Many South African pilots and airshow enthusiasts will harbour fond memories of Margate Airfield as they recall the halcyon days of the great EAA Margate airshow, which in its heyday attracted upwards of 500 visiting aircraft and the very best airshow acts. It was South Africa's very own Oshkosh, where for one week a year that iconic coastal town and its scenic airfield would come alive with aviation.
It was therefore a great pleasure to return to Margate in the last week of February to fly aerobatics. Although the occasion was not as large or prestigious as the great Margate airshow days, it was equally as enjoyable for those who participated.
Local Red Bull pilot and former air racer Patrick Davidson had arranged for his former Red Bull air race colleague from France Baptiste Vignes to come to Margate in order to train a group of local competition aerobatic pilots from various classes. This included - Eugene Du Preez, Andrew Blackwood Murray, Patrick, the less than pragmatic Kayle Woole and the irrepressible Roger Deare.
Not only is Baptiste a former podium finishing air race pilot, he is also a previous world aerobatic champion (very narrow beating our own Nigel Hopkins), and he was also until recently a member of the French Unlimited team, as well as the official coach of the French Advanced team, which he steered to victory several times. He is currently a factory test and display pilot for a new French aircraft company called Aura Aero which produces the extraordinary “Integral” series of two seat side by side aerobatic aircraft aimed at the both the civilian and military markets. The Integral can be offered as a nose wheel or a taildragger aircraft, with different engine and propeller combinations. It looks to be a very modernized and highly improved carbon version of the already brilliant Cap10 series of aircraft. I look forward to seeing its success in the market.
I have had the privilege over the years of being trained by top pilots from America, the UK, France Germany and Russia; and I have to say that Baptiste has to be one of the best aerobatic coaches out there. He has a sharp eye for detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of aerodynamics and aerobatics; he also has a wealth of competition experience. He is able to very quickly see that something is not perfect with a figure, and then tell you precisely what to do to fix it. In addition, he spent time advising us not only on technique, but also on the all-important emotional and psychological aspects of competition too. But I think what really differentiates Baptiste as a coach is the caring and dedication that he puts into each individual that he coaches. He spent significant time briefing with every pilot before and after every flight, and every day he gave each pilot a sequence that he had designed specifically to help overcome specific problem areas.
What also made this training camp special was the fact that it was not held immediately before a national or international contest, this is the normal practice. This made the experience more relaxing for all involved; and allowing pilots to make radical adjustments to their flying style, something that would be stupid to do a few days before a major contest.
Not only is Baptiste a competition aerobatic genius, he is also a whizz at airshow flying and gyroscopic tumbling. Hence those of us who enjoy this very different art-form were able to take in some valuable coaching in this discipline too.
There is no doubt this was the most informative and enjoyable training camp that any of us have been on for a long time, we all worked hard and played hard, the week was characterised by constant good humour and the very best of SAC camaraderie.
If you have stuck to this article until now, I assume that you have some interest in aerobatics. And so, you may be keen to learn of my initial impressions having sampled one of the latest and most radical aerobatic aircraft - the venerable Gamebird GB-1. Upfront I confess that I have not flown the Extra 330 series (comprising the LX, SC and the new NG) and I am no expert in the field. But I have sampled most carbon wing aerobatic monoplanes including the Extra 300 series, the Sukhoi, the Sbach and the MX2, and I have been flying competition aerobatics for some time; hence there may be a little bit of credibility in my views. Well, the Gamebird is something really special, it has exquisitely harmonised controls, coupled with almost effortless and total controllability from 20knots through to 220knots, and it has blistering performance. This is the closest to radio control model performance and control that I have ever experienced inside the cockpit, perhaps an article for another time?
Thanks to Patrick for organising the training camp, to Baptiste for coming out to South Africa, to Roger Deare for taking care of the accommodation and all ground logistics, and to the team from Midcoast Aviation for helping us with Fuel.
International competition aerobatics comprises a very small group of pilots; probably less than 200 worldwide, and the intense camaraderie that we share within the Sport Aerobatic Club of South Africa applies equally across the world. Through our shared passion, strong international bonds were formed at Margate airfield this February.