What insurance do aerobatics pilots need?
Loop-de-loop with Australia’s aerobatic champs
Whether you’re doing barrel rolls or wingovers, aerobatics is a challenging sport that requires intense mental preparation and puts competitors through some gruelling physical hoops. And while that may sound treacherous, it’s safer than you think – particularly when you have the right cover in place.
Competitor, instructor and former president of the Australian Aerobatics Club (AAC) Grant Piper tells how aerobatics competitions work, and how rigorous training helps minimise the risk of accidents.
It’s not your garden-variety sport – first, you need a pilot’s licence and then you need to hire a specific aerobatic-capable plane, or buy one, which can cost up to $600,000.
Then, as Grant Piper explains, competitors need to invest in hours of training at an aerobatics school to work their way up through five grades.
Passing each step of training and assessment means you can fly lower and lower to the ground. Entry-level competitors aren’t allowed below 3,000 feet; at the next level, you can come down to 1,500 feet. That continues until you’re at the highest level – ‘unlimited’, where you can fly as low as 100 feet above the ground.
As Piper says, “it takes people years to progress”.
But the thrill of executing these often complicated manoeuvres – and the challenge of designing your own sequences based on compulsory “figures”, has attracted pilots from all over the world and all manner of backgrounds – from airlines and the military, to builders, plumbers, tilers, doctors, lawyers and farmers.
What they all have in common is passion for a sport that has you nose diving and climbing vertically at breakneck speeds. You’re flying precisely-angled lines, loops and figure eights, doing stall turns, hanging upside down and performing 360-degree rolls and spins in all manner of hectic-looking, yet highly-disciplined combinations. Manoeuvres include the “shark’s tooth”, “humpty bump”, “full positive flick” and “P loop”.
What you’re up against
Judging in aerobatics is similar to ice skating, gymnastics or diving Piper says. “You perform in front of a panel of judges who each score you out of 10 for each figure, then those scores are averaged to come up with a final tally.”
When competitors get up to the higher levels, they’re undergoing quite a bit of physical and mental stress. “It’s hot, it’s noisy, the aircraft is going between 100 and 300 kilometres per hour,” says Piper.
There’s also g-force to contend with. The only way to build your tolerance is through training regimes. “It’s all just conditioning in the aeroplane – match fitness,” Piper says.
For added pressure, you have to fly your sequence of manoeuvres in an “aerobatic box” which is a defined kilometre square of air space. Within that box, you might have strong winds that you have to counter to stay in front of the judges.
“It’s like ice skating but the ice is moving down the river and you have to keep skating upriver to stay in front of the judges; every flight is different so it becomes a real mental test,” he says.
Safety and risk minimisation for competitors
Because all pilots have to go through training to pass every grade, there’s an automatic level of supervision and monitoring as trainers watch every flight, continuously assessing the pilot’s physical and mental capabilities. Coaches critique pilots as they fly via radio, with peers also watching and having input. Dangerous flying can lead to instant disqualification.
As a result, accidents are rare. Piper says there have never been any fatalities in Australian aerobatics competition, nor is he aware of any accidents.
This is in contrast to the low-height stunt flying seen in airshows which carries far more risk.
Insurance for aerobatics
Aviation insurance attaches to the aircraft rather than the pilot. Piper says that to be covered in your general aviation insurance policy, aerobatics has to be listed as an approved activity. If you compete, you have to pay a little bit more on top of that.
Airshow is a separate listing and will normally attract a higher premium again, he says.
One day Piper would like to see a policy that better reflects the safe history of aerobatics competitions and varies according to the amount of hours the plane is in use, like some modern car insurance policies.
While barrel rolls may not be your thing, aviation insurance goes well beyond covering competitive pilots to even protect aircrafts for farming purposes.
Aviation insurance policies can cover all kinds of aircraft from gliders and helicopters to turbine engine aircraft. They also cover a variety of uses, from private/pleasure and business, to rental or charter (ferrying cargo or customers) and if you include them specifically in your policy, uses such as mustering, agricultural spraying, powerline inspection or firefighting.
To get advice about coverage under aviation insurance policies, it’s best to speak to a broker with experience in the field.