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How Aerobatics Works

        Science | Future

Aerobatics Inventors
Old-fashioned planes are often still used in aerobatics shows.
Old-fashioned planes are often still used in aerobatics shows.

Orville and Wilbur Wright may have been the first to perform an aerobatic move, but the real aerobatic pioneers were the barnstorming American and European pilots who performed exhibitions for paying audiences at fairs and air meets in the 1910s and 1920s. Spectators grew bored with mundane, everyday airplane maneuvers, so the entertainers began attempting increasingly fancy stunts. The scarier the stunts, the better.

One of the great showmen of that era was American pilot Lincoln Beachley who startled crowds with his "death dip," in which he flew to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), turned off the engine, and then dove straight down at the ground, only to pull up at the last second. At times he added to the difficulty by flying under telegraph wires or through a grove of trees. After Russian military flyer Petr Nikolaevich Nestoy invented the loop in 1913, Beachley had aviation designer Glenn Curtis create a special plane made for the maneuver. He began performing the trick at shows, charging a fee of $500 for the first loop and $200 for each one afterward. After World War I, many returning fighter pilots, who used aerobatic maneuvers to win dogfights, began second careers as air show performers. In 1927, the first international aerobatics competition was held in Zurich, and trick flying gradually morphed into a sport with rules and standards [source: Sheffield].

Aerobatics has continued to evolve over the years. After World War II, the aircrafts' increased speed and other capabilities actually made some of the early pilots' maneuvers too dangerous to perform anymore. But clever pilots soon developed other moves to take their places. In the 1950s, Czech aerobatics flyers, for example, invented a maneuver called the lomcovak, a series of bizarre gyroscope twists during which the plane rotated on all three axes. Aerobatics pilots also have developed the ability to fly in nearly perfect circles and accurate figure eights, and to do maneuvers in formations so close that their wings almost appear to be touching [source: Sheffield].

Next, we'll take a look at some of the tricks aerobatics pilots perform.