You are hereQuest for the Cup

Quest for the Cup

The windsock at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport outside Oklahoma City is pointing stiff as a board this afternoon, and the late-May sun is baking Oklahoma in the worst drought of the century. United States Aerobatic Team trainer John Morrissey squints into the sun and wind to watch rookie Diane Hakala practice for the other America's Games of 1996—the ones without the massive media campaign and huge corporate sponsorships.

Hakala's rakish Staudacher S300D monoplane makes a run toward Morrissey, pitches up into a vertical climb, draws a line, twirls one and one half times about the now-vertical fuselage, draws another line, coasts to a halt, pivots sideways cleanly about its center of gravity, draws another line, executes a stunningly precise three-quarter outside snap roll, draws another line, and pitches startingly nose forward to fly away inverted downwind. "Good turnaround. A handsome down three-quarter snap," Morrissey notes for the practice videotape. "Don't change a thing."

After a 16-year absence, the World Aerobatic Championships have returned to America, and despite the fact these largely unknown Olympics of the pilot's art are overshadowed by the games in Atlanta, the tiny aviation community surrounding the sport couldn't be prouder hosts or more determined to make this the best one yet. With 103 competitors from 25 countries so far scheduled to arrive at this airfield for opening cermonies on August 18, it's the biggest in the 36-year history of the contest.

It may also be the most important contest the U.S. pilots have faced. After decades of cultural myopia and an only brief domination of the sport in the early 1970s, the United States has had to relearn what it takes to win at the world level in competition aerobatics. Since the U.S. team's dismal fourth-place performance at the 1994 World Championships in Hungary, the United States has totally redesigned its approach to the sport and its training process. Now the 10 members of the U.S. team-evenly divided into five-person men's and women's teams-are about to learn how successful their effort has been.

The reasons the United States lost its dominance in the sport have to do with geography, politics, and time. At the first world aerobatic contest, held in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1960, the United States fielded a team of one: a Texas cropduster and airshow pilot named Frank Price. Price finished 24th out of 29 pilots, but he brought back a wealth of experience. Price stayed in close contact with the European competitors, and the newly formed Aerobatic Club of America guided U.S. participation in world-level competition with one goal: sending a team to compete at the world meet. At the time, there was one class of competition flying, known as the Unlimited, and no more than a handful of U.S. pilots capable of flying at the world judging standards of that level.

In 1970, the somewhat misnamed International Aerobatic Club was formed in the United States to foster domestic aerobatics. The idea was to develop a pool of talent that could move up through local contests and increasing levels of difficulty, gaining the skills and experience required to compete in the unlimited class and, eventually, in the world contest. Building its infrastructure in relative isolation from European influence, the IAC developed a distinctly American style based on rather strict interpretation of the rules intended to reduce the subjectivity of judging. That style, enforced by the training given to judges, treated aerobatic flight less as art and more as engineering, with an exacting-if uninspired-form of flying being rewarded with higher grades. In an attempt to level the scoring field, the United States had lost sight of the true nature of the sport, which is closer to ballet or ice skating than, say, a military drill.

In 1982, the IAC took over conducting the Unlimited class, the U.S. nationals, and the team selection, and the fate of a generation of U.S. aerobatic teams was sealed. By now, team members who had worked their way up through the IAC ranks were steeped in a style of flying altogether different from the world standard. So were the judges at the U.S. national contest. Flying to IAC standards forced a certain conservatism. "The Americans fly like they are scared of losing," notes four-time former U.S. team member and international judge Bill McIntyre. "The Europeans fly to win."

For a time, the United States thought it could impose its style on the world community, but the results were less than positive. "Up until recently, our attitude has been 'We're right and they're wrong,' " says U.S. team member Robert Armstrong, a professional pilot. "We've had the isolationist attitude that the rest of the world is going to have to conform to our standards. Well, we're never gonna win that way."

The stylistic difference was compounded by a lack of state of the art technology. The Americans did possess an advantage for a time with their airplanes, particularly the Pitts S1-S Special in the early 1970s. The advent during mid 1980s of a new generation of European aerobatic aircraft such as the Russian Sukhoi, the French CAP 231, and the German Extra 300, erased the American technical advantage.

"In '82 in Spitzerberg, Austria, I remember [Russian world champion] Viktor Smolin walking around measuring every airplane that was there, everything the Americans had," team veteran Linda Meyers Morrissey recalls. "The French were doing the same thing. Walter Extra was getting a lot of ideas.... They needed to come up with an airplane to beat these Americans. And they did."

The U.S. team fared well enough through the 1980s, but by 1990, they were simply not flying the style of aerobatics the European judges expected to see. In his 1975 book Aerobatics, British great Neil Williams wrote, "If the slow roll was the foundation of basic aerobatic flying, then the vertical roll can be said to be the key to world championship flying." Things have changed since then. "Everyone can do vertical rolls," U.S. team member Phil Knight says. "If you can't do a straight line in a vertical roll, you ought not be in Unlimited. That's a given." An electronics engineer turned businessman from Florida, Knight physically resembles everyone's gruff high school P.E. coach but exhibits a gentle demeanor and speaks in a thoughtful, precise manner. As he explains it, the Unlimited is now a game of snap rolls. In a snap roll, the airplane corkscrews through the air as if it had one wing. "The deal is make them as aggressive as possible, and to keep them aggressive right to the absolute," Knight says. It's telling that European trainers will dismiss a poorly executed snap roll as an "American snap."

But that's not the worst part. For some time now, U.S. pilots have wondered out loud why they were not scoring as well as the other competitors. This led to complaints of poor judging and protests to change the Unknown sequence at a contest, all of which have set the tone of U.S. involvement in the sport as one of looking outward to explain poor performance rather than inward. According to current U.S. national champion Michael Goulian, the world aerobatic community has tended to regard the U.S. fliers as amateurs, as hobbyists, rather than as serious aerobatic pilots. "The U.S. team really wants the entire world to understand how hard they train and how serious they take it," he says.

There's an ice-soaked towel waiting for Diane Hakala back at the hangar. It's just one of the myriad details team manager Boris Baird has arranged for the training session. "I can remember flying missions over North Vietnam," Morrissey recalls; "the thought of that cold towel waiting was enough to get me back home."

Morrissey runs the entire training camp from a two by three foot bulletin board in the main office of team headquarters. A daily schedule is posted there, detailing the 10 pilots' practice time slots. Each gets three 20-minute slots daily, spread out over five sessions, with the order of pilots rotating daily. With Morrissey alternating the training with U.S. judge Alan Geringer, the pilots have plenty of time to prepare, fly for 20 minutes (enough for two sequences or a sequence and some individual figure practice), recover from the physical stress, and conduct a detailed debriefing with the trainer in a room equipped with a television and a VCR.

Traditionally, this late-May team practice session is the beginning of the run for the world championships. This year, it's merely the first time the team has worked together. Over the winter the United States Aerobatic Foundation has provided funding for pilots to continue individual training. The foundation provided a list of approved trainers knowledgeable in current world style-including the current world champion, French pilot Xaviar de Lapparent, as well as former Soviet team member Sergei Boriak-that U.S. pilots could utilize for one-on-one technique development. Meanwhile, the pilots have been individually working to sharpen their edges before coming to this training camp. Airline pilot and fixed-base operator Debby Rihn-Harvey, for example, rises at 5:30 a.m. to get in a practice flight each morning before work.

Armed with the knowledge gained from two extended visits to the Russian aerobatic training camp, Morrissey toured the pilots' home bases in February to evaluate them individually. The results of their efforts are apparent in the quality of the practice flying and the focus of the training. "I'd be comfortable taking three of the pilots and putting them in a contest tomorrow," Morrissey notes. "If they can stay as good as they are, they're gonna do great." The rest are not far behind.

With two and a half months remaining before the competition, most pilots have mastered the Known sequence, a compulsory string of figures published by the contest authority before the contest begins, as well as their Freestyle sequences, which each competitor creates. They'll have the remainder of the summer to polish details such as the presentation of the flight, wind correction, and the figures they might run up against in the Unknown sequence.

The Unknown is the last sequence in the competition and, because it is presented to the pilots no more than 24 hours before their performance, the most challenging. Preparing for a practice Unknown just handed to him, Mike Goulian studies it intently, then consults a small black diary. On each page, he has neatly inscribed a complex Aresti figure that might appear in an Unknown, and below the drawing are detailed notes on the figure's entry airspeed, control inputs, airplane response and expected results. A half-hour later, Goulian has not only committed the sequence to memory but refreshed his understanding of the precise techniques required to fly it. During his next practice flight, Goulian presents the Unknown against the fierce wind with surprising dexterity.

Team pilot Robert Armstrong is faced with a special challenge. The Pitts S-1-11B he is flying is a factory prototype, and the design is still being fine-tuned. A pair of unpainted wing root fairings have shown up on the airplane in an attempt to smooth the airflow, and there are plans to move the battery in an attempt to adjust the center of gravity. Armstrong is learning to learn how to manage the new airplane's energy. The big ailerons on the new design seem to soak up airspeed during vertical rolls. But if anyone can master the new Pitts, it's the "gainfully unemployed" airline pilot and mechanic from Georgia, who exhibits an uncanny aeronautical savvy in these matters. Armstrong has a reputation for getting the most out of the equipment, having achieved remarkable success with the S-1C model Pitts early in his career.

It seems paradoxical that the road to success in what is so clearly an individual sport is paved with the bedrock of teamwork. This team realizes, however, that they are stronger and more likely to win working together than apart. To a greater degree than ever before, they are sharing techniques and insights, and as a result morale is at an all-time high. "There's a feeling that we want the entire team to do well," says Goulian. "I know that if if I finish 10th in the world and we're world champions, that's fine with me." Rookie Matt Chapman believes that the United States has to be a strong team unit in order to win. "We all don't have to be buddies, we all don't have to drink beer at night," he says, "but when we're here, we have to be team players and support each other in a team effort. If we win as a team, individuals will rise to the top." Only team member Patty Wagstaff sees it differently: "Basically, we're all out there competing against each other for first place in the world."

The award for best individual performance, the Aresti Cup, has traditionally been the most sought after, most prestigious of the World Aerobatic Championship's awards. However, the Nesterov Cup, awarded for the best men's team performance, is the better measure of a nation's excellence. (The women's teams compete for the FAI Challenge Cup, traditionally regarded as less competitive because of the smaller number of female pilots. That's sure to change, however; see " The Gender Factor") The individual standings are subject to uncontrollable circumstances, such as the single day of high winds in the Unknown in 1994, the odd mechanical failure, or a sudden illness. A pilot may enter a half a dozen world's contests in order to see the proper conditions to make his best flights and become world champion. The formula for awarding the "NestorovCup" cancels out such caprice. Team championships are based on the best three cumulative scores compiled by a team's members. Therefore, fielding a well-balanced team is the prerequisite for ultimate success in the sport.

But more important to this team than the quest for the Nestorov Cup is the quest for credibility, something that can be achieved only by a combined effort to meet the standards set by the rest of the world. "We're entering a time when it is a world community," says judge Alan Geringer. "The distances that separate us mean less. But in the past the separation between the United States and Europe has been a very divisive thing, the Atlantic Ocean in the middle. We are viewed as outsiders. I think we need to do something to bring ourselves into that community."

Despite the extended training, the Americans still lag behind France and Russia, and no one is prepared to predict an easy victory. "We don't spend as much time in the seat as the French do, or the Russians," Goulian notes. "Xavier [de Lapparent] told me that the year he won the Worlds, 1994 he had over 350 critiqued flights. We might have 50. So that's what we're up against."

But the United States, armed with an array of state-of-the-art aircraft, prepared by the most intensive training program in the nation's aerobatic history, and having the rare home court advantage, is well out of reasons for failure. "If ever there is a year we are going to do it, this is the year we're going to do it," Matt Chapman says. "We've got the best talent we've had on this team in a while. We've got more people on this team that are bloodthirsty. Everyone here wants to win the world championships. Those guys are on fire. They can taste it."

With the stakes at an all-time high, the success of the training camp and the new-found cohesion as a team inspire veteran Linda Meyers Morrissey to playful confidence. Near the end of camp, she tosses a velvet gauntlet down before the current champions. "The French are beaten," she says; "they just don't realize it yet."

Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, August/September 1996.

Copyright 1996, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.