Just six years after the Wright Brothers took to the skies above Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the world’s first air sports emerged as competitive fledgling pilots sought to race their machines in a test of their speed and skill. Since then, aviators have never looked back, continuing to drive forward, pushing the envelope of aerial activities to include sports as diverse as aerobatics, aeromodelling, parachuting, hang-gliding and more recently drone flying. There are myriad ways to get your kicks when aloft. And if Orville and Wilbur Wright could see how their pioneering invention had sparked an entire field of human endeavour and recreation, they doubtless would be impressed.
Many of these air sports are regulated on the global stage by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), based in Switzerland. But several individual countries also have their own aero clubs, such as the National Aeronautics Association in the US and the UK’s Royal Aero Club, which was founded in 1901 as a club for balloonists. The role of these bodies is to co-ordinate, promote and protect all forms of recreational and competitive air sport.
They are doing a worthy job fighting for air-minded enthusiasts around the world at a time when many of these sports are battling to attract new, younger participants amid the many distractions of our digital-focused society. Ironically, aviation has always been at the forefront of technology and is working to be a part of the solution to the world’s challenges, such as the need to decarbonise.
After the first air race took place in Europe – the Prix de Lagatinerie in 1909 – the merits of using healthy competition to drive technological developments among manufacturers – and indeed nations – was widely recognised. People simply wanted to find out how high, how fast or how far these new-fangled aeroplanes could go.
This trend really took off, so to speak, just three years later when the glamorous Schneider Trophy air contests began to captivate participants, politicians and spectators alike. Most famously, the intense rivalries sparked by the Schneider Trophy led directly to the development of one of the world’s most iconic fighter aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire, which went on to play a starring role in victory during the Second World War. Without the racing, would Supermarine’s designer RJ Mitchell have developed the Spitfire so successfully in time to repel a Nazi invasion of Great Britain?
In peacetime, sports aviation is a popular pastime for millions of people around the world, be it building and flying model aeroplanes and kites to hot air ballooning and even so-called gravity sports such as BASE jumping, bungee jumping and wingsuit flying. There is a fast-developing movement too of electric-powered and vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) which aims to race these futuristic machines in a modern-day version of the Schneider Trophy contests.
Air racing that would be more recognisable to the Wright Brothers continues to this day in various guises, such as the now defunct Red Bull Air Race (which has been taken over by a new organisation) or the famous Reno Air Races held in Nevada every September. As a spectacle, Reno has few rivals such is the colourful display of souped-up piston-engined and jet fighters tearing around the oval track, some at speeds of close to 500mph in the case of the Unlimited class.
The amazing thing about sports aviation is that pretty much anyone can get involved. Yes, it can be expensive depending on your particular preference for aerial adventure. But many of the activities classed as air sports are very accessible, such as model and kite flying, with many people working their way up as time and money allows.
It takes deep pockets to compete at the likes of a Reno or Red Bull-style air race but there are cheaper ways to get involved in racing, such as through the UK’s Records, Racing and Rally Association, which oversees handicapped air racing, British and World aviation records (set by UK based pilots, companies or aircraft), and formal air rallies.
Most of its activities involve the arranging of handicapped air races including the Schneider Trophy and King’s Cup culminating in the British Air Racing and European Air Racing Championships in the UK, Northern Europe, Channel Isles, and Ireland. The sport’s motto is ‘Fly Low, Fly Fast, Turn Left’.
Talk to any of the pilots who’ve competed and it’s clear the thrill of air racing is as compelling today as it was a century ago, as well as accepting the challenge of flying your aircraft as accurately around a timed course. The set-up means that it doesn’t matter how powerful your aircraft is – that’s where the handicapping comes in – merely that you can fly it as quickly as possible relatively to the other racers. If the handicappers have succeeded, the pack will arrive in the latter stages of the course at roughly the same time and the ‘race’ is then for the finishing line.
So, what brings such a diverse range of people from across the social and demographic spectrum to sports aviation and keeps them coming back for more? Many hobby pilots – never use the word amateur! – I know talk of the fact that flying is the ultimate escape. The activity focuses the mind because from the minute you leave the ground you are completely responsible for yourself and your own safety. Perhaps counter-intuitively it is therapeutic to concentrate on a single thing. That means any of life’s usual worries or distractions must be left on terra firma.
But, by my reckoning, sports aviation it is ultimately about an expression of three-dimensional freedom which for most people can only be found in the air. Although aviation is one of the most heavily regulated activities in the world, when your wheels leave the ground and it’s just you and the machine, a sense of serenity and accomplishment descends. As the Aerobility disabled flying charity puts it: ‘If I can fly an aeroplane, what else can I do?’