Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AERO GP… the new kid on the block…

Regular readers of my column know about the National Championship Air Races held in Reno each year and about Red Bull Air Racing. Well, there is a new kid on the block and it’s called Aero GP and they are taking Europe and Asia by storm.

Aero GP is the newest aviation sports series. National Championship Air Racing at Reno is closed course pylon racing, based on qualifying time and speeds. Checkered flag = winner. And there are approximately 8 airplanes flying the course at the same time. Most of you are fans of Reno and have seen this many times – or at least read about it. Currently, there are 6 different divisions including International Formula 1, Biplanes (me), Sport, T-6, Jets and Unlimited (Piston).

Red Bull Air Racing is single plane timed racing. Their series also includes some aerobatic maneuvers to fly the course. This series involves high performance aerobatic aircraft, usually Edge 540, Extra 300 series or the new MXS.

Aero GP combines several types of piloting skills from racing, to aerobatics to dog-fighting and other barnstorming type events. They call it the “Ultimate Battle for Air Supremacy”. Most of their exhibitions are three or four days long and are part of an overall Airshow with several other acts going during the weekend. The three primary disciplines in each competition will decide the annual "World Champion Flying Ace”.

Air Racing: Imagine pylon racing, similar to the Reno Air Races – but with aerobatic airplanes, six on the course at a time. Imagine all of this on a course about half the size of the Reno F1/Biplane Course. They make the course shorter to keep the action in front of the crowd at all times. This clearly gives an advantage to the aviators who have done some Air Racing in their past.

Aerobatics: In other Worldwide Unlimited Aerobatic competition, there is a four-minute freestyle event. This allows these highly trained aerobatic competitors to really show their abilities in an Airshow style routine. The second discipline of the Aero GP contest mirrors this four-minute freestyle giving a nod to the aerobatic competitors and Airshow performers in the ranks.

Air Combat: Yes, Dog-fighting or BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) just like in the movies. This competition pairs two pilots in a competitive dog-fight. The pilots take to the skies in an attempt to out-maneuver, hunt down and shoot each other out of the sky! There are two segments of two minutes each, and the winners move on to the next heat. This segment of the contest clearly gives an advantage to the military pilots in the group.

At the next few events, they are also looking to add a bombing competition again – where they will attach plastic bombs to the bottom of the aircraft and provide some sort of cable to release the bombs over their targets. You have to admit, this sounds very interesting.

Winners are based on points. Points are scored in each competition. The pilot who earns the most points wins the event. No checkered flag and there is no clear winner until the end.

Compare and Contrast.

The biggest difference between Reno, Red Bull and Aero GP is the multi discipline aspect. Also, while Reno tends to center around the machine, Aero GP really focuses on the overall piloting skill.

The primary difference between Red Bull and Aero GP is Aero GP has six airplanes racing against each other rather than a single aircraft against a clock. Aero GP throws in the Red Bull aerobatic element by having the free style competition. The air-to-combat is very unique and also seems to be the crowd favorite.

The pylon race is conducted in a manner similar to the races at Reno. The field is limited to six airplanes which enter the course via an airborne start. The fastest qualifiers get choice of position as at Reno. The race lasts 10 laps and is flown around 4 inflatable pylons.

In Constanta, Romania last summer, the course and pylons were over the water (Black Sea). The pylons were large inflatable buoys. The front and back stretch of the course are about 1/4 of a kilometer with a 300 meter radius turn on either end. This makes for a real tight course, much tighter than Reno and really favors aerobatic airplanes. The tight course keeps the airplanes well in sight of the crowd so the race is very exciting to watch. Just like Reno the racers fly as low as possible and tend to stay tight on the pylons.

The free style aerobatic competition is an unscripted 4 minute display. Each competitor enters the box and performs for the crowd. Judging is done based on crowd appeal. At Romania last year several people from the crowd were actually chosen to assist in scoring. Emphasis is on showmanship and this provides the crowds with a great display.

The third event, air-to-air combat is flown one versus one. The competitors draw names from a hat to create the pairings. Elimination draws down to a single airplane. Combat begins with the competitors entering the box in formation. They then separate and begin the fight at high aspect. Whoever gains the advantage and scores three hits (ground scored – by judges) wins the engagement. You must close to within 100 meters of your opponent to score a valid hit. Like the other events the dogfight is done right in front of the crowd. The hard deck or minimum altitude is 100 feet so the action gets low to the wave tops and very exciting.

Jeff Zaltmann is the Director of Flying Aces UK, Aero GP’s parent company. He met Smokey Young at the 2007 Reno Air Races. Smokey is currently the President of the International Formula 1 class at Reno. In 2007, Jeff invited Smokey to join the 2008 Constanta Challenge in Romania and to give some input on Air Racing for the series. I met Smokey in 2003 at PRS (rookie school) and have spent lots of time with him over the years at Reno and chatting off-season.

With over 25 years of flying and 7,700 flight hours under his belt, Smokey began his career in the U.S. Air Force flying the F-111 tactical strike bomber on operational tours and as a flight instructor and examiner. After the military, Smokey became a pilot for a major U.S. airline, commanding Boeing 727s and 757s, then turned his attention to air racing in 2003.

Smokey is the President of the International Formula 1 Air Racing association, which has been around for over 60 years. In this role, Smokey and his staff are responsible for coordination of racing policies, procedures, rules, technical standards, pilot training and qualifications, as well as liaising directly with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on regulatory and safety matters. Smokey also manages and pilots a top team, Sly Dog, at the Reno Air Races National Championships in the F1 class, where he raced in the Gold Race the last two years.

In addition to air racing, Smokey spent several years as an air combat instructor at America’s leading civilian air combat training and experience centre, flying Extra 300s and Marchetti SF-260s in a broad range of tactical dog fighting maneuvers and aerobatics. His additional instruction experience continues – not only as a flight instructor – but in the classroom, at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA, where he teaches university level courses covering aerodynamics, regulations, air transport and aircraft systems. He is also a graduate of Norwich University.

This experience makes him a good choice for Aero GP. And he is working with Jeff and the Flying Aces on Air Racing and Safety issues.

I interviewed Smokey for this story and he shared with me details about his first experience with Aero GP in Romania. His current team, Sly Air Racing, only owned the formula 1 racer at the time he was invited to participate, Jeff arranged for him to race a Harmon Rocket II owned by Kevin Armstrong. Team Dog (Smokey, plus Rob and Nancy Sobczak) flew to Romania in mid June of 2008 to attend the event.

Smokey said, “Racing in the 2008 Constanta Challenge will forever be one of the highlights of my racing and flying career. Constanta is a beautiful resort city on the Black Sea. Accommodations were first class and Aero GP took incredible care of its racers.”

He had never flown a Harmon Rocket before so UK aerobatic champion, Mark Jefferies, gave him a quick checkout. From the beginning it was apparent the Rocket would not be as competitive in the series. The airplane was beautiful but ill equipped for the type of flying the event required. Even so Smokey was happy to be there and thankful for the ride. “I think I would have race a Cessna 152 just to be part of the event”, he later said.

The other racers have equally stellar aviation careers. Zoltan Veres of Hungary, holder of the Guinness Record for most consecutive aileron rolls, Peter Podlunsek of Croatia an establish Airshow pilot, UK aerobatic champion Gerry Cooper and the previously mentioned Mark Jefferies as well as Airshow pilot Andy Bickmore, also from the UK. The other competitors flew Extras, Sukhois, Yaks and a CAP 232.

Aero GP Currently has 4 events scheduled throughout Europe and Asia for next year. They are eagerly looking to add a North American city to their schedule. So, look for more information in this column, in the coming months.

More on Sly Dog Air Racing and Aero GP…

Sly Air Racing has been racing at Reno since 2007. Their Formula 1 racer, Sly Dog is a Gold competitor. They had considered expanding into another racing class at Reno and had even been in negotiations to purchase a highly competitive Sport Class racer. However, after Constanta they decided to reconsider their future. Aero GP racing was fun, exciting and very different. So, they purchased an Extra 300L and begin racing with Aero GP rather than expand into another class at Reno. The 300L was chosen because it allows Smokey to take others for rides, when the airplane isn't racing.

When we spoke this week, he was preparing to ship his Extra to the Al Ain Airshow in the United Arab Emirates. This race, to be held in January, will be Aero GPs first of the season. Smokey will fly to Europe and compete in a total of four scheduled events for this year for the Aero GP series.

For more on Aero GP go to http://aero-gp.com

Finally, for a great show on the 2008 Constanta Challenge, go to http://www.airsports.tv and click on "Romania 2."

Until next time,

Fly low, fly fast, turn left.

Marilyn Dash

Ruby Red Racing