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Competing From the Front Seat

An economical way to fly aerobatic competition

By Will Tryon, IAC 18341, for Experimenter

Cheap Acro

Typically any form of competition means cubic dollars, be it racing bicycles, boats, automobiles, motorcycles, aircraft – if it has wheels or an engine and you can compete with it, it will cost you. But there are exceptions, ways that one can compete and be competitive and do it on a budget.

Getting involved with aerobatic competition is clearly one of the most fun, challenging, satisfying, and rewarding things a pilot can ever do. It is the ultimate in flying and the best adrenaline rush on the planet. From the first loop and roll, the likelihood of being hooked on this sport is considerable; although in the new world of expensive airplanes, how does a pilot on a budget get involved?

In this short article I will explain how I got into the sport, how I saved a pile of money, and how after 20 years of playing in aerobatics, I’m saving even more now than ever before. Can you get into this sport on a shoestring budget? Absolutely! Should you? If you want to be the best you can be and have the attractive benefit of hanging out with some of the world’s best pilots and airplanes, the answer is a resounding yes.

Let me tell you a little about my background. Forty years ago while in Ontario, Canada, I received my private pilot certificate, single engine land and sea. The float endorsement was as close to aerobatics as I experienced in my early days of flying; getting into and out of the thousands of tiny lakes in that part of the world was a challenge, to say the least. It required split-second timing and total control of the aircraft, otherwise you could have a really bad day in a hurry. Bush flying was an absolute blast and a great adrenaline rush, and it appears that I had the aerobatic bug from the very beginning.

Twenty years ago, after immigrating to the United States to the beautiful state of Florida, I had the opportunity to take a flight with Jack Kehoe in his AT-6. Jack was based in Kissimmee, just outside of Orlando. My wife, Donna, had previously purchased a one-hour ride with Jack as a surprise birthday present. We strapped into Jack’s AT-6 military trainer with a big old roaring radial on the front, and off we went into the wild blue! It was a magnificent flight; we shot up bad guys on strafing runs, which was very similar to floatplane approaches through the trees, and for the full hour we looped and rolled the wings off that AT-6 with me hooting and hollering in the front seat. Jack let me do a good bit of flying, and when we landed he asked where I got my aerobatic training. I said, “Jack, it started 60 minutes ago.” He told me to go to Pompano Air Center (PAC) and rent some time in a Pitts S-2B. Jack said, “I think you’ll enjoy flying aerobatics.” I followed his advice, purchased 10 hours of dual in an S-2B, flew the time over the next two weeks, and from that point on was completely hooked. I was then encouraged by my instructor to compete in the Sportsman category at the upcoming Sebring contest where I rented the front seat in another PAC S-2B and had the time of my life. This was the beginning of a 20-year romance with aerobatics that continues today.

The Costs
To address the economics of aerobatic competition, renting a seat is by far the most economical way to go. But let’s take a look at the three ways to play in this arena: owning, shared ownership, and renting.
Owning your own aircraft requires a substantial investment; an inexpensive used airplane by today’s standards is still in the $100,000 range. Then there are the carrying costs of monthly payments, insurance, hangar space, fuel, maintenance, hotels, meals, and all the little things that add up quickly. To go this route you need a great job with lots of disposable income.
But let’s assume we’re the average guy with a slightly above-average job; let’s look at shared ownership. This is the route I initially took. I put the word out into the aerobatic community and came up with two guys who wanted to get into aerobatics, but who, like me, thought the cost was too excessive for sole ownership. We met and put together a very workable co-ownership contract and bought a new 1991 Pitts S-2B. This was a great choice for me at the time, splitting the costs three ways; however, this still isn’t a cheap date.
Now let’s look at renting a seat in an aerobatic aircraft. Fourteen years ago, I moved from Florida to Nevada, sold my share in the Pitts, and have been planeless since. I occasionally rent a local GA aircraft, but my businesses in Las Vegas allow only so much time to play. So I decided to go back to Sebring every spring and fall to compete and rent a front seat in one of these fabulous $200,000 to $300,000 aircraft. Such a deal! I can’t believe I’m having this much fun and spending such a small amount of money.

There’s always a plane to rent (arrange this in advance), and truthfully, I don’t care what kind of aircraft it is. Providing Mike Mays gives the aircraft a thumbs-up after pre-contest inspection, let’s rock and roll, baby! I also find having the pilot in command on board, as a safety pilot, is reassuring. I get chauffeured to the box, do my safety roll, fly the sequence, and then get chauffeured back to the runway. Maybe I’m getting old, fat, and lazy, but this is just too cool with no stress of landing a hot rod aircraft. There are places where you can rent and fly solo, but for the most part the insurance premiums are too high for the average aircraft owner to purchase to only rent on the odd occasion. And of course, most owners don’t want just anybody bouncing their one-third million dollar toy down the runway.

Therefore, the final conclusion for a solid working model is to rent. In addition, once you get to know some of the local contestants, you can further reduce your cost per contest by sharing a vehicle and a room. This brings the financial picture, in a rather expensive sport, into the reach of the average pilot.
So there I am, every spring and fall, at an awesome contest with a bunch of great people, flying very cool airplanes, enjoying ramp parties, drinking beer, and eating way too much. Life is good!
Yes, you too can have as much fun as me. Aerobatics on a budget is a reality! Rent an aerobatic aircraft – it works!


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