How much training do I need?
If your curiosity is the least bit piqued, the next step is to a find a school that teaches basic aerobatics. There are many from which to choose. (https://www.iac.org/aerobatic-flight-schools) Don't be cocky enough to think that you don't need professional instruction. If you want to do basic aerobatics get flight instruction with a flight instructor. The instructor will need to know your previous flight experience and the types of airplanes you have flown. You will find yourself doing some “ground” work before you get in the airplane. This is a chance for you to understand what you are going to experience in the air and the principles behind the maneuvers.
Once you've flown a number of hours with an aerobatics instructor, what do you do next? The length of time you spend in training will be determined by your goals. Did you want to learn a few maneuvers to help your piloting skills, do you plan to fly aerobatic recreationally, or do you plan to take it to the competition level.
Most aerobatic schools offer 5 and 10 hour courses, though this may vary from school to school. These courses are the "introduction" to aerobatics, and won't be all the training ever needed. Like other forms of flying, the learning must continue to be a better aerobatic pilot. Most pilots will be able fly the Primary and Sportsman sequences with the initial 5-10 hours, but will want more advanced training later to move up in the competition categories.
What type of airplane should I expect to fly in aerobatic training and beyond?
With the exception of a Cessna Aerobat, most aerobatic airplanes are tailwheel aircraft. If you have no time in one, you're in for a treat! Don't let this detour you from the task. Getting accustomed to a tailwheel takes some time. If you have no real appreciation for rudder pedals, you will quickly learn their importance. Flying a tailwheel is an experience you can master.
Sometimes choice of airplane is not a choice, particularly when a school has only one type. Other times a school will have more than one type from which to choose. Some commonly used airplanes include, Citabria, Decathlons, Pitts and even an Extra. Most people will start out in the less complex and slower airplane such as the Decathlon which is highly recommended as a great entry level airplane.
Any aircraft that is designed for aerobatics can be used. In competition aerobatics the lower categories are designed for lowered powered aircraft that don't have inverted fuel or oil systems, and the figures may be flown safely without such systems. These airplanes may include clipped wing Cubs and Taylorcraft, Citabrias, Cessna Aerobats.
Aerobatic competition requires a combination of good piloting skills and an airframe that can accomplish the figures. As pilots move up in the categories, they need a higher performing aircraft. Pilots do not need to move up or change categories, many pilots stay in one category for years.
What are the challenges in flying aerobatics?
By its very nature, aerobatics involves risks that are not involved in non-aerobatic flight; but, as with other aviation activities, it is only as safe or dangerous as the pilot makes it. Discipline, planning, common sense, and knowledge are the basic prerequisites to safety. Aerobatics can be quite safe if safety rules are followed religiously:
- First and foremost, get proper aerobatic and emergency situation training.The IAC maintains a list of schools offering emergency maneuver and aerobatic training.
- Never fly aerobatics in aircraft not approved for aerobatic flight.
- Fly at a safe and conservative altitude.
- Know your equipment and its limitations. Keep the aircraft well-maintained.
- Know yourself and your own personal limitations (altitude limits, g-limits, flight durations, health, etc.)
- Always perform a proper, thorough aerobatic preflight.
- Stay current and take recurrence check rides.
- Stay clear of conflicting air traffic.
- Always leave yourself a way out.
- Always wear a parachute. Know how to bail out and how to use it.
Aerobatics is for the sensible pilot who seeks proficiency, precision, and control in their flying skills. Practice produces control. The attitude that guides control is what separates reckless fools from aerobatic artists. Aerobatic pilots understand their machine as well as its limitations and they recognize their own personal capabilities. Control is what everyone, from World Aerobatic Champion competitors to air show heroes, is looking for.
What physical effects will I experience?
Aerobatics entails forces and visual situations that are new to just about everyone. Each person will respond differently to these. Typically, on your first few flights you may feel queasy after some number of maneuvers, experience some anxiety or experience some disorientation. With each flight, your tolerance will build. Don't let the initial discomfort discourage you. Stay hydrated and don't fly aerobatics on an empty stomache.
The more often you practice, the higher your tolerance will become. As you get used to unusual attitudes in your aircraft, the exhilaration and fun begins to dominate. Loops, rolls, and spins can be habit- forming. Hammerheads, Cuban 8's and snap rolls can be addicting. Gradually, one becomes determined to make the loops a more perfect circle, the rolls more true, and to predetermine the exit points of a spin.
I want to make a career out of aerobatic flying, how do I to go about it?
After professional instruction, sometimes for years, many airshow performers spend a number of years flying IAC sanctioned contests to perfect their aerobatic precision and gain valuable experience in this demanding sport.
Whether you are planning on making a living from doing airshows or flying a few airshows during the summer in your regional area, you need to possess a valid FAA pilot certificate. Additonally a pilot who wishes to perform aerobatics at a public aviation event (airshow) must possess a valid FAA Form 8710-7 or Transport Canada Form 26-0307, Statement of Aerobatic Competency.
Information on the process of the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) Program can be found at the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS).
In an article on Michael Goulian’s website he says about becoming an airshow pilot, “you’re looking at approximately ten years of practice and training. Maybe more. There is simply no easy way to get to the top except for old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears... In fact, to get to “the top”, you’ll have to give up EVERYTHING for the next decade. That’s it, you can’t do anything else. Eat it, breathe it, sleep it, and live it.”
Kirby Chamblis, a former IAC Unlimited Team member and 5 time U.S. National Champion, says that the question about becoming an air show pilot is the 2nd most asked question he gets. Speaking of the ACE program he stresses, “This progressive evaluation allows the pilot to move from an altitude of 1500 ft toward the surface, based on the pilot’s ability and the number of air shows flown. More importantly, it is helpful to have flown in competition aerobatics and to have years of experience flying aerobatics.”
Making a living out of aerobatic flying is not for the faint of heart. Becoming an airshow pilot is a career path that costs a lot of money before it returns any, if at all. The cost of owning, storing, fuelling, insuring and maintaining a personal aircraft, as well as the cost of travel and training, can reach or even surpass $100,000 a year for several years before any sort of financial return. Most air shows only “hire” 5 or 6 pilots, so getting in enough air show time to build up a following and attract the organizers attention is challenging. Most long time airshow performers suppliment their income with sponsorships. Or you may be satisfied to fly in local airshows, so that some travel expenses decrease, during the summer months adding a little side income to your main career.