Flying the Sportsman in the East Coast Aerobatic Contest


Sometime between discovering the joys of flying a tailwheel aircraft for the first time and becoming the newest (and biggest) fan of the International Aerobatic Club, I decided to try competing. It turns out, the time between my first flight in Super Decathlon N878AC, and my first contest in it, was about two months. This is the story of my first aerobatic contest.

Andy with 878AC in Warrenton

Andy Pearson with 878AC at Warrenton Airport

I had learned that Atlantic Airways rented a Super Decathlon and allowed solo flights in it. I had read about other places that let you fly their aerobatic aircraft, but these guys let me have the airplane as soon as I had the requisite training (tailwheel endorsement and introduction to aerobatic maneuvers).

After about 5 hours of flying the airplane, I joined the International Aerobatic Club (IAC), an arm of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). This was my next step toward competing. Jorgen Valkaer, who is a part owner of 878AC, had introduced me to a few terms that were unfamiliar to me at the time: Primary and Sportsman. Upon joining IAC, I learned about the five levels of competition: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced, and Unlimited. I then spent a few hours on their website. That curiosity led me to reading about regional contests, where I found out about the contest that is held yearly in Warrenton, VA.

Each of the five levels of competition have three flights in each contest: Known, Unknown, and Free. I did some research and found the 2015 Sportsman Known Sequence on the IAC website. I brought that in to Chief Flight Instructor, Bob Garity, who had magazine articles for me that described the maneuvers in-depth. We discussed the routine and the idea of competing.


I started renting the airplane four or more times per week to hone my skills and perfect my maneuvers. I spent time reading books (Basic Aerobatics by Geza Szurovy and Mike Goulian) and reading the rule book about contest flying provided on the IAC website. It was about three weeks from the contest that I found the contact information for the host of the Warrenton Contest, Krysta Paradis. Krysta flies in the advanced category in a One Design DR-107 with Adam Cope, who also flies advanced. I found out that both of them had access to the aerobatic box at the Warrenton Airport and they usually opened the box up for practice on Saturdays or Sundays. This was my first interaction with anyone outside of Atlantic Airways regarding the IAC and they could not have been more welcoming to me!

Warrenton Aerobatics Box

Warrenton Aerobatics Box

The aerobatic box is 1,000m by 1,000m and starts at 1,500’ AGL up to 3,500’ AGL. It’s not large by any means. Adam Cope invited me to come down the weekend before the contest and fly in the box for practice, with the added bonus of critiques from real IAC judges!

When I arrived the Sunday before the contest, Adam and a couple of other pilots were there to practice their maneuvers. They gave me a discrete frequency and had me strap into the plane. They told me that I would fly the maneuvers and they would give me feedback. This turned out to be one of the most beneficial events in preparing me for the contest. For anyone who wants to compete in the future, I strongly suggest practice in the real aerobatic box with an IAC approved judge. He helped me make my lines more vertical, my loops more round, and, most importantly, he explained what the judges are looking for regarding up and down lines and lines before and after a roll. It was extremely helpful!

Tuesday that same week I flew back down to Warrenton to meet Krysta. She did the same thing that Adam did and polished up some maneuvers. You’d be surprised how quickly you can pick up the maneuvers when they’re flown correctly and you get feedback on them. Strangely enough, it seems as though the more uncomfortable the maneuver, the better you flew it. I flew a very uncomfortable loop and got instant praise on the radio for a beautiful, rounded loop. After this, I felt I was as ready as I was ever going to be to try my hand in competing. I spent two more days with Bob going over the maneuvers and flying the sequence while standing in the training room with a model. We got all the paperwork squared away and I was ready to go!

Flying the Competition

2015 Known Sportsman

2015 Known Sportsman routine. Click to open PDF.

Sunday morning arrived bright and early. After our morning briefing on the official wind direction, the order of flight was assigned and the Primary pilots chuted up and got in their planes. I was to fly first in Sportsman, so after the last Primary pilot was in the air, the starter got me up and running.

I took off and entered the hold while the final primary pilot flew his routine. Before startup, all altimeters are zeroed, regardless of the pressure altitude. I climbed to 4,000’ (which is about 4,300’) as my starting altitude and monitored the chief judge’s frequency. I wanted to get to an altitude above the top of the box so that when I was ready to begin, I could dive toward the box and gain airspeed.

The chief judge radioed me and said the box was clear and the box was mine. At that point, I told him I heard him loud and clear and I was ready. I flew toward the box on a right base leg and rolled inverted to make sure my seatbelt was tight and there was nothing loose in the cabin. I rolled back to upright and turned final. Aiming toward the center of the box, I began a dive to increase my speed to 160 MPH. I rocked my wings three times to signal the beginning of my routine, flew until I was near the center of the box, and leveled off to begin my sequence.


The first maneuver in Sportsman is a “Pull, Pull, Pull Humpty.” Beginning at 160 MPH, I pulled the airplane to vertical and established a vertical up-line. Before running out of airspeed, I briskly pulled the stick backward to fly half of a loop before establishing a vertical down line. After giving a one to two second vertical down line, I pulled back to level.


Maneuver two is the “Wedge.” The wedge is flown with a 45 degree up-line followed by a roll inverted, followed by a continued 45 degree up-line while inverted. The line before and the line after the roll should be the same length, so the amount of time inverted is longer because the airplane is slower. After flying the same length inverted, the aircraft is pulled to vertical down and flown for a couple of seconds before pulling back to upright.


Maneuver three is an Immelmann, or a half loop right a half roll on top. This maneuver depends upon the wedge previously to gain enough speed in the vertical down. The Immelmann is best performed at a starting airspeed of about 160 MPH so that after the half loop is completed, there is still enough momentum to perform a half roll. At this point, the aircraft is straight-and-level and upright just above a stall. I was flying just to the north side of center on the X-axis and central on the Y-axis. (The X axis runs along the runway and the Y-axis runs perpendicular to the runway.)


The fourth maneuver is where I ran into trouble on my first flight. The maneuver is a 1 and ¼ turn spin in either direction. Based on where the airplane is located in the box, the pilot makes the decision. I decided to spin to the left because I usually spin to the left. While I was slowing down to get to the stall, I waited a split second too long to initiate the spin and the Decathlon would not spin. I ended up in a slow yawing turn to the left at slow airspeed.


After my botched spin, I entered a hammerhead. The spin is supposed to be flown onto the Y-axis and then the hammerhead has a ¼ turn at the end to get back onto the X-axis. If the spin is to the left, the hammerhead turn is right. I entered the hammerhead around 140 MPH and established a vertical up-line. When I neared the end of my momentum going upwards, I added full left rudder, pushed the stick to the right and then forward. I established a down-line and then rolled ¼ turn to the right. The judges were looking for the same length of line before and after the ¼ roll to the right.

Reverse Half-Cuban

Continuing on from the hammerhead, I gained enough airspeed on the down-line to begin the Reverse Half-Cuban. This maneuver is similar to the Wedge in that it begins with a 45 degree up-line, a roll to inverted, and then a continued 45-degree up-line (of the same length). Once the two lines have been drawn, the airplane is floated over the top and 5/8 of a loop are flown. Ideally, the airplane increases speed to more than 140 MPH for the next maneuver.


The seventh maneuver is a loop. Loops look easy to fly but tend to be difficult to get high scores on. I flew mine at about 150 MPH and pulled to 3.5 G’s. Once the airplane is inverted on the top and you can see the horizon starting to appear, it actually becomes a zero to negative G maneuver. The engine of the Decathlon is heavy and the airplane doesn’t have as much power as other aerobatic airplanes, so in order to prevent the nose from falling and the loop being “pinched” at the top, a little bit of forward stick is required to get a nice, rounded loop. My loop was fairly uneventful and I pulled out at the same altitude, heading, and airspeed as my entry.


The eighth maneuver is a Half-Cuban. It is flown similarly to the loop. I began around 150 MPH and pulled at 3.5 G’s until I was inverted on top and then I floated around zero G until the nose began to fall through the horizon. The difficult part of this maneuver is “catching” the 45 degree down-line. The judges are looking for that to be shallow or steep. Once the 45 degree down-line is established, the airplane is rolled upright and then flown on that line until the same length of line has been drawn, and then it is pulled to level.

Competition Turn

The penultimate maneuver is a 270 degree turn. This is one of the easier maneuvers. The only requirements are that the airplane is banked at more than 60 degrees, altitude is maintained, and the airplane is banked before the turn begins. I looked to the right and found a reference point, put the plane in nearly a 90 degree bank, used top rudder to maintain altitude, and then pulled to begin the turn. Once I reached my reference point, I stopped the turn and then rolled out.

Slow Roll

The final maneuver is a two-point roll, or a slow roll with a hesitation at the inverted point. I flew this maneuver rather well compared to how it had gone in practice. I rolled to inverted, held it for a two-count, and then rolled back to upright. I rocked my wings three times and flew out of the box.

Second Routine

Once the intermediate and advanced routines were finished, it was time for a lunch break. The scores were posted in the hangar and all the pilots chatted with each other about the way their routines had gone the first time around.

I finally got my turn to fly my second routine. Since I didn’t have a free or unknown sequence, I was to fly the known sequence a second time. I had figured out what I was going to do and made notes on what was going to be different than the first flight. Since I have already walked through each maneuver, here is a 10 minute video from the contest:

After an incredibly busy weekend, I decided it was time to get 878AC back home to Leesburg. I took off and waved my wings at those who were still there and thanked them over the radio for an amazing time! I learned a ton, had a fantastic time, and promised that this wouldn’t be my only contest. I absolutely will be back!