Travel

Genevieve Vieira
3 minute read
19 Mar 2014
6:00 am

Sky Grand Prix daredevils set to wow

Genevieve Vieira

South African aerobatic pilot Barrie Eeles, who will participate in the Sky Grand Prix in Durban this weekend, says "95% of pilots have never taken an aeroplane upside down".

Nine plane squadrons in a diamond formation. Image: stock.xchnge

Granted, most commercial planes are not designed to fly inverted – and fixed-wing aircraft typically have wings that are curved on top, but flat on the bottom, creating lift. They are also usually flown in controlled environments, reducing the chances of error.

Eeles flies his XA42 sideways, in circles, upside down and even backwards. There are no real limitations with this plane – besides a hefty price tag, he says.

Aerobatic pilot Barrie Eeles has been flying for over 30 years. Picture: Supplied.

Aerobatic pilot Barrie Eeles has been flying for over 30 years. Picture: Supplied.

Stepping into the hangar at Rand Airport, where Eeles stores his pride and joy, the words “Toy Shop” are affixed in bold, colourful letters above the corrugated door.

“The XA42 is state of the art. Made of carbon fibre [as opposed to the conventional metal constructions], it’s stronger, but more flexible,” says Eeles.

Since the XA42 is more agile than the MX2 – which is built for greater speed – it allows the complex manoeuvres he does in his routines. It is these dangerous manoeuvres, which require immense precision and skill, that make airshows appealing to the public.

Eeles is more than an entertainer, however.

Nine plane squadrons in a diamond formation. Image: stock.xchnge

Nine plane squadrons in a diamond formation. Image: stock.xchnge

Visiting his first airshow at the age of five, he became hooked. Though he obtained his pilot license at 17, his parents could not afford to support the hobby.

Eeles went on to work in aviation, assisting in the construction of the first ever Rooivalk.

Realising that working in aviation was never going to get him flying, he moved into the world of business – but nothing could substitute his passion for flight.

After 17 years in the business world, Eeles bought his first aircraft and began the long steady road to competitive aerobatics.

A pilot prepares for take-off. Picture: stock.xchnge

A pilot prepares for take-off. Picture: stock.xchnge

While many people get into aerobatics to improve their flying, Eeles simply enjoys the challenge.

“It’s like a drug,” he says. Plus, he admits, its a type of stress-reliever.

“When you climb into that plane, the only thing you are worry about, is staying alive. All your other problems seem minuscule in comparison. Whenever I’m cranky, my wife says ‘I think you need to go flying’.”

Despite perceptions that the sport is incredibly dangerous – and it is – Eeles says it’s no more risky than ice-hockey or motorcross. The dangers are there in a variety of contexts.

He also points out that for the past 60 years there has never been an accident in aerobatic competition.

He explains the difference between competition and shows: “The type of aerobatics seen in airshows are choreographed to look good for the public and are performed at normal altitude.

“In competition, the idea is to replicate a manoeuvre from the Aresti catalogue as close to perfection as possible, sticking within the aerobatic box.”

Patrick Davidson is one of the youngest pilots to participate in the Sky Grand Prix of Aerobatics. Picture: Supplied.

Patrick Davidson is one of the youngest pilots to participate in the Sky Grand Prix of Aerobatics. Picture: Supplied.

The box is a space of 1 000m by 1 000m, which the aircraft (flying at an average of 300-250 knots) must remain in while performing a sequence. Though closer to the ground, power categories are stringent.

Divided into five categories of difficulty, Eeles occupies the most challenging class of all: “unlimited”. He is one of only five unlimited pilots in the country.

Chatting about the challenges of flying, he says: “It’s as much a physical challenge as it is mental. It’s easy to pull a neck or back muscle from the intensity. The more you fly, the better your G-fitness and orientation becomes.”