Springfield Flight Pattern
Shaver does a walk-through of his aerobatic performance before competing at Hartness State Airport in Springfield, Vt., on Friday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Dave Shaver, of Carlisle, Mass., flies his Extra 300L at the the Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Hans Bok, left, of Dartmouth, Mass., gets in his 1993 Sukhoi 29 built in Russia in 1993, at the Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest in Springfield on Friday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
A flying sequence is taped to the instrument panel inside a plane. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Springfield, Vt. — The skies were empty. The clouds floated gently. And Hartness State Airport was quiet Friday afternoon as the sun beat down on the judge’s tent.
“Are we ready?” chief judge John Morrissey asked. He looked at his crew of volunteers and, hearing no objections, nodded his head and turned toward the runway. “Then let’s go.”
The tent emptied, and five judges moved to their lawn chairs, each accompanied by one assistant who would call out figures and another with a clipboard.
On Friday, about 25 pilots from around New England convened at the airport in Springfield for the annual Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest, which runs through Sunday.
Moments later, the first plane shot down the runway, lifting into the air and soaring over the trees. The plane ascended, then jerked upward, shooting vertically toward a higher cloud bank.
“The hammerhead stall,” one assistant said to his judge.
The silver plane halted and looked stuck in midair. It stalled for five long seconds then dropped back toward Earth.
The men in lawn chairs kept eyes glued to the plane, as it rolled through the air and looped under fat, gray clouds.
Bursts of conversation and two-way radio traffic filled the tent. Assistants scratched tallies onto their clipboards, while others called out moves.
“Inverted spin,” one observed. “Inverted spin going left,” another assistant replied. “One quarter roll going down, followed by one quarter roll going up,” a third said.
Although hectic, this is what aerobatics enthusiasts love: the energy of flight, air rushing over a cockpit, a plane twirling through a set of tricks, commonly referred to as “figures.”
Hosted by the New England Aerobatic Club, the competition gives flyers of five different skill sets the opportunity to perform feats of precision in front of their peers.
“Aviation is not as large a community as say, boating,” said Wes Liu, 58, a pilot from Brookline, N.H. “We cluster around airports and get to know each other, and aerobatics is a fraction of the aviation community.”
Liu said he earned his pilot’s license at 23 and has been flying since the 1972.
The competition, which has no cash prize, isn’t about money, he said. It’s about performing a skill in front of a critical panel — and winning the admiration of peers.
“Really, this is all in pursuit of a $20 trophy,” Liu said.
On Friday, Liu walked through the airfield, admiring the older biplanes and more modern monoplanes.
“You can see the evolution of the airplane, right there,” he said, likening his joy at seeing the display to a child in a candy shop.
Liu, a software engineer, owns a 1974 Pitts S2-A, a white-bodied, $80,000 plane with red stripes and squares on the rudder. After years of aerobatic flying, Liu said he ranks in the intermediate class, which is above “primary” and “sportsman.” The two highest ranks, “unlimited” and “advanced,” are given for successively completing the most difficult flight patterns, which instruct a pilot on what he or she must accomplish in the competition.
Pilots are assigned three levels of flying to test their skills, Liu said.
One, “known flight,” is like a take-home test: Pilots receive the pattern before the competition and can practice the sequences before competing. Another, called “unknown flight,” available to intermediate, advanced and unlimited pilots, is like a pop quiz: Pilots are given the pattern 12 hours ahead of time, but aren’t allowed to practice the routine before their flight. The third is a free flight, which allows pilots the opportunity to design their own patterns.
Neville Hogan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said flying pushes the limits of physics.
“It’s really a combination of vertical and horizontal lines and loops,” Hogan said Friday.
Hogan is an intermediate and said physical sensitivity is essential when it comes to executing flight patterns.
Hammerhead stalls kill almost all of the plane’s acceleration and energy. In order to execute maneuvers, pilots need to be aware of the plane’s every movement to know precisely when and how to work the throttle, airlons and rudder.
A pilot’s shapes should “be geometrically perfect,” he said. “Of course, you can’t do that. Physics won’t let you. We look for the pilot who makes it look as well done as possible.”
Dave Shaver, of Massachusetts, said he’s racing about 200 mph when he flies his Extra 300L, a German-built plane with a red star near the cockpit and blue squares on the nose.
Contest rules mandate that pilots fly within a boundary, a square kilometer just east of the runway. Since Shaver’s plane can travel one mile in about 20 seconds, each move has to be scrupulously planned.
On Friday, he was the competition’s first pilot, and to prepare, he mimicked on the tarmac the motions his plane would undergo in the air, pretending his arms were the wings, and zooming in circles around the airfield to get a feel for the sequence he would run.
When he returned from his flight and was safely on the ground, he popped out of his cockpit and refueled his gas tank. He smiled but was displeased with his first run.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I felt better yesterday during my practice. But hey, the frustration is all part of the fun.”
Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or firstname.lastname@example.org