable you are. Then you can add to it as you get better. It is all about energy management and how one maneuver flows to the next.

I worked with a guy who is an 800 foot card holder and he kept asking about adding stuff to the routine. I said, “Let’s get back to square one, first. Work on a very basic routine, then you can add. You can always change that turnaround into a whifferdill, or you can turn that vertical into a tumble. But first you’ve got to have a very basic routine, no matter what level you are.”

But, if you change one hammerhead or one looping maneuver, the whole routine changes. Think about maneuvers into the wind, maneuvers downwind. You have to have all-round, good energy management. Then you can build on it to any place, low level and hard core as you want.

You want it to flow, and a lot depends on your airplane and the DA. But I think that even some of the really good people don’t have a very good routine because they take too many breaks.

I don’t know about other pilots, but I love to watch people fly. I watch everybody a lot. When I was in competition, I watched everybody. Other people would hole up in their cars. “Aren’t you going to watch?”  They were like, “No, no, I’m too nervous to watch.

I always have a plan, like snapping the right way. If you snap left, you are going to displace left. If you snap right, you are going to displace right. You’ve got to think about that all the time. Is there an on-crowd wind or an off-crowd wind? If I do an avalanche with three left snaps on top of a loop, I know I am going to displace left, so, if I have an on-crowd wind, I have to crab a lot into the wind to give myself plenty of room.

Think about presentation. Keep everything in front of the crowd. Sometimes you see people who are not thinking about the wind. They do a couple maneuvers, then, next thing you know, they are in the next county. There is always going to be some wind. You have to build for that.

You’ve got to watch other people. You’ve got to watch everybody. Go to other air shows when you are not flying. See what other people are doing. Where are their mistakes? Where are they boring? Where are they losing the crowd? Where are they good? You have to think about all that and you have to get your flying critiqued.

You’ve got to watch people from outside your own arena. I get on You Tube and look at people from Europe, like Peter Besenyei. He is Hungarian and he is one of my favorites. He does a great routine. He is very, very creative and different. His show is right in front of the crowd and always has something unexpected in it.

Sometimes, people get into a niche. They have their routine and they have their narration recorded. It works for them, but it doesn’t mean that it is a great routine and they get sort of stuck with it.

You’ve got to be humble and you’ve got to listen to everybody. You’ve got to look at everybody, even people that you don’t like. You can’t just look at or listen to one person. And you should know the history of air shows. You learn from the history, from how other people messed up, from the types of maneuvers they did and why they did them. And know that nothing that you do is new, probably. It has all been done before. If you think you are doing a show that is revolutionary, it is probably not.

To me, it is a never-ending process, never-ending tweaking. I’m no longer where I was twenty years ago and in ten years I will be better than I am now, because I will know more. There is no shortcut. That is the bottom line.”

Bill Stein

You want your sequence to be safe, primarily, and entertaining, secondarily. What is the entertainment value of what you have going? You have nine hammerheads. That is boring. How did you put your sequence together?’ One answer should be, ‘I wrote down all the cool maneuvers that I wanted to do. I put them together in the most energy-friendly way that I could, and then moved them around so that I made all my minimum altitudes.’

Another important thing to understand is handling blown maneuvers. If you blow it, you blow it, but people are so bad at that. They don’t deal with it. They don’t fly every air show like a practice. Most people would rather die than be embarrassed. So when stuff starts going wrong, they get flustered. My solution is, Fly every practice like an air show and every air show like a practice.

I practiced at Wayne Handley’s crop duster strip, which is out in the middle of nowhere. If one car stopped on the side of the road to watch, then we had an air show. Afterward, we would ask each other, “Did you have any people watching you?” Oh yeah, 30,000. And that was really important.

When I practice, and stuff goes wrong, I deal with it. If I blow it, I blow it. If I break off, I break off, it doesn’t bother me. If I make a big mistake, the last thing I am going to do is to be embarrassed.

And I don’t try harder because there is a crowd. At a big show like Chicago, there might be a million people. So you look down and go, “Holy cow!” Then you go, “Okay, smoke on,” and there is no more crowd. There is just the line and there is me. And the best thing I can possibly do to be entertaining for those people is to execute my flight exactly like I do when I practice it every day. And practice it like I am doing the very best I can.”

Wayne Handley

What is rule number one in air show flying? You can always leave it out, but you never add one in. I had a good experience with that.

We were doing a show in Truckee, which is a little higher than Reno.

So I came zipping in there, but I didn’t get my minimum numbers as I pulled up to do my tailslide. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I got the creepies. So I broke it off at about a 60 degree climb angle and eliminated the maneuver. Just did a crop duster wingover. Turned around and came back and nobody missed it. Nobody gave a damn. They had probably seen four tail slides already and mine wasn’t going to be the best because I was going to be scared.

Energy toward the crowd: I spend a good amount of time talking about energy toward the crowd, so there’s no misunderstanding there. I use the barrel roll as example and I draw it out, “Here’s the show line that you are flying on. Here’s the crowd in this box over here. You do a barrel roll toward them, if your nose doesn’t intersect that line going into the box, it is legal. I mean the crowd box. But, if it touches, you are not. So, do the barrel roll the other way.”

Maneuver entry speeds and altitude: they are the holy grail. If you don’t have them, you don’t do it. It’s just a discipline, a maturity. Many a time I’ve not done a maneuver because I didn’t have the numbers. And you know how I react to that? I smile and pat myself on the back and say, “You’re a good boy today. You done good.”

During an evaluation, I’ll see a tumbling gyroscopic, lomcevak-type of maneuver and I always talk to them about their numbers, “What is your minimum altitude here? What is your minimum airspeed?” And I’ll see this lomcevak in there that I think is too dammed low and I’ll say, “What is the minimum altitude? Basically, you are going to go up and do an inverted flat spin. What is the minimum altitude that you would initiate recovery from an inverted flat spin?” And it is going to be no lower than 1,500 feet for anyone who goes out and does those. It is going to be between 2,000 and 1,500 feet. But I see that they’ve got this maneuver in there that could very well develop into an inverted flat spin and they are doing it at 600 or 700 feet.

So I say, “Okay, think about this: if you would not intentionally continue an inverted flat spin down below 1,500 feet, why would you pull the trigger on this maneuver at 1,000 feet?”

When I was doing shows, I started my routine with an inverted flat spin and I’d do 30 plus turns. I’d initiate recovery at 2,000 feet because my next maneuver was going to be a tumble. And I would recover from the inverted flat spin by 1,200 feet, have my speed at 1,200 feet and all, then pull up and tumble the airplane at a safe, high altitude. Okay, now the audience has seen that I can do a tumble. Check that box off. Then I would work my routine on down. Then I would end up working my aerobatic routine where I was a crop duster and the ribbon was a power line and so even though I did all the technically dangerous, difficult maneuvers between 500 and 1,200 feet, the fact that I ended up at the last 3, 4 minutes down playing with the ribbon, nobody remembered it as a high show at all. But all my maneuvers that could go sour, they all had a good safety margin underneath them.

When I look at a sequence, I look for stuff like that. A sequence is a work in progress. I’d finish up the season and start with the same routine the next year and I’d say, “Yeah, I’d really like to have more energy here and I don’t need that much back here, so let’s switch these two end-box maneuvers to where I’ve got more smash down here.”  So I was always tweaking it a little bit.

Energy-losing maneuvers…my philosophy has always been that I wanted to grab the audience with my first maneuver, bang, bang, bang, bang and never let go of them. I just wanted to keep it going. Whereas, some people will do an interruption, a break and climb and talk over the mike, then start all over again. That is just personal preference. That is their way to manage energy-losing maneuvers.

Sequence interruption: it is not competition aerobatics. Don’t worry about it, especially if you have got some way to keep the announcer on the same page with you. I would start all the performances with the audience on my left, but there was a wind consideration when I did the torque roll. Then I could leave the torque roll going the direction I needed to, do a turnaround maneuver, then that next maneuver I needed a lot of smash and the way it translated sideways, and all, I wanted it going into the wind. So I just had that direction option in that part of my sequence. So that is how I handled that.

But, sequence interruption, say the air boss calls you and stops you, or whatever. Take advantage of it. Get your altitude. Get your airspeed. Take advantage of it.

David Martin

It helps a lot to have someone that is a mentor to help you with sequence design, because it depends on the airplane, too. Sometimes you think, “Oh, that is a great sequence design.” And somebody watches it from the ground and they say, “No, it isn’t.” Then, of course, there is safety, too. There are things that a young person new to competition or air shows would not think about that an experienced person will say, “Hey, that is kind of putting yourself in a corner.”

I know this is kind of a controversial topic, but some of the old guys told me never to do reverse Cuban 8s. Jim Roberts was like, “Never do that.” Then we had that whole thing with the Air Force guy talking about Split S’s. He was saying that, if you do them right and you plan for them, there is no problem, which is probably true. But I mean, why do them? If you can do a half Cuban 8, why do them? It’s a good place to screw up.

And you don’t have a lot of options. Once you do a Split S, once you start down, what else are you going to do? You’re not going to roll out and push. I would leave them out, especially starting out. In a real high performance airplane, I still don’t ever do them. But I was watching an air show yesterday with a reverse Cuban 8 and it doesn’t look very good. Why do it? Nobody is ever going to say, “Wow, he had a great reverse Cuban 8.”

Bob Bishop

A sequence design should allow for energy recovery. Some people come up with a routine that is on the limits of what the plane can do performance-wise. And they are not getting enough time in between maneuvers, or are not designing the maneuvers in such a way that they are recovery maneuvers. In other words, they might have a fast maneuver that leads into an overhead where they use up that energy. You don’t do a high speed maneuver, then slow up, do a snap roll, then go back to high speed again. Make it flow.

I look at a routine and ask people, “What are your numbers on top? For any overhead maneuver, what are your numbers?” Some people look at me like, What are you talking about? I want to know the altitude and speed range for a maneuver of a loop, or any overhead maneuver. What are the numbers? Because, you can actually have too much speed on top.

If you don’t recognize it, and start pulling through, just by rote, and I’m talking about a jet-type airplane, and you have an extra 30 knots on top of what you normally have, if you don’t recognize it and don’t start reefing it in pretty quick and put the Gs to it while you are slower, your radius is going to increase way out there. So you’ve got to know the numbers on top and you’ve got to look for them.

Well, this guy who hit the ground in a MiG, he forgot and left his flaps down, okay? The numbers at the bottom weren’t sufficient. He had a drag configuration. He never looked at the numbers on the top. So, before you commit yourself to a pull through, know the numbers and make sure you’ve got them, and always design your routine and those overhead maneuvers, with at least a 25% safety factor.

My minimum overheads for the BD-5 jet were 2,000 feet AGL and a speed range between 60 and 100 knots. I knew I could just get it around in 1,500 feet. I could get it done, but — with 2,000 feet — I could let it out at the bottom and lighten up the Gs. I could come close to the ground and have it under control just buzzing the runway. It’s not the same thing as having to pull hard just to miss the ground.

Next thing I look for in somebody’s routine is if they are getting in a rush. This is a problem in front of a crowd. There is some psychology where they just can’t stand to be embarrassed. And the tendency is, when you don’t do a maneuver quite right, you don’t take the time to really recover and set up the next maneuver. Instead, you just go right into it. Then, one mistake leads to another.

So I look for people who know how to design a routine and, particularly when they are starting, then fly the routine so that they give themselves the mental time to kind of set up the next maneuver before going right into it. As you get more experienced, you can make it flow from one to the other to the other.

Also, don’t let yourself get rushed by changes to the air show schedule. Don’t let the air boss say, “I need you in there right now,” and tempt you to get in a hurry. I’ve seen accidents where people rushed. They forget things, they panic. One pilot forgot to close their canopy and when it opened in flight, which is not actually a big problem, they panicked and pan caked the plane onto the runway. With the right mental attitude, it would have been okay. The canopy is open. That is okay. I’ll just go down, shut it and come back up. Unfortunately, they got flustered and wrecked the airplane.

Another thing is: no energy toward the crowd. Do not endanger other people. It doesn’t take a mental giant to see that if this airplane comes apart at this point, that it is going into the crowd.

Also, no “approval suck” maneuvers. Those happen when the person is so into getting approval that they are doing maneuvers that are beyond themselves and the capabilities of the planes. A lot of time these are done to impress their peers. They are not safe.

Entertainment-wise, make sure you have a well-planned, well-thought out routine from the time the stage is yours until the time you are off it. Don’t have dead time. If you are going to get the stage with a ground start, have a music background. Have something going on that people understand is part of the routine. Have a way to focus the attention where you want it.

And timing is everything. Air shows need to understand this. You can’t get sloppy, because you set the tone. You can kill off the energy by having little dead spots. If you want to have a really good show, you’ve got to start it out right. If you don’t get started right, you are going to have a hard time getting it to flow together.

I used to do part of my routine to music and there was a section of that which was just a wonderful kind of up, up, up sound, followed by crescendos. Then it segued into something else. I found that, if I could put my tailslide exactly where the music hit the crescendo, people would be crying. If I missed it by five seconds, it was not the same.

That very first act — the parachute jumper that hits the deck on the last note of the national anthem — the crowd goes crazy. The next act comes in and the crowd goes crazy again.

Bob Carlton

In a glider, there are a few things that are important to choreography. The first is that, early in the sequence, you need to have some simple maneuvers that are easy to do and that allow you to ascertain whether the air you are in is rising or descending and will give you an opportunity to fix a bad position if you’ve started in a wrong position.

For example, I start with four clover leafs on 45 degree angles because those are nice, simple maneuvers and by stretching any one of them I can move myself upwind, downwind, or crosswind if I don’t start in a good position, or if there is less wind than I expected. And, at the end of those, I should lose exactly 500 feet. If I lose more, I know I am in descending air. If I lose less, I am probably in rising air. So, in the first minute, I have figured out the wind effects and if the air is rising or descending.

I learned that, because I started in gliders, and — at the first two or three shows — I found myself a mile downwind wondering if I was going to get back to the airport.

I tend to do rolling maneuvers into the wind and looping maneuvers downwind because that allows the routine to naturally track into the wind. And I try to end one maneuver at the entry speed of the next one.

I do something that starts with a slow speed and ends with a high speed, like my horizontal eight. I come in, basically at landing speed, and push the engine to full throttle, and then turn away from the crowd. It has a couple effects. One, it looked like I was going to land and here I punch things up right off, pointed away from the crowd for the maximum sound effect. That is when I flip on the engine smoke and go from landing speed to redline as I do a horizontal eight. It sort of shows off how much power this little engine has. Then I can pull up for a vertical.

That is the first time I do anything much above idle in the whole routine. You can go from landing speed to redline and — while you are doing that, with those big glider wings flexing — it’s a great magic trick…something that looks hard, but is real easy.

From the crowd’s perspective, it should look like you are doing the impossible. But from the cockpit, it should be so easy that you can do it at 10,000 foot DA, when you drove until 3:00 in the morning to get there, and had a problem with your plane that morning, and your wife called to say that water is bubbling up from the front yard, and the air boss is screaming over the radio at the war bird that comes on after you because he is late.

So, don’t choreograph a show to the extent of your capabilities on a good day. Choreograph a show to your capabilities on your worst day. 

Greg Shelton

If you don’t have an out in your air show routine, if you are pulling hard to clear the ground and stuff like that, you are not going to last very long. You always need one out, preferably two or three. That can be done with extra altitude, roll rate and available G.

If you are doing a barrel roll in a T-6 with a slow roll rate and you get to the apex of the maneuver and have not rolled to the 180 level before you start down the back side and you’ve got to roll some more before you are inverted, you are in serious trouble.

Don’t do snap rolls or tumble type maneuvers on a 45 degree down line; a lot of people get killed doing those. I think it has to do with the high roll rate and your depth perception. Maybe they don’t realize they are starting to arc, that the plane is no longer holding straight. They are losing a great amount of altitude and they don’t realize it.

Hammerheads with snap rolls on the vertical down line: when you’re flying down the show line, put the crowd to your left, so when you come up, you pivot toward the crowd then do your snap roll going down. When you first snap it, the lift vector is pointed toward the crowd. But when you get one half or three quarters of the way through that snap and realize you are in trouble, you can now stop your snap roll and pull out away from the crowd.

In the Stearman, I do a hammerhead with a snap on the down line with Ashley on the wing. Instead of doing the whole 360 degree snap, I stop, maybe 30 degrees early, so that puts me on that line away from the crowd. If I were to go ahead and stop on the line, parallel to the crowd, I would have to make a left turn as I’m pulling my nose up and that is going to cost me energy. So, I stop it a little early, and that puts me straight on the heading that I want for my wingover turnaround. So, it is one less turn that I am putting on it as far as induced drag. When you have a wing walker, every little bit of energy is life. Speed is life.

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Deb Gary
Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.