A Short History of Aerobatics
By Rick Allison (Reprinted from Model Aviation August 1999)
Busy with reconstruction, post-World War I Europe may have been less-then-immediatmly fertile pround for aerobatic growth, but America was a diffrent story. The population of the States had been much less scarred by the war-it was shorter for the US than Europe. It had been fought at a distance, and the "dogfights" over that faraway front were still the stuff of markatable romance.
Hollywood films about wartime flying proved popular. This led to the brand-new occupation of movie stunt pilot. which gave some of the top surviving "aces" gainful employment and a small opportunity to relive a little of their wartime celebrity status.
However, the main postwar boost to the aerobatic arts didn't come from Hollywood. It arrived more or less spontaneously. courtesy of the grass fields of the American heartland. The particular American talented hucksterism, which gave birth to the traveling medicine show, the Wild West show, and P.T. Barnum, also spawned the nomadic art of barnstorming.
By the early 1920s, pilots with ragtag war-surplus biplanes were hip-hopping all over the rural landscape, selling cheap rides and flying lessons. Home for these airborne hobos was generally a bindle spread under a wing at night, and the living was wherever they could hustle up marks to raise food and gas money. Aerobatics came along for the ride, as sort of a shill.
On arrival over a selected town, the standard gimmick for these flying gypsies would be a series of loops, rolls, and spins to draw a crowd. This worked well, sometimes to the point that onlookers had to be shooed from whatever passed for a runway. (Unfortunately, the crowds attracted by the stunts didn't always buy airplane rides.)
Barnstorming was daring, romantic, and showy (and a lot safer than flying the mail routes), but hardly an economic success. And even under a dew-covered wing, the ground gets hard after a while. Many of these gypsy pilots simply decided to settle down and set up shop in one spot, providing air service for a single community-which is where the term FBO came from, for Fixed-Base Operator. An independent few persevered, still looking for an easy way to make a hard living flying airplanes.
Flying circuses were the answer. Even in the beginning, barnstorming had been mostly a team occupation, simply because it was nearly impossible for one person to do the flying, work the crowd, and collect the money simultaneously. The flying simply began banding together in even larger groups, as gypsies traditionally have done, and the first traveling air shows appeared, complete with front men, tickets, and other dodges borrowed from another uniquely American institution: the roadshow carnival.
With these new shows, rides and lessons were no longer the main attraction. The public proved willing to pay for the scary and thrilling experience of flight, but as spectators, not participants. The call was for spectacular deering-do, and the more nearly impossible and deadly a stunt appeared, the better. A new era of "display aerobatics" was at hand.
Wing-walking, air-to-air transfers, and parachutists were the window dressing, but aerobatics were the stock-in-trade of these early air shows. New maneuvers began appearing almost weekly, as pilots competed for reputations and a bigger share of the public wallet. Point or Hesitation Rolls were first; big, fat fuselages gave even the underpowered biplanes of the day good knife-edge performance. Compound maneuvers, such as the Avalanche, followed rapidly.
The quest for reputations, bigger paydays, and the "can you top this?" atmosphere led quickly to the establishment of actual aerobatic competitions, and many private cups and trophies for aerobatics were established by the middle of the 1920s.
By the mid-1920s, the debris of war had given way to a measure of prosperity in Europe, and along with air racing, aerobatics was again becoming a popular aeronautical diversion. American-style airshows were well-attended, but the European talent for structure and bureaucratic order soon asserted itself, and an elaborate competition framework was established including formal maneuver schedules, methods of scoring, and judging standards-leading to the first effort at an aerobatic World Championships, held in Paris in 1934.
America was still the land of the creatively free, and the rigorous European approach was -slow to catch on. In 1932, the famous Freddie Lund Trophy was established in the United States as the premier invitational aerobatic event for air show pilots. It consisted of all freestyle flying.
By the late '20s, aircraft designers were at last catching up, and aerobatic pilots could once again stretch the limits. More power up front and lower-drag airframe designs led to aircraft that could sustain a vertical line. In 1927, an RAF fellow named Allen Wheeler produced the first full vertical roll.
Jimmy Doolittle flew the first complete Outside Loop in 1927—basically a continuation of the Bunt, which was an outside half-loop from the top first done by some English pilots in the early Twenties. The Brits lacked the horsepower for the second half of the maneuver, and so they just stopped, rolled out, and named it; an "I meant to do that" sort of thing. But by 1927, the Twenties were Roaring, and Doolittle had all the ponies needed to finish the loop—435 of them in his Curtis P-lB.
Around this time, one of the first German competition pilots, Gerhard Fiesler (of later Fiesler Storch fame), was also the first to develop inverted oil and fuel systems, leading to the real conquest of inverted flight; Adolphe Pegoud's "stretched loop" of 1913 notwithstanding.
Doolittle had beaten him to the Outside Loop by a few weeks, but in 1929 Gerhard put his own stamp on the future of aerobatics by inventing the Rolling Circle thereby making life miserable for generations of young aerobats to come, as they struggled to learn it. Gerhard won the first World Championships in 1934, and remained active in aerobatics well into the 1990s.
Gerhard's career, along with those of Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, and Bob Hoover, proves that there are, indeed, a few old and bold pilots.
Late in the Roaring Twenties, the first military flight demonstration teams were formed in response to repeated requests from larger air show promoters for military participation, and the modern concept of military formation aerobatics appeared.
In the 193Os. the US Army Air Corps Red Knights were the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels of the day, thrilling crowds of air show spectators with their Curtiss Hawk biplanes and inspiring young aerobatic wannabes in bunches. The idea was to entice these dazzled youngisters into the Army Air Corps or orher mililary flying schools. and it worked brilliantly, providing Ameria with a well-trained head start on the thousands of combat pilots that would be needed all too soonThe idea continues to work at air shows all over the world: The US Navy Blue Angels team was founded in 1946. and the USAF Thunderbirds followed a few years later. Today, nearly every country with even a rudimemary air force boasts a flight demonstration team of some sort, and hundreds of shows flown each year-there are even international competilions whcre the demo tcams compete with each other!
The Cluban Eight was invented as an ad lib at the 1936 All American Air Race Meeting in Miami, Florida.
Len Povey was a famous American barnstormcr who was almost as well-known for his quick wit and promotional abilities as he was for his considerable aerobatic skills. In the early '30s the Cuban military brass were looking for someone to advise and train the new Cuban Air Force, and Len quickly talked himself into the jobAfter he hsd been down lhere for a while, it was decided that he should take one of the fledgling air force's new Curtiss Hawk biplanes to the show in Miami to compete for the Freddie Lund Trophy as a conbination publicily and recruiting stunt.
While performing for the trophy, he decided to do a triple Avalanche: three snaps at the top of a loop. At the top of the loop. Len saw that he was carrying way too much entry speed for the snap, so he rode over the top; coming down the back side, he did a half-roll and pulled inro another loop, again half-rolling on the back side before pulling out.
The new maneuver was a minor sensation, and when Povey was asked by the assembled press just exactly what he had done, he offhandedly remarked that it was merely a "Cuban eight."
Bigger, better, faster, and stronger remained the rule of the day right up to World War II, when things aeronautical really got bigger, better, faster, and stronger. Aerobatics were once again a matter of pure survival for a new generation of combat pilots, and the fun was placed on hold.
After WWII, the biggest, most prestigious international aerobatic event in the world was the Lockheed Trophy, held annually in Britain. This event was not much like the rigorous current FAI aerobatic competitions. It was essentially a freestyle program, judged a lot like modern four-minute Free, with artistic impression counting far more than precision.
In the mid-1950s, the pilots of what was then Czechoslovakia introduced a maneuver during the Lockheed Trophy that they called a "Lomcevak." The name is variously translated as "log in the head," "headache," or "look at that drunk trying to walk," depending on which Czech you talk to.
Regardless of the exact translation, the new maneuver blew the assembled aerobatic community away. It was the first gyroscopic maneuver to be done, and arguably, it remains the most spectacular.
Gyroscopic maneuvers are maneuvers that take full or partial advantage of the gyroscopic precession generated by the spinning propeller. The pilot usually applies the controls in such a fashion as to maximize this force, and then basically becomes a spectator until the energy of the tumble dissipates and it is time to recover the aircraft.
The classic Lomcevak is entered from a 45° up line, at cruise speed or below, with full throttle applied. To begin the maneuver, full right rudder is applied and held simultaneously with full left aileron and full down elevator. The response varies considerably from aircraft to aircraft, but the usual result is a graceful end-for-end tumble on all three control axes, finishing with the aircraft in an inverted spin.
The first postwar, modern-format World Championships (and the first to be sanctioned by the FAI) was held in Czechoslovakia in 1960. A lone American participated—Frank Price, who funded himself out of his own pocket.
In 1962, American competition aerobatics got a big boost when the Aerobatic Club of America (later to be superseded by the IAC) organized and held the first official US National Aerobatic Championships, held in Phoenix, Arizona. It was won by the legendary Duane Cole, who had helped to organize the eventAmerica sent its first team—a three-man crew consisting of Duane Cole, Lindsey Parsons, and Rod Jocelyn to the 1962 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Lindsey Parsons placed a very respectable fifth in his outmatched and underpowered Great Lakes biplane, beating a considerable number of hot Zlin and Yak monoplanes. American teams have been a fixture and have been among the top competitors at every World Championships since.
The next major development in formal aerobatics was the introduction of rhe Aresti aerobatic shorthand and scoring system, which was the contribution of a flamboyant Spanish aerobatic aristocrat. Count Jose Louis Aresti.
Reportedly, the Count started out by merely scribbling line diagrams of his sequence and raping them to his instrument panel as reminders he could actually read while pulling six or seven Gs. Known merely as the Sistema Aresti, the notation was first used formally at the FAI World Championships in 1964. Aresti notation evenrually evolved into the FAI Aerobatic Catalog, which is today's undisputed last word on aerobatic figures and families.
Aresli notation was the final key to the worldwide standardization and evaluation of formal aerobatic flight. The AMA Competition Regulations includes examples of Aresti notation by neccesity-the AMA Scale Aerobatics events are based on it.
Informal aerobatic flight, as practiced at air shows and freestyle events, continued (and continues) to resist all attempts at standardization. and even most attempls at description.
As a result. the progression of aerobatics in the postwar era has continued along the same dual track as before the war, with the geometric progression of the rigorous competition approach on the one hand, and the spectacular but less-defined air show approach on the other. The only difference is that the former separation by continent has disappeared. and both forms of aerobatics are now flown and enjoyed all over the world.
Around 1972, American and world aerobaric chanmpion and well-known air show pilot Charlie Hillard invented the Torque Roll, which basically consists of entering what looks like a Tail Slide, and then hanging the aircraft on the prop while initiating a continuous roll to the left. With a right-turning propeller, engine torque keeps thc roll going until the aircraft hegins to slide back, whereupon aileron is immediately reversed (because the direction of flight is now reversed) to keep the left roll going. Recovery is accomplished by closing the throttle and finishing as in the Tail Slide
The Zwilbelturm, or Spiral Tower was invented in 1974 by Swiss and European champion Eric Muller. From a right roll on a vertical up line, a tumble is begun that resembles an inverted ascending spin. The controls are reversed to accomplish a transition to an upright flat spin as the aircraft reaches apogee and starts to descend.
In the mid-1970s, heavier aircraft with more powerful engines (more inertia and more precessive force) lit an explosion in tumbling maneuvers that continues to the present day. The variations are apparently endless; so much so that people have either given up on naming them all, or simply can't remember what it is that they just did because of the brain-scrambling effects of high-G.
With the demise of the Lockheed Trophy and the rise of more formally judged competitions, the primary focus in competition aerobatics shifted back to the European prewar emphasis on flying standardized figures with geometric precision.
This competitive paradigm shift excluded gyroscopic figures such as the Lomcevak, since aircraft (and pilot) response varies so much that establishing precise judging standards for tumbling maneuvers is impossible. (Simply describing some of the figures in Aresti environ is impossible!)
However, the gyroscopic tumbles and Torque Rolls were far too popular with competition pilots and spectators to simply be discarded or relegated to noncompetitive venues. They became the centerpiece of the modern Four-Minute Freestyle event (which is judged by standards similar to those used by the Lockheed Trophy), and remain the cutting edge of aerobatics, where today's pioneers may still discover new forms of aerobatic flight.
If aeromodeling has taken much from full-scale aerobatics, it may now he in the process of giving something back. Many full-scale competition and air show pilots have participated as performers, or judges at the well-known Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, and most have come away entranced and impressed with the inventiveness displayed by the pilots during lhe Four-Minute Free.
It is safe to assume that if any of those spectacular 3-D TOC moves are even possible with a full-scale piloted aircraft, they will be coming soon to an air show near you—down low, at show center, with smoke on!