It’s not often I find myself feeling nervous to the core – terrified that everything I’ve been working for may be about to be proven to be a waste of time and effort, but this weekend I spent rather a long time feeling exactly that. It was all worth it in the end though.
I’ve spent several months now trying to get used to my aeroplane – ‘KDR is a phenomenal machine, and one with an incredible competition pedigree and history, and a machine that I’d really like to do some kind of justice to with my performances. The learning curve has been, and still is, incredibly steep – far steeper than anything else I’ve ever experienced, as this weekend’s competition very ably demonstrated. Nothing was helped by my little incident on Tuesday last week – a stone chip to ‘KDR’s propeller that yielded an epic cross country journey from Hertfordshire to Norfolk then down to Shoreham and back up into Cambridgeshire to find a replacement and get it fitted (many thanks must go to Adrian Willis of Adastral Flying, and Mark Jeffries at Little Gransden amongst others for saving my bacon). Thus, onn Thursday I was flying an aeroplane with a different propeller that had slightly different flying characteristics to that with which I’d been training. I’ll be honest here though, the performance is actually slightly better in some ways, and wasn’t a huge hindrance to my flying – the stress and timing of this little issue really wasn’t helpful though!
Friday evening: Arrival. I’d not been to Breighton airfield before, and it’s a rather lovely place actually. A nice grass runway with a few hangars full of incredible aeroplanes and a rather entertaining bunch of Yorkshire types running the place. A formation arrival with Adrian and Mark in the Extra approximately 6 minutes before a huge hailstorm engulfed the airfield, was a somewhat chaotic affair as more than one of us ended up totally confused by the wind conditions vs. runway in use vs. flying order in the “oh my word that’s a massive scary black cloud of doom I’d really rather not get sucked into” evening atmosphere. I’ll be honest – seeing the airfield’s two windsocks pointing directly AT EACH OTHER did leave me feeling more than a little nervous as I managed to very nearly nose ‘KDR over on landing. Not the most auspicious arrival really.
Saturday: cloud, rain and the Standard Known Sequence. Nerves. Massive nerves. All the stress, trauma, elation and effort of the last few months were about to be put to the test, and the weather was to be typically British – meaning that despite a 09:30 brief the competition didn’t actually kick off until well into the afternoon. As it happened I didn’t get to fly until gone 18:00, meaning that the entire day was spent nattering, panicking, drinking tea, nattering some more, drawing sequences, doing walk-throughs, more panicking, more tea drinking etc, etc. Eventually though, I strapped into the aeroplane, ran up the engine and taxied to the end of the runway before waiting for the chap in front of me to exit the competition box, spent several minutes checking and re-checking my straps, my sequence card, my canopy catches, my engine temperatures and pressures, my parachute straps and anything else I could think of before lining up, taking off and heading out to do my first ever solo competition sequence…
The take off was fine, despite what was not actually a trivial crosswind, and as I climbed out toward the competition box I changed my radio frequency to let the judges know I was with them. I then tried my hardest to calm my nerves as I hunted for my position around the box. I climbed, found the box edges and did my initial run through – two half rolls with some basic engine and strap checks conducted whilst inverted, my eyes keeping my brain in check with the position of the bright orange judge markers below me as I rolled back upright and flew may way round the back of the box to begin my run-in…
I honestly don’t remember much about the sequence – I flew it, I didn’t feel like I’d performed particularly well, and I landed – simply relieved I’d got it out of the way and not embarrassed myself too badly (especially with the entertaining gusty crosswind landing). It turned out I’d actually done rather well, I was in second place with a score of 79.3% – way above anything I’d even dreamed of being capable of achieving at this stage. Awesome. With only 1% between me and Richard the leader, the pressure was on for the Unknown sequence the next day…
Sunday: my first Unknown sequence and the art of messing up. I’d had one simple aim for this competition: not to mess up and zero any figures. I’d not even really considered that there was any possibility of doing well, all I wanted to do was learn how to fly at competition and not mess up too badly. Unfortunately a myriad of small things all added together to equal one big brain fart right smack in the middle of my Unknown sequence – I flew the wrong figure. It could have been a whole lot worse – instead of flying a Q loop (a loop with the exit on a 45 degree down line) I managed to come out on the wrong 45 degree tangent and fly a half-cubany thing that left me heading in completely the wrong direction. In fact, the first I knew of my stuff up was when I instinctively rolled on the 45 and went “oh sh*t!”. A penalty free break from the sequence to fly around and figure out how to limit the damage ended up with me thankfully flying back in the right direction to finish the sequence, all be it a little higher than was really necessary.
Upon landing I was more than a little annoyed at myself for having zero’d a figure and failed in my one simple aim, but I was also oddly relieved in a way – I knew I’d screwed up, but I also knew I’d managed the mistake in the correct way and still managed to fly the remaining figures reasonably well. A lot of laughing ensued as I resigned myself to having thrown away my good score from the previous day and decided that I was happy with coming last anyway – it didn’t matter.
When the scores came out and it turned out I was still sat in 3rd place, despite being the only pilot to zero a figure in that sequence, I could barely believe it.
The weather ensured that we didn’t get to fly our second Unknown sequences, and I have to admit to being a bit relieved (although the opportunity to redeem myself would have been nice). Hence, by some miracle I came away from my first competition with a shiny medal, more fantastic new friends and a great big grin.
Walking away from my first competition with a Bronze medal was far, far more than I ever hoped for. I’m absolutely delighted, and determined to do even better in the future.
(The competition report, with some rather lovely photographs of me and ‘KDR can be found here.)