Almanack: New knights of the air have their day

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The Independent Online
ARRIVING at Wickenby airfield, in the flatlands north of Lincoln, was like stepping into a time warp. There were lovingly maintained British sports cars of late-Sixties vintage, and men in safari suits. And cravats. Garish biplanes revved up in the distance. If Peter Wyngarde had sloped up in a purple afghan greatcoat nobody would have batted an eyelid. This was the British aerobatics championship.

It was an obscure location, but by no means difficult to find. All along the road people sat in their front gardens with their heads back, scrutinising the tumbling specks in the sky. And at the airfield the judges adopted similar poses, muttering all the while to their assistants: 'Early into loop, off centre axis, shallow climb - 7.5.'

It's all about precision: the closest sporting analogies are with ice skating, diving or dressage. You go along expecting knights of the air, spiritual descendants of von Richtofen - and find they talk about discipline and the rules. 'It's geometry in the skies,' says Nick Buckenham, a veteran competitor. 'Any sort of cowboy behaviour is frowned upon.'

After all, who needs bad behaviour when the regulations require you to perform a backward roll at the top of a steep climb, and pull out of the subsequent earthbound plunge upside down at treetop height? 'The most difficult thing,' Buckenham said, 'is working out where the hell you are.'

You don't have to be a plane spotter to appreciate the craft in which these petrifying manoeuvres are perfomed. The characterful little Pitts Special, a bit out of date but immensely strong; the beautiful French Cap, like a slimline Spitfire; and the rumbling old Russian Yak 55 (incidentally, if you're wondering why someone named an aircraft after something as unaerodynamic as a yak, it's short for Yakolev). The thing to have, if you've got pounds 100,000 and a burning desire to fly around upside down, is a Sukhoi, a

cigar-slim monoplane that is probably Russia's only export. If you're just starting out, there was a Pitts Special advertised on the noticeboard at Wickenby: pounds 19,500.

A certain amount of hanging around went on while some low clouds drifted past. The pilots passed the time chatting and walking round in small circles, making funny movements with one hand: they were thinking through their routines, but they looked just like little boys imagining dogfights. You expected them to shout 'Tacka-tacka-tacka] Pow] Bam]'

Once the clouds had blown away the competition got started. The pilots waggled their wings to indicate that they were about to start their routines, then flew into the kilometre-square box in which they must perform. And what routines: flips, stalls, turns, circles, loops - and that terrifying moment at the top of a climb when the engine note died away and everybody held their breath until it picked up again at the bottom of the dive.

The chief judge was Mike Riley, a diminutive sort in a mauve floppy hat who looked like an off-duty bank manager. In fact, he's an off-duty Concorde captain. He and the other judges subtract marks for every imperfect manoeuvre. They have to be very sharp-eyed: one mark is docked if a move is wrong by just five degrees. It's an open contest: any of the nine men and women in the Unlimited class were in with a chance (though it helps to have a Sukhoi).

There's a sign on the lavatory door in the control tower. It says: 'Do not place disposable nappies down the toilet.' Funny, you think, there aren't any babies around. Then a Pitts Special zooms past upside down at 30 feet and you think - well, how sensible.

(Photograph omitted)