The pinnacle of achievement for any sport aerobatic competitor is winning the World Aerobatic Championship at Unlimited level. Beating the worlds best is no mean feat and it obviously takes an enormous amount of practice, time and money to be able to reach that level of expertise. Sport Aerobatics is still an amateur sporting discipline and unlike golf and tennis and any major achievement is limited to the respect and admiration of your peers and somewhat devoid of major media exposure. However, the aerobatic community across the globe shows a keen interest in these major achievements, and that’s what matters.
World championships are held for three levels of Power aerobatics and two levels of Glider aerobatics. Propeller driven aircraft compete in the Power division in the Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited categories with the Unlimited being the most senior, held every two years in a country that successfully bids to host it. This year’s event was held in Chateauroux in central France from 16-31 August, at the same airfield as it was in 2015. South Africa hosted the previous championship in 2017, held in Malelane.
The 30th version of WAC attracted a field of 62 pilots representing 18 countries, the biggest field since 1998, who all had to fly four compulsory programmes; one sequence of their own design and the remaining three unknown sequences only determined mere hours before they’re flown. That’s a total of 248 competition sequences to be flown before a panel of judges who assess each figure of every sequence and then allocate a score out of 10 based on the judging criteria published by the sport’s controlling body CIVA. It goes without saying that the panel of judges needs to be experienced and act without bias or reproach. The fifth programme is the final freestyle and does not form part of the final result but attracts a lot of attention from the public and media alike. Unfortunately, there were no South Africans pilots in the competition this year.
The judges are selected by CIVA based on their most recent Ranking Index, achieved either at an international or national championship. Simply put, to obtain a Ranking Index, each judge’s assessment of a flight is analysed by the scoring programme by comparing a judge’s score for each figure against what other judges awarded and also the range of scores that the judge has previously given for the same family of figures (e.g. loops). On occasions where a judge has missed seeing a factual error or scored one of his own country’s pilot higher than the judges, it would negatively impact the Ranking Index. The lower the index score, the better the judge. The Fair Play aspect of the scoring programme ensures that a pilot’s scores aren’t negatively affected by a judges indiscretion and ‘normalises’ it by replacing the score with a fitted value more in line with the majority of the other judges on the panel, and at the same times penalising the judge by increasing the ranking index value. Essentially, to achieve a good Ranking Index value, a judge needs to rank the pilots in the correct order in which they were placed, recognise factual errors and to also not value their own pilots unreasonably high.
Despite the intention of keeping judges neutral, it’s recognised that judges spend most of their time with local pilots and are familiar and easily recognise their style of flying when in an international arena. And the ‘halo effect’ could also play a part in a judge’s decision when recognised pilots like Mikhail Mamistov or Rob Holland fly. The psyche expects such pilots to perform well and could influence a judge’s decision and to mitigate that, judges are prohibited from having access to the flight order. Aircraft type could also influence a judge’s decision - some judges could have been exposed to competitions where Sukhois are more prominent and not too many Extras, for example. However, the scoring programme recognises this aspect and normalises scores when it’s identified by the judge’s ‘style’ of judging. So, while the pilots are flying their sequences, the computer is hard at work analysing the judging aspect and churns out a report at the end reflecting a judge’s Ranking Index.
Judges hard at work
Over the years, the podium steps have predominantly been occupied by pilots from Russia, France and the USA. It is recognised that these are the countries where sport aerobatics is practised by more pilots than in the rest of the world. France has a full-time air force squadron dedicated to aerobatic training and they also host the most local contests than in any other country, so it is not unexpected to see their pilots on the podium. Russia has always had a ‘winning attitude’ so they are also expected to do well. While there was a range of different aircraft types on the flightline including a 4 -cylinder Laser 230, most of the pilots competed in an Extra 330SC. All of them presented a different ‘picture’ to the judging panel.
Seven judges were selected to adjudicate at this year’s WAC, one each from Russia, France, Belgium, Germany, Lithuania, USA and South Africa with a chief judge from the UK overseeing the panel. Each judge has an assistant, also a recognised international judge and they work as a team. I was selected to officiate this year’s WAC assisted by Laszlo Liszkay, a highly regarded judge too. We’ve often worked together as a team in the past. In hot conditions, often over 35 ˚ C we set about our task of assessing more than 250 sequences by applying the published criteria and trying to remain focused in being unaffected by all the ‘landmines’ that could so easily skew our perspective (including lunch-induced sleepiness) for the duration of the 10 days.
We watched some flights that kept me on the edge of my seat for differing reasons – I can admit to having watched almost perfect sequences flown at this years WAC, one by Frenchman Florent Oddon in an Extra 330SC and the other by Rob Holland in his new MX-RH. Virtually flawless flights of complex classic aerobatic sequences. The scary occasion was during a very inexperienced and imperfect flight at low level, the pilot remains anonymous. So, we got to see the best with the bad and everything in between and were expected to rank the first to last with varying degrees of separation. Easy? Not really. Despite that, once all was said and done, the judging panel had decided that Louis Vanel from France was worthy of World Champion status, closely followed by teammate Alexandre Orlowski ahead of legendary Russian Mikhail Mamistov. Less than 0.6% separated the three pilots! In the team results, France edged out Russia with the USA raking in the bronze medal.
Rob Holland in his new MX-RH
At the end of the competition the judging analysis report reflected that I had achieved the lowest Ranking Index, placing me first. There’s no formal ‘competition’ amongst the judges but it’s always been a covetable achievement for any judge, particularly at this level of competition. The Sport Aerobatic Club of South Africa is fortunate to have some of the world’s best aerobatic judges amongst its ranks currently; John Gaillard has been the longest serving Chief Judge at international championships in history, both Laszlo and I have placed first in the rankings over the years with Johnie Smith placing first at the recent Intermediate World Championships, his first international contest as a judge. Our local competitions feature some of the best and most experienced judges, certainly not the case with most other countries.
The final freestyle programme is always highly anticipated and Rob Holland was the worthy recipient of the gold medal, his fifth in this discipline, after he produced a truly spectacular display in the allowed 4 minutes.
That brought an end to the formal part of the competition and all that remained was the airshow, awards ceremony and closing banquet. This was all done with true French flair! A line-up of French military displays included the Patrouille de France, solo displays of the Alpha and Rafaele jets, Eurocopter attack helicopter, a Stearman wing walking act, T6 Harvard dog fight, and solo aerobatics by some of the competitors, amongst others kept the 65000 strong spectators enthralled. But for me the most awe -inspiring display was by South African pilot Oscar Goudrian flying the jet powered JS1 glider. It’s always a proud moment seeing fellow South Africans featured on the international stage and the JS1 performance made quite an impression.
The awards banquet was held at a local chateau and a spectacular fireworks display brought the curtain down of the 30th World Aerobatic Championships. A memorable one in my book.