Looping the loop and barrel rolling in the skies above Huntingdonshire last week were some of the best aerobatic pilots in the country. They were competing at Conington Flying Club in the British Aerobatics Championships. NATALIE BOWYER joined them in the
Looping the loop and barrel rolling in the skies above Huntingdonshire last week were some of the best aerobatic pilots in the country. They were competing at Conington Flying Club in the British Aerobatics Championships. NATALIE BOWYER joined them in the air to find out what attracts competitors to this stomach-churning sport.
SATURDAY was not an average day for me. How often do you get the chance to travel upside down at 120mph just 1,000 feet above the earth?
"This is the most fun you can have in five minutes," I was told by Andy Leitch, one of the top stunt pilots who was competing in British Aerobatics Championships at Conington Flying Club.
"If it makes you feel sick then you are doing it wrong," he helpfully added. "Besides, you have no time to feel sick. You are working at two or three times your body weight, with your adrenaline pumping. You feel as tired after five minutes competition flying as you would after an hour in the gym."
The 48-year-old from Wittering, who has been flying for 14 years and took up aerobatics in his Slingsby T67 18 months ago, was right. It was fantastic.
Watching safely from the ground the biplanes glided gracefully round the sky - a ballet of man and machine taking place above my head.
The planes loop, roll, flick and spin through a sequence of manoeuvres while being judged from the ground - deductions are made for flying too low, too high and for every degree error they make on a manoeuvre.
The pilots have just five minutes to impress the judges with the likes of a barrel roll (a combination of a loop and a roll), a split-S (a half loop) and a stall turn (the plane goes straight up, decelerates, turns 180 degrees, and aims to come down in almost the same path).
It was fascinating to watch and fantastic to be involved with. My spectator's role was ended by Pete Rounce, 35, who offered to take me up in a plane. I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed and it turned out to be an amazing experience.
We walked across the runway to a small, yellow and blue Pitts S2A G-ODDS - an aircraft designed for speed and manoeuvrability.
Inside, the plane was kept very simple - two holes with little bucket seats masqueraded as the cabin.
I climbed in the front and was embarrassed to be handed a sort of boaster seat, but Pete assured me it was so that I could see clearly out of the craft. My safety briefing consisted of being strapped into a five-point harness and asked if it was tight enough.
Pete, who was sat in the bucket seat behind me, placed his legs at my sides to work the plane's controls.
"Whatever happens," he warned, "don't touch the brakes and don't grab my legs."
At this point I started to feel nervous. But I figured he was an expert with more than eight years flying experience and knew exactly what he was doing.
As the runway was busy with the competition still in progress, Pete decided to take the cross-country route: across the grass and into the air.
We bounced up and down on the uneven ground, swerving left and right. In an attempt to reassure me, Pete said: "It's okay I have to swerve backwards and forwards because you can't see out the front of these planes."
At this point I noticed a small clear window in the footwell of the plane and a sick bag next to me. I did not feel reassured.
We then lifted into the air and the panoramic views of the countryside unfolded. It was breathtaking.
Grafham Water and Catworth passed underneath as we searched for my house in Tilbrook.
Pete, with a map open in front of him, asked if I recognise any landmarks. Not being the best with directions, I could only recognise that concrete snake which is the A14.
After an unsuccessful search for my house, my testing moment came: "Do you want to try some aerobatics?" asked Pete. I froze. I wanted to say yes but the words wouldn't come out so I just nodded.
The first manoeuvre was a loop-the-loop. The plane started a steep climb and turned upside down, the G-forces pushed me back into my seat. I watched as we spun round like a t-shirt in a washing machine taking in the view of the fields below. It was an incredible experience.
"How was that?" said Pete. I was speechless, which isn't good as silence is a sign to the pilot that his passenger has either passed out or is about to throw up.
I managed a thumbs-up sign and Pete moved onto the next manoeuvres: we did a few barrel rolls, a ballistic roll, a stall turn and a half Cuban.
Travelling at about 120mph between 1,000ft and 2500ft where the G-forces were reaching between 1.5G and 4G. It was incredible. As soon as I caught my breath we were upside down again or rolling side to a side or climbing up and diving down.
Pete wanted to try some upside flying and I wasn't going to argue. He flipped the plane upside down and accelerated forward. I still can't believe I wasn't sick. As the blood started rushing to my head it felt like doing a handstand for too long.
I marvelled at his skill - he made it look so easy and effortless. However, I wasn't quite ready when he asked me to grab the joystick and have a go at flying. My efforts, I admit, were a bit wobbly and timid. Just a touch of the controls and the wing dipped 40 degrees to the left or to the right or plunged downwards or propelled upwards.
Before I knew it, the 20-minute flight was over and we were back at Conington, the adrenaline flowing.
Even Pete, who was ranked fifth in the intermediate section of this year's British Aerobatics Championships, said he still gets a buzz out of aerobatics, describing it as the 'ultimate hobby'.
As I jumped out of the plane with a huge grin on my face, another pilot smiled at me and said: "It's addictive isn't it?"
In fact it's so addictive I've already told my family what I want for Christmas - another flight in a Pitts.
INFORMATION: To find out more, visit www.aerobatics.org.uk