"It used to
be I'd be pushing the nose under into a maneuver needing high negative Gs and
I'd hear myself beginning to whimper from the pain," Loudenslager says.
"I'd keep telling myself I'd do just one more maneuver and then I'd come
down. Some days I'd keep saying that through 150 maneuvers."
There are few
sports that exercise every muscle in the body, eyelids to ankles, as does
aerobatics. In a pull-up to do a vertical roll, a pilot may have 8 Gs grinding
him into his seat, making it impossible for him even to lift his hand. Under
those kinds of forces there is no part of the pilot's body that isn't being
stretched and strained to the limit. Blood is being drained from his head, and
in order to slow its downward rush many aerobatic pilots will tighten their
neck muscles by screaming as loud as they can. The average person begins to
lose his vision at 4 Gs positive, at 6 Gs most are blind from the loss of blood
in the optic system, but every time a pilot like Loudenslager goes up he
routinely pulls 8 and 9 Gs and still threads invisible needles with his
force that separates the men from the supermen is the negative Gs that occur
during "outside" maneuvers, those that throw the pilot against his belt
and threaten to cram all his innards into his cranial cavity. There is no cute
little isometric trick to slow this process or ease the pain.
that hurts the most," says Loudenslager, "is the vertical outside snap
roll." This is done flying straight up at near terminal speed (210 mph). At
the apex the airplane is put into a violent roll. "I pull maybe 8 Gs
positive going up and all the blood is on the way down. Then bang! The plane
goes into its roll and suddenly it feels as if my head is going to come off.
The pressure is beyond description. I'm looking out at the wing tip when I do
the maneuver, so my inner ear and neck muscles are 90 degrees to my body. For a
second, as everything is flashing past, my throat is being filled with lungs
and stomach. It would be easy for me to lose orientation. If I do, I won't have
the slightest idea where to stop the maneuver."
As one watches
the airplane perform, knifing cleanly up and down, making perfect vertical and
45-degree lines to the horizon, none of the pain of the creative process is
evident. The maneuver is so beautiful it is easy for a spectator to forget that
inside that speeding projectile is a man clawing to maintain control, knowing
that only a few hundred feet away the ground is the final boundary of his
margin of error.
Despite the fact
that nearly 750,000 noncommercial pilots are registered in the U.S., this
country did not become a contender in international aerobatics competition
until the late '60s. But with the development of a strong American team, the
biannual world contests have taken on a decidedly East vs. West flavor. At
Hullavington, England in 1970 Bob Herendeen, then U.S. champion, was in the
process of battling it out nose to nose with Igor Egorov of the Soviet Union
when an engine failure and rules interpretations caused him to be penalized and
reduced to second overall. The Russian came in first. In 1972 at Salon, France,
the U.S. won the team competition, and Charlie Hillard, a Ford dealer from Fort
Worth, became the first American world champion.
Still, the lack
of money and recognition has sometimes been an embarrassment for the U.S. team.
In 1974 Poland was originally scheduled to hold the world contest but bowed
out, making it America's turn. But U.S. aerobatic buffs couldn't come up with
the required million dollars to host the event and it was canceled.
Loudenslager, "Our primary problem has always been one of money. We think
we can bring home the bacon if we get to the contests, but sometimes we wonder
if we are going to have to walk to do it." The extent of the U.S. team's
financial bind is probably best seen in the fact that it was transported across
the Atlantic for this summer's world contest by a German airline because it
offered the best price.
especially those from the Eastern bloc, don't have such problems. The Russians,
for instance, completely subsidize their team. Its members are given jobs that
allow them to practice daily and the YAK-50 airplanes they fly are owned,
designed, built and supported by the government. This is in contrast to the
U.S., where, in 1972, national champion Herendeen couldn't fly with the
national team at the world championship because his employer, an airline,
refused to grant him a leave of absence.
Loudenslager and the five other members of the U.S. national team fared in
Kiev, perhaps Herendeen's experience would have been a blessing this year.
"The officiating was something you had to see to believe," says Don
Taylor, the U.S. member of the judging panel. "Besides obvious favoritism
toward Russian and other Eastern-bloc pilots, the flagrant coercion, scheming
and collusion of the Eastern judges was absolutely unreal. For instance, on the
four-minute exercise, the runner carrying the completed score sheets to the
tent for tallying would first show them to the Russian judge. He would review
the scores the other judges had given before marking down his own. That's
pretty open cheating."