Luke Penner credits his father, Harv, with some of those first aerobatic flights in their old Pitts aerobatic biplane that really captured his attention and made him believe this was something he wanted to pursue further.
At the time, Penner says he was about 20 years old. Maybe a bit of a late start, he admits, for a member of the aviation family known for operating Harv’s Air.
"I knew after he took me that was something I had to do myself," Penner said.
Sitting in the pilot’s seat, Penner has certainly done more than most when it comes to aerobatic flying, pursuing it at a competitive level for the last five years.
"When you’re taking your friends up, none of that matters," he says of the expectations that come with competition. "You’re having fun, it’s all great, there’s no real criteria."
Getting into the world of competitive aerobatics is a whole other matter.
"What I do in competition is very much like figure skating in that you’re performing a sequence in front of judges in a very specific location," he explains.
You aren’t just flying for your own benefit, you’re flying in a way that judges, from their vantage point on the ground, can see the precision of your movements.
Judges are keeping an eye on specifics like the geometry of the lines that are flown and the ability with which rolls are executed.
A snap roll is Penner’s favorite manoeuvre. The explosive, fast movement allows him to complete a more than 360 degree turn in less than a second.
"The challenge of doing a snap roll really, really cleanly is really satisfying."
Pilots generally complete three 14-movement routines as a part of competitions. Each flight takes about four to five minutes to complete.
One sequence, the "known sequence," is published well in advance of competitions. Sequences for next year’s events are expected to be published next month.
"You can practice to your heart’s content," Penner says.
A second freestyle sequence allows pilots to create a sequence that maximizes their skills and their airplane’s abilities.
"If you have less high performance airplane in a higher category you can be at a disadvantage, so the idea would be to design a sequence that would mitigate that capitalize on your strengths."
Then comes the final "unknown sequence," which pilots get the night before the competition.
"You can’t practice it, you can only visualize it," Penner says.
With experience and good coaching, Penner said that pilots improve in their ability to adapt to the variables an unknown sequence can present. Planning for possible scenarios is key.
"You try to come up with different sequences on your own. Really, really complex, goofy things that they might throw at you," he says.
Pilots compete in five categories: primary, sportsman, intermediate, advanced, unlimited.
This year was Penner’s first crack at competing in the advanced category, where he placed third in the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships last month in Kansas, amongst 20 competitors in his class.
There are currently about 200-250 active competitive aerobatic pilots in North America.
In a selection year for the United States world championship team, Penner said his success was even more meaningful.
"It’s generally when all the hot shots come out all the top guns. The competition was really high."
Penner has his hopes set on earning a place on the next Canadian world championship team, which would compete in Las Vegas in 2022.
He also thinks about advancing into the upper echelon in the unlimited category of competitors.
"That’s the dream," he says.
A new, lighter plane might be needed first.
Penner says his current plane weighs about 300 pounds more than planes in the unlimited level, an important edge that cannot be overlooked.
Planes do not come cheap and he notes that it is an expensive pursuit.
His current plane, which is about 20 years old, would cost about $250,000 to purchase used. New models could fetch around $400,000 in U.S. funds.
There’s no prize money either, just pride that comes from competition.
"It’s the self-satisfaction of reaching a higher level with your flying," he said.
In fact, he notes that competitions often feature many commercial pilots, like airline captains accustomed to flying a 737 for many years.
"They’ve grown bored of that and they want something more visceral, more physical, more fun," Penner said.
"If you want to experience the joy of driving…do you drive a sports car or a bus? That’s what they would say."
It’s an idea that Penner takes back with him to Harv’s Air where he serves as the chief flight instructor training new instructors.
Though not everyone is interested in aerobatics, it’s something that Penner encourages in pilot training as a good background that makes pilots better prepared in the air.
"I recommend to every pilot, you got to fly upside down at least once to see what it’s like, how it feels, how you react to it. To understand the plane’s limitations, your limitations…so that when you’re flying something you don’t have this big question mark about what happens. That translates into safety…it removes the anxiety of what happens after you pass a certain point," he said.
"I would like to fly with someone who has seen it all, knows what it all feels like."