David Jenkins had been flying for 22 years when someone offered him the chance to fly an aerobatic aircraft and he was smitten.
That was about eight years ago. He now has been British Advanced Aerobatic Champion in 20012 and 2013 and this year came second in the championships.
You may also have seen him as the solo pilot in the Wildcats Aerobatic Team at shows across the country, including this year’s Euston Rural Pastimes event.
David, 60, from Stanton, keeps his Zivko Edge 360 monoplane at a grass strip on a former World War Two RAF Knettishall and divides his flying time between competition and display.
Which does he prefer?
“They’re both completely different,” he said. “There’s a joke in flying that the difference is that in competition you spend a lot of money to turn up, you do the best you can and all your friends say it was terrible, but in display you can fly as badly as you want, everyone tells you you’re great and they pay you to be there.”
However, display flying is not reckless barnstorming but a carefully choreographed routine, strictly regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. Pilots have to have a display authorisation and for every display they have to have CAA clearance on where they a flying, who is flying and minimum heights.
David added: “There are things I do in my display flying that you would never do in competition because there’s no criteria to judge it by.
“I tumble the aircraft end-over-end in display flying. How would you judge that in Competition? But in an airshow people like to see that.
“Display flying is a competition between you and the ice cream van, so you do things like turning off the power to add some drama.”
It is also why the Wildcats perform as a trio. David said: “With a formation, if it breaks up it takes 30sec to come back together in which nothing interesting is happening in front of the crowd, so I come in and do a solo while the other two rejoin.”
The other two are Al Coutts and Willie Cruickshank in their Pitts Special biplanes.
Competition is where David, and many other display pilots, started and is judged in much the same way as figure skating.
There are three phases in the competition. The ‘known sequence’ is a routine pilots are given each year that is flown at every event. Then they have a sequence they design themselves, which has certain manoeuvres they must include. Finally there is an ‘unknown sequence’ they are given a few hours before they fly and they cannot practise.
“You have to be able to plan in your mind how you are going to fly it,” David said.
The judges watch from the ground and you are supposed to perform the whole thing in a 1km cube, which makes an expert eye on the ground very important during practising.
David began his aerobatic flying with dual-control tuition and says he has been lucky enough to have former champions coaching him from the ground, from where they talk to him by radio.
It is not enough to fly a perfectly circular loop or a perfectly vertical climb because it may not look circular or perfectly vertical from the judge’s angle of view.
“You have to adjust your flying according to what the wind does to you,” David said.
If it blows from the side, you may move away from the display area or away from your loop’s starting point. Sections of a loop have to be shortened or lengthened according to wind direction to maintain the circle.
The Edge and the Pitts are built for aerobatics. The single-seater Edge is the type used in the Red Bull Air Races and is an odd mix of modern and traditional technologies.
Its 6.1m fusalage is fabric over a lightweight tubular steel space frame, which a 1930s pilot would recognise. But the 7.5m span wing is of carbon fibre and tested to 20 times gravity, or about double the maximum force David would experience in his displays.
The engine is a 6.4 litres Lycoming, air-cooled, horizontally opposed four-cylinder that runs at a leisurely (by car standards) 2,700rpm. It produces 240hp, which is less than a quarter the power of a Battle of Britain Spitfire, yet the Edge is so lightweight that its 500hp to the ton power-to-weight ratio is about the same as the fighter’s.
The Edge’s top speed of 240mph is about 100mph slower than the Spitfire, but David said: “It would out turn a Spitfire because it is so light and manoeuvrable.”
Its aerobatic specialities include a symmetrical wing cross section, so it flies the same either way up.
“The drawback with that is you have to ‘fly’ it all the time,” David said. “If you take your hands off, it will roll.”
So next time you see the Wildcats at a show, or if you book them for your wedding, take time to admire their skill and leave the ice cream until later. Visit www.wildcataerobatics.com