General Training

Going inverted: The Flying Bulls

The very first thing you study, if you’re studying to fly a helicopter, is just how little you have to move the controls. The management inputs required to take care of a hover are so slight as to barely be perceptible, and when you’re shifting the cyclic various inches in ahead flight, you’re in all probability scaring your self and everybody else on board. From the second they decide up this delicate management touch, helicopter pilots spend their whole careers cultivating it. It’s similar to getting excellent at balancing one basketball on prime of another — if the penalty for dropping a ball have been probably demise.

All of which is to say that aerobatics don’t come naturally to helicopter pilots (or to helicopters). That was true for Siegfried “Blacky” Schwarz, an Austrian who is presently the chief helicopter pilot of The Flying Bulls and a two-time Helicopter Freestyle World Champion. By the time he began learning aerobatics, Schwarz had spent many years flying helicopters, doing the whole lot from building ski lifts to performing mountain rescues. Learning learn how to loop and roll was a special expertise completely.

“If you are a pilot and doing sling load work, you only make the movements on the cyclic a millimeter; just very slight movements and gentle,” he stated. But some aerobatic moves require full displacement of the cyclic — a management enter that, at first, went towards each fiber of his being. “It was really terrible!” he laughed. “That was really one of the hardest things. And the other thing is to know your position in the sky. . . . This took some time.”

The Bo.105 is inherently properly fitted to aerobatics. Purple Bull eliminated extra weight from its aircraft and relocated the battery from the aft of the engines into the nostril for a more favorable middle of gravity. “Other than that it’s more or less right out of the box,” stated Fitzgerald. Mike Reyno Photograph

Airplane aerobatic pilots are a dime a dozen, but helicopter aerobatic pilots are nonetheless few and much between. Starting up a protected, successful helicopter aerobatics program calls for not only skillful pilots and capable aircraft, but in addition intensive training, attentive upkeep, and shut cooperation with the regulator. Sustaining one requires an unlimited commitment of time and assets, which means that few business organizations have both the wherewithal and the appetite for it. Pink Bull, the founding father of The Flying Bulls, is the exception to the rule.

From their headquarters in Austria, the aerobatic helicopter pilots of The Flying Bulls have been performing constantly in Europe and other elements of the world for more than a decade. Nevertheless, the North American branch of the program had a quiet few years following the departure of its first U.S. pilot, Chuck Aaron, in 2015.

Now, the program is again with a new pilot, Aaron Fitzgerald, and a renewed dedication to inspiring audiences throughout North America by way of inverted vertical flight. In Might, Fitzgerald stunned bystanders in New York City with a demo over the Hudson River; in July, he’ll be making his second appearance on aviation’s largest stage, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin. Prematurely of this summer time’s air present season, we paid a go to to Purple Bull’s hangar in Southern California to study extra concerning the organization’s helicopter aerobatics, and the pioneers who made it all attainable.

Based mostly within the Las Angeles area, Fitzgerald has his personal aerial production firm referred to as Airborne Pictures. He supported Pink Bull with filming and different undertaking work for years earlier than becoming a member of The Flying Bulls. Mike Reyno Photograph

Expanding the envelope

The first documented loop in a helicopter was flown by Sikorsky check pilot Harold E. “Tommy” Thompson in 1949. The plane was an S-52, with three all-metal primary rotor blades and a Franklin six-cylinder piston engine. Although it’s potential that other loops predated Thompson’s, no conclusive evidence of them has surfaced, whereas Thompson’s loops could be readily seen on YouTube.

Since then, helicopter aerobatics have primarily been the domain of people that have had a superb cause to do them, notably civil or army check pilots in search of to explore or illustrate an aircraft’s flight envelope. A type of pilots is Wealthy Lee, who after serving as a U.S. Army scout pilot in Vietnam ultimately wound up at Hughes Helicopters, the manufacturer of his OH-6 Cayuse. There, first as a production and then as an experimental check pilot, he discovered the best way to carry out maneuvers that crossed the line into aerobatics.

A defining second for Lee came in 1981, when he was asked to reveal a TOW missile-equipped model of the Hughes 500 at the Paris Air Present. Earlier than the show, Lee offered a VIP demo to Bob Hoover, the Second World Warfare fighter pilot and colleague of Chuck Yeager who had gone on to grow to be maybe the greatest air show pilot of all time.

The view from the cockpit as Fitzgerald rehearses his six-minute air show routine, which is sketched out on the piece of paper hooked up to the instrument panel. The routine starts with a hammerhead, adopted by a loop, a half Cuban eight, a roll, a cut up S, another loop, a sluggish loop, an “Immel flip,” two barrel rolls, an Immelman, an Immel flip with a roll, and a bow turn. Mike Reyno Photograph

“During the demonstration, Bob asked me what I intended to do during the show, and I told him, and he said, ‘Well let’s see what you’re doing,’” Lee recalled. “So I did a demonstration with him, and as a result of that he made several safety recommendations that I hadn’t considered.”

Lee modified his plans accordingly, and his display was a hit. From that time ahead, Lee stated, “Bob Hoover became a lifetime mentor, as he did for Sean D. Tucker as well. We could pretty much call on him and ask his advice for everything.”

For Lee’s employer, the purpose of aerobatics was obvious: it was a approach to sell extra helicopters. And Hughes (later McDonnell Douglas, then Boeing) was not alone on this. “We would compete for contracts, and part of those competitions involved demonstration flights,” Lee defined. “The goal of manufacturers is to present their aircraft in the best possible light, and if you could maneuver in ways the other helicopters couldn’t, that was seen as competitive one-upmanship. So we all got pretty good at flying demonstrations to potential customers,” he stated of his fellow check pilots.

Throughout his time with Hughes and its successors, Lee flew aerobatics within the Hughes 300, all fashions of the Hughes/MD 500, the MD 900, and Boeing AH-64D/E Longbow Apaches at mission gross weight. Although he has never been a civilian entertainer, he has performed at almost each major air show on the earth.

Siegfried “Blacky” Schwarz is the chief helicopter pilot of The Flying Bulls and a two-time Helicopter Freestyle World Champion. Balazs Gardi Photograph

“I can’t say I’m the most experienced helicopter air show pilot in the world, but I would say I’m right up there with the best,” Lee stated. “And that just comes with longevity, and exposure to numerous types of aircraft and various types of situations.”

Master of the Bölkow

While Lee was busy looping Apaches, throughout the Atlantic another legend was emerging. Rainer Wilke turned a pilot for the German Army Aviation Corps in 1972. The following yr, he was assigned to fly the German Military’s very first Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) Bo.105s, which have been being trialed as anti-tank helicopters.

By the time deliveries of a specialized anti-tank version commenced within the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wilke was one of many German Military’s most experienced Bo.105 pilots and instructors. If Lee was a generalist, flying many several types of helicopters, Wilke was a specialist — starting early on one model and learning it better than anybody else on the planet.

In Might, Fitzgerald stunned onlookers in New York Metropolis with an aerobatic display over the Hudson River. Predrag Vuckovic Photograph

The Bo.105 wasn’t simply any helicopter, both. The Bölkow design was pioneering on the time for its inflexible rotor system, titanium major rotor head, and fiberglass blades, which gave the aircraft exceptional maneuverability. The German Army realized its aerobatic potential, and assigned one pilot to perform displays in the aircraft. In 1984, with that pilot on the eve of retirement, Wilke was chosen as his alternative. During their handover coaching, nevertheless, Wilke found that his predecessor wasn’t notably wanting to move alongside his information.

“I was only allowed to sit on the left side, normally the pilot is sitting on the right side . . . and I was allowed to feel the controls for one loop and one roll, that was all,” Wilke recalled.

“When I came back to my squadron, the commander asked me how was the training, was everything fine? I told him about the situation and then he asked me [if I felt] safe enough to do my own training for myself. I said OK, that’s fine, I would do it — and so I started training on my own.”

In 1988, the German army suspended aerobatic flying following the Ramstein air present disaster, during which three Italian Aermacchi MB-339s collided throughout a flying display. Not long afterward, nevertheless, the MBB successor Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) asked Wilke to offer aerobatic training to a few of its check pilots. In the years that followed, Wilke labored commonly with the producer as an teacher and show pilot.

In Europe, Pink Bull flies the Bo.105 C “short” model, which weighs round 60 kilograms (130 kilos) less than the longer version (shown right here) used for the U.S. program. Skip Robinson Photograph

At one level, Airbus advisable Wilke to offer instruction in aerobatics to some Chinese college students at the Check Flying Academy of South Africa. He wrote an article about his expertise for an aviation journal, and in early 2005, that article came to the attention of Blacky Schwarz.

Amongst his many other pursuits, Schwarz had started a flight faculty in Graz, Austria, via which he met Pink Bull co-founder and passionate aviation fanatic Dietrich Mateschitz. Schwarz taught Mateschitz the best way to fly helicopters on an Airbus EC120, then helped him purchase The Flying Bulls’ first two rotorcraft, a Bell 47 and an Airbus AS355 N. Ultimately, Schwarz went to work for The Flying Bulls full-time.

It just so happened that around the time he discovered of Wilke, Pink Bull North America, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, expressed an curiosity in creating its personal aviation presence. Schwarz thought an aerobatic helicopter program may be an ideal fit, so he gave Wilke a name. Two weeks later they have been in L.A., talking late into the night time as they laid the groundwork for the brand new venture.

Fitzgerald maneuvers in entrance of the Statue of Liberty as a part of his current #RedBullFlipsNYC efficiency. Predrag Vuckovic Photograph

Getting past the gatekeepers

When Rich Lee and his fellow check pilots at Hughes started flying helicopter aerobatic displays within the ’80s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wasn’t really positive what to make of them. In contrast to airplanes, no helicopters had ever been certified within the acrobatic category, and whereas aerobatic maneuvers weren’t specifically prohibited within the 500, the FAA’s representatives have been usually cautious of them. As Lee recalled, “They were a little concerned that here was an activity that they hadn’t thought about very much.”

Lee ended up working with the FAA to write down definitions of aerobatic flight for helicopters, which have been initially based mostly on pitch and financial institution angles. (Immediately, aerobatic flight is defined simply as an intentional maneuver involving an irregular angle or acceleration not essential for normal flight.) Initially, the FAA also reserved the best to problem statements of aerobatic competency to helicopter pilots, although now that privilege rests with the International Council of Air Exhibits (ICAS), as it does for fixed-wing pilots.

Missing in-house expertise on the subject, the FAA relied on Lee and equally certified people to guage helicopter pilots for aerobatic competency. Lee stated that in the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, he saw candidates perhaps three or 4 occasions a yr.

In a typical Purple Bull display, the G masses vary from about zero to +2.6. The Bo.105 is capable of taking place to -2 G, “but we hardly ever do that,” stated Fitzgerald. Predrag Vuckovic Photograph

“[First] I would start asking questions: well, who trained you, what aircraft are you going to use, what’s the purpose you’re doing this?” he recalled. “And most of the time, that would be the end of the conversation because most of these people didn’t understand how expensive it was going to be, what a commitment it was, what kind of equipment they needed. They just had no concept — they just saw someone do aerobatics in an air show and figured that would be a fun thing that they would like to do.”

For these handful of applicants who weren’t deterred, the subsequent step was to current the plane they meant to use. Within the U.S., performing aerobatics in a helicopter usually requires a particular airworthiness certificates, which is issued with a limitations letter that clearly states what the plane can and may’t do. As soon as a helicopter is used for aerobatics, restoring it to a regular airworthiness certificates is prohibitively expensive — “so expensive that you would be better off selling the helicopter for scrap,” Lee stated.

Only a few candidates bothered to obtain this particular airworthiness certificate. However of those that did, virtually all of them washed out through the flight evaluation, “because they hadn’t been taught by anybody and they couldn’t do a routine with consistency, or they couldn’t do what they said they were going to do,” Lee explained. “So the number of pilots who were doing helicopters at air shows was very, very small.”

Purple Bull’s U.S. aerobatic helicopters are certificated within the experimental category. Its European helicopters are certificated within the normal class with a maintenance guide that prescribes shorter life limits for 36 specific elements. Because elements have to be changed so often, operating prices for the plane are extraordinarily high, around 35,000 Euros (US$39,000) per flight hour. Skip Robinson Photograph

Then alongside got here Purple Bull. Schwarz had gotten the green mild from Mateschitz and purchased four Bo.105 helicopters: two for the U.S., which have been certificated for aerobatics within the experimental category, and two for Europe, which have been ultimately certificated in the regular class following in depth negotiations with Airbus. Wilke signed on to the program and offered initial aerobatic training to Schwarz and to Chuck Aaron, who had developed a relationship with The Flying Bulls when he bought them their AH-1F Cobra. With that backing and coaching behind him, Aaron was granted his statement of aerobatic competency, and commenced performing aerobatic displays in 2006.

“Red Bull does an excellent job,” stated Lee. “They’re well funded, they’ve retained the very best instructors, they spare no expense in helicopter safety or pilot safety. . . . They have the money and, more importantly, the dedication to safety that’s necessary to demonstrate at air shows.”

Striving for perfection

If there are tips to flying aerobatics in a helicopter, one in every of them is figuring out the place to look. Aaron Fitzgerald explains this to me earlier than taking me up in a demo in one among Pink Bull’s U.S.-registered Bo.105s. For example, he says, once you’re shifting backwards by means of a loop, you ought to be tilting your head back, not wanting straight out via the windscreen. I liken the advice to wanting by means of the flip while taking a curve on a motorbike, and it seems to work — each for staying oriented and avoiding airsickness.

“Performing in front of a crowd can be nerve-wracking in the beginning, but it’s also really exciting to be able to share what this helicopter can do and what we can do together in front of all those people, and have everybody watch, and see the result of all that practice and all that training,” stated Fitzgerald. Predrag Vuckovic Photograph

Fitzgerald grew up fascinated by helicopters in Wenatchee, Washington, which on the time was residence to an lively helicopter logging business (and supply of the term “Wenatchee snatch,” a maneuver that logging pilots used to carry more weight than was good for them). After serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Military’s 82nd Airborne Division, Fitzgerald did his helicopter flight training in L.A., then started working in information helicopters each as a pilot and a digital camera operator. Although he did quite a lot of flying jobs through the years — together with constructing power strains with MD 500s — movie and tv help remained a spotlight for him, and he ultimately started his personal aerial production firm, Airborne Photographs.

Fitzgerald began working with Purple Bull about 12 years in the past, when he dropped the corporate’s skydiving group, the Pink Bull Air Drive, into a NASCAR race.
“That gave way to a whole bunch of filming jobs over the years, and I’ve worked very closely with them on very big projects,” he explained. When the aerobatic place got here open, Schwarz requested Fitzgerald if he’d like to offer it a attempt. His answer was, “Of course.”

For Fitzgerald, the method of learning from Wilke and Schwarz tips on how to fly aerobatics was “enlightening.” A lot as Schwarz had, he struggled with the method of unlearning 20 years of muscle reminiscence dedicated to retaining helicopters upright.

Helicopter pilots Fitzgerald and Flaim fly in formation with Kirby Chambliss in his Zivko Edge 540 during an aerobatics training camp in Arizona in October 2017. Balazs Gardi Photograph

“Mentally, you understand how the maneuver is done, and it’s easy to enter it; your hands and feet do what you want,” he stated. “But then once you’re in the maneuver and you’re inverted or you’re in a strange attitude, your hands and feet do everything they can to get you back right side up, and that’s instinctive. So for me, it was learning counterintuitive control inputs in order to continue around in a roll instead of immediately trying to right it.”

After he broke those instincts, the bigger problem got here from studying learn how to mix particular person maneuvers — loops and barrel rolls and Immelmans and backflips and half Cuban eights — into a smoothly flowing routine. As he defined, “It’s not so challenging to go learn how to do a loop, you can do that over and over again and get it just right. What’s really challenging is to get ahead of yourself a couple of maneuvers, so as you’re recovering from one maneuver you’re setting up for the entry into the other one, and all the while managing the show line, and the altitude, and the airspeed.”

In fact, that problem can also be a big a part of the attraction of aerobatic flying. Regardless of how profitable a routine, it’s all the time potential to make it higher: smoother, quicker, more precise. Stated Fitzgerald: “I don’t know that it’s possible to fly a perfect aerobatic sequence, so the fun for me is in the challenge of trying to make it more perfect every time.”

The importance of mentorship

The 1981 Paris Air Show wasn’t the only time that Bob Hoover saved Wealthy Lee’s performance, and probably his life. Lee recalled a personal air show for the key membership of airline executives referred to as “Conquistadores del Cielo,” which occurred in Ruidoso, New Mexico, at an elevation of around 7,000 ft. Hoover was there in a North American P-51 Mustang, whereas Lee was flying an MD 500.

Accoridng to Blacky Schwarz, coaching is crucial a part of any aerobatics program: “You have to do I think 1,000 loops until you are really safe. . . . At Red Bull we are lucky that we have the money and we can do training, and we take it really [seriously].” Mike Reyno Photograph“It was hot, so it was very, very high density altitude,” Lee stated. “I’d never flown at that altitude before. I went out to practice and was immediately surprised by how poorly my aircraft was performing. I was going into deep blade stall; I was seeing rpm excursions I wasn’t used to. And it became quickly evident that I was not going to be able to fly the show that I had trained for, and was experienced in and was expected to do at the show.”

As an alternative of bowing out, or, extra perilously, persisting together with his unique plan, Lee went to Hoover for advice. “Bob and I talked over what we were doing, the aerodynamic reasons that I was having problems, and how we could structure the show to do maneuvers in a way that would be safe, yet still somewhat exciting,” Lee stated.

“There have been people who stepped in at various points in my career and given me important insights. But if I have to say why I’m alive and talking to you right now, and why I’ve had a successful air show or demonstration career, it’s directly the result of Bob Hoover’s mentorship.”

For Lee and Wilke, the time has come to pay it forward — sharing their many years of accrued knowledge with a new era of helicopter aerobatic pilots. Though Lee continues to be an aerobatic competency evaluator, he has been handing over the reins to Scott Urschel of Pylon Aviation, who now performs evaluations for the Pink Bull program on behalf of ICAS. Likewise, Wilke has been spending much less time on the air present circuit just lately, ceding the highlight to younger pilots like Fitzgerald and the Italian Purple Bull pilot Mirko Flaim. Next in line is the Austrian Felix Baumgartner, who gained fame for skydiving from the stratosphere for the Pink Bull Stratos challenge, and just lately gained his own assertion of aerobatic competency in helicopters.

From left, Scott Urschel, Mirko Flaim, Gerhard Moik (The Flying Bulls technical manager), Aaron Fitzgerald, Siegfried “Blacky” Schwarz, Felix Baumgartner, Wealthy Lee, Stan Gray (Pink Bull North America helicopter operations manager) and Kirby Chambliss at a current training camp.

“I see my main thing at the moment to train the other pilots — to give all my experience, what I have learned, to them, so that they are able to continue and do all the same like I did in the past,” Wilke stated. There are still a number of maneuvers that nobody apart from Wilke is performing, and unlike the pilot who gave him his preliminary “training,” Wilke is keen to cross them along.

So far as Lee is worried, aerobatic maneuvers in a civil helicopter haven’t any useful function beyond an aerobatic show. And the motivation for such shows is usually to sell something, be it plane or power drinks. However, packages like Pink Bull’s also serve to boost the profile of the helicopter business with people who may otherwise ignore it.

“In most types of helicopter flying, we work really hard out in the middle of nowhere, doing some tremendous flying, and no one sees it,” Fitzgerald identified. For him, the actual privilege of his work with Purple Bull just isn’t in with the ability to fly a helicopter the wrong way up, however in sharing his ardour with tens of hundreds of spectators.

“When I’m in front of a crowd at an air show, I’m representing all of the helicopter industry, because there’s not too many helicopter performers out there,” he stated. “It’s a great honor to be able to represent our little sector of the aviation world in front of the greater air show audience.”