Extreme Flying: How Modern Fliers are Busting Limits

Thrill-seekers push the boundaries of human flight.

Extreme Flying Feature

Extreme Flying Feature

"This whole thing of 'The sky is the limit' — it's not," says professional aerobatic pilot Rob Holland. "The sky is just a playground." Nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to people who engage in extreme flying adventures. Whether they fly powered or nonpowered aircraft, these individuals are pushing the boundaries of what can be done in three dimensions. Some of these fliers have come up with revolutionary maneuvers in various types of flying machines. Others challenge themselves to fly with extreme precision, where errors can have devastating consequences. Yet others want to experience flight free of any enclosures — to feel, hear and smell flight in its purest form.

Even accomplished pilots might think these daredevils have a suicide wish or are simply insane. It may be best to think that they aren't, because a large dose of daring is only one component required to become a successful adventure pilot. Survival of flight at this level requires dedication, attention to detail, a willingness to call off a mission in the name of safety, an incredible amount of practice and, in many cases, a pile of cash. It seems the pilots who engage in this type of flying have a passion for extreme air for which there is no cure.

AEROBATICS

To the untrained eye, an airplane practicing aerobatics may appear completely out of control. For pilots who attempt it without knowing what they're doing, that is exactly what it is. Many have died trying. But for those who are dedicated to the sport, it is all about precision. Whether the aim is to do a perfect loop and return to the exact starting altitude or attempt to make a set number of expertly executed rolls, whether vertical, horizontal or at some angle to the ground, the skill level required for aerobatic flight is the crème de la crème for fixed-wing pilots.

Aerobatic competition sequences are made up of certain maneuvers, such as rolls, loops, hammerheads and Cuban eights, which all have to be completed as close to perfection as possible. On the other hand, aerobatic maneuvers in airshows are limited only to the imagination of the pilots who fly them. Holland's innovative show routine includes maneuvers in his MXS-RH airplane that completely defy logic, such as multiple nose-over-tail somersaults, inverted flat spins and a maneuver that makes the airplane appear to be traveling in reverse.

An extraordinary amount of time and money is required to pull off these types of maneuvers, and Holland put everything into his passion. "Every penny I made went into this whole flying thing," Holland says. "I decided a long time ago that I was only going to have a Plan A. If you don't have a Plan B you have no choice but to plan and execute Plan A."

Fortunately for Holland, Plan A worked out. He was the U.S. National Aerobatics Championship winner the past four consecutive years, has also won several international competitions and is becoming a staple on the airshow circuit.

Another highly successful aerobatic performer who also races sport and jet airplanes at the annual ­National Championship Air Races near Reno, Nevada, is Vicky Benzing. She was bit by the extreme flying bug early as her primary instructor would have her do loops, rolls and spins (spins were required at the time) as part of her private pilot training. However, she did not actively pursue the sport until after she had established a financially successful career. She initially bought a Luscombe and started practicing aerobatics. In 2003 she graduated to an Extra 300 and started flying competitions under the watchful eye of Wayne Handley.

Today, Benzing can be seen around the country performing her highly technical routines in either the Extra or a Stearman. While she recognizes that there is risk in what she does and admits that she has lost many friends in the industry, she says, "I'm not a gambler. I've never gambled in my whole life. And I don't plan to gamble with my life." She manages the risk by paying close attention to her airplane, taking care of her body, thoroughly visualizing each flight and maintaining a rigorous practice schedule, which includes daily practice during the airshow season. "In anything that has some level of risk I like to be well practiced," she says. "I don't like to wing anything, so to speak."

HELICOPTER AEROBATICS

One modern-day pioneer of extreme flight is Chuck Aaron, the first civilian to fly aerobatic routines in a helicopter. Aaron, who has more than 20,000 hours of flight time, not only was the first civilian to fly helicopter aerobatics, but he also made all of the modifications to the Red Bull MBB BO-105 airframe and systems that make this unorthodox type of flying possible. He realized early that an unmodified helicopter would not hold up to the rigors of aerobatic flight; other helicopter pilots have died trying.

During aerobatic maneuvers, the rotor blades have the potential to flex and even chop the tail off, rendering the machine uncontrollable. It took Aaron more than a year and an unlimited budget from Red Bull to complete the proprietary mods of the BO-105 before he felt comfortable enough to take the helicopter far beyond normal flight parameters. At that stage, even the FAA felt the design was safe enough to sign off on it as the first helicopter ever approved for aerobatic flight.

"After it got certified and we spent all this money, it was my turn to put my life on the line and go out and prove that it could be done," Aaron says. "That was the hardest part, I think."

Also a fixed-wing pilot, Aaron decided to get some aerobatic training before his first attempt. From his base in Camarillo, California, he hopped over the hill to a flight school in Santa Paula. Unfortunately he found that the skills didn't transfer to the helicopter environment. He had to rethink the entire concept.

Aaron put cameras all over the helicopter to monitor what happened to the rotor blades and structures as he began his aerobatic adventure. The first maneuver he tried was a simple loop. I would pull to the vertical and "start to come over the backside, and I would chicken out and roll out," Aaron says. "I probably did that 50 times over a period of three to four months just trying to squeeze one more degree out of it or hold it a little bit longer. And one day it was just a perfect day, no wind, and I felt good. I got to my chicken point and I thought to myself 'I'm going for it.' So I did it. I was so excited I felt that I had broken the sound barrier. After I did that first loop I did 10 more right in a row. Immediately. I didn't want to forget what I had just done and how I just did it. And everything went smoothly after that."

Aaron started exploring other maneuvers with the help of a European by the name of Rainer Wilke, a former military pilot and test pilot for Eurocopter who later joined the Red Bull team and now flies helicopter aerobatics in Europe.

Aaron learned that, unlike a fixed-wing airplane, a helicopter flies aerobatic maneuvers around the disc that is created by the rotation of its rotor blades. "You have to fly the disc above your head, and that's what you're flying aerobatics with, not yourself. You have to think way outside the box. You screw that up the first time, you're dead, right now."

AIR RACING

While pushing the limits in a show environment is exhilarating, air racing pushes the airplanes and pilots to the edge of failure and, at times, beyond. The daring pilots at Reno's annual air race take various types of airplanes, from tiny homebuilts to roaring warbirds and even jets, around a tight pylon course. The name of the game is, of course, to get around the course as fast as possible.

The risks involved in this type of flying go way beyond high-speed, low-level, high G-turn flight. Engine failures are commonplace, and with several airplanes competing in tight formation continuously trying to pass each other, midair collisions happen. Fortunately, in most cases, they are just touches that don't result in major damage or fatalities.

However, fatalities are not uncommon. Since 1964, more than 20 pilots have lost their lives on Reno's racecourse. Despite the fact that fatalities are a reality, Benzing said she feels the sport can be safe. "I can't control what other people do on the racecourse, but I don't need to fly in a dangerous place around them," she says. "I can control where I fly relative to them; I can control how I pass them and so on."

A new extreme form of air racing was introduced in 2006 when Red Bull launched the Red Bull Air Race, a seasonal competition that includes several races in various places around the globe. While the Reno Air Race is all about having the fastest time, the Red Bull events add the challenge of aerobatic maneuvers at certain intervals along a highly technical, twisting course marked by inflatable pylons. Time is added for mistakes, such as touching a pylon or conducting a maneuver incorrectly. In each race, the competitors get anywhere from 0 to 12 points based on their rank.

"I think the hardest part about it is that the race is only a minute long," says Michael Goulian, a seasoned aerobatic performer who has competed in six Red Bull Air Race seasons. "You can't make a mistake."

Since precision is so critical, each team has a tactician who uses computer software to calculate the most efficient line through each course. "If you are just 5 or 10 feet off that theoretical track, that's the difference between first and fifth," Goulian says. "So the pressure is much higher than it's ever been." But despite the pressure, Goulian says there is nothing that is more exciting or more fun than flying the Red Bull Air Race. "It feels almost illegal," he says.

BACKCOUNTRY FLYING

"When I finally give up aerobatic flying and racing, I'm going to spend all of my time flying in the backcountry because that will be the next challenge for me," Benzing says. There is no question that flying in the backcountry presents extreme challenges. Fat tires, also referred to as tundra tires, absorb a lot of the force from logs, rocks, dirt and grass mounds, allowing for relatively smooth landings on surfaces that appear to be completely unsuitable for an airplane. Rough river bars and mountainsides only a few hundred feet long become accessible to those who are willing and able to test their skills.

Since flying in the backcountry opens up a world that is virtually inaccessible to cars, motorcycles and any other ground-based ­vehicles, you can experience total serenity. The Idaho backcountry offers an ­ideal outdoor playground with a published network of nearly 100 airstrips. This mostly undeveloped area provides spectacular scenery and world-class fishing opportunities. But with challenging terrain and unpredictable weather, the accident rate is high. According to Dan Etter, the aviation safety manager at the Idaho Division of Aeronautics, there is an average of 34 to 39 general aviation accidents in Idaho annually, with a fatality rate ranging from five to 14 per year.

In order to survive in this challenging environment, this type of flying requires a high level of skill. Lori MacNichol, the owner and chief instructor of Mountain Canyon ­Flying in McCall, Idaho, teaches a backcountry flying course that involves negotiating a network of canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and landing strips often as short as a few hundred feet leading to the side of a mountain.

With such extreme conditions, accuracy is as critical as it is in aerobatic flight. MacNichol and her instructors teach their students how to make turns on a dime to get out of a boxed canyon. They also take students through a stall series to determine the optimal short-field approach speed for any particular airplane. Precision is key, and students are encouraged to maintain their airspeed within just 2 knots above and zero knots below that targeted airspeed in order to successfully land at some of the more challenging airstrips that are included in the course.

MacNichol's course also teaches the importance of always having an out in such extreme conditions and how to determine a decision point beyond which you are committed to land, no matter what.

Backcountry flying is one of the most spectacular experiences you can have. But being vigilant is vital. One mistake or an unexpected downdraft at the wrong time and you can end up in the trees. And if you are flying in remote areas, it may be a while before you are rescued, if at all.

WINGSUIT FLYING

In an apparent mad quest to soar like flying squirrels, a growing number of skydivers and BASE (building, antenna, span and earth) jumpers have in recent years strapped themselves into wingsuits. Wingsuits were first developed in the late 1990s, and now there are several sky-diving schools that offer wingsuit training. Because of the high level of skill required to fly these suits, most schools require a minimum of 200 sky dives before they'll strap you in.

A California crop-duster pilot named Ross Anderson has been sky-diving for decades and started flying wingsuits not long after they were introduced. "It adds a whole new realm where you can do a lap around the entire airport," Anderson says. "You have a lot more forward motion and you can create lift for yourself." Anderson, who often flies with his wife, says the free-fall time from 18,000 feet with a wingsuit is about three minutes.

A wingsuit has wing surfaces under the arms and between the legs. Openings on the arms and the top of the leg wing allow for air to enter the suit, making the wing structures semirigid, Anderson says. The wingsuit flier manipulates the wing surfaces by changing his or her body position to make turns and to create more or less lift.

Jumping out of an airplane or helicopter with a wingsuit and flying to an airport or open field appears to be relatively safe for experienced sky divers. The fatality rate is approximately one in 100,000 according to several sources. However, what has been termed proximity flying takes danger to a whole new level. Proximity wingsuit fliers BASE jump off of cliffs and skim the surface of the earth at incredible speeds until they pull a parachute to bring themselves safely to the ground. "When sky-­diving, you generally deploy the chute at around 2,500 feet," Anderson says. "BASE jumping, it's just whenever you get scared."

While the sport appears incredibly risky, there are wingsuit fliers who have hundreds of proximity flights under their belts, some below treetop level through twisting riverbeds and avalanche chutes. "You just have to give yourself a big buffer zone," Anderson says. "Generally when you see guys proximity flying they're not flying their wingsuits at the maximum performance. So they can create a lot more lift to get away from the cliff if they judge it wrong. But there are times when they take it down to the bare minimum and they can't get out of it."

In a quest for the ultimate thrill, some wingsuit jumpers have done flights so radical they push the word extreme out of the dictionary. A group of wingsuiters flew under the narrow gap beneath a bridge at the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix in southeast France. Wingsuiters have also flown through narrow cliff gaps in Spain and in China. The consequences of missing these targets are obvious.

Yves Rossy, aka Jetman, also flew wingsuits, but he wanted to try something completely different. Rossy first tried sky surfing. "But it was not logical to stand," Rossy says. "Birds don't stand when they fly."

Rossy first developed an inflatable wing that he strapped to his back before jumping out of an aircraft. The idea morphed into a 6-foot, rigid, carbon-Kevlar wing to which he eventually attached jet-A-powered Jetcat P-400 engines that are engaged and disengaged through a throttle switch in Jetman's hand.

Like any sky diver, Jetman jumps out of an airplane or helicopter and lands with a parachute. His instruments include an altimeter and a timer for fuel management, but he has no airspeed indication. He says that he can feel the speed by the pressure on his shoulders and arms and the sound of the airflow around his body.

Jetman not only flies his wing, but he does aerobatics with it as well. "When I do turns or loops I pull about 3 G's," Rossy says. "I have to stay a little bit fit because it is physical." To stay in shape, Rossy does other extreme sports, such as kitesurfing and skiing. "I don't like being in the gym," Rossy says. "You have minimum of fun with maximum of effort. I prefer to have maximum of fun with the minimum of effort."

PARAGLIDING

While paragliding may not appear to be as radical as the other flying ventures included in this article, thrill seekers can go as wild as they wish with this sport. If you want to jump off a cliff, you can. Play with aerobatic maneuvers — go ahead. Or if you prefer a smooth cruising flight at sunset, paragliding can do that too. Being under the Ultralight FAR Part 103 regulations, paragliding offers a lot of freedom. Best of all, says Eric Farewell, founder of Aviator PPG, a powered paragliding school and sales company in Lake Wales, Florida, the sport is very affordable.

The price for a complete powered paraglider package runs about $15,000, and the hourly operating cost for the two-stroke or four-stroke engine ranges from about $4 to $8 an hour, Farewell says. While the biggest challenge when flying an airplane (unless, of course, you're flying aerobatics) is the landing, the takeoff presents equally as much of a challenge for the paraglider. You can either sit in a carbon-­fiber trike or launch by foot. "The first three to five days of training are focused solely on the launch," says Farewell. "Once you've learned to take off it's pretty easy."

Once you gain some skills, you can switch the beginner chute to a high-performance "spicy and sporty" parachute for about $3,000, he says. "You can go from the equivalent of a Cessna 172 to the equivalent of a Pitts Special."

Despite the low price of admission, a powered paraglider offers great versatility. "You can spend half your flight looking down at your wing if you want to," Farewell says. "You can barrel roll, you can loop, and as you get further into the sport you can start doing stalls." And parachute stalls are a whole lot more exciting than stalls in an airplane, because you can get swung around the chute in what Farewell describes as a maneuver similar to a Lomcevak.

Farewell claims that statistics have shown that paragliding is on par with motorcycle riding as far as the risk goes. However, with low-level flight and aerobatic maneuvers the risks naturally increase. The dangers of paragliding hit close to home twice for Farewell last year. Gusty conditions made him lose control of his parachute, and he crashed onto the roof of a building. He was fortunate to walk away, but in the early fall he lost a close friend who crashed into power lines while flying in Chesapeake, Virginia.

However, what makes paragliding the ultimate adventure flying style is its portability. The complete system weighs only about 100 pounds, and if you're heading to an area where you can launch off a cliff you can bring just the parachute, which weighs only around 18 pounds. Without any wind you can do a ­running launch in about 60 to 100 feet, Farewell says. With a headwind he claims you can launch in just a few steps, allowing you the ability to launch from practically anywhere. Just check with the local regulations to make sure you don't end up getting picked up by law enforcement when you land — an adventure you would likely ­prefer to avoid.

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