From people who walk on the wings of a speeding aircraft to those who race in jetpacks, the aviation world is full of daredevils engaging in the strangest activities imaginable.
Let’s take a look at some of the aviation sports that AeroTime considers to be the weirdest.
Tennis on the wings
PHOTO OF THE DAY. A tennis match on the wings of a plane over LA (1925) pic.twitter.com/sYd6CMbp16
— Prof Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) December 22, 2021
The photo above is a real image. It purports to capture Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger, two stuntwomen from the US, ‘playing’ tennis on the wings of an airborne Curtis JN-4 biplane. The photo was taken in 1927, and documents one of many performances linked to the obsession with flying that permeated the ‘roaring twenties’.
As fact-checking website Snopes points out, the game wasn’t real. It is debatable if a ball was even involved in the photoshoot. If it was, it is highly unlikely that the players had a chance to complete many shots with the wind at 130 km/h (80 mp/h) and the curved wing bouncing the ball in random directions.
So the stunt does not count as a real sport. However, it does deserve an honorable mention.
10. Airship racing
This not a sport in the usual sense – yet. The world’s first airship contest, The Pillars of the World Sky Race, is being organized by a group of enthusiasts who want to promote the rebirth of the airship – a greener and more futuristic type of aviation which has been receiving a lot of attention lately.
The original idea envisioned an epic chase with competitors visiting major cities across the globe. “The World Sky Race will be the largest man-made event seen by live spectators in the entire history of the human race,” the organizers said.
However, like the airship revolution, the airship race seems to have stalled as there have been few updates from the organizers recently. This makes airship racing more a possibility than a real sport, however it still gets an entry in our list.
It is debatable if wing-walking is really a sport. It’s certainly an extreme physical activity, and for the last century wing-walkers from around the world have competed to one-up each other. So, while there are no official scoreboards and competitions, at AeroTime we are inclined to count wing-walkers as sportswomen and sportsmen.
The golden age of this activity was the 1920s and 30s when flying circuses toured the countryside, wowing crowds with their stunts. Their acts, as awe-inspiring as they were dangerous, combined acrobatics with superb airmanship and artistic ingenuity.
While the prominence of wing-walkers decreased throughout subsequent decades, a community of brave and extremely skilled enthusiasts still exists, continuing the tradition of dicing with death.
8. STOVL competitions
Some aircraft are built with short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) in mind, their performance allowing them to operate from austere airports, military ships or even unprepared plots of land.
Some people take that capability and turn it into a sport. Popular with Alaskan bush pilots (airmen and women who fly and land at locations as inhospitable to airplanes as they are to people), the sport pits pilots and their heavily modified aircraft in competitions to achieve the shortest take-off or landing run. There is no official league, but a circle of hardcore veterans keeps organizing competitions, honing their skills and breaking world records.
7. Indoor skydiving
Regular skydiving is expensive and somewhat risky. So, to train skydivers, vertical wind tunnels are often used. At some point skydiving in a wind tunnel became its own thing, with people performing stunts and maneuvers few would dare to try in a real skydiving situation.
Since 2014, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) has run the World Cup of Indoor Skydiving, and there are other, less official tournaments around the world. We admit that this stretches the definition of aviation, but who are we to argue with the FAI? Added to which, the sport is impressive, fascinating, and really quite weird.
6. Hot Air balloon racing
It seems fairly obvious that hot air balloons are not built for racing. They hang in the air, for the most part moving only when the wind blows. But hot air balloon races are about the precision of flying rather than speed.
The competitions include a variety of objectives, from navigating and high-precision landing to performing stunts. The races – or, rather, the festivals that involve the races – are organized all around the world, attracting thousands of spectators with colorful displays.
5. RC combat
Do you long for the excitement of a real aerial battle? Do you think that video games fall short in in this regard? Do you want to control a real airplane instead of a picture on a screen?
There are lots of people who think like this. They build or buy radio controlled (RC) planes and battle each other with the passion of real flying aces. There are dozens of competitions and leagues, all with differing rules and objectives. In some, the aim is to ram the opponent’s plane and take it down. In others, cutting a ribbon tied to an enemy airplane’s tail (the so-called ‘streamer’) is enough.
4. Hawgsmoke attack aircraft competition
Another competitive activity which borders on being a sport is Hawgsmoke. This is a contest for the pilots of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the legendary armor-toting, massive cannon-wielding attack jet of the United States Air Force (USAF).
Teams from various squadrons of the Air Force compete in several disciplines which includes dropping bombs, shooting missiles, and the fan-favorite: strafing the target with the 30-milimeter GAU-8 Gatling gun. The performance of individual pilots as well as the teams is judged.
The roots of USAF aerial gunnery competitions go back to 1940s, and the Hawgsmoke – which has run since the 1990s – is the latest iteration of that. As with real sports leagues, each competition is hosted by the winners of the previous one, and the wider public can purchase tickets to attend the event.
3. Flour drop competition
If real fighter jets aren’t your thing, there’s a less intense version.
The core activity of flour dropping, or flour bombing, is in the name: pilots compete to drop a bag of flour as close to the target as possible. Although there are no leagues, these competitions can be found at various airshows.
The same competitions often have a less floury ‘bomb drop’ challenge too, a sort of Hawgsmoke for Cessnas. However, the involvement of flour makes this activity decidedly weirder, and so it earns its place on this list.
2. Jetpack racing
Not only are jetpack competition a thing, there is more than one league. Well, there will be as, so far, only proof-of-concept competitions have been held.
While jetpacks have captured the imagination for decades, it is only recently that practical and comparatively affordable examples have appeared. Two of the most prominent manufacturers are Jetpack Aviation and Gravity.
1. Cluster ballooning
If you’ve seen the Disney film, Up (2009), then you’ll be familiar with the concept of cluster ballooning. But the idea of tying oneself to a bunch of helium-filled balloons is much older, and much, much weirder.
The first attempts date back to 1937 when Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard started experimenting with the concept. A lot of other experiments followed, some of which were successful while others ended in tragedy.
The idea behind many cluster balloon flights lies in controlling the altitude and the vertical speed by selectively popping or releasing some balloons, despite a less-than-stellar success rate. Our suggestion? Don’t try this at home.