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Let's Go Inverted for Just a Few Moments
By Daron Cristy, Contributing Editor & Photographer

When I purchased my plane, it had to fit the one very simple criterion; it had to be fun. What can be more fun and exhilarating than aerobatics? My Great Lakes is fitted with a Lycoming AEIO-360 engine, a 1.2-gallon inverted fuel tank, and is capable of plus 5.4 and negative 4.0 G's. Not too shabby.

Without question, aerobatics was one of the main selling points for the Great Lakes. In fact, it was originally designed as a military trainer in the 1930's. The owner's manual comprises descriptions of over 16 maneuvers that the plane is capable of!

Some of the fun things you can get up to in a Great Lakes.

But where did all this crazy flying start? Once we were airborne it seemed like the limits of flying were being pushed and prior to World War I there were a couple of notable events;

September 1, 1913, Frenchman Adolphe Peegoud demonstrated the ability to fly an aircraft inverted.

September 9, 1913, Russian Petr Nesterov was able to perform a loop.

November 25, 1913, Lincoln Beachey was the first American to perform the loop. He became known as "The man who owns the Sky." He became wealthy for the aviation endeavors; exhibitions, stunt flying and helped lay the foundations for aerobatics. Beachey was killed doing aerobatics (just a few days after his 28th birthday) when he tried to recover from a badly executed aerobatic maneuver; both wings snapped off, the plane and pilot plunged into the San Francisco Bay and were embedded in the mud. The plane was recovered later with Beachey still strapped in his seat.

But, as you would expect, development of these antics was well connected with military aviation and yes you would be right, aerial combat was taking place a mere 11 years after the Wright Brothers took flight. But, the first military pilots were actually prohibited from doing any kind of aerobatics. Their role was to simply observe and report. However, as the offensive capabilities of the airplane developed that soon changed. It was around 1915 that the dogfight in the skies was born. Pilots needed to gain the skills and dexterity to push their airplanes to the limits, sometimes beyond, in order to get that much needed edge. There were no manuals, nor dogfighting schools; everything was self-taught and learned hands on.

The term dogfighting was used prior to aviation to describe a fast-paced battle between two adversaries. The term was adopted in the later part of World War I for aerial combat and has become synonymous with aviation ever since. It was truly made world famous by Top Gun at Miramar, which was established to hone the dogfighting skills of pilots who had become too reliant on avionics.

In 1917, the worst month for the entire war for the Royal Flying Corps, the average life expectancy of a British pilot on the Western Front was 69 hours. There was also the 20-Minute Club for new pilots; their life expectancy in 1916-17 was a mere 20 minutes in combat.

In World War II the Royal Air Force faced terrible odds, a mere 640 aircraft facing the German Luftwaffe comprising 2600 fleet. During the Battle of Britain, life expectancy of the pilot was a mere four weeks. The pilots average age was just 20.

After World War I, former combat pilots helped promote flying in America by barnstorming (touring rural areas performing stunt-flying exhibitions and providing rides for the locals).

The first and only World Cup of aerobatics was held in Paris in June 1934.

In aviation history, one of the female pioneers of aerobatics was that of Betty Skelton who became known as "The First Lady of Firsts.". Born in 1926, she took an early interest in flying, watching the airplanes of Pensacola Naval Air Station from her back yard. Still very young she (and her family) received instruction from a Navy ensign, Kenneth Wright and soloed for the first time at the age of 12 in a 40hp Taylor craft - not sure even then how legal that was. At 16 she held her private pilot license. At 18 she received her commercial pilot license and the following year was certified as an instructor. Aerobatic training started for her in 1945 so that she could perform for an amateur airshow that her father was organizing. As she found it was hard to be accepted as a female pilot, she pursued the aerobatic field. In 1946 she purchased - yes, you guessed it - a 1929 Great Lakes sport trainer biplane. In fact, during my search for a Great Lakes, I was offered this very plane; unfortunately it was well beyond my means to buy.

Her most daring show piece was ribbon cutting with the propeller. The ribbon would be held just 10 feet above the ground, and if that was not enough, she did it inverted!

In 1948 she bought a Pitts Special after winning the championship. This airplane had been designed and built by Curtis Pitts and became known as Little Stinker. Skelton became the US Female Aerobatic Champion in 1948, 1949, and 1950. After this though there was little challenge left, so she retired from aerobatics in 1951 and sold her plane. In 1985 she reacquired the plane and donated it to the National Air and Space Museum in 1985.

Betty Skelton's achievements went far beyond what is listed here, including setting the world record in 1949 for her flight in a Piper Cub to 25,763 feet, only for her to break that shortly after (again in a Piper Cub) by reaching an altitude of 29,050 feet.

Britain held the international Lockheed Trophy contest from 1955 to 1965.

It would not be until 1960 that aerobatics became more globally organized with the formation of the International Aerobatics Commission and the first World Championship was held in Czechoslovakia.

So, where do I fit into all of this. Well I certainly am not ready for competition yet, having only completed four lessons.

My personal advice is to train with a very experienced pilot. I am fortunate to have Pawel Miko instructing me, and he is very committed to the aerobatics and flying community.

Here is what can happen in a very basic move, the aileron roll. I ended up putting way too much forward stick into the maneuver and my plane simply did not like it. Miko recovered to level inverted flight and then flipped us right side up. So very, very glad to have Miko there at that moment.

But then there are more fun times - which actually followed my mistake. Learn and keep on going.

And my least favorite of all, right now, spin recovery.

Where can you do aerobatics? The FAA (14 CFR 91.303) has stated that no person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight:

  1. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement;
  2. Over an open assembly of persons;
  3. Within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport;
  4. Within 4 nautical miles of the center line of any Federal airway;
  5. Below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the surface; or
  6. When flight visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

San Diego, California, is a busy mixture of airspace which means that there are few places where aerobatics are allowed. However, there are exceptions: aerobatic boxes. They come in two forms, an Aerobatic Practice Area (APA) and an Aerobatic Contest Box (ACB). Certificates of Authorizations are issued by individual FAA Flight Standards Districts. They can be long term or temporary and come with numerous provisions.

One of these is located in Borrego Valley Airport, California which is in San Diego County. This is where the San Diego Hammerheads (IAC 36) hold Akrofest, their aerobatic competition in April and October. One of the provisions for the box is that it can only be used by current IAC 36 members.

I decided to attend the last Akrofest as a spectator as this seems to be quite the group meeting for Great Lakes owners - five this time in one spot. Last year there were six. It also seems like the Borrego community really gets behind this event. Viki Cole, airport director put together a sundowner party on the Friday night and there was another party on the Saturday evening.

Three of the five Great Lakes biplanes that attended Akrofest 2019.
Four Great Lakes lined up and ready to compete.

So, who attends these events? A completely broad set of people: men, women, young, and old(er).

Inigo Markle-Allen, who is an aerospace engineer with Northrop Grumman. Has been flying for nine years, about 550 total hours, but of which less than ten hours is aerobatic. This was his first competition, but he has always been enamored by the classic open-cockpit biplanes.

Indigo heading up with a safety pilot as this is his first competition.

Howard Kirker, retired, flies a Great Lakes and is very well known in the aerobatics community. He first soloed in 1963 and obtained his private pilot license in 1964. He purchased his Great Lakes in 2002 and competed in the Sportsman and Intermediate classes from 2004 until 2007. From 2008 until 2014 he competed in the Advanced and Unlimited classes in a Laser 230, but decided to return to his Great Lakes in 2015 to compete again in Sportsman. He enjoys the challenge of matching up against more powerful planes such as the Extras; everything has to be right and the power management has to be spot on because he is flying the Great Lakes to its limits. His words of advice though, to anyone: "Enjoy the journey. Do not rush to get to Unlimited; you will miss all of the fun".

Howard Kirker in his Great Lakes biplane at Akrofest 2019 in Borrego Springs.
On the inside of Howards plane, a fair warning to passengers!

Then just to complete the wide array of attendees, Jim Bourke shows up. Not only is he an active competitor on the US Aerobatic Team but he also serves on the board of directors for the IAC. However, as his Extra 330SC was down for maintenance, he decided to step down from Unlimited to compete in the Sportsman class. So, he flew the Great Lakes for the first flight, the Yak-52 for the second flight and a Pitts S2A for the third flight. In Jim's words, "the pitch response of the Great Lakes was the best. The Pitts S2A rolled the best and was overall easiest to fly. The Yak-52 is a real beast. Its not as easy as the others, but in the right hands it is very capable, and it's always fun to fly behind a radial engine".

Jim's words of wisdom to anyone who may be interested in aerobatics: "A lot of people think that it takes someone special to fly aerobatics, but the truth is that it just takes training and reliable equipment. You can do it!"

For some real inspiration visit his website

Jim getting ready to taxi out for his first flight of the day in the Great Lakes and yes, he has a safety pilot riding with him.
And yes, there are female competitors too, Susan Bell flying in her Extra 300.
Miko flying his Yak-52 to prove that there were other planes there apart from the Great Lakes ... However, the Great Lakes pilots did take first place in Primary (Inigo Markle-Allen), Sportsman (Daniel Chripczuk,) and Intermediate (Howard Kirker).

Lastly, don't forget your parachute! As you will be putting your plane in some very unusual attitudes, the FAA deems it necessary for you to wear a parachute (14 CFR 91.307). And that parachute needs to be repacked every 180 days. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Roberts Air Services in Ramona, California. All I can say is that he is a stand-up sort of guy, does what he says he is going to do in the time he says he will do it in.

So, is aerobatics fun? It sure is a whole bundle of fun wrapped up in an adrenaline rush.

Is aerobatics for everyone. Probably not. But saying that; it is achievable for a lot more people than you may think.

A little determination and some good training could easily put you on the road to having some real daredevil aerobating that will have your friends envious and in awe.

By Daron Cristy -
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