What happens at a typical contest?
Most BAeA competitions start with a Beginners level event on the Friday afternoon, the more experienced competitors pitching into their efforts first thing the next day. Quite often with 5-15 entrants, this class is free (ie. there is no entry fee) but pilots do have to come with some evidence that they can get through the sequence. Changed only in the order of the same five figures each year - for 2000 an into-wind loop, a half-cuban eight, a stall-turn, a 270° turn and a one-turn slow roll - and with a "hard-base" of 1,500ft AGL, this is nevertheless an ordeal for most entrants and best done at a leisurely mid-afternoon pace in the relatively calm atmosphere of the day before the main circus. Judged by perhaps half a dozen of the more experienced early arriving competitors and a few 'real' judges the whole affair takes maybe a couple of hours, and for the Contest Director (CD) is a warm-up for the hard work the next day. The results for the Friday flying are processed quickly through the usual BAeA computer system, and the award - a priceless BAeA marble paperweight - made to the winner made shortly after.
Sometimes an arriving standard or intermediate pilot will seek to have his first public stab at the known either close by or two-up to get his BAeA Proficiency Card stamped for the Saturday event, but with general practice within five nautical miles of the airfield forbidden in the week leading up to the contest (for noise sensitivity and prevention of unfair local knowledge reasons) the day is confined otherwise to arrivals from all round the country of the rest of the field.
Saturday briefing is usually at 0800 sharp, with occasionally an even earlier pre-brief for the management team - the Chief Judge, the marshaller, the computer scorer, the local airfield contact and anyone else who looks sufficiently important. BAeA briefings last up to half an hour, are mandatory (ie. late arrivals get an ear-wigging and don't fly without it) and are extremely thorough affairs during which the CD and his cohorts explain in detail the relevant parts of the BAeA rules for the conduct of the event, local rules and regulations, the likely weather situation, in which order the flying groups will progress, whether an airborne 'hold' will be operated, the fundamentals of the judging procedures to be operated, the placement of the all-important aerobatic "box", and anything else that might have a bearing on the safety and expeditious operation of the day's flying. Safety - he will emphasize - is the main consideration, followed by the achievement of the completion of the contest to the best satisfaction of the pilots themselves. The flying orders are usually pre-determined by computer random selection, then refined to spread the repeated use of individual aeroplanes so as to avoid unnecessary pauses in the swift action of the day.
Flying usually commences at 0930 - weather (ie. cloudbase) permitting. This entails the judges being ready and in-position by that time, the exodus of this motley band of ground-borne experts from the warm clubhouse to some carefully chosen position somewhere in the middle of no-where and about 100-200m back from the side of the A-axis of the box being the first visible sign that a competition may truly be about to start. With the standard 'known' class usually first away, at least 3,000ft AGL is required to allow the safe execution of the sequence well above the 1,000ft hard base. In theory up to ten sequences an hour can be flown, the crucial element being wholesale co-operation amongst the pilots to ensure that they are ready and waiting - run-ups and all checks completed - at the end of the runway in time to get off to the airborne hold just as the previous hopeful sets off from the hold to the box itself. Experience helps a lot, but peer pressure from the rest of the gang and being prepared and ready in time go a long way too.
After a while the background job of collecting reams of completed paperwork from the judging line, sorting them by pilot by judge and delivering them to the scorer becomes the "pass the parcel" chore for pilots back from their aerial love/hate affair. We make it a practice to get the raw pilots sheets entered, computed and back into the competitors hands with the least possible delay, and to publish sets of "the results so far" at frequent intervals. This way the inevitable niggles and complaints may be dealt with shortly after each pilots flight, and the final standings are available quite soon after each group is done. Making the results up-to-date during the course of a group also allows late potential front-runners to measure the strength of the opposition, and for by-standers and other pilots to judge their performance against the expected standard. It's not easy to keep the interest high for those not involved in the flying, but a slick scorer can certainly make the difference.
The intermediate 'known' usually follows the standard group, then advanced get to play if they're on the menu too. The 25-30 standard pilots and twenty or so intermediates and advanced will take at least until lunchtime to complete, this being a decent hours' pause to allow the judges off their spit-roast positions (judges spend all day gazing at the sky, poor things, often in a generally southern direction... sunburned faces and "farmers necks" are thus quite normal!). Back then to the affray, to complete the advanced class or begin again with the standard unknown for the day. Unknowns are generally considered to be the sequences that separate the men from the boys, being made public for the first time shortly after the briefing and effectively flown "straight from the card" - after the usual period of walking around with half closed eyes, waving arms around and getting into the mood.... "making the video" as some say, to be played back for real in the hot seat when the allotted time arrives.
The day progresses, the CD walks miles and looks worried, the marshaller - if there is one - regulates the take-off queue, the judges gaze skyward and provide numbers and pearls of wisdom in unequal quantities for scribes to write down so that pilots can later try to understand their errors, pilots who have flown get to convey boxes of teas and sustenance to the judging line and are often snapped-up as scribes, the airfield café inevitably strains flat-out to keep up with energy-hungry nervous pilots, groups of pilots using the same aeroplane panic to get the thing refuelled and airborne again, quiet corners attract seemingly blind people deep in thought and carrying an A5 sized piece of paper which they 'fly' around like small boys... only without the usual noises. It's an aerobatic competition!
Finally the flying is all done. No more time to try and do it better - winners are quietly congratulated by their colleagues, losers discuss their score-sheet woes, wives and girlfriends relax again. The judges and assistants return to the club-house to re-join the world of milling people, a weary Contest Director makes his final efforts to collate together the results with the trophies and an attractive person of the female persuasion to present them, pilots rush around preparing their machinery for the dash home before darkness prevails, the clubhouse is suddenly crammed for the presentations to be made and for everyone from the airfield host to the vital café staff to be thanked and applauded in the approved style. Finally a stream of biplanes and monoplanes congregates at the threshold, to line-up briefly in one's and two's and disappear rapidly in the direction of base airfields - some singly and the rest in straggling ad-hoc formations......
Roll on the next date in the contest calendar!