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Saturday, 27 October 2012 20:33

Origins of Aerobatic Competition

Written by  snap&Roll
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In order to talk about the origins of aerobatics, we have to go back 90 years to the beginning of aviation, when the Wright Brothers succeeded in their first flight with Flyer I on December 17, 1903. Less than a year later on September 20, 1904, these same brothers accomplished the first aerobatic maneuver in the history of aviation, the 360 Degree Turn.


Previously, it had been tried many times, but the difficulty lay in finding a system that would permit them to warp the aircraft with a minimum amount of safety.  At that time the aileron had not yet been invented, but the genius Wright Brothers manned their Flyer I with a system of cord flection that allowed them to practically bend the whole wing and in this way, achieve the desired roll. When the plane rolled, the nose could potentially ascend, lose velocity, and plummet out of the sky. This was the reason that until 1910, turning was considered a highly dangerous maneuver.

It was the Wright Brothers who introduced for the first time the term “stall,” referring to the loss of wing lift, although they associated it more with the loss of velocity and not the increase of the angle of attack.

During the next years, the Wright Brothers were invited to perform these dangerous feats before a multitude of spectators, in the United States as well as in Europe. With the intention of creating systems that would roll the planes in a more effective manner, the development of new aircraft equipment was accelerated in the United States. In Europe, they tended to see planes as automobiles that could turn without having to be bent, considering rolling unnecessary and unsafe. An idea that impacted their progress for several years.

While the Wright Brothers perfected their control system, better control systems were developed in parallel. Almost simultaneously, Dr. William Christmas and a group headed by Glenn Curtiss and Alexander Graham Bell developed the aileron.

Curtiss’ biplane incorporated the aileron between the two wings near the trailing edge, however Dr. William Christmas had the better idea of integrating the aileron as part of the wing at the trailing edge – an idea utilized today. Meanwhile, Curtiss and the Wright Brothers argued over the patent for the Wright Brothers’ system of flection. Dr. William Christmas received, without objection, the patent for his design. In fact, later he was compensated $100 for the use of the ailerons in the planes constructed during WWI.

In 1909 in Europe began to catch up. French pilot Louis Bleriot’s feat of crossing the Mancha Canal in July of the same year generated great interest in flying between Europe and the United States, and in flying in general. The air shows became more popular and very profitable for the pilots. Great masses of people paid to see the performances of the adventurous pilots, but they soon tired of the simple exhibitions and demanded excitement and danger. To keep their audience, the pilots took it upon themselves to develop new tricks and movements: the aerobatic maneuvers of today. 

Lincoln Beachey

Two pilots that stood out were Walter Brookins and Lincoln Beachey. Walter was one of the first pilots that worked for the Wright Brother - flying their Flyer in the events, helping the development of the plane considerably, incorporating 90 degree turns into their exhibitions, despite being considered dangerous at that time. Lincoln Beachy incorporated the “Death Descent” in his events. He launched from 5,000 feet with the engine stopped, making a sharp descent towards the ground and at the last moment pulling up, which generated panic among the crowd. Soon he would fly among the trees and underneath the telephone wires in his demonstrations.

While the pilots competed among themselves in an almost savage manner to see who could achieve the most dangerous feat, the planes often could not handle the burden of force that exceeded their structural capacity, at times resulting in fateful outcomes. In six weeks during the year 1910, three of the most famous pilots died trying to imitate Walter’s maneuver. The press accused him of provoking the pilots, and after losing a friend and a member of his team, he temporarily decided to retire in 1912.

Flying at a low velocity carried the constant danger of a stall and of going into a spin. Even though the term “spin” didn’t enter into the vocabulary of aviation until WWII, quantified cases of the execution of this maneuver before WWI are scarce.

Peter Nesterov's loop

The first spin that was survived and recognized was achieved by test pilot of Avro planes, Fred Raynham in 1911, although there are disputes about whether or not the plane was in autorotation. Another remarkable case is that of the first spin that was recovered from, attributed to Lieutenant Wilfred Park in 1912 with an Avro biplane. Not only did he achieve recovery but he was able to record the account, analyze the maneuver, and document the procedure for recovery. With these notes, the mystery of how to exit from a spin was finally solved.  He died a short time later, and because of this, his procedure took several years to spread across the world.

From that moment the spin has been a part of the distinguished repertoire of maneuvers employed by exhibition pilots.

The history of aerobatics made a 180 degree turn when Nikolaevich Nesterov of the Imperial Russian Air Service accomplished the first loop on September 9, 1913. That moment was so significant that today the Copa Nesterov is presented to the Winning Team of the world championship of aerobatic flying.

German Pilot Gerhard Fieseler

In Europe, meanwhile, things were progressing with the single-seater planes Bleriot and Morane. The English pilot Will Moorhouse was the first to fly his plane back-sliding. He launched his plane achieving a very sharp ascent and stopped the engine. The plane stopped immediately to initiate a slip backwards followed by a yaw to the side. This maneuver would later be called a stall turn.

One year later in 1914, Maurice Chevillard, in a Henri Farman biplane, completed the first barrel roll with a plane. It’s interesting to note that Chevillard is given credit as the first to achieve the maneuver that carries the name of Max Immelman, half-loop followed by a half roll. This is because, as experts claim, it would have been impossible for Immelman to perform this maneuver with the type of plane he flew during the war.

The loop, the roll, the stall turn, and the spin made up the foundation of aerobatics.

Tiger F-2 Fiesler

After WWI, informal aerobatic competitions gained popularity at air shows in Europe and the United States.  A German pilot stood out from all the rest. Gerhard Fieseler engaged in an extremely methodical form of aerobatics and invented new aerobatic figures that are still used in competitions today. Such complex maneuvers as the rolling circle - a 360 degree turn that turns into four integrated rolls without changing altitude – were invented by Fieseler. This maneuver was what earned him the crown as Champion of Germany in 1925.

Between 1925 and 1927 there was “the inverted loop fever.” All of the pilots and plane designers all over the world ventured to be the first to perform the inverted loop. It wasn’t until May 25, 1927 that Jimmy Doolittle riding Curtiss’ P-1B plane made it possible.

The first international aerobatic event took place in Zurich in 1927. Gerhard Fieseler and 30 other competitors coming from Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Sweden participated in the event. Although Fieseler was the clear winner, the international team of judges did not consider him so, primarily because of the political pressure it received surrounding Fieseler being a German pilot. For Fieseler, nothing could be done except to accept second place.

1st World Aerobatic Cup in Paris


In the following years Fieseler created his own plane manufacturing business, and developed the Tiger F-2 with the symmetrical wing. The plane was very distinguished on its three axes and the fuel tank was situated in a unique place. He incorporated a fuel and oil system for inverted flying. The Tiger F-2 was converted into the first completely aerobatic plane.

The first World Cup of aerobatic flying took place in Paris in 1934, hosting six countries. Fieseler, who was retired, competed and was crowned as the first world champion of aerobatic flying in history. 


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