Heavy Stunt

By Bruce Hunt

March 2006

Why Do We Fly?

Why do we fly control-line model airplanes? I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are modelers who fly. I have my own motivations that date back to when I saw my first control line precision aerobatics. Two things, both hard to define, made the strongest impression on my thirteen year old mind, beauty and grace. Here were models that looked like works of art smoothly flying maneuvers I could only dream of flying with my half-A powered models. Only money, school, marriage, family, career and 37 years stood in the way of my dream. Then at my 50th birthday my wife dug my surviving Fox 35 powered Magician out of the attic as a gift along with a new Fox, a Banshee kit, lines, fuel, and a flight box. I realized then that nothing stood in the way of living my dream of recreating the beauty and grace of precision aerobatics.

On my first visit to the flying field at Buder Park in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri with my restored Magician, I was lucky to meet other precision aerobatic fliers. One of the first lessons I had on the road to living my dream was that other pilots are your best source of information, assistance and encouragement. We do not live in a vacuum. Flying a perfect aerobatic pattern is a social event where we fly not just for ourselves but to challenge each other to do better. When we improve our skills, it encourages others to improve theirs. On one of the first visits to Buder Park, I met my best friend from high school, Joe Thompson who I hadn't seen for over 30 years. Joe and I had both shared the fun of flying control line models and while I dropped out of the hobby Joe had kept up with the latest developments. Through Joe I connected with the local club, the Lafayette Esquadrille, joined the Precision Aerobatic Model Pilots Association, learned the PAMPA Beginner Pattern, and entered my first contest. At the St. Louis Ice-O-Lated contest in February, 1998, I came in third in PAMPA Beginner. I was hooked. Now if only I could get better at flying. How could I do that?

In preparation for writing this article, I brainstormed a lot of topics that could be included in a discussion on improving one's flying ability. I took these topics and grouped them by common themes. A theme covered by other pilots in what is available from many sources is what I categorize as the mechanical aspect of improving your flying, or how to trim your model to maximize its ability to fly well. I will repeat here what others have to say about trimming your model and share some of my own experience with the subject. Another aspect of improving your flying is the physical dimension of body position, timing, movement and practice. When we move from the direct experience of flying, another theme is the aesthetic and emotional aspect of flying which includes presentation, flying with others, flying alone, and flying in front of judges. For me there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of being the center of attention for eight minutes in front judges. A last there is the visual aspect of improving your flying. How do we develop a critical eye that allows us to be our own judge and most importantly our own coach?

The Visual Aspect of Flying

In this first article on flying I will concentrate on the visual aspect of improving your flying. To start, I will be referring to flying precision aerobatics or more specifically the sequence of 15 maneuvers known as "the pattern" that has been flown for the last 50 plus years. Judged on a scale of 10 to 40 points per maneuver there are 600 possible flying points available plus an additional 25 points for flying the pattern error free and 20 points for appearance. Of the 645 points available only a few pilots today can score 560 points which means they are losing on average 7 points on every maneuver.

What are we looking for in these maneuvers? I will summarize the key visual aspects of each maneuver into three categories: size, shape, and position. These are the key attributes of the visual quality of a maneuver. Of the three attributes, I have found that shape is the attribute needing the most attention by fliers seeking to improve their pattern scores. Position, which includes consistent bottoms and intersections, is a close second. With size, which defines the tops of maneuvers, third.

Developing a critical eye for judging these attributes in your own pattern starts with closely watching others fly, both the best and the rest. My own experience is with video taping the flights of others. For the first six years of my own quest to improve my pattern, I recorded hundreds of hours of pattern flights and had my wife record many of my own. Reviewing these flights along with the judges score sheets can help develop an appreciation for the overall visual quality of maneuvers. If you don't have access to a video camera, you can acquire tapes from other sources. Windy Urtnowski has tapes of 20 years of NATS and Team Trial competition. Bob Hunt has tapes from several Vintage Stunt Championships and Richard Oliver has tapes from the NATS and the 2004 World Championships. I also have tapes from a couple of the Northwest Regionals and three of the Vintage Stunt Championships.

The next important part of any attempt to improve your pattern is the use of a personal flight log. My own personal log books are small spiral bound books of a couple hundred 4 in X 5 in pages. So how does a log book help? The important thing to record is a log of each flight in a flying session. After each flight immediately record what worked well, what didn't and what you will work on during the next flight. The important part of each flight review is identifying at least one thing to focus on in the next flight. If you don't go through this self examination, all you end up doing is practicing your mistakes. This is very important if you are flying alone when your log entries become a kind of self dialog. Here are some entries from my own log book.

5/9/2003 ­ Flying Impact/ cloudy day, 62degrees, calm 10:15AM, 6 oz fuel, no needle change. Still needs lots of prime. 1st flight- 6:16 last few laps lean ­ cutoff loop, maneuvers smooth ­ Don't rush, pay attention to recovery and smooth turns. Don't jerk or over-fly ­ stay with model. 2nd flight- Engine run leaner at start but consistent throughout 7:43 flight 4.7 laps at end. ­ open 1/8 turn. 3rd flight ­ Better engine run 5.0 laps, more conscious of model in maneuver ­ developing awareness of overall shape and intersections. 4th flight ­ repeat of 3rd need to watch size of loops in vertical eight.

6/10/03 ­ Flying Shark/ Sunny 76 to 78 degrees, light wind <3mph ­ Making trim adjustments. More nose weight, 34 oz forward nose under engine. Raised tank to improve inverted engine run. Had to change out the glow plug at start. 2nd one this year? Last couple flights raised outboard flap a bit to even out wings in level and stop roll in outside corners, much better! Adjusted handle to move bar in and reduce line spacing; got rid of jerky turns and bobbles on corners. Good progress.

Over a five year time frame I now have close to a thousand flights logged. Mostly the comments in the log provide a record of the development of a critical eye for what works for me. The log documents the experiments with trim changes, engine runs, prop sizes and the effect of changing conditions. And most importantly the log focuses on an evaluation of the shape, position and size of individual maneuvers. To be an effective tool the log should address at least one maneuver in the flight. At times I have focused on the maneuvers that judges scored lower than others. What aspects of those maneuvers are the weakest? What changes could I make to improve the scores on those maneuvers?

In addition to the size, shape and position of maneuvers, another visual aspect has to do with the presentation of a maneuver. Presentation is paying attention to the entry into and the recovery from a maneuver. While the entry and recovery are not officially part of the maneuver, they are at least part of the unconscious evaluation the judge gives to the overall appearance of the flight. What I try to create is a definite beginning to the maneuver and a smooth transition to level flight at the end of a maneuver. In round maneuvers the bottom is identified with a definite transition from level flight. The most common mistake is to enter the maneuver "softly" with a turn from level flight that gradually increases to the top of the loop. This leaves the bottom of the first loop offset from the beginning of the turn and behind it. The recovery also leaves the last impression on a judge just before your score is recorded. Leaving a maneuver at level flight height with no bounces or bobbles will add points to your score. In my experience the recovery from the two vertical maneuvers, the vertical eight and hourglass, indicate whether you are flying the model or the model is flying you.

A related visual issue to entry and recovery is the transition in the figure eight that occurs at the intersection between the inside and outside loops. In the best flown maneuvers this single point is marked by definite change of direction. When flown well there is no flat spot in the shape of the eight at its intersection instead there is a visible transition from turning inside to turning outside.

Speaking of turns, the corners of square and triangular maneuvers are also places to make smooth transitions in direction. This is a place where the quality of the corner is directly related to the quality of the model. In any case the best corners happen when they are not thought of as corners but turns between two directions of flight. That is to think about turning from level flight to vertical flight as the model turns. It is a transition not a single point. Focus on the flat sides and the overall shape not the corner. Fly the model through the corner.

The last topic I would like to cover is the use of background visual references to mark the position of maneuvers. As you begin your climb into the reverse wing-over, start a loop, or make a transition at an intersection, be aware of something in the background that will mark that point. Having something exactly at the point of reference is not necessary as long as you identify and remember how far to the left or right of a background object your maneuver was. At times the background object is the sun. Is your intersection to the left or the right of the sun? Is your second intersection the same distance from the sun? To use background cues effectively, practice looking at the background and positioning your maneuvers to background cues.

Another way to use background references is to create a mental picture of the maneuver as if it was painted on the sky. Holding this mental image of the whole maneuver, fly around the outline. Instead of a whole image you can also picture key points in the maneuver and fly to these points. For example, picture the bottom location, the left side, the top and the right side of a loop and fly to these locations.

Practice, Practice, Practice

With this introduction to improving your flying, I have tried to give you some ways to improve your ability to critically judge the visual appearance of your flights. Using a personal flight log to identify areas of improvement and the effects of change will give each flight a purpose. Improving your flying requires that you develop an ability to recognize the correct shape, size and positions of your maneuvers. Watch others fly and practice, practice, practice.

This page was updated April 13, 2006

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