First Aerobatic Contest

by HPA · August 30, 2013

First Aerobatic Contest

by Sarah Rovner (Commercial Pilot and FAASTeam Representative)

I have always been known to be a thrill seeker. It was nothing new to most of the people that knew me to find out that I was interested in airplane aerobatics. I had always loved roller coasters, and an aerobatic sequence is pretty much just that – except you aren’t connected to the ground. After my first time doing aerobatics with a friend, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Luckily, there are several flight schools in the Houston area that offer aerobatic training. I completed my tailwheel endorsement and entry level aerobatics with Joy Bowden at Texas Taildraggers at Houston Southwest (AXH), and when I started getting serious about competition, I began training at Debby Rihn-Harvey’s aerobatic flight school in La Porte (T41). Debby is a world famous aerobatic champion, and the only flight school in the Houston area that allows the rental airplanes to be used in aerobatic competitions.

First Aerobatic Contest

I took a few lessons with Debby’s chief instructor before the contest to brush up on my skills and put it all into a sequence. It was my first time trying to fly within the limits of an aerobatic box, which proved to be much more challenging than it looks. Having an airplane such as a Super Decathlon that is very high drag and low power (as compared to other aerobatic airplanes), it took a lot more work to get the maneuvers to look correctly in the air. Plus, when practicing maneuvers the Super Decathlon requires that you dive to get to your entry airspeed because it is unable to reach that airspeed in straight and level flight. My maneuvers were not perfect, but I was ready for the contest. I would be flying the primary sequence, which consisted of six basic maneuvers. It consisted of a 45 degree up line, 1 turn spin, half Cuban 8, loop, competition turn, and roll.

First Aerobatic Contest

The contest was hosted in Brenham by the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) Chapter 25. It was supposed to last 3 days from Friday through Sunday to give every category a chance to fly 3 times. I drove to Brenham airport early on Friday and helped set up. The contest went on for a few hours doing other categories until they came to my category. We had 3 other people using Debby’s Super Decathlon for the contest, so we had to be quick in switching pilots for the contest. I was the 2nd to last person to fly in my category, and I was extremely nervous. As I took off, my hands got sweaty with the building anxiety of my first aerobatic contest, and having my flying skills judged for the first time. When they opened the box for me, I was so nervous I could barely think. So I went for it – 45 degree up line, spin, loop….and I realized I was so nervous that I had forgotten my third maneuver. Trying to correct, I did the correct maneuver and then executed the rest of the sequence. Unfortunately, I didn’t get credit for the half Cuban 8 which lowered my score, but I was honestly just happy I had completed my first competition sequence.

First Aerobatic Contest

After landing, I jumped out of the plane and tried to play it off that I had forgotten my maneuver. It was pointed out to me quickly on the video my friend recorded, and we kind of laughed it off. I figured if I ever placed nationally in a competition, it would be a funny story. At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted. It was a long time out in the sun and a lot of work. After driving back to Houston, I decided I didn’t want to spend 2 hours again in the morning driving out. Therefore, I decided I’d fly the Cessna 172 out to Brenham in the morning.

I woke up on Saturday morning and checked the weather. The current readings were calling for clouds around 500ft overcast in the Houston area but expected to improve in the late morning. I figured I would just file IFR and fly to Brenham to wait the weather out. By the time I got to the airport, the skies were clear. It was showing 1500ft overcast in Brenham and the sun was shining in Houston. I figured I didn’t need my IFR clearance and took off. However, the weather and clouds were drastically different en route to Brenham. I started out at 1500ft, then went down to 1000ft, and then realized that there was no way to get through a large layer of clouds right in front of me. Couldn’t go above, around or below. I decided to call up approach and pick up the IFR clearance I filed for earlier. After getting my clearance, I spent the rest of the way en route to Brenham in solid IMC until I broke out of the clouds around 800ft in Brenham.

First Aerobatic Contest

After arriving at the contest, we sat around to wait out the weather all day. By 3pm, the ceilings still had not risen to the point we could conduct the contest, and severe thunderstorms popped up all over Houston. By the time the contest was called off, Houston was completely covered by thunderstorms. I was stranded in Brenham. Luckily, one of the local IAC guys in Brenham allowed me to put the airplane in his hangar for the night, and I caught a ride back to Houston with another one of the aerobatic contestants using Debby Rihn’s Super Decathlon. The next day, I went out to retrieve the 172 and flew it back home. Unfortunately, Primary category only got 1 flight in, and Sportsman and Intermediate got 2 flights in. But overall, it was a very fun experience and goes to show how much anxiety can affect your flying skills. Sarah Rovner I would recommend that everyone learn at least basic aerobatics, and the skills learned there can help you in a wide variety of situations you might not expect in an airplane. After completing CFI training, I plan to go back into competition aerobatics and someday make the US Aerobatic team!

Sarah Rovner is a commercial airplane pilot based in Houston, TX who enjoys flying her G1000-equipped Cessna 182 for personal and business travel. She is also active as a mission pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, a humanitarian pilot with Angel Flight, a tow pilot for a local glider field, FAASTeam Representative and EAA Young Eagles pilot. She enjoys flying to and exploring new places, and is currently working toward her CFI rating.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

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