DUEL IN THE DESERT AEROBATIC CONTEST

By: Simone Graham – Editor HDG: Everyone can come to an air show for the price of a ticket, but the aerobatic show in May is only for the volunteers and participants who work the event and fly as competitors. Friends and family are welcome as are some invited guests from the community.

The competition arena is a block of airspace about 3,300 feet long by 3,300 feet wide by 3,500 feet high. For safety, a minimum height above the ground is established with severe penalty points assigned if the pilot flies below the minimum height. Minimum height for Primary and Sportsman categories is 1,500 feet, 1,200 for Intermediate; 800 feet for Advanced; and 328 feet for the unlimited category.

The competition includes the Known Program, Free Program, and Unknown Program. The first is published by the IAC (International Aerobatic club), the second, is designed by the pilot; and the last is given 24 hours in advance of the scheduled flight to study, however, they are not allowed to practice it in advance at any time.

The competitions are run by volunteers who may also be flying that day. Some events will have sixty-five entrants which allows the pilots to serve time scoring maneuvers in between take-offs. If the event has, say, only twenty-five entrants, they will not be able to volunteer on the ground as their turn on the roster comes up quickly for the next flight.

The competition draws from all walks of life. I asked Jim Nahom, my host at the event, if he ever met any famous people in these contests since some of the planes were so expensive only the very rich can afford them. He told me that Lisa Niemi, Patrick Swayze’s wife, used to enter the competition all the time. Mr. Swayze would fly in separately and watch her. Jim also used to see David Ellison, Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s son, a lot when he was just a teenager.

“Nicest kid you would ever want to meet. He was always offering to help out”.

I asked Jim if he would tell me how he became involved with flying and the aerobatic competition to give our readers an idea of what it takes to become an aerobatic contestant.

Simone: How long have you been flying?

“I have been involved with the L. A. Aerobatic Club for 25 years. When I started to fly I started in a Super Decathlon and flew competitively through intermediate. Because I flew it so long I got pretty good at it. I didn’t win a lot of contests, a lot of seconds and thirds, but what was so fun about it was the airplanes I beat. Typically, Sportsman would be the largest category with twenty-five to thirty people in it. I would be in a rental Decathlon. I would stop flying for a couple months so two weeks before the contest I could just fly, fly, fly to become as proficient as possible just preceding a contest. These guys would come out in their three or four hundred-thousand-dollar airplane and come in twentieth, fifteenth, and tenth. I would beat the pants off them in a much lower performance airplane. So, it’s not all the performance (of the airplane), but the performance makes it a little easier, and easier to make it up to a higher category.”

Simone: How did you get started? What was the investment back then?

“I was in my twenties when I first started flying. We just had our son and I had saved up the right amount of money to the penny. I knew if I did not do it now I may never get around to it. When family gets going… I knew that’s where my priorities were. I wasn’t going to go on to become a commercial pilot, so I never got any more advanced ratings. There wasn’t any reason to, I wouldn’t use them. So, all my life I wanted to be a pilot and what do you do? You go circle over their house, circle over some landmark you’ve seen a hundred times, or you go out to lunch. They call it the $100 hamburger! You go fly to airport twenty miles away and have a $5 hamburger. You come back and the whole thing cost $150 bucks. Well, that gets old. In a four-seat single engine airplane you are not going to travel somewhere. It goes too slow, it’s not efficient. So, I wasn’t flying as much and ended up flying a tail-dragger at Cable Airport (in La Verne). It was a Citabria which is very mildly aerobatic. You can do basic aerobatics. So, I wanted to get a tail wheel checkout. I figured that will be fun. I got that down pretty quick. You have to have ten hours minimum, by about the third hour I am landing the plane fine. The instructor told me he knew some aerobatics, and if I want we can do some basic aerobatics. We went out and did spins and I found out it is not an out- of- control maneuver. We did loops, hammerheads and the instructor said, ‘that is about the limit of what I can teach’.”

Simone: What competition stands out in your flying history? How did you improve your skills?

“I found the Super Decathlon and flew that as a rental for 17 years or so for two to three contests a year. The last plane I had was a Pitts S-1 and bought into it as a partnership. That’s a plane that twenty-five years ago could compete in Unlimited. It used to win at the World’s, at the World Championship. We used to beat the pants off the Russians and the French. We haven’t beat the Russians or the French in fifteen years. They get government funding.”

“One of the best coaching camps I ever went to was by Bob and Marta Meyer who are NASA pilots. They would have someone from NASA come out the video the flights. Marta would make minor comments and tell you to redo it. Meanwhile, off radio she is talking up a storm on a microphone on everything you are doing. By the time you land she has video for you. You sit down in front of the TV while the flight is fresh, she plays the tape, and she is commenting on everything you did. I won my first contest after that.”

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