Patterns and Flow: Improvisation in Slope Aerobatics

Question from rockyabq in the How to build a Swiss Fish thread on RCGroups:
I have some questions for you and Dawson in particular. How far ahead do you plan the maneuvers that your plane performs? Is it partially/mostly a response to variable and momentary changes in wind/lift? Or is there a full or partially choreographed sequence that you have in mind? How far ahead in a “routine” are you thinking?

Great questions!

Well, I can’t speak for Dawson, but both he and I agree that this kind of flying makes us think of jazz music (amongst other things).

There is an overall theme – or melody, if you will – which is based on the conditions of the day, the mood of the pilot, the setup of the plane, etc. Beyond that, there are definitely intentional sequences – like, I want to try to do an X into a Y followed by a Z – and there are also purely improvisational things, like, oops, I miscalculated the exit of that stall turn to roll combo, better push out to inverted, or pull to upright, rather than whatever I was thinking I was going to do.

Here’s a video featuring extended sequences that does a reasonably good job of showing what I’ll be describing in the rest of this article. These were my warm-up flights for the day, so I wasn’t as focused on taking chances or making lots of close passes – just getting in sync with the conditions, my glider, and my feelings.

Smooth & Casual from surfimp on Vimeo.

Since Ellwood is my “home break” so to speak (to borrow a surfing term), I have hundreds if not thousands of hours flying there, and I know each nook and cranny intimately (if for no other reason than I’ve had to walk down into each one to retrieve my plane many, many, many times).

Obviously, I have done a lot of Le Fish flying and I know how the plane is going to respond in every attitude and airspeed. And to be clear, this isn’t a conscious or rational “knowing”, this is more akin to riding a bicycle or some other machine where your physical body and balance play a role – you just “know” what the machine is going to do on a visceral level, without any “internal dialogue” taking place.

Maybe that sounds strange, since after all, we’re not actually “in” the plane nor is our body in any way controlling anything other than a couple of sticks poking out of a box in our hands. For my part, I think that getting deeply involved in R/C flying results in a form of synesthesia happening for the pilot – it certainly does for me. Just by watching the way my plane responds with my eyes, I can literally, in my body, “feel” what the plane is doing in a way that goes far beyond the mere spring resistance on my transmitter sticks. I assume something like this is true for anyone who has spent a lot of time flying R/C planes.

One of the things I do a lot is “patterns,” over and over and over and over and over again… like, OCD-style. These could be considered the equivalent of “riffs” that an improvisational musician would practice – snippets that can be recombined in an unlimited number of ways, constrained only by the larger rhythmic and melodic structure of a given song – or, in our terms, by the slope, glider capabilities and conditions of the day.

The most basic slope pattern is the figure 8, the core of all slope soaring: fly across the face, turn away from the slope to reverse direction, repeat. All slope pilots have this pattern locked so deeply into their subconscious that they fly it without thinking about it; it’s just automatic. As you fly more and more aerobatics, you will learn to internalize additional patterns, fitted to the slope, glider and conditions you fly on a regular basis, and they become just as automatic and unconscious as the figure 8.

For my part, aerobatic patterns themselves are the result of a rigorous form of unnatural selection in which I try to find, for each part of the slope and for the particular glider I’m flying, a means by which to perform a given figure or combination of figures while maintaining the most energy (not necessarily speed) – energy management being essential to creating linked, non-stop sequences. Certain things “flow” together better than other things – constrained as they are by the capabilities and limitations of the glider, slope, conditions and my creativity – and over time, habits develop, and those habits evolve into this concept of a pattern.

Some patterns may be as simple as a single figure and others are combinations of figures. Some I know I can perform on command – like a loop or a roll – whereas others, like a ground touch with tail, wingtip or belly, have well-practiced inputs but always three potential outcomes: a miss, a successful drag, or a crash. This element of non-determinism is what makes this latter kind of figure fun and exciting – and why flying close to the ground becomes so addictive.

I do a lot of crashing when I’m trying to find new patterns – like this past Sunday, when I filmed the footage for Black Hills Reprise and was working on incorporating the new multiflip capabilities of my pull-pull setup. But hey, I fly EPP for a reason; I think of my airplane as a “skateboard for the sky,” a consumable object that’s entire purpose is to serve my creative whim. I plan on it taking damage and getting broken and just try to make sure it’s reasonably durable and easy to repair whether in the field or on the bench.

So… yes, the sequences of figures are often planned well in advance, in the sense that the patterns upon which they rely are well-practiced and I am often trying to link them together into an unbroken flow. But there is a large element of improvisation and intrinsically non-deterministic outcomes as well, and because the patterns are “automatic”, there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of conscious thought going on – it’s more flying with feelings and just enjoying the moment, taking delight in the response of the glider to the conditions and following your creativity wherever it leads you.

It’s great fun!! 🙂

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