Local news

Flight practice with extra twists

Aerobatic teams join the occasional deer on local airstrips

DAVENPORT, Wash. – Spokane’s airport may call itself international. But lately it’s had stiff competition from strips like the one where Highway 2 travelers expect to see crop dusters.

Pilots and crews from Hungary, Ukraine and Canada started arriving last week, assigned the Davenport Airport as their training field for next week’s Advanced World Aerobatics Championship. They get their choice of two runways – one of them paved.

“We just finished the pilot’s lounge right before they got here,” said Mayor Karen Carruth, who has visited with the crews every day, taken them cookies and chocolate tortes, and helped host a barbecue. “The shower curtain wasn’t even up.”

Meanwhile, a team from the United Kingdom was practicing maneuvers at the Deer Park Airport along with teams from South Africa and Italy. There were sometimes deer on the runways.

Other European and Asian teams are stationed at Ephrata, and the Oregon towns of Madras and Hermiston.

The aerobatic fliers get open spaces in which to practice, and residents get to see the precise maneuvers that go on display once every two years. The world championship last came to the United States in 1996, in Kansas. Since then, it’s been held in Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia, Sweden and Poland.

Next week, it’s going to Pendleton, the eastern Oregon city of rodeo and wool-shirt fame, which beat out Las Vegas to host the event. .

The championship is best compared to the compulsory round of figure skating, the high board in diving, the balance beam in gymnastics or dressage for equestrians – except that there are fewer injuries than in any of those sports, said Nick Buckenham, of Cambridge, England. Members of his aerobatic club have flown about 1,000 injury-free flights a year since forming in 1973.

“This is not ‘ooh, aah’ flying” like barnstorming, said Buckenham, a retired engineer. “Our wives tell us that the best comparison is watching paint dry.”

But pilots endure G-forces as high as 7 or 8. (For comparison’s sake, Silverwood Theme Park says its new Aftershock roller coaster hits 4.5 G’s.)

Aerobatic pilots are judged on their ability to perform required spins, rolls and other maneuvers – Buckenham winces at the word “stunts” – within a 1-square-kilometer “box.” They start with perfect scores and get points deducted if, for instance, a climb is a degree or two shy of vertical, a loop is slightly out of round or a pilot deviates from a written plan. Points are deducted, too, if a plane comes within 650 feet of the ground.

It’s a sport that requires practice – and money. Most of the foreign competitors left their own planes at home and are leasing planes from U.S. owners. The British team, for instance, is using a Pitts biplane from Felts Field; single-wing Extras from Chicago and Western Washington; and an MX2 from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Florida, was it?” Buckenham said. “Or Texas?”

The talk of Davenport is Tamas Illes, who is said to be a wealthy businessman. Illes, who told the mayor that his home in Hungary is larger than the “doctor’s house” at the edge of Davenport, had his ultra-sleek Edge 540 dismantled for transport to the United States aboard another airplane.

But for pure adventure, no one can beat Sergey Prolagayev, a Ukrainian who has lived in New Jersey since 2001. He flew 21 hours from the East Coast, stopping 12 times to refuel his Russian-made SP91 – a plane that appears designed to provide every discomfort, and without regard to speed.

“When flying 15, 16 hours, you dream of bed,” he said. “Get down, get to motel, get to bed.”

Prolagayev, who must drive an hour and then fly another 90 minutes from his home to reach a New Jersey airport where aerobatics are allowed, called Davenport “a very good place to fly.”

“More important,” he said, as a few locals craned their necks to watch Illes go through his maneuvers, “it’s a very good place to meet friendly people.”


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