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Written by Mike Hurley
Competition brings out the best
Event coverage
Photos by the author
As seen in the Februrary 2016 issue of
Model Aviation.


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Event coverage

It has been three years since Desert Aircraft (DA) has hosted the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout. Giant Scale Aerobatics enthusiasts feared that we might have seen our last Tucson Aerobatic Shootout, but this year, Dave Johnson and his team at DA went all out and made this event one of the best ever. Tony Russo, from DA USA, and Steve Richardson, from DA Australia, comanaged the contest.

This prestigious event is an AMA-sanctioned Scale Aerobatics contest based on International Miniature Aerobatic Club (IMAC) rules and guidelines, but with a bit of customization to fit the, ahem, “scale” of the competition. The Tucson Aerobatic Shootout differs from standard IMAC pilot categories in that there is no Basic class. In IMAC, Basic is a place to start and learn the ropes; it should be inviting and fun without the pressure of strong competition.

Pilots in the Shootout are well beyond entry level and believe me, the pressure and competition is intense in all classes. In the tradition of the venerable Tournament of Champions, there is a class for what I would call the professional-level pilots. The Invitational class is for the elite few—those who have competed on a world level and won. These pilots are the Arnold Palmers or Michael Jordans of our sport—dominant on a world level.

The classes are as follows: Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced, Unlimited, Invitational, and Freestyle. Each is a separate competition.

This year, for the first time, Freestyle pilots were allowed entry into the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout without being required to compete in the Precision portion of the contest. For some Scale Aerobatics enthusiasts, this new change will be controversial. In the last five years or so, a rift has grown between those who prefer Freestyle flying and those who prefer Precision. Some believe that you must be able to do both to be a well-rounded pilot, but the world is changing, and as Dave Johnson explained to me, there are more “specialists” in each category.

The creators of the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout want the best Freestyle and the best Precision pilots, and they want the event to be a show not to miss. Precision flying is arguably not a spectator sport. Freestyle is where the excitement lies, and the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout is an exciting spectator event because of the Freestyle competition.

Most of the pilots fly only in their own Precision class. To make it slightly harder on these fliers, each class has three separate sequences to fly each day: an Unknown sequence that changes each day of the competition, a Known sequence created especially for the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout, and the 2015 IMAC Known sequences. A pilot flies one sequence per flight (as opposed to two sequences per flight in IMAC) of each of the separate patterns, and each day a new Unknown pattern will be given to the pilot to fly unpracticed.

Mornings in the pit area are intense, with pilots studying and straining to stay focused on the day’s first Unknown sequences. Each pilot watches previous fliers to see how they do and where they miss an element, making sure to understand the sequence and avoid the same mistake. The flying at this level in all of the classes is outstanding, but pilots do miss a point roll or overrotate a snap here and there, and mistakes like that are costly. How costly?

Veteran international Scale Aerobatics competitor and past champion, Frazier Briggs, visualizes by “dry flying” his Unknown sequence. Frazier, from New Zealand, has been flying in the large US competitions for many years.

The Tucson Aerobatic Shootout is one of only a couple of what I consider professional-level competitions. I infer professional level, not only because these pilots are the best of their class, but also because the purse is more than $100,000 in cash and prizes. Of course, the money isn’t really the attraction for most of these fliers—just to say you’ve competed at the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout brings a high level of prestige, so pilots come from around the world. This year, the Shootout saw pilots from Austria, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Japan, and across the US.

This young man is learning early and helping his dad, advanced pilot Jorge Berra. The family came from Mexico to fly in the shootout.

I spent most of Thursday and Friday taking pictures in the pits, talking with pilots, and watching the Precision rounds. The wind had been high both days, making the Precision flights that much more difficult, but late Friday evening, as the first Freestyle round approached, the weather began to look more ominous. Spectators and pilots alike were anxious to see the Freestyle, but the wind was relentless and dark clouds headed our way.

In the pilots’ meeting, there was a vote to see if they would fly. If all of the pilots were unable to complete their rounds, all of the flights would have to be scratched. They voted to fly. And the rain started. And we waited.

Freestyle competitor, Matt Stringer, checks for rain as the pilots take a vote on whether to fly in possible rain and thunderstorms.

People on the flightline huddled under the judges’ canopies for approximately 30 minutes, waiting for the rain to subside. It was getting late and the weather drove most of the spectators out of the stands, but soon the rain slowed enough to allow competition to start.

The first several pilots endured wind as much as 30 mph and light sprinkling rain. They flew well despite the wind, but the storm that had moved past turned, the wind shifted direction, and the black cloud again headed our way, moving fast.

Bryant Mack, from Phoenix, had begun his Freestyle flight as the storm approached. Bryant was flying a 35% PAU Extra 300 with a DA-120. He was roughly 2 minutes into his 4-minute flight when the wind picked up and the rain hit hard. Undaunted, Bryant continued his flight, thunder clapping, rain pouring down, and lyrics to Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop” somehow guiding his routine.

It was one of the most heart-stopping, unbelievable flights I’ve ever seen. Everyone wondered if he was going to call it and land, but Bryant kept flying. I stood there, jaw hanging open in complete awe and admiration for his tenacity and skill. The flight was spectacular.

Bryant later said that the wind was at his back and his transmitter was getting little direct water, but the rain was killing the uplines, with the engine sucking in water as he throttled to full power. After Bryant landed, everyone scrambled for cover beneath the ramada.

Not every Freestyle session was flown in the rain. This is the competition-winning 35% PAU Extra flown by Gabriel Altuz of Puerto Rico. Gabriel flew only in the Freestyle competition.

The only other pilot to fly exclusively in the Freestyle portion of the contest was 16-year-old Jace Dussia, who placed third. Jace uses blinding speed and precision as the cornerstone of his style.

Saturday was finally sunny with soft white clouds, yet significant wind was still present the entire day. There were two Freestyle rounds to fly on Saturday, and I was keen to see the difference in styles.

Most 3-D fliers say that the sweet spot for a Freestyle airplane is the 35% size, but several pilots flew 40% models and a couple even flew the same airplane in both Precision and Freestyle competitions. The “throw-down-style” fliers fly fast and furious, while more traditional Freestyle routines lean toward flowing and graceful routines.

A 40% airplane won’t roll at five revolutions per second, but pilots with smaller models seem to use this as a staple in their routines. The European fliers all used 40% models in their Freestyle routines, and flew a more exacting and varied routine.

Werner Kohlberger, from Austria, flew a fully composite 41% Krill Extra 300SC, and in part of his sequence he flew to the Viennese Waltz. Very clever!

All the way from Austria, Werner Kohlberger flew this 40% Krill composite Extra 300SC in the Freestyle event. Werner had a smooth, graceful style that incorporated metaphor and choreography into his routine.

Gernot Bruckmann, also from Austria and also flying a 41% Krill, used extreme precision and original elements in his flights with great success. Some say his flights were more traditional, but he was so skillful that he made his model seem graceful—even while flying it flat out.

Only two pilots flew in Freestyle who did not fly in the Precision portion of the contest—Jase Dussia and Gabriel Altuz. Both flew throw-down style with speed and agility as their mainstay. This flying style is usually like a bull in a china shop, but not with these two. Both of these pilots had absolute mastery, and even at breakneck speed in rifle rolls, their precision was staggering.

In the end, the throw-down style impressed the judges enough to award Gabriel a first-place finish. Jase was awarded third. But who says the more traditional style and larger airplanes can’t be competitive in the Freestyle competition? Gernot placed second with his big Extra and a precise, original style.

The Freestyle competition is fun and exciting to watch, but for most of these pilots, the measure of skill is still decided in the Precision portion of a contest. Andrew Jesky took home a check for $12,000 for his win as the top invitational pilot. Gernot Bruckmann was second, and David Moser brought home a third-place finish.

Andrew Jesky won the invitational class and a check for $12,000 flying a 13-year-old Robert Godfrey-designed Extra 300 that has been refitted with a DA-200 engine.

Contests of this caliber take plenty of work and dedication by unwavering enthusiasts. We are privileged that Desert Aircraft and all of its volunteers and sponsors support this event. Dave Johnson told me that the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout will likely alternate years with the Clover Creek Invitational, held every other year in Tennessee. Next year I hope to see these pilots in Tennessee, and I look forward to coming back to the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout in 2017.
—Mike Hurley

Additional Photos


Tucson Aerobatic Shootout


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