You are hereBallet in the Box

Ballet in the Box

With his monoplane falling out of the sky like some monstrous blue maple seed, Peter Anderson sees a row of trees swirl past his windshield. He lays the stick forward and the resulting jolt slams him against a rigid web of seat belts and harnesses. Precisely one and a half revolutions completed, the snap roll stops. Anderson continues an inverted 45 degree dive, the airplane upside down, raging toward the ground. Directly off the left wing, a tiny row of judges hang from a grassy ceiling. Anderson steals a glance at the small card in the middle of the instrument panel, taking an instant to confirm his next move.

As the airspeed indicator winds past 200 mph, Anderson pushes hard on the stick and is brutally flung around the outside of a diving arc. Straps cut into his thighs and blood rushes to his head as the airplane claws through part of an outside loop until it points straight up into the cloudless sky. Airspeed decreases rapidly. Split-second timing is needed to pick the right speed for a clean vertical snap.

Now! With brutal finesse, Anderson snaps the stick back and pops the airplane into a violent spin going straight up. Relying on a sense of timing gleaned from hours of practice, he looks at the spinning horizon of the wingtip, waits a beat, reverses his controls and then returns them to neutral. The blue monoplane he is flying concludes the snap roll dead on the 360 degree mark and continues upward, coasting on what's left of the energy gathered in the dive.

A vertical climb
The view from Clint McHenry's Extra 300 during a vertical roll.

Six hundred feet directly behind Anderson lies a neat grass airfield displaying a row of 19 flags. Each represents one of the nations participating in the 1990 World Aerobatic Championships, held at an 800-year-old Swiss village named Yverdon-les-Bains. Seventy-nine pilots have come to Yverdon to compete for the Nesterov Cup, the crowning honor of aerobatic flying. In the row nearest the runway, the French team's elegant, sinewy CAP 231s hold the pole position. Behind them wait the Soviets' mighty Sukhoi Su-26s, a glowering quartet on aeronautical steroids. In the back row sits a menagerie belonging to the U.S. team: three Pitts S1-S Specials, two single-place Extra 230s, a two-place Extra 300, a CAP 231, and a Laser, as well as the unique biplane Snargasher and the very unique monoplane Ratsrepus.

Anderson, a 38-year-old from Fowler, California, is participating in his first world championship. He's alternate member of the U.S. team, filling in for a pilot who could not make the meet, but he's flying with the combined skills of Chuck Yeager, Boris Kasparov, and Olga Korbut. The urge to cheer grows as each new pattern evolves, but except for a few other pilots gathered at this lovely little airfield, there is nobody to applaud. All day long, Anderson and a host of others have been performing feats at the pinnacle of piloting, and no one is watching .

Who are these guys?

Team Hungary
Team Hungary arrives at the opening ceremony to compete in the 1990 World Aerobatic Championships.

It's a mistake to equate the intense, disciplined competition aerobatic pilots with thrill generating airshow performers or a few lazy summer afternoon loops and rolls performed in an antique biplane. The pilots who fly competition aerobatics form a dogged group that steadily expands the limits of man's ability to design, build, and fly fixed-wing aircraft. The arcane culture that has developed around the sport consists mainly of its own pilots. At the exact center are a few good enough to compete effectively at the world championship, maybe two dozen or so of the pilots who have come to Yverdon.

What makes the sport substantially more difficult than merely flying precision figures is the invisible cube of sky that is known simply as the Box, within which the competition pilot must confine all of his activities or lose points. Flying at high speeds momentarily approaching 300 mph, it takes a pilot approximately 10 seconds to cross the 1,000-meter square box in any direction. On the ground white lines mark the edges of the Box and a white cross its exact center. The bottom of the Box is 100 meters--330 feet--from the ground.

Aerobatic pilots form an international group, and for years this competition, held every two years, has served to facilitate cultural exchange. European pilots especially have developed a wide interest and expertise in this most intricate game. Meanwhile, a design war is being waged by France's Avions Mudry, the Soviet Sukhoi Design Bureau, and Germany's Walter Extra to who can create the airplane best suited to the sport. (Why no one has sent Burt Rutan a set of rules, a check, and a mandate to return the United States to aerobatic design supremacy remains a mystery.)

The WAC '90 Theme Sculpture
The 1990 World Aerobatic Championships theme sculpture dominates the flight line at Yverdon.

The competition is quite reminiscent of the Olympics, complete with the traditional rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. As usual it's a David and Goliath confrontation. The Soviet government maintains a program in aerobatics, but the U.S. team depends on Sporty's Pilot Shop in Batavia, Ohio, and a handful of other sponsors to help pay the bills. To get to Yverdon, the U.S. pilots have had to reach into their own pockets.

Regardless of nationality, competition aerobatic pilots have a common language in the Aresti System, an international visual notation that provides the framework for competition. Named after its creator, Spain's Jose de Luis Aresti, this system imposes an invisible lattice of lines and angles against the fluid nature of the air. The Aresti symbol for a one-and-a-half-turn inverted spin with an upright entry is as recognizable to a Hungarian pilot as it is to his Dutch counterpart.

Each pilot assembles a flight sequence from the set of figure elements in the Aresti manual. Three Flights--Known, Freestyle, and Unknown--make up the contest for the Nesterov Cup. The trophy awaits the team whose pilots tumble with the highest degree of precision across a small piece of the sky.

The judges' heads bob up and down and back and forth in stately pursuit of the airplane, like three radar dishes tracking the same target.

In a converted hangar that serves as a briefing room, the competitors at the 1990 World Championships gather each morning to listen to the by now familiar rules of flight and pay special attention to the winds forecast for the day.  The contest director makes the usual remarks about safety and the penalty for low flying, along with housekeeping announcements regarding the conduct of the contest. After the main briefing the judges for the day's flights repair to a remote location on the far side of the valley, and the contest director calls each pilot to pick a Swiss chocolate coin from an array on the briefing table.

Bessiere picks his Order of Flight
Under the watchful eye of the Contest Director, Claude 'CoCo' Bessiere picks the number that will determine his place in the order of flight.

 Each pilot turns his coin over to reveal the number on the flip side. There is a hush during the ritual. Right now, at least, no one wants to be number one.  The order in which the pilots fly is the single biggest random element that can influence who might be world champion. Pilots harbor the suspicion that most judges "save" a little room when they score early flights, by not scoring as high as a figure might otherwise merit, in case a later pilot proves better. The tale of Claude "CoCo" Bessiere, a universally liked Frenchman, is now legend. In 1986, CoCo, having drawn the odious number one, turned in a stunning, flawless known sequence. The scores, however, placed him 18th once all the flights were completed. He was, the pilots tell you plainly, robbed.

Once the order of flight has been determined, the teams huddle to review it, then disperse to wait patiently for their individual turn in the box. Depending on the draw, a pilot can go the better part of a week without flying. Boredom, which can dull the fine edge of competitive skill, can be more difficult to handle for these pilots than gusty crosswinds.

Elina Klimovitch waits for flight

For those with a late number in the order of flight, there is nothing to do at a contest but wait. Elaina Klimovitch, center, passes the time with her trainer and another member of the Soviet team while the other contestants grind through the Known.

The first flight is the Known sequence. It serves to weed out the true contenders from those who show up with little more than an airplane, the proper paperwork, and the entry fee. Such is the rarity of the sport that several countries team consists of one pilot, competing essentially on his own. The Known offers no room for in-flight innovation: the aerobatic pilot may not elect to do a double roll instead of a triple in mid-performance, as the competitive ice skater might. Instead of a reactive to circumstances competition, competition aerobatics presents pilots a set of restraints making it more a test of predictive energy management.

The only figure in a sequence that a pilot has absolute control over is the first, when he or she can circle the box like a shark, waiting for altitude to provide a comfortable margin of energy, waiting for position to permit the best placement of the entry dive, waiting for the mind to come to the moment of commitment--and decide to attack. At some point in space, energy, and time, mental tumblers fall into the proper positions and the pilot noses the airplane over, increasing airspeed and, not incidentally, noise.

A long howl as the pilot dives for airspeed to deliver the first figure announces the start of each sequence to all for miles around. As far as the pilots are concerned, the louder the better, they want the judges paying full attention to their opening figure, usually a dramatic vertical effort expending all the energy the airplane can muster. The flight proper is a rhythmic alternation between a roaring episode at the bottom of the box and a quiet one at the top. The airplane drives up and down, working its way through the sequence.

Once the pilot enters the Box, judging begins. The judges sit to one side of the box, sufficiently distant from the edge to observe the action clearly. The aircraft parade past them as the contest day settles into a pace of three or four flights an hour. Each judge has two assistants. The caller maintains a steady but discretely spaced stream of verbal shorthand to prepare the judge for each element of each figure. This leaves the judge free to keep his eyes on the aircraft while delivering an equally steady stream of scores and comments to the writer, whose sole task is to capture them. Ten teams of judges collaborate to produce the raw data for the scoring computers. During a sequence all three members of a judging team track the progress of the pilot intently. Their heads mirror the position of the airplane, bobbing up and down and back and forth in stately pursuit, like three radar dishes tracking the same target. The raw scores, as they are known, give a rough estimate of placement, however the final scores cannot be computed until all flights in a round are complete, and a complex statistical analysis program intended to weed out poor or prejudicial judging can be run.

The Judges Line

Sequestered in the best seats in the house, the judging teams (such as this group, from the 1988 Championships in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada) spend hours sorting out the pilots, reducing complex sequences of figures to raw scores for the computer program that will declare the winner.

The judges sit in easy chairs but their task is as demanding as that of the contestants. During a typical day, a judge will score over a thousand complex figures, each with as many as eight individual components. The mind-numbing mental marathon of judging stretches over two weeks. Finding judges with the experience, a critical eye, and the patience to sit in a cornfield for days on end is difficult.

The subjective nature of judging sometimes provokes complaints. Each country supplies one judge of the ten used, a plan intended to reduce any national prejudice in the scoring. After the early competition the U.S. pilots grumble that the low-horsepower airplanes are getting the low scores. There are several forces at play here. From a pilot's point of view, perfection of flight, not performance of aircraft, is the issue. From the judges point of view, however, a towering hammerhead turn may look better than a short one, particularly if rolls up and down seem rushed. "A lower-horsepower airplane will cover less sky getting a specific figure done," explains chief judge Mike Riley, whose regular office is the left seat of a British Airways Concorde. 'What this really amounts to is less time for the judge to scrutinize the figure." The judges don't harbor any sinister prejudice against low-powered equipment, Riley asserts. "It's simply that a higher-powered aircraft will give them more time to appreciate the details of a figure and score it well, if it deserves it." A smaller figure may seem less well defined, and hence less worthy of a perfect 10. [Riley is being gratious. It's not really the performance of the airplanes--although that is a factor--the American presentation of the sequence is simply not scoring well in international competition.]

Watching a tiny Pitts S1-S Special roar through the sequences like a hummingbird on amphetamines bears this out. Once the symbol of U.S. aerobatic supremacy, these stubby overpowered biplanes are now obsolescent in the face of the latest generation of airplanes, epitomized by the Sukhoi. A big radial engine and enormous geared paddle-blade propeller enable the powerful Soviet monoplane to command the entire vertical range of the box. The bigger the engine, the longer and straighter the lines. Both camps have a point. Yet it frustrates the Americans to know they're flying well [by their standards] and not scoring any higher than they have thus far.

Ellen Dean
Ellen Dean, a talented and experienced member of the United States Women's Team, contemplates the apparent futility of competing in her obsolescent Pitts S1-S Special, the plane to beat in the early 1970's. After Yverdon, she will not compete in 2 World's Championships. Now at the controls of an Extra 300L, Dean has returned to the 1996 U. S. Team to compete in Oklahoma City in August.

When the Known ends, CoCo Bessiere holds a paper-thin lead of three points over the nearest pilot, Jurgis Kairis of the Soviet Union. The first round scores place the Americans at the far edge of contention for the team trophy. The leading male pilot for the United States, Clint McHenry, is a little less than 200 points out of first. Another American, Lee Manelski, isn't far behind. (Six months later Manelski will be killed in an air collision near Los Angeles.) Patty Wagstaff, also from the United States, has a chance at the women's title. This is her third championship and she trails Natalya Sergeeva of the Soviet Union by 80 points, a margin she might overcome if Sergeeva makes a mistake. Linda Meyers has done well in aCAP 231 whose paint is barely dry.

Back at the hotel that night, cricket and soccer scores from Britain dominate the sports news on international television.

Like a jazz musician searching for that indefinable essence of delivery, the aerobatic pilot searches for the point at which time suspends and the now of the flight flows across the sky.

The second phase of the contest is the Freestyle sequence. The rules call for a mix of figure types, a maximum number of figures, and a total difficulty factor for the flight. Freestyle, more than any other sequence, provides a pilot with the opportunity to display the unique combination of lines, angles, arcs, fractions of turns, rolls, and spins that make up his or her aerial style. A sequence of figures is composed from these elements like lines of verse, with a sense of timing and rhythm. A sequence is a graphic sonnet in the sky, a poem with six dimensions of freedom.

Romanian Zlin taxies out
A Romanian pilot taxies his Zlin 50 out to fly his freestyle.

In a Freestyle, the first figure usually expends all the energy the airplane can muster in a vertical line drawn directly in front of the judges. This proves at the onset that the pilot has full command of the vertical axis. If the first figure goes well, the pilot pauses to 'draw a line'--a moment of level flight defining the separation of two figures. If the second figure is cleanly done, the airplane is in position to enter the third, and so on through the sequence.

Every pilot hopes proper execution of the initial figures of a flight will allow him to "get one going"--ride the rhythm of the flight with mental as well as physical agility. If a flight does get going, an aerodynamic cadence of correctness takes over. Like a jazz musician searching for that indefinable essence of delivery, the aerobatic pilot searches for the point at which time suspends and the now of the flight flows across the sky. A good flight has an intangible feel that leaves a pilot with a tremendous feeling of oneness with the airplane. When that happens, "everything is in order," says Linda Meyers, a veteran of five world championships and the managing director of an air museum in Florida. "The entire world is under total control."

A well-designed sequence has an artful logic, a theme flowing throughout the presentation. The better pilots construct a Freestyle sequence intended not only to meet the rules but to reflect their contest philosophy and showcase their airplanes as well. Freestyle also offers the best glimpse of the difference between the moderate, exacting American philosophy and the aggressive European style.

Aresti Card in Cockpit
The sequence card showing the Aresti code for Leigh Manelski's Freestyle commands his instrument panel, flanked by the airspeed indicator and the altimeter, the two most important instruments in aerobatics.

The so-called California Freestyle, pioneered by Lee Manelski and others in the Los Angeles area, is the basis of the U.S. strategy. One of their innovations was to abandon the traditional figure flown in the center of the box, which reduces pilot workload, since there is a few moments more time to adjust a flight between figures before the opposite edge of the box looms.

Another American tactic is selecting figures of average difficulty. This is a generally a defensive strategy. The Soviets, French, and others favor a more flamboyant approach that showcases the characteristics of their aircraft. Their sequences are devised with innovative, difficult figure combinations designed to impress judges with sheer bravado.

The Americans' strategy, it can be argued, tends to work against them. On paper, they stand a better chance of consistently scoring higher by perfecting a median class of figures and presenting them like clockwork to the judges. In practice, they suffer in comparison to a pilot who commences with a figure that was unflyable before the development of a 360 horsepower aerobatic wonder weapon. The 'wow' factor of a successfully executed initial figure or a unique and difficult combination of elements can shade the judges perception of the remainder of pilot's performance. A tenth of a point gained here and there in a sequence from several judges can make a noticeable difference on a pilots standing. US team pilots flying a 180 hp S1-S Pitts Special are simply not in a position to engage in some of the figure combinations that the high powered monoplanes allow their competitors to present.

Sukhoi on Final Approach
Returning from a flight, the barrel-chested Sukhoi SU-26 displays one of its virtues, an enormous paddle bladed propeller, driven by a geared 360 hp radial engine.

At the completion of the Freestyle flights, CoCo has increased his lead and is pulling away from the pack. He's a hundred points ahead of his countryman Patrick Paris, who has passed Nicolai Nikitiuk of the Soviet Union. The French are showing signs of running away with the contest, but they don't want to jinx the works by talking about it. It's too fragile a competition for boastful prediction. Clint McHenry has gained a couple of positions, from ninth to sixth, but remains well out of contention. Peter Anderson and reigning World Champion Henry Haigh have joined him, but a tight cluster of Soviets is ahead of the Americans, minimizing chances for an American Men's team win. Patty Wagstaff still has a chance. She has halved the gap between herself and Sergeeva, and they have both risen in the standings.

Back at the hotel. the television sports coverage highlights a swim meet in Germany and the Finnish Grand Prix.

Pilots dread "brainlock" --that sickening sensation when you pull out of a vertical dive at near 200 mph and have no idea what figure comes next.

CAP 231 launches
Patrick Paris launches in his CAP 231 for his turn at the Unknown. The angular monoplane doesn't have the power of the Sukhoi, but the French pilots make up more than the difference with elàn.

The final arbiter of aerobatic skill is the Unknown sequence, which is presented to the pilots no more than 24 hours before they fly it. For pilots whose flying is based on planning, practice and preparation, it represents a difficult challenge. The competitor can't fly the sequence before being scored and hence must assemble the figures barehanded, using whatever energy is available between each figure.

Although Bessiere has firmly established his lead, the Unknown is a hazardous minefield through which the top pilots must tread in order to take home a win. "There are 10 or 12 guys here that could win it," says Haigh. "Any one of them could win it if the cards happen to fall their way." Haigh should know. He got one going in the Unknown and made one of the finest aerobatic flights ever witnessed two years ago in Red Deer, Alberta, and he appreciates the unpredictability of the circumstances required to win. "I'm very proud to have won the world championship, but I'm also very humble that things fell into place for me."

Leigh Manelski hand flies the Unknown
In a time proven ritual, Leigh Manelski practices the Unknown the only way he can--by hand flying the sequence and checking for orientation points. No other sport requires as intense mental agility while subjecting the participant to such punishing physical forces.

The Unknown is the flight that makes pilots stay awake nights worrying about "brainlock"--that sickening sensation you get when you pull out of a vertical dive near 200 mph, check wings level, head right toward the edge of the box and realize you've no idea what comes next. Unless you can instantly reorient yourself with the flow of the sequence, you are doomed. There's no choice but to wag the wings, circle once, and start over where you left off, and settle for a 'break' penalty, a choice only slightly less costly than taking a zero for a figure.

At Yverdon, the Unknown becomes the subject of some controversy when the U.S. team elects to protest the sequence. The team's consensus is that, particularly for the lower powered airplanes, it's potentially dangerous. The next day the international jury, seven individuals who administer the contest, produces a revised version. To demonstrate that the new sequence is flyable, a jury member takes off in an older Zlin 50. He starts at the top of the box, much higher than an aggressive contender would like to, but he ends well above the bottom of the box. The point is made.

The US Team at lunch
1988 World Champion Henry Haigh, (center, gray sweater) and other members of the United States Team contemplate their fortunes over lunch in the mess tent set up at the airfield.

Now, in the waning days of the contest, American hopes begin to falter. Patty Wagstaff, having drawn a high number for the Unknown order of flight, misses the calm first day of Unknown flying, then draws the second flight on the next day. She must fly in a wind that's near competition limits.

The pilots are always concerned that prevailing winds will blow the airplane to one side of the box. While the air the pilot is working in drifts southwest at 15 mph, the markings on the ground stay fixed. Every figure must be hedged slightly, skewed to compensate for the drift. In a strong wind, the pilot who does not pay fastidious attention to extending his lines upwind and shortening those downwind will eventually face the pauper's choice of either distorting a figure to keep it inside the box or taking the airplane outside the box to execute the figure correctly.

Downline on the Box
With the edge of the box--and the ground--approaching rapidly, Patty Wagstaff will soon have to make a decision: stay in the box and risk losing points on the figure or focus on the figure and risk an out. The choice she makes will determine her final standing.

For the first two-thirds of her flight, Wagstaff's style is apparent and her figures are well formed. Headed downwind, she faces an out if she doesn't hurry a turnaround figure. There's only a moment to choose a tactic. Flying inverted, she pulls the nose down into a 45 degree dive, does 2 points of a four point roll, and rushes the half-loop that turns the airplane around in an effort to remain within the box. This results in less speed than she needs on the resulting upline. The figure thus far is acceptable, if a bit stunted, but disaster is in the cards. The snap roll on the 45 degree upline begins at only just too slow an airspeed, doesn't respond as quickly as it should, and wallows beyond the point she intends for as it comes to a halt. In less than a half second, the failure of her Extra to come out of the roll cleanly dashes her hopes of beating Natalya Sergeeva. On the ground, to a casual observer, it is a very small distinction to find in a flight of such complexity. For Wagstaff, however, it means another two years, perhaps four, perhaps six, of practice and winning lower level competitions before she can get this close to her dream again.

Down on the ground the team lets out a collective breath as Wagstaff maintains her composure and continues the sequence. The mental focus during a flight has to be on the present and the very-soon-to-be. If a pilot doesn't instantly dismiss an error, he or she risks losing the fine edge of concentration amid the swirl of events and forces in the cockpit.  It is much to Wagstaff's credit that the remainder of her sequence is as flawless as her opening series.

It's grimly fascinating to watch a pilot caught low in the box early in a sequence struggle through the remainder on the hairy edge of loss of control.

When a figure starts to unravel, the effect can potentially ignite a chain reaction. If the pilot finishes one figure in a position too aerodynamically awkward to begin the next, the form of the second suffers. Entering it poorly, the second may well leave the pilot in worse shape to execute the third. A pilot can correct for some mistakes by giving away some planned altitude in exchange for extra energy, but that recourse has it's limit at the bottom of the box. It's a grimly fascinating spectacle to watch a pilot caught low early in a sequence, like one of the Hungarians has been in a Zlin, struggling gamely through the remainder of the flight, cheating every figure to minimize altitude loss, cruising across the bottom of the box and trying to store every erg possible before pulling up into each vertical turnaround done on the hairy edge of loss of control.

Sly deception occasionally enables an experienced pilot to get away with an error. From some angles a roll that over-rotates is hard to detect. The giveaway is the movement of the wings as the pilot jogs them to the correct attitude. Skilled competitors will hold the over-rotation and fly away slightly askew, smoothing the error away during the transition to the next figure in the sequence. If a judge doesn't see a correction, he may not notice the error, or at least not grade it down quite as harshly.

Out on the flight line, veteran Alan Bush is coaching Peter Anderson. Bush, a USAir captain from Florida, has a priceless asset as coach: he's already flown the Unknown. He knows its pitfalls and opportunities, and he takes Anderson step by step through the sequence. In place of airplanes, the two use their hands. Anderson flies his fingers in formation with Bush, who punctuates a barrage of verbal detail with abrupt changes in hand attitude. The pair dance a duet on the grass as Bush leads Anderson through the sequence one figure at a time, noting critical details such as required airspeed and where to look when for orientation.

Alan Bush coaches Peter Anderson
Alan Bush, left, describes the Unknown to Pete Anderson.

In what is so clearly an individual sport, this is a unique demonstration of teamwork. It wasn't so long ago that the U.S. team operated more like a group of individuals in competition with one another. In the past, some members returning from a flight didn't even bother to tell their teammates the current wind direction. Now Bush is giving Anderson the equivalent of a practice flight in the hope that Anderson will use it to beat him. Anderson intends to use it as much to sneak the Americans past the Soviets into second place as to improve his own standing.

Finally, time. A contest helper tells Anderson to get mounted up. Comes the ritual of putting on the airplane. Checking the parachute straps. Checking the five-point harness that will hold him in the airplane. Checking the sequence card at the center of the instrument panel. The physical process of installing one's self in the airplane is but the visible evidence of the intense mental focus being generated, the result of which is a pilot whose entire awareness is consumed by the position of the box, the contents of the sequence card and the current wind direction. Nothing but the elements of the sequence can remain in a competitors thoughts when a flight commences, if he or she is to have any hope of mastering the Unknown.

Leigh Manelski prepares to fly
Leigh Manelski prepares to fly the Unknown.

Time for engine start. The propeller turns once, twice, then catches. The canopy closes. As the airplane taxies out, several well-wishers flash thumbs-up or wave. With the power on, Anderson loses any vestige of individuality: in the sky, pilot and airplane become one, climbing out in an orderly fashion into the gusty late morning sun. Oddly, there is little pre-box aerial grandstanding seen at a competition. Savvy competitors might execute a matched pair of half rolls on climb out to check the belts and get a brief surge of negative G, but the climb to altitude, the holding for an open box and the approach to the flight are as ordered and pedestrian as that of an airliner waiting for a landing slot.

The flight goes like clockwork. Using the sky as a sheet of drafting vellum and the airplane as an engineering pencil, Anderson etches the figures one by one. He combines execution of each figure with planning for the next. A rhythm develops. He's got one going. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembling themselves as they pour from the box, the figures of the flight fall right into place. On the ground, team members stop to watch. Trainer Ron Cadby's fingers trace a sequence card as the flight unfolds. Anderson works his way through his Aresti card, coming closer to earth with each figure in the sequence. Finally, he pulls the nose up to climb at a 45-degree angle, pauses, nails a tricky one-half out side snap roll from upright, pauses, and pulls the nose down to level inverted flight. He wags his wings and flies out of the box up side down. You can feel the wave of relief run through the group on the ground.

Late on a Thursday night, the U.S. team gathers on the verandah of the Hotel des Mosaiques in nearby Orbe. The contest is over, and they're awaiting official results from the airfield. A team member arrives with a score sheet, and the small group falls quiet. CoCo Bessiere wins the contest going away, 200 points ahead of the closest competitor. His teammate Patrick Paris is second, followed by three Soviets. One time alternate Peter Anderson--the highest scoring American--draws a cheer from his team mates for his sixth place finish. Linda Meyers' performance in her brand new airplane earns her second place in the Women's Standings.

CoCo Bessiere wins the contest
CoCo Bessiere poses with the coveted Aresti Cup, to which his name will be added as 1990 World Aerobatic Champion.

This is a moment of triumph for the French, who have pursued the Nesterov Cup for years. The Soviet men take second, the American men third. Natalya Sergeeva of the Soviet Union wins the women's individual championship, and her teammates win, yet again, the women's team title. The team results frustrate the Americans. The trophies won't be coming back to the National Air and Space Museum for display.

As the fat full moon rises over a small mountain range in the east, the U.S. team reflects upon what-ifs and if-onlys. One game every competition pilot plays is to assume one flaw in a flight did not occur, and estimate where the computer scoring system might have placed the flight overall had it not. It is a salve applied to the ego that helps reduce the pain of losing and engenders the confidence to continue. After all, but for an understandable bobble on one snap roll recovery, Wagstaff might have edged past Sergeeva. Plans are discussed for the next contest, two years from now (1992) in Le Havre. The television over the bar gives a detailed accounting of a bicycle race in the Alps. Thousands of miles to the southeast, tanks are rolling across the Iraq-Kuwait border in the desert night.

Aerobatics has yet to find a commentator with the skill and enthusiasm to interpret the action for a television audience.

The next day, all five members of the Men's French team squeeze onto the top step of the stand to receive the award in place of the three highest scoring members who actually brought home the trophy. In a moment of good humor during the ceremony, the second place Soviet team jostles the Frenchmen, sending a message to the proud pilots who toppled the U.S. aerobats from prominence two years ago. Welcome to first place, friends. Nobody stays there long. [They were wrong. The French program, long in development, has resulted in a serious force to be reckoned with, changing the old U.S. - Soviet bipolar relationship. The French hold both the current Team and Individual World Championship titles.]

Clint McHenry and Henry Haigh
Veteran U.S. Team members Clint McHenry, left and Henry Haigh, at the closing ceremony. Yverdon would be the final World Championships for both pilots.

Only a tiny audience--less than 200 people--watches the ceremony, which seems incongruous for a sport as rich and spectacular as this. World competition aerobatics, properly understood and presented, is a highly skilled, intelligent action sport with plenty of color and drama. Natalya Sergeeva is easily as amazing to watch in action as Martina Navratilova. With readily available competition aircraft and support technology such as scoring computers, the sport is ripe for expansion. 

Perhaps someday there will be a television contract from ABC Sports or ESPN, [This year, there is.] although the few attempts to televise the sport thus far have failed to convey its essence and drama. The television camera tends to focus tightly on the aircraft, while the subject of the judging is the form of the figure, something best seen from a distance. Figure skating offers us Dick Button to gush about "a marvelous triple axel," but aerobatics has yet to find a commentator with the skill and enthusiasm to interpret the action for a general audience. Maybe it's for the best. Right now one of aerobatics' most charming attributes is the innocence and nobility that go along with its amateur status.

The next morning the U.S. team prepares to leave. One by one the big engines burst to life, the propeller blast shaking the dew off the grass of Yverdon airfield. Maps replace sequence cards on the instrument panels. Clint McHenry's Extra 300, which will lead the loose formation across Europe to the American air base for shipment back to the US, trundles gently onto the end of the grass strip. The power comes in smoothly, and the big monoplane gathers itself into flight. The other airplanes follow at short intervals. McHenry makes a long, sedate, straight out departure, then executes a gentle wide turn that lets the following airplanes cut across the intervening distance to join up. Now Former World Champion Henry Haigh is the last to take off. This will be his final visit to the world competition. In a salute to the sport that he was so much a part of for so long he peels away from the formation. In his airplane Ratsrepus, Haigh makes one final high speed pass right down the flight line then arcs gracefully upward to catch his teammates, and the U.S. Aerobatic Team leaves Yverdon behind.

Yverdon airport
Once the closing ceremonies of the 1990 World Championships are completed, the colorful airplanes and skilled pilots will leave the airport at Yverdon much as it was when they found it--a quiet little grass strip near a quaint little village in an obscure corner of Switzerland, where nothing unusual happens very often.

It's hard to predict the future of the World Aerobatic Championships. Sitting by his Zlin, Dutch pilot Frank Versteegh ponders the sheer size of the contest. "I really wonder how long we are going to fly this kind of competition," he says. "I don't think we will fly, in 10 years, a competition like this with 80 pilots and the judges in the field for 10 days." There is talk of corporate team sponsors and a grand prix formula for deciding the world championship. The world and aerobatics are both constantly evolving. In an era of severe economic hardship, how much longer will the Soviet Union be able to afford an aerobatic team? Will Jurgis Kairis be representing the Republic of Lithuania at the next contest? Could the French with their marvelous CAP 231 and home field advantage, defend their title against a U.S. team flying a new 350-horsepower Rutan Sky Dancer? Will the Japanese, who do so well at radio-control model aircraft sports, someday discover full-scale aerobatics?

I cannot say. All I can do is glance furtively over my shoulder, pull you aside, and, in hushed voice, pass on a well-kept aviation secret. In August of 1996, at an airfield outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, there will be two weeks of the absolutely finest exhibition of pure aeronautical skill the world has ever seen. You are the only one who knows this. Honest.

Originally published in Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, August 1991.

Copyright 1991, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.