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Rituals for Aerobatic Display Flying

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

In February 2007, I was standing in front of my aircraft on the flight line at Air Force Base Swartkop. This base was where the South African Air Force began, 87 years before. The midday sun was baking down on me and the coarse nomex flying suit was bad enough, without wearing a g-suit. I had an extra layer strapped on, from ankles to mid stomach, to combat the effect of g-forces during the flight. The flight line radiated heat from the ground up. The tar had been baking all morning and it was now directing its energy up at me.

AFB Swartkop was our temporary home, as we prepared for the Air Force Day celebrations. I gave a unified thumbs up with the team. As I marched around the left wing and towards the trailing edge, I noticed my name in bold letters, printed on the side of the aircraft, just below the canopy rail. My ground crew had only stuck the name on that morning and this was the first time I had seen it.


There were only 4 aircraft in the Air Force that had names printed on them. Mine was one of them, Capt Alex MacPhail in bold text.

This had just become real, I was about to perform my first public display as the most recently qualified Silver Falcons display pilot. I grabbed the cuff of my right flying glove and my heart rate climbed a few beats, enough for me to notice the increase. I pulled the glove tight up against my fingers and clenched my fist. This became a ritual as I was preparing for the airshow routine. I tried to get more accuracy in my display flying, by wearing the tightest flying gloves I could find. I squeezed out any extra space around my fingers. By pulling my gloves just a little bit tighter and clenching a fist, I gained a slight advantage. I wanted that sense of control you get when there is nothing between you and the aircraft. As the new kid on the block, I needed all the advantages I could get. The leather flying gloves were a safety regulation and this was my baptism of fire. Later on I would find out the just how valuable these gloves were. I repeated the gesture with my right hand gripping the cuff of the left glove. It was always in the same sequence, first right, then left. That was the only ritual that stuck with me.

I am fascinated by rituals. Dan Biggar’s kicking sequence at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is interesting. He had been at a training camp in Qatar before the tournament. The hot weather caused him to fidget with his jersey and shorts. The clothing was sticking to his sweat and he was adjusting the items. He was also wiping sweat from his hairline. This fidgeting became his routine. His kicking went well during the training camp, so he kept the ritual and he became a sensation at the World Cup tournament. He has since shortened his routine, but not before fans created dance routines such as the “Biggarena” (google it). Rituals such as Dan’s or my fidgeting with my flying gloves, build a sequence of events to get into the right mindset. This mindset helps deliver your best performance. For me the fidgeting with my gloves did make them that much more comfortable and accurate on those first few displays. Later on, much like Dan did with his routine, they were simply there to kick start my brain to focus on what was coming next.


- More about display flying coming in a follow up post. Alex

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