Competition aerobatics is a kind of aerial ice skating, with a panel of judges who grade each figure. But this isn't ice skating, of course. When was the last time Kristi Yamaguchi burst into flames in the middle of a triple Salchow?
No one has ever been killed at a U.S. aerobatics competition. Bailouts, sure. But no deaths. Thank God for that, the grandfathers of the sport, the old white-haired guys at competitions, would say to one another. A contest is too intense to permit the kind of aerial screwing around that would kill you. You come to a competition to win, and that means extreme caution even along the very edge of disaster. The white-haired guys held on to this as proof of the sport's overall safety. Which would be O.K. except that the old white-haired guys were the survivors. They collected dead friends the way most codgers collect used cruise tickets. Between 600 and 800 pilots fly some kind of aerobatics during a year. In an average year 15 to 20 end up on the wrong side of the zero-inch limit. One in 30, one in 40 dead. What's weird about the whole thing, what puzzled even the old guys, is that the sport seems as hungry to kill good pilots as bad.
Even the very best pilots, guys with tens of thousands of hours in planes, sometimes come up 10 or 20 feet low on a loop. (The narrow escapes by a few dozen feet, like the one that saved me in that split-S, are also part of the sport.) The Internet is filled with crash videos showing some "natural stick" air-show performer jamming happily into a maneuver in perfect form—and 100 feet low. Sometimes on the video you can hear the announcer intoning away on a tinny public address system as the disaster unspools: "And now he is coming in for his low-level pass. Out of the north and fast, here it comes, watch him...." Silence. A suicide play-by-play.
There is an education in every one of these lethal mistakes. The flying life has always demanded a passage across the razor's edge. At any moment you can slip to the other side: a gas leak, weather, fire in the cockpit. Sometimes, as in a little opera, you can hear the arias of all your mistakes as the earth swims up. If you're lucky, you are able to get out and describe to others what the music was like. But you never stop flying. That is unthinkable.
But, my goodness, can those final movements be violent. Real Wagnerian stuff, the kind of music that sounds as if the orchestra were breaking something. Neil Williams, for instance, the champion British pilot. One day in the early 1970s he was test-flying the state-of-the-art Zlin 526 Aerobat. It was a sleek-looking plane, Czech-built. It had jolted the flying world at the 1964 World Aerobatic Championships because it used the gyroscopic forces of the propeller in aerobatic maneuvers, turning itself into a kind of out-of-control helicopter. What Williams didn't know was that his little Czech masterpiece had a kind of cancer, a problem that under high G-loads caused the wing spars to split like toothpicks.
Williams did a couple of easy maneuvers, and the plane felt fine. He was just pulling into a tight loop when he heard a bang and saw his left wing folding up toward the cockpit. Acting on instinct alone, he rolled the plane all the way over to the right and snapped the wing out as if it were on a hinge. The wing cracked back into position just as the plane leveled off upside down. Williams took a deep breath. He started to roll upright again, and...the wing started to fold again. He tried a third time. The wing creaked upward, folding quickly now. So Williams remained inverted. The engine hiccuped: He was running out of gas. He tried rolling upright yet again. No go. So as the fuel-starved engine began to sputter, Williams started an approach to landing. Upside down. He flew a short traffic pattern. Upside down. Turned onto his final approach upside down, and at the last moment—so low that he drew one wingtip through the grass—he fast-rolled the plane back upright and landed as the wing folded up. And he walked away.
Williams had pulled off a miracle. You could imagine pilots flocking to that little line in the grass for years, like pilgrims to some site where the Virgin Mary had appeared. That little line was it, they would say, the border between miracle and martyrdom. It was physical proof of man's faith.
Six years later Williams flew a World War II bomber head-on into a mountain in Spain in bad weather, killing everyone on board, including his wife.
In Russia aerobatic pilots sometimes train by sitting in their cockpits for hours, flying routines without taking off. The pilots are expected to scream and grunt through the figures as if they were in the air. Coaches stand next to the parked planes and shout at the pilots, rattle the wings, anything to increase the stress. The pilots are expected to climb out of the cockpit wet with sweat. They are expected to feel the flight in their nerves, to ascend inside their own brains. In the air they have to ignore the absurd odds and the objectively insane nature of what they are doing.
Great aerobatic flight is not just about keeping the terror away. To fly well and survive, you have to operate beyond your ability. Sometimes, in order to win, you have to press past the limits of what the plane's engineers and your own body say is possible. You can feel the plane creak or buffet or twist when it is unhappy or worried. Your body begins to rebel, first with pain, then nausea, then blackout.