From air sickness to a national championship — the dizzying highs of stunt flying
Cassandra Moller began flying 12 years ago with free lessons as part of her aeronautical engineering studies. She is now the aerobatic champion of Australia. (Supplied: Cassandra Moller)
She is the first woman to take out the Australian Aerobatic championship in 23 years, but Sydney stunt pilot Cassandra Moller hated to fly when she was a kid.
In fact, it made her sick — but when she was offered free lessons as part of her aeronautical engineering degree, she found herself flying to the top of an elite field.
Ms Moller is one of just 50 pilots who contest the Aerobatic National Championships every year, and next month she is set to compete in the South Australian Championships at Murray Bridge, which she is expecting to be an intense experience.
“Even though it’s quite a short flight time, only about 10 minutes, it takes a lot out of you in preparation and then afterwards recovering from the flight because it’s quite physically and mentally demanding,” Ms Moller said.
“You’re concentrating on something very intensely for 15 to 20 minutes and pulling, pushing a lot of G-force and that’s quite physical on the body.”
To win last year’s national title Ms Moller had to fly four sequences — three of which were provided on the day — for a panel of judges in a contest that Ms Moller said was “very similar to figure skating”.
“The first flight is something you’ve been practising and preparing all year,” Ms Moller said.
“[But] the following three flights, you’ve never flown any of those figures in that order before, so the sequence is completely new.
“The only practice you can do is walking it through on the ground and visualising it in your head.”
Skills before thrills
Ms Moller, who owns a flying school and also works for a commercial airline, said that stunt flying appealed to her more for the technical difficulty than the adrenaline rush.
“The thing that draws me most to aerobatics is the constantly seeking perfection and the challenge,” Ms Moller said.
“You’ll never attain perfection and every flight I like to go out there and get it as close to correct as I possibly can and you get great satisfaction from doing something better each time.”
She also said that the sport was much safer than it looked, despite the fact that she sometimes flew at altitudes as low as 100m and hit speeds of up to 400km an hour.
“I liken aerobatics to an advanced driving course,” Ms Moller said.
“Aerobatics gives you the full range of flying.
“You control the aircraft in all latitudes and in all scenarios, so you can be completely confident that if anything happens you’ll be able to recover from it.”
James Hart had to train his stomach to get used to the spins and loops of aerobatic flying. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)
All part of the show
South Australian pilot James Hart, a pilot of 20 years, has spent the last six months putting on an air show with a mate from Snowtown.
He said creating the illusion of danger was an important part of the Silver Sharks act.
“When we are heading directly towards each other we aim to hit each other,” said Mr Hart, who often flies barefoot.
“I like to be comfortable when I fly … ” James Hart often flies without shoes on. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)
“I’m the leader so [for] the guy that’s following, it’s part of his performance not to hit me.
“He’s got a firm eye on me and there’s always radio contact, and then the cross happens and it’s a really big trust and communication to make that sort of thing happen.
“People say we’re crazy, we’re mad, we’re nuts, ‘what are you doing?’ — but like I’ve been saying all along it’s calculated and you get the risk to be as minimal you can.
“Everyone tries to make it look like you’re going to crash but the risks are low.
“They want to get that wow factor — ‘them guys were close’.”
James Hart has been flying for 20 years and has been doing aerobatics for the past 10 years. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)
Like Ms Moller, Mr Hart also suffered from nausea when he first started flying, but said that after a while “your body builds up to it”.
That may have come a little easier for Mr Hart than some others, however — his mother and father, both pilots, have a hangar and airstrip near Port Lincoln and they are all endorsed to fly aerobatics.
“Sometimes we’ll get in three aeroplanes and go up together as a family and fly around,” Mr Hart said.
“It’s really great fun and not many families can do that.”