Your First Aerobatic Airplane

By Jim Bourke, EAA Lifetime 857603

This piece originally ran in the May 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

As membership chair of the International Aerobatic Club (IAC), I hear from a lot of people who are discovering, or rediscovering, aerobatics. Aerobatics is a lot of fun, and it can be very safe with the right equipment and mindset. It’s much more approachable than people seem to think. But, I confess, there are significant hurdles to getting involved. Picking the right airplane is one of them.

In this article, I will answer the most common questions I see from first-time aerobatic airplane buyers.

Your Goals

Before we get to the airplane topics, let’s talk a bit about you. You are the most important part of the decision.

For some of us, aerobatics is about the pursuit of perfection. Flying precisely is difficult — even with lots of training and practice. If your goal is to fly on the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team, you are one of the very few and only the best equipment will do.

But the hardcore Unlimited pilots aren’t the only ones with goals. Everyone has their own dreams. Maybe your dream is to do a few loops and rolls on the occasional weekend, or maybe you want an aerobatic airplane for formation flying with your friends. Maybe you want to do air shows or compete. Unless you can afford more than one airplane, you will have to decide which of your goals are most important to you.

Take a moment to reflect on and assess your goals. It’s a good idea to write them down if you haven’t already.

Gamebird. Game Bird. GB1. G-IGBI. N131GB. Aerobatic. Aerobatics. IAC. AV. 19. AV19. AirVenture. 2019. Philipp Steinback. 479-319-7570.

Performance

The big question upfront is whether you want a four- or six-cylinder engine. Lycoming is the engine brand of choice for most aerobatic airplanes — except for the few radials we have out there. If you go with a radial, you might end up with nine cylinders in a Russian Vedeneyev engine. All of the engine options available today are good, but the overall expense definitely goes up as you add cylinders. If you are on a budget, four cylinders is the way to go.

Performance is more than just horsepower. Aerobatic airplanes have g limits to consider. I always put this in pretty simple terms for people with a rhetorical question: Is it really an aerobatic airplane if the pilot can break it? That’s something to think about, because maybe you think you’ll never want to pull more than 6g. Okay, but you also don’t want to damage the airplane if you do it by mistake or out of urgent need either!

You also should consider speeds. VNE, the never exceed speed, is obviously important in an aerobatic airplane. An aerodynamically clean airplane with a high VNE can do a lot of aerobatics without a lot of horsepower. On the other hand, reaching VNE in my girlfriend’s Cessna Aerobat is next to impossible. The airplane has so much drag it’s really hard to get it going that fast. Don’t forget about VA, the maneuvering speed. This is the speed limit for abrupt control inputs. A good aerobatic airplane has a high VA.

After flying both fixed-pitch and constant-speed propellers, I think the added weight of constant speed is usually worth it. If you fly aerobatics with a fixed-pitch propeller, you have to worry about overspeeding the engine. There are some great fixed-pitch aerobatic airplanes out there, like the 150-hp Bellanca-made Decathlon. But the 180-hp American Champion Super Decathlon is a much, much better aerobatic mount.

One good way to compare aerobatic airplanes is with their power-to-weight ratios. A high power-to-weight ratio means much better climb performance and acceleration. This is why people like six-cylinder engines. They add a lot of power without much increase in weight. The downside is higher maintenance and operating costs. There is no such thing as a free lunch!

Emotional Appeal

I think I must just like all airplanes because it’s always hard for me to say which one is my favorite. In the aerobatic community, there is sort of a rivalry between the biplane pilots and the monoplane pilots. Monoplanes are a lot better in just about every aerodynamic way, but the biplane pilots turn that around and tell us monoplane drivers that we have it too easy and that all the real pilots enjoy the challenge of a biplane. The truth is, I love biplanes too, and I don’t consider myself to be in either camp, but it’s a lot of fun to give our friends some grief. We aren’t as logical as we’d like to pretend. If a biplane gets your emotional juices flowing, that’s the airplane you need.

A lot of people love radials. I’ve had a radial, and honestly, it held me back a bit because it was a lot of work to keep it running. Later, when I switched to a horizontally opposed Lycoming, I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I didn’t have to open the cowl for the first 50 hours! Except for the extra effort, I agree radials are amazing. Nothing compares to the sound of a radial, and airplane fuselages are straight up better-looking when they start with a round shape at the front instead of a rectangle. I think if you are the kind of person who wants a radial, nothing else will do for you. A lot of people love the Yak series of aircraft, particularly the Yak-52. It’s a big airplane to push around, but it sounds great and is tons of fun to fly.

I’ve seen many times how quickly money can change hands when the right airplane comes up. If you have a favorite color, favorite airplane type, and you know what makes you salivate, that’s the right airplane for you.

Safety

I started my aerobatic career feeling pretty nervous about the whole thing. Over time, I started to forget my initial concerns and began to have fun. I had started to become a bit complacent, probably right around the time I became the IAC’s safety director. That experience gave me some important reminders of how dangerous inattention can be. Still, I think sometimes people overplay the danger aspect of the sport because it makes them seem more daring. I believe the sport is very safe when we have a well-trained pilot flying good equipment at an altitude appropriate to their skill level.

Generally, I think the safest airplanes are the ones that have been produced in high quantities. Accidents tend to happen at the beginning of an aircraft design’s life. After a few years, the issues have been sorted out. On the other hand, human beings have made lots of progress in engineering tools and discipline since the 1970s when the bottom fell out of the airplane market. I trust very new designs quite a bit.

Performance concerns play into safety as well. A light airplane with large margins and a big engine is the way to go.

You also have to think about what it is like to bail out of an airplane. A lot of homebuilt designs are not easy to get out of in an emergency. Even many aircraft in the RV series do not score high in this regard because on some the canopy opens forward into the airstream. Unless you can get the airplane slow, you will have a very hard time opening the canopy in an emergency. But even production airplanes can be tricky to exit. Every time I fly a Decathlon from the back seat, I worry about how I will ever get my fat bottom out of the airplane in a hurry. It would be a lot easier to get out of an open-cockpit biplane like a Great Lakes.

Cross-Country Capability

I make dozens of aerobatic flights a month in my Extra 330SC at my home airport. Each flight is about a half-hour long. A lot of aerobatic airplanes are flown like this and never leave the airport area at all.

When I do need to go to a contest or an air show, I’m glad my Extra has a Garmin G3X and an autopilot. I have everything I need in that single digital display: engine, comms, navigation, autopilot, transponder, weather, traffic, and even music! The Extra is pretty comfortable in cruise. The seat is reclined, I have lots of room to move my legs and find a comfortable position, I can listen to the radio, and I’m honestly worried that someday I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful!

I’ve had a couple of two-seat airplanes, and that is really nice. If you have a spouse, you should try to find a second seat. I’ve given up on this idea because once you start flying Unlimited you just can’t afford the compromise any longer, but I often miss the ability to take people along.

My Extra cruises at about 180 knots at 10,000 feet on about 18.5 gallons per hour. My MX2 cruises at over 200 knots on about 15 gallons per hour. That’s how much slicker the MX2 is. I can fly either airplane a lot longer than two hours per leg, but I almost never do. I prefer to get out and stretch a bit. I did about 14 hours of cross-country in one day once, fighting weather to get to the U.S. Nationals, making only the quickest possible stops for fuel. I hope I never have to do that again.

For the ultimate cross-country aerobatic airplane, the GameBird GB-1, the new Extra NG, and the MX Aircraft MX2 will give you Unlimited capability and comfortable, fast cross-country cruise. These aircraft are available new for $400,000-plus. If that doesn’t sit well with you, prepare to compromise.

Living in the western half of the country as I do, I have to cross the Rockies a lot. It’s hard to do that safely unless you have at least a 300-nm range or so. If you live in the eastern half of the United States, you can get by with a lot less range.

If you really need a good cross-country aerobatic airplane, it’s hard to beat the RV series. Most aerobatic airplanes have tiny baggage compartments. I’ve learned to live for a couple of weeks at a time out of a backpack. But the RV series has plenty of room. If you are looking on the used market, I’ll be honest that I’ve seen some examples of RVs that I don’t think are safe for hard aerobatic flying. You have to be really careful if you buy a homebuilt aircraft secondhand. But if you find a good one, keep it maintained, and remember to always fly the airplane within its limits; these aircraft are a lot of fun.

Probably the worst aerobatic airplane for cross-country flying is the Pitts S-1. It has terrible range, it doesn’t cruise very fast, and Pitts drivers seem to stick their overnight gear in any nook or cranny they can find. Let me be clear that I think a Pitts S-1 is the best bang for the buck in aerobatics, and I love the idea of more people having them! However, they are not designed for long trips.

The Expense

In other parts of the world, airplanes are frequently shared via flying clubs. In the United States, it is a lot more common to own your own airplane. Each way of doing things has advantages. I think that eventually there will be more flying clubs in the United States, but your best bet for now is to buy an airplane yourself or to join a small partnership.

Partnerships make great sense for aerobatic airplanes because, unlike airplanes designed for going places, aerobatic planes usually stay within a few miles of their home airport. I enjoyed a partnership in a Super Decathlon and had a great experience. We never seemed to have a conflict about who was going to use the airplane. We also got to share knowledge with each other, trained together, and had a lot of fun hanging out in the hangar talking between flights.

A partnership divides up the acquisition cost and the annual costs. Therefore, adding the first partner halves these expenses. Adding additional partners doesn’t give as much benefit. Three partners are about ideal. No matter how many partners you have, you will never be able to reduce the hourly operating costs. Therefore, the more you fly, the fewer percentage savings you will realize with a partnership.

If you can’t find a partnership in your area, you will just have to buy an airplane yourself. A lot of people talk about how it is too expensive to buy an airplane. My attitude is that it is worth it. I never think about the expense in any other way. I remember when I bought my first airplane, I complained about the cost to my dad, who was an airplane broker in his time. He told me, “You will never regret the money you spend on airplanes.” I must say, he’s been proven right so far!

People often ask about whether they should get a loan or pay cash for an airplane. From a financial perspective, it doesn’t really matter that much. People often forget to consider the opportunity cost of the money they have tied up in an asset. It’s true that overleveraging yourself is not a good idea, but I think it’s okay to buy an airplane with a loan as long as you can afford the payments. And don’t forget to factor in the cost of insurance, hangar, and all the fuel you will be using.

As a financially minded person, what matters to me most is liquidity. I’ve had financial ups and downs, and I don’t like the idea of being stuck with an asset I can’t move. If you pick an economical two-seat airplane with a nice color scheme, you will have no problem selling it when the time comes. If you pick something that is rare, has one seat, and looks rough, you might not be able to sell it for months at any price.

The operating cost of an aerobatic airplane is pretty much a function of its horsepower. A lot of people get caught up in the acquisition cost when they really should be thinking about the operating cost. If all that mattered was acquisition cost, we’d all be flying MiG-17s and mid-’70s Learjets! You will minimize your operating cost if you buy the airplane that meets your needs but does not exceed them.

I bought an airplane once that had what seemed like a good engine, but it only lasted a few hours. It wasn’t the seller’s fault, just my bad luck. When you are buying an airplane, make sure you have the budget to keep it in the air if this happens.

Making the Decision

Do you know what is really neat about talking to people who are seeking airplane advice? It seems like everyone already knows what they really want! They just need permission to follow their instincts. So, hey, let me make this easy for you: You’ve worked really hard to get where you are. Get the airplane you want! Never let me or anyone else talk you out of following your dreams. But, if you are struggling with the decision, I hope I’ve given you some practical advice to help you sift through all the choices and narrow it down a bit.

EAA’s aerobatic division, aka the International Aerobatic Club, is a great resource. Come check us out at www.IAC.org.

Jim Bourke, EAA Lifetime 857603, is a member of the US Unlimited Aerobatic Team, the membership chair of the International Aerobatic Club, and an air show pilot with a surface-level waiver.  Jim is also the owner of Knife Edge Software, makers of the RealFlight flight simulator. Email him at jtbourke@gmail.com.

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