06:45 “Ugh”. I am not a morning person at all. In fact I really think mornings should be banned from the working day, hence my initial reaction upon being woken up by the alarm was not one of “yes! Competition day!” but more of an overwhelming reluctance and a desire to just bury myself back under the duvet. I hit the snooze button.
07:00 This time I had no choice but to actually get out of bed. ‘Wheels up’ at 0800 was the brief in order to get us up to the competition in plenty of time to have a cup of tea and register before the briefing. A painful session packing spare underwear, shirt and toothbrush ensued as I desperately struggled to wake up and deal with the concept that not only did I have to fly the aeroplane to another unfamiliar airfield with a tarmac runway, but I also had to go and fly my first ever competition sequences at the higher ‘intermediate’ level.
07:30 The aeroplane is out, checked and ready. My bag is squashed into the miniscule cubby hole behind my head and I’m nervously bantering with the other guys I’m travelling over in formation with. They probably don’t realise I’m nervous, or maybe they do? It doesn’t matter, everyone gets nervous before a competition I think, or is it just me? The sky is seriously uninviting – the cloudbase is fairly obviously going to force us to ‘scud run’ for at least a little while, and the light drizzle just adds to my desire to back out and just go back to bed again.
08:00 “Formation rolling.” We’re off. I’m number two – I’m formating on Phil in the yellow Pitts S2A and Adrian is number three in the Extra somewhere behind me. We climb and very soon find out exactly how high the cloudbase isn’t. We drop down a bit to keep out of the mizzle and after two or three minutes we’re descending even more. Looking ahead I rapidly make an internal decision – “I’ll follow for a little longer, but if that wall of cloud doesn’t change I’m heading back”. A couple of seconds after my little mental process finishes Adrian calls from behind that he thinks we’d best call it quits and try again later. Phil’s machine seemed to breathe its own little sigh of relief as we started to turn away.
08:30 Time for tea and a chat with the competition contest director on the phone. It seems the weather isn’t competition flyable over there either so we can just relax for an hour or so before having another crack in the hope that we may find a gap.
09:30 We’re off again, the weather looking fractionally less impassable but still really rather unpleasant. For some reason when flying in poor conditions my mind tends to wander to all manner of worst case scenarios. I never seem to start worrying about engine failures when the sun is shining, but somehow, even though the likelihood of something falling apart is no higher, when I’m buzzing along underneath gloomy grey scud I can’t help but worry myself sick looking at just how tiny all those fields underneath me are.
Eventually we arrive, make our way down onto the ever-so-welcoming tarmac of Leicester’s runway and buzzing over to find our parking spaces. A late briefing and a very nice cup of airfield tea are the order of the day. Next I have a few hours of sitting waiting for the weather to improve and then watching the other categories fly before I really have to panic – I’m 9th of 10 in the Intermediate flying order.
After several hours of mildly insane conversation, far too many cups of tea and several unfortunately necessary trips to the toilet (I still don’t know quite what I ate that gave me so much internal trouble) the Intermediate competition got under way with the ‘Free’ sequences. The basic premise of flying a free is that you have a sequence that you’ve tailored to suit you and your aeroplane, however I’d only decided to make the step up from the Standard level of competition about a week ago – hence I had no real choice but to fly the rather difficult ‘Default Free’ written by the BAeA and designed to be really easy to lose points on. It also contains a 1 1/2 turn inverted spin – I knew before I even started that this figure was going to defeat me as I’ve not yet managed to master flying them in ‘KDR (she has some unusual quirks when it comes to spinning). I admit now I was not really ready.
Off I went, many words of encouragement from my fellow competitors ringing in my ears. Sat doing my power checks at the side of the runway as I try to watch the guy before me finish led my already troubled mind down all kind of bizarre alleyways about the state of my engine and whether or not I was about to just make a total fool of myself. Once I pushed the throttle forward everything was gone though. Suddenly I was there.
Smoothly accelerating along the runway, feeling the lift beneath my wings building until we were gently climbing away all I can remember is being in a sort of numb state of awareness. I was totally focused yet strangely somewhat oblivious. The sequence came and went. I pushed, pulled, racked up a unanimous ‘did not spin’ from a position of viewing the world upside down, pulled and pushed some more, somehow managed to keep everything in the box and somehow managed to fly everything else well except the ridiculously hard rolling circle (these will improve with practice). I floated back down to earth, not only on wings, but on a deep feeling of relief and satisfaction.
I didn’t score particularly well really – I zero’d the inverted spin as I knew from the start I was going to do, and I also made a bit of a hash of the 180degree rolling turn. Happily my other figures scored well though, and I even managed to keep it all in the box.
Sadly the weather didn’t allow any of us to fly the ‘unknown’ sequence we were assigned after finishing our first sequences, but I learned an enormous amount through doing all of the preparation and visualisation needed to fly what, for me, was an incredibly intimidating sequence. Intermediate is hard, it’s a huge challenge and the learning curve is almost as steep as some of the manoeuvres. I’m really excited to do more and keep pushing myself beyond what is currently comfortable – I simply love the challenge.