How Aerobatic Contests work
In the United States, there approximately 30-35 regional aerobatic contests each year held by IAC chapters. These are very much volunteer-run affairs, with chapter members holding key positions as well as often flying in the contest itself. The pilots competing also often volunteer on the judging line too. (If you catch my drift, there are many volunteer opportunities for everyone attending.)
First, to compete, you must be a member of IAC, which also implies you're a member of EAA. IAC has a Contest Calendar on their website where chapters publish their contest details – you'll need to be a member to view it. Additionally, many chapters have Facebook pages or groups where information will be posted.
It is often asked that you submit your registration information in advance, either through the IAC Contest Calendar, via a website form (ours is here), or via email. This helps the Contest Director (CD) anticipate how many people are coming, so better decisions can be made. There is an entry fee ranging from $125 to $300, which helps the chapter cover costs like IAC sanctioning fees, airport and facility fees, meals, t-shirts and trophies. You'll need to bring copies of things like your annual inspection, so be sure to review requirements – we have a handy list on our contest page here.
Traditionally, at least on the on the West Coast, contests take place over three days. Day 1 is often a Thursday and consists of registration, a technical inspection of the aircraft , and a short practice time or two in the contest box. Pilots will be arriving throughout the day as they are flying in from from various locations, near and far. There will be a line of colorful planes parked on the ramp, join them, get tied down and take your paperwork and checkbook to the terminal/office area.
In the office, the Registrar will either have the competitor sign pre-filled paperwork or you'll fill it out there. Paperwork may include the registration form, a volunteer sheet, order of flight worksheet, meal selection, and signing the contest waiver. You'll then pay the entry fee and any additional costs such as banquet tickets or meals for guests. Volunteers also need to fill-out forms too but there are no fees to pay. A first-time competitor may be assigned a more-experienced buddy to help explain how things work.
Competitors will be given a technical inspection form and told who on the ramp is completing these inspections. Track the "Tech Inspector" down, who is usually someone with either an A&P or has extensive aircraft maintenance experience. They will first go over your documents such as pilot certificate, check the copy of your annual inspection (you did bring it right?), and parachute pack date. They'll do a cursory inspection of the aircraft, noting any issues such as a loose wheel pant, suspicious oil stain or missing cotter pin that needs to be addressed. This inspection is to double check that the aircraft is safe to fly aerobatics. The inspector will sign the form and it must be returned to the Registrar before any practice time.
To sign up for a practice slot, the competitor needs to find the person acting as the "Box Monitor" who is keeping track of time and order of practice flights. During practice, pilots self-launch into the hold (ask where it is if you don't know) and silently monitor a box frequency waiting to be called in. This is the time to scope out the box layout and pick out landmarks to help you with positioning. You usually have just enough time to fly through two sequences, so use it wisely. At busy contests, you'll likely only get 10 minutes in the box.
At the end of the day, the planes are officially grounded and cannot be flown anymore before the contest begins. You will not be able to travel to/from your home in an aerobatic aircraft. So it's off to the hotel(s) by whatever means can be found. Depending on the venue, there may be nearby hotels with shuttles, rentals cars available, or the local host chapter provides rides to lodging. Some contest sites allow camping at the airport – check with the CD.
Day 2 begins early Friday morning with a mandatory contest briefing around 7:00 am with roll call, weather information, airspace instructions, the order of flight and volunteer positions. You must be on time for the roll call as there are contest penalties/fines for missing it. The CD will go over the plan for the day, discuss where the official hold(s) are and altitudes, areas to avoid flying over such as a school, and where you are allowed to do your safety check roll before diving in to the box. This is the time to ask questions if you don't understand any of the procedures.
For the order of flight, the five contest categories usually will be divided into two groups, such as Primary, Sportsman and Unlimited in one, and Intermediate and Advanced in the other. This allows those not flying in the first group to be on the judges line as volunteers, and then the groups switch places. Contest flying begins maybe an hour after the briefing ends with the Known programs for all categories. Each group of categories can take several hours to fly depending on the number of pilots. Lunch is usually provided and sometimes eaten during a shift change between the two groups. Once the Knowns are completed, the second round of flights begin with the Frees. Depending on turnout, there will either be three or four sets of flights completed before sunset or the ending time on the waiver.
On the flight line, the Starter lines up pilots in the group being flown in the order of flight and sends them off in regular intervals to keep things moving. Normal airport procedures are in effect for departure, including appropriate radio communication on CTAF or ground/tower frequencies. Pilots will usually be sent to a hold first to gain altitude where they will switch to box frequency and listen silently to be called into the box by the Chief Judge. There is no talking on the box frequency unless spoken to! Once the contest flight is done, the pilot exits the box and lands. Depending on type of plane, some will refuel after each flight. On the ramp, there will often be a "dead prop zone" declared where planes may not be started or taxied for safety. Specific instructions will vary for each contest on these ramp, departure and box entry/exit procedures.
During the contest flights, scores are being compiled and entered into the IAC scoring system after each round of flights. Scores will be posted in a public area, usually on a wall or door, and the original judges score sheets set out for review (not to be taken yet). These scores are provisional as corrections sometimes have to be made. It's a good practice to compare the original score sheets with the printed computer copy of scores. This scoring process can take a hour or two (or more if there are computer issues), so the last group's scores usually post while those pilots are on the judging line watching the next group. After each additional flight, overall rankings will also be posted for the categories.
Near the end of Day 2, the Unknown sequences for Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited are distributed. The Unknown must be flown without practice, so pilots start doing the aerobatic dance moves imagining how they'll fly it tomorrow. Most of these pilots have dinner, then retire to study the Unknown. Sometimes there will be a casual dinner event after Day 2 for those who want to join.
Day 3 is very much a repeat of Day 2 and will always include the Unknown flight program, which have been studied overnight. Day 3 also includes the Four Minute Free program if it is being flown. Unless the contest is quite large or there are weather delays, the second day of contest flights tends to end earlier.
There will either be a casual awards ceremony at the airport afterwards, or a fancier awards banquet that evening. Most pilots tend to stay for these events and fly home on Sunday. There are first, second and third place awards for overall standing in each category, and medals, referred to as "clinkies," for each flight placement. Some special awards may include the "grassroots" medal for highest-scoring 180hp or less aircraft and highest-scoring first-time Sportsman. Often chapters have funny awards. Chapter 26 gives the "Thinking Outside the Box" award for the pilot with the most outs. The awards banquets are always a good time, especially since everyone spent so much money chasing a few clinkies and a little wooden plaque. Often there will be an auction of aerobatic-related items to raise money for the chapter. You can often pick up a new 5-point harness or parachute repack at a good deal.
On a national level, the U.S. is divided into six regional areas for the awarding of the IAC Regional Championship Series awards. To be eligible, a pilot must fly three contests in one region, or two contests plus Nationals. The top three scores from these regional contests (as more than three may be flown) will be used to determine regional rankings each calendar year. The regional winners are published each year in Sport Aerobatics magazine. And of course, there is the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships, which is like a regional contest on steroids spread out over a week.
by Susan Bell, IAC #438132
Note: The IAC Rule Book referenced below is a free download for IAC members from the IAC website.
What are the certificate and medical requirements to compete in a sanctioned aerobatic contest?
In order to be registered in a contest, each competitor must possess a minimum of a Sport Pilot certificate if flying a qualifying Light-Sport aircraft (LSA), or at least a Recreational Pilot certificate with rating appropriate for the class of aircraft to be flown (power or glider) if flying an aircraft other than a LSA. A pilot competing with a Sport Pilot certificate must also possess either a valid U.S. driver’s license which complies with the restrictions set forth in the applicable sections of the FAR’s, or a current FAA medical certificate. All other certified pilots of powered aircraft must possess either a current FAA medical certificate or fly under Basic Med. These licenses and certificates must be shown to contest officials on request. Chapter 2.1 IAC Rule Book
What does a Tech Inspection consist of?
Have available for inspection all certificates required for operation of any aircraft (airworthiness, registration, operating limitation, weight and balance) plus copies of aircraft and engine log books showing the last annual inspections, certificates of insurance with a minimum of $1,000,000 property damage and $100,000 single limit bodily injury. The parachute repack certification will also be checked. The Tech inspector will use a checklist of items to approve the aircraft for flight at the contest. A list of these items may be found in the IAC Rule Book Chapter 2.3
What does the Aerobatic Box look like?
See our Aerobatic Box page for details.
When can I practice in the Aerobatic Box?
After you have registered, signed the FAA Waiver, and completed the Tech Inspection, you may sign up for a practice time slot in the box. The Starter or Box Monitor will advise you of the location, where the holding area is located, and what frequency to use in the box.
Can I practice or leave the area after the contest has started?
No. However, the Contest Jury may waive this rule under special circumstances. Chapter 3.15 IAC Rule Book
What is the Box Frequency?
It is a special comm frequency assigned by the Chief Judge to control the aerobatic box during the contest. Pilots will change from the airport frequency to the box frequency when in the holding area or when advised by the Chief Judge during the briefing. Pilots will acknowledge instructions to enter the box only and listen while in the box, as this is a safety frequency for a recall or advice on traffic. When finished with their flight, pilots will depart the box and change back to the airport frequency. There is no need to call the Chief Judge upon exiting the box. Chatter is kept to a minimum on this frequency.
What is covered in the Pilot Briefing?
Roll call of pilots and all volunteers assigned to the judging line, order of flight for each category, safety requirements, weather, direction of flight, starting and ramp procedures, medical information, FAA advisories, and starting time. Chapter 4.6.1 of the IAC Rule Book
Do the pilots change direction of flight if the wind changes and who lets us know?
No. Only the Chief Judge has this authority. Pilots will receive notice a minimum 15 minutes before the flight.
What is the Aerobatic Waiver?
It permits aerobatic flight in a area where it is normally prohibited. FAR 91.303 This airspace is usually the box with a buffer to permit a safety check prior to entering. CAUTION: This waiver in no way prohibits any other aircraft from using the same area. HEADS UP!
How many flights might expect to make as a Primary category pilot?
One and up to a maximum of three, depending on the length and conditions of the contest.
What is the Dead Line?
A safety line outside the aerobatic box, usually at the judges line, that if crossed will result in a zero score for that figure. Chapter 4.14.2
What are Low Lines?
Usually the first contestant to fly in each category is responsible for flying the low lines. Low lines are flown at the minimum altitude for that category and on the X and Y axes of the box, or as requested by the Chief Judge. This is done so the judges will be able to estimate the minimum altitude for that category.
Can I arrive late for the contest and still compete?
Pilots must arrive in time to register and have a Tech Inspection prior to the first morning briefing. The Briefing is MANDATORY for all competitors. Exceptions must be approved by the contest staff in advance or by the Contest Jury during the contest.
What are the Smooth and Star awards?
Awards for flying the category with all figures being scored a five or better during a contest for a Stars award and in a non-contest environment for the Smooth award. Applications for these awards may be found on the IAC Website. Appendix 5 of the IAC Rule Book.
What is the Buddy System?
As a first time competitor, you will have an experienced contest pilot assigned to you for guidance and advice during the contest.
What is a Volunteer?
The Volunteers are the most important part of the contest. It takes twenty-two volunteers to man the judges line for each category. There are also drivers, computer operators for the scores, Registers, Volunteer Coordinator, Contest Director, Starter, and many more. Pilots, spouses, and relatives are prohibited on the judging line during their category, but may volunteer for other duties.
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The initial version of this FAQ was compiled by Hal Raish, IAC #20220. Edits have been made to update it.