From Sportsman to Unlimited Aerobatic Flying
By Neville Ferreira photos by Willie Bodenstein
I received some basic aerobatic training in December 2004 from Stuart Lithgow in a Pitts S2B while being on holiday in Plett. Then after flying the Yak-52 of a friend for 3 years, I purchased his Yak registrations ZU-YAK in 2008. During December 2010 I flew in my first competition. This was the graduate sequence consisting of the basic manoeuvres starting with a spin followed by a loop and then a stall turn, followed by a roll and two turns. Bertus Du Preez gets all the credit for this as it took him two years of nagging and training. The first comp is always intimidating as you do not know what to expect.
In Feb 2011 I entered the next competition flying in the Sportsman class. By now you are fired up and ready to kick some butt or so it feels at least. The Yak52 I owned at the time was probably the best training aircraft ever to be built. It is capable of basic to advanced training and in the Eastern Block countries it was used as a basic trainer to prepare pilots for jets. Sportsman class introduces 1/4 rolls on the vertical down lines. During the next couple of competitions my confidence grew and I was soon up with the best in sportsmanship class.
Nigel Hopkins was the best inspiration for me as he would push us to the next level as soon as he recognized the potential to do so. During Nationals 2011 that was held at Hoedspruit I met Glen Warden. This is the most down to earth Top Gun you will ever meet. By mingling with these top pilots, you soon realized that you are amongst flying royalty so to speak. No show boating or any inflated egos. Nobody needed to impress anybody except to impress the judges.
Flying in your first National competition is an eye opener as there are so many excellent pilots. Your nerves are shot and you only find out at a competition how your body and mind reacts to these conditions, unfortunately you cannot train for this. You think you come prepared but soon realize that a lot more training could have come in handy.
Later that year Nigel's push came along once again and the Yak-52 was on the market. The next tool for the job was the Yak-55, the only similarity between the 52 and the 55 is the word Yak. The 55 has the same 360Hp engine as the 52 but with 300Kg less weight. The thick wing gave it exceptional low speed manoeuvrability. The roll rate was double compared to the 52's roll rate. This was also my first tail dragger. Flying now in the Intermediate class was a major step up in difficulty from Sportsman class. Snap rolls are introduced for the first time. Getting used to these extreme manoeuvres takes a lot of practice. At first they are so violent and too fast to grasp, after 30-40 snap rolls it started to slow down in your mind and you are able to find the spot for the recovery to wings level flight.
As I was now in my second year of competition flying carving a track record at every comp, I obtained my Solo Aerobatic Display Rating. Nigel was my DAE and he granted me a 500 feet minimum altitude for aerobatic displays.
Flying your first single seat Tail Dragger requires bags full of self-confidence. There is no instructor to take over, nobody next to you to ask for advice. The Yak-55 was built to be a fairly easy to land and take off as the Russians did not have any 2 seat Tail Draggers for training. My convex to tail wheel took only 1.1 hours flying a Decathlon. There after some circuits in a RV-7 and some experience gained in a Bush Baby. It is so important to fly as many different types of aircraft to build your skill inventory as you do not know which experience to recall until the moment it is required.
In order to prepare myself for the 55 I flew the 52 from the back seat. I demonstrated to my instructor Bertus sitting in the front seat of the 52, how I will approach the landing by flying an elliptical flight path to the threshold. This allows for visibility all the way down to the ground from the time of turn base leg. After 5 landings from the back seat I was ready to climb into the 55. This was an amazing surprise to experience this amount of power to weight ratio. The 55 climbs at 3500 feet / min, it was like getting into your own roller coaster. Getting airborne required 150-200 meters. After leaving the ground you can pull the nose up to 35-40 deg. and she will just keep on going.
By April 2012 I was already scoring high 70's% in intermediate and it was time to start exploring the Advanced Class type of flying. In advanced pilots are introduced to inverted spins and a lot of negative G flying. We call it the 'Push Fest' at competitions. The amount of inverted flying done at this level is painful at first. The first time your body experience -2G up to -3G it is equal to the worst migraine headache. Once you get use to this then tasting blood comes with the -4G to -5G level. Later on you look at the G meter and cannot even remember when and where you pushed so hard.
July 2012 I flew in my first World Championship. This was in Russia about 120km south of Moscow. Flying in a foreign country comes with its own challenges. Language barrier, food and culture are the main obstacles. The experience gained from these competitions are extremely valuable, once again your body and mind only experience tress levels associated with these international competitions on the day of such a competition and you cannot train for this, you have to experience it to learn from it.
During a competition in 2012 I managed to beat my mentor Bertus in the same competition class. This happened on my birthday, can you ask for more? The Yak-55 was the perfect step up from the Yak-52 as it was able to allow me to push the envelope further and further without it biting back. The roll rate was controllable through snap rolls in the vertical down line and I was able to master the techniques required for advanced aerobatics with ease. Although I was able to climb the ranks pretty quickly from Sportsman to Intermediate and on to Advanced, the time spend in the advanced class took a lot longer to master the skill of scoring high 70's%.
The Sport Aerobatic Club of South Africa does not allow pilots to move on to the next level until you reach 70% or more in a competition where 3 flights are flown including an unknown sequence. The unknown sequence is given to the pilot 24 Hours before and you are unable to practice for this. Unknowns are the flights that separate the men from the boys. You are able to practice the published known sequence and your personal Free Sequence over and over to near perfection, but for me the unknowns are 85% mental preparation, 10% skill and 5% just plain luck.
In 2013 a new tool was required, with a plan going forward, I needed a new aircraft. As the Yak-55 was only capable of taking me to Advanced and not to Unlimited, the search was on. After 6 months of talking to various people including Glen Dell I decided to approach a fellow aerobatic pilot to form a partnership acquiring the next aircraft. We decided on the Slick 540 designed by Glen Dell for the Red Bull 2008/9 season. Uncertain if the Slick 540 will be able to cope with the requirement for unlimited aerobatics the demo flight was arranged. Glen dived in from altitude and pulled to the vertical right in front of us and started to roll the slick while climbing vertical. Eight rolls later he was still climbing and the Slick impressed. After another 4 months in the factory upgrading a couple of items we took delivery.
Nothing could prepare me for this performance shock. The Slick 540 climbs at 6500 feet/min when you have minimal fuel on board at sea level. The roll rate at high speed turned out to meet the 440+ deg/sec threshold. I soon realized that all the aerobatic hours flown to date wasn't enough just to climb into this type of aircraft. It took 30 Hours just to make friends with the ailerons as it is so sensitive. In the Yak-52 you required 20Kg of force to roll the 52 at high speed. The Yak-55 required 2-4 Kg of force to roll at high speed while the Slick 540 required less than a 1/4 Kg of force. You soon became a passenger in your own single seat aircraft while trying to master this monster. This slippery super-fast machine will kill you if you are behind the aircraft. She cruises at 180+ Knots while sipping 46L/h. The yak-55 did not have flaps nor trim adjustments as it was designed that way. The Slick 540 with its super thin wings, no flaps requires you to approach at 100Mph in order to do a wheeler landing; 90-93Mph delivers a 3-pointer. After more than 100 hours in the Slick I started to consider myself in control.
During June 2014 I travelled to the USA to attend advanced spin training together with emergency recovery procedures. I did not have the skill to move on to unlimited class without this training. My fear at the time was what if something goes wrong, what will I do? In order to fly in this class, you have to be skilled beyond believe. In this Unlimited class, pilots fly negative snaps, tail slides and many more manoeuvres that when badly executed will most probably require a new set of clothing. Your minimum altitude in unlimited competitions flying is only 300 feet there is no time to think, you just react.
Unlimited aerobatic competition flying is the most rewarding flying I have ever experienced. Four years ago I could only dream of this privilege of being ranked as an Unlimited Aerobatic Pilot. It was at my third unlimited competition that I managed to reach my perceived unreachable dream. Achieving more than 70% including the third flight "The Unknown sequence" flight is something so special that only 3 pilots before have achieved in Unlimited class during the past 15 years. Aerobatics were created for Unlimited. It's only when you get to fly at this level that you realize that the joy you experience now is a culmination of all the hard work from the past years.
It has been an incredible journey to date. Qualifying to represent your country at world championships is something very few people will ever have the opportunity to experience.
Special thanks to Nigel Hopkins and Bertus Du Preez.
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