In this interview Xavier de Lapparent, quadruple champion of France (1990, 1992, 1993, 1994), World Freestyle Champion (1992) and top World Champion (1994) explains to us his beginnings, what the keys to becoming number one were for him, and why he decided to write aerobatics books that have become essential reference guides in the aerobatic world. Xavier, at the current age of 41 and retired from the competition world, continues to be a pilot with very clear vision, doing what he enjoys most at the controls of his Sukhoi 26: Freestyle.
For me, aerobatics is meansparticipating in a very high-sensation sport. I would say that it provides the opportunity to play with very big and powerful toys!
What made you want to fly for the rest of your life? (Become a pilot) Did someone in your family influence you?
Almost all my family was in aviation, so there was no choice to escape it. Finally, I had the good fortune of discovering gliders first, then airplanes.
When and how did you discover the amazing world of aerobatics?
Aerobatics became an obsession, just like this, around the age of 18. I was trying rolls, loops, stall turns with gliders ... to save the life of his son, my father had no choice but to allow me to learn professional aerobatics. That was very wise, because no one could have kept me from this madness - I had so much motivation!
Being a French pilot, how is it that you fly a Sukhoi 26 and not a French plane like Cap 232? Did you learn aerobatics as a French pilot typically would, with the Cap planes?
I learned as a typical French pilot: in a French school, with French pilots and French airplanes. That was very fortunate, to learn aerobatics at a time when France was a leader in the field. There was a lot of excitement in the French aerobatic world. We were in a profitable economic period, and I had a lot of motivation growing up going to competitions. Then I saw a Sukhoi in flight with Yurgis Kairis: that's the plane I would dream to have, thinking that it would never happen. Obviously, the demonstration I saw was done by one of THE BEST PILOTS. It was very motivating and impressive. Then I kept flying high quality French airplanes for a while.
Various circumstances in my life, like the support of Breitling as a sponsor for several years, made it possible for me to have a Sukhoi.
Could you summarize what the start of your athletic career was like in a few sentences?
The greatest pleasure in aerobatics for me was to learn new figures, involving new techniques and new sensations. Aerobatics was limitless for me! That was a very intense period of my life.
If you could relive one of your best aerobatic moments, what would it be? Why?
Actually, the best memory I have is of some of the flights from my last airshow season with my Su 26. I had so much practice that I felt extremely prepared, regardless of the wind, or the weather conditions, or my physical condition. That incredible pleasure that comes from doing complicated figures with a low level of stress.
Of all the figures that an aerobatic pilot does, which is your favorite? Why?
Changing plane direction while rolling, which makes me feel like I've mastered the world!
Have you ever been scared practicing aerobatics?
So many times ... I've also been close to crashing so many times. Once was after a series of bad decisions, crossing 5,000m of cumulonimbus in a flat spin with 100 L of fuel in the wings, in ice and recovering at 50m in IMC ... very scary.
Quite often, it was while training on engine-failure simulation. Once, I was able to save the plane and myself by stalling the plane almost on the ground, below 5m high...very scary too.
Other times, screwing up on figures...too low. I remember telling myself, Now you're dead... Haha...not that time... fuck, very lucky again...one more joker burned.
My theory is that you're allowed to repeat a really big mistakes twice...if you don't change your way of doing things, you will die shortly. ACCEPT BEING WRONG. Don't think that you're invincible, because you once survived a difficult situation.
Do you think luck is a determining factor in aerobatics competition? If yes, how so?
In terms of any one given competition, clearly luck is a factor with regards to weather, order of flight, physical condition of the day, many external factors...clearly. Over the long term, there is no luck.
Do you remember the design of the freestyle program that led to you winning the Manfred Strössenreuther trophy? In your opinion, which aspects of the program led to you winning the trophy?
I do remember almost all my freestyle sequences. Determining factors include spectacular figures done with accuracy at the right location in the sky, very suddenly and as unexpectedly as possible, that's the trick.
I guess nobody was born being a world champion. What are the strategies to becoming number one?
You are very right, you are born as a novice. Just being ultra-motivated and loving flying. So huge amounts of training, that's the only strategy. A lot of planning and sacrifice, and willingness to follow through.
As a pilot who has won everything, what's next? What are your actual futures plans? Are you planning to return to the FAI competitions in the future?
No future plans for me, because I have said all that I had to, and I have tried everything possible with a plane during 20 very intense years. Some may understand, some may not. Today, I get a lot of pleasure out of learning new things. I do this in windsurfing, experiencing a lot of new sensations and learning techniques. Obviously, once again, my aim is to do Freestyle! Ultimately, the tool you use does not really matter: a plane, a board, a racket, a ball ... technique is technique. Success in technique provides a lot of excitement.
Do you think the actual level of aerobatics has changed since you were in the competition world? In which ways has it changed?
I'm not involved enough anymore, but as far as I can see, being in a difficult economic situation is a very big obstacle. My feeling is that it is all slowing down: money, training, competitions, air shows. Problems are increasing (registration, flight permissions to fly...).I'm afraid that all of this is more about surviving than leaving, as it was at my time.
Xavier, let’s talk about your books. How did you decide to become a writer of 3 fantastic and well-known books? Did you find that there was something missing or that you needed to fill a vacuum?
I felt the need to talk about all this flight technique. I had to do this to feel better. Now it is done. I learned technique from the French aerobatic school, from several other very good books (Louis Pena, Eric Muller ...), and from several very good pilots and teachers. I discovered a few others, and I wanted to bring together all the technique I was using to make flying easier.
Out of all your books, there is one that has become the bible for a lot of aerobatic pilots around the world: “The Aerobatic Four Minute Freestyle." What made you write such an important book? How do you feel about it being such a big success?
My pleasure has always been Freestyle, because I have always found it to be so impressive. The first image I have of freestyle was a display by Patrick Paris doing snapped rolling turns, tumbles, knife-edge-spin. It was incredible, one of the most wonderful experiences in the world! When I started to be able to freestyle, I found absolutely no help in learning how to do it. That was very frustrating. So I brought together all I discovered in existing techniques for freestyle figures, and I've written this book, which would give a good solid base to pilots starting freestyle.
In terms of success, I assume it is all right...this is a question for other pilots, I guess. There is always more to say, but it has been done. It's more than nothing.
With new airplane designs and maneuvers do you think the book will need a revision that includes new maneuvers or techniques that you may have discovered or seen?
Yes.Today, some new airplanes would require an update for the book, for sure. But also, I have much more to say about freestyle than before, that's the major point.
What advice would you give to young aerobatics pilots who dream about being world champions?
Train and enjoy training. But this is possible only if you love flying and are humble!