A Beginner’s Guide to Aerobatics.
This guide has been written for the benefit of beginners to ‘pattern’ aerobatic competition, to help them get started in the best way with an appropriate kind of model, and to answer most of the questions that are commonly asked about going to their first competition.
As soon as you can safely take off and land, fly straight lines and can do loops and rolls, you probably are ready to start ‘practicing with a purpose’! The type of aerobatics run by the Australian Pattern Association is known as F3A, and is often called ‘pattern’ because the pilots fly a prescribed set of manoeuvres, or ‘patterns’ in the sky. While a handful of flyers are truly world-class pilots, some people make the mistake of thinking that pattern is only for the so-called elite flyers. Not so at all! Most newcomers get into it simply as a means of quickly improving their flying skills (maybe so they can fly their scale model a lot better) or simply because flying pattern is fun!
There are four ‘classes’ of pilots. These are Sportsman, Advanced, Expert, and FAI - F3A (the top 10% of pilots in F3A class are given the prestigious title of “Masters”). Beginners start in Sportsman, and when your skill level increases and you obtain the required scores, you will be awarded a ‘promotion point’. Three promotion points in a twelve-month period will gain your promotion to Advanced, the next class up. Each class has its’ own set of maneuvers (they get more challenging as you go up the classes!). Sportsman maneuvers are designed so that new people can actually do them, while still presenting a real challenge to do well. This leads us to an important topic:
What model, what engine and what radio? The simple answer is to start with what you already have. As with most sports, if you enter at a level that is way over your head, you will get into more strife than Ned Kelly! The last thing most new people should consider is to start out by buying a current-model FAI F3A style pattern model! APA members with decades of experience have many times seen beginners turn up at their first competitions with a near-new full-blown pattern model, and get soundly trounced by others with similar skill level, but who fly simple .46-powered ‘stick’ type models that they can fly with real control and accuracy, simply because they have grown so used to them over many, many flights!
While they look so smooth and graceful in the right hands, pattern models fly deceptively fast! A little mistake in a line/loop/roll that the beginner doesn’t notice and correct immediately, can quickly turn a maneuver into an unrecognisable one and you get a very low score! Another thing to keep in mind is that you need to actually finish the event... it’s all too easy in the excitement to land a model a bit hard on the runway (or miss it!) after a flight, and wire undercarriages on ‘sticks’ can take that, but retracts won’t! There are many disadvantages for a new person to fly a full-on pattern model, and very few advantages, if any. But on the other hand, if you’ve been flying a pattern model for years as a ‘sport’ model and are quite used to it, use it by all means!
For an engine of around .46-size, a shoulder-wing stick-type model, with no dihedral in the wing, and hopefully weighing no more than four pounds without fuel, is quite suitable and is very easy to build. Shoulder-wing is by far the easiest to build and maintain, while low-wing models do roll a bit better. In practical use, it’s hard to go past a light-weight shoulder-wing stick! There are many models that are fine for aerobatic hot-dogging where precision doesn’t matter much, but remember the heavier they weigh, the harder it is to do the pattern maneuvers well. Putting a bigger engine in a heavyish model doesn’t usually work very well at all for Sportsman pattern; it just makes the model fly faster. If you need help with model selection, you can talk to anyone on the APA committee. There are plans available from different sources for suitable models, too. As far as radio goes, if you have a 4 channel radio, that’s all you need to start. Computer radios can provide some useful conveniences, but you don’t have to use one to start with.
The bottom line is this: make it as easy for yourself as possible while you are ‘learning the ropes’.Use what you’re already familiar with, model and gear-wise, practice the maneuvers, and get to competitions!
Okay, you’ve got a model going, and you can fly it around, do some loops, rolls and your straight lines look straight to you. Now what? First, you need a ‘caller’. And not just someone who can read from your call-card what the next maneuver is, but someone not shy in giving you some valuable feedback! If your loops are not round (but you think they are!) they must tell you. If your straight lines are twenty degrees skewed to the proper line of flight, they must tell you. You can see here that it’s best to get the most experienced caller you can find! If there is anyone at your club with pattern experience, ask them if they could give you some help. But remember you will always find experienced and willing callers at pattern competitions!
What is meant here is that you don’t need to practice at your local field until you reckon you’re 100% perfect! If you practice enough that a local club flier/caller can recognise the maneuvers you are flying (no matter how many mistakes are made) get to a competition! As soon as you can fly safely, nothing beats flying at a competition for experience!
Well, you’re ready to go! What now? Your APA newsletter lists the competitions you can go to in most states. There will be a name and phone number for the Contest Director for the competition you want to enter, and you need to ring him at least 7 days before the event, to enter. You will be asked for your name, probably your address and phone numbers, your FAI number which is the AUS number on your club membership card (everyone must belong to a club to get the necessary insurance cover) and finally, the frequency of your radio. It’s best to avoid any confusion here by stating the frequency in full, rather than the abbreviated way. For example, say 36.370 instead of 637. Some clubs don’t allow the use of 10Khz frequencies, so be prepared to use a 20Khz frequency (with certification) and a two-inch frequency-key with your name and frequency clearly printed on it.
The CD will give you directions to find the competition site if necessary. You could ask if there’s anyone going from near where you live, so you might tag along etc. If it’s a two-day competition as many are, you might ask about the possibility of sharing a room with someone to save on motel bills, but remember it’s NOT up to the CD to find you accommodation, so don’t be offended if he’s unable to help you there.
When you arrive at the competition it’s polite to find the CD, tell him who you are, and ask if there is anything you can do to help (heaps of brownie-points can be gained here!) but usually you won’t have much to do except assemble your model, tune your engine, and maybe get a practice flight in to help calm the nerves. But this is also the golden opportunity to ask the CD who the best callers are! Some of them might be judging when you will be flying (so they won’t be available to help you) but the CD will try to team you up with a good caller. Remember that if you end up with the ‘Number One Flier in Australia’ or the like as your caller, don’t get nervous! They were beginners once, themselves. The top fliers are usually only too pleased to help new people when they are asked, especially if you are prepared to listen and learn from them, and really try to fly your best, in return.
At competitions, apart from honing your flying skills, you will also often get to ‘pencil’ scores for one of the judges, which will give you a bit of an introduction to judging, which nearly everyone gets to do later on. Be prepared to sit in a chair for about two hours... bring warm & windproof clothing, a hat and sunblock. There are usually two ‘flight lines’ with a group of judges and pencillers for each. This means that there will be two models in the air together, flying along the same path. You soon learn to not worry about the other model!
Pilots will be divided into two groups, one for each flight line. As soon as the CD makes the flying order lists available, you need to see when (and on which flight line) your turn will be. The pilot in front of you may have an early dead stick, so you need to be fuelled up and ready to go at least two pilots in front of you. There will also be a ‘rotation’ of pilots so if you’re second up for flight one, you might be fourth up for flight two. Remember who the two pilots are in front of you. Never be late getting yourself on to the line when asked to go!
When you arrive at a competition, make yourself known to the other flyers. You’ll find it quite easy to fit in, because we’ve all ‘been there before’ ourselves as first-timers. Also, at two-day competitions, most of us go to dinner together as a group. We usually decide the venue towards the end of day one. Ask the CD!
We hope this is of some help to you as a newcomer. If you have any comments from your experiences of starting out that you think we should include in this guide to help others, please let the committee know. Remember that the reason we are on the committee is to help our fellow APA members enjoy their flying!
Fly for fun, and make it fun for others, too!
Special thanks to the QPFA for providing this article.