Imagine yourself in an aerobatic airplane, rolling and looping at 150 mph. You are having fun and then look down and notice a host of other aerobatic airplanes on an unfamiliar ramp and seven aerobatic judges watching you. Suddenly, you realize you’re not in Minnesota anymore. You are in Ljungbyhed, Sweden, at the Advanced World Aerobatic Championships (AWAC), and you are one of eight members of the United States Advanced Aerobatic Team. Sound like an impossible dream? It would be for most of us, but it soon will be a dream come true for two Minnesota aerobatic pilots – Mike Niccum and Mike Wiskus.
Last September, Niccum and Wiskus qualified for the U.S. Advanced Aerobatic Team at the U.S. Nationals in Denison, Texas. They are the first Minnesota pilots to ever fly on a world aerobatic team and will travel to Sweden this summer to represent Minnesota and the United States as members of the U.S. team.
Niccum and Wiskus will fly against more than 60 of the best Advanced pilots in the world. Some of these competitors have the advantage of being able to fly their own airplanes to the contest and have their competition expenses paid by their government. Such is not the case with the U.S. team. Our team members have to ship their planes to Sweden at considerable expense, or rent an unfamiliar aircraft, to fly in the AWAC. Sponsorships and donations help defray the expenses of the U.S. team. But, by and large, team members spend thousands of dollars of their own money for the chance to win and individual gold medal and bring home the gold for the United States.
Niccum and Wiskus are working their day jobs, Niccum as an aircraft mechanic for Wipaire and Wiskus as a commercial pilot and aerobatic instructor, to save money for their trip. They are also seeking sponsors and donations and are researching ways to ship their airplanes to the contest. There are a lot of details to get in order before they depart. Mostly though, they have faith things will fall into place and concentrate on practicing aerobatics. To get ready for the AWAC they will practice as much as possible, two to three times a day every day if the weather allows. They will fly regional contests to keep their competitive edge. Plus, they will train with their coach, Dick Schulz, who is a national aerobatic judge, and other aerobatic pilots, who can critique their flights and help them hone their skills.
There are usually seven judges on the line during an AWAC competition. Most of these seven will be European judges. All judges want to see perfectly flown figures, but the European judges place a lot of emphasis on flow and presentation of the overall flight. On top of that, they often prefer monoplanes that “show” well in competition.
The importance of flow and presentation had Niccum worried after he qualified at the Nationals. Airplanes flown at the AWAC must be less than 260hp. Niccum’s 180-hp Pitts really struggled to keep up with the other, higher horsepower airplanes. To do well at the AWAC, Mike felt he needed an airplane with more muscle. Niccum’s friend, Unlimited competitor and air show pilot Pete Tallarita, has a 230-hp Extra 200S that was made especially for AWAC competition. Mike Mike contacted Pete by e-mail to see if he would be willing to let him use his airplane. “Pete called me two days later and said, ‘ the plane is at your disposal.’” “When I came to,” Mike said, “Igot on his insurance and was able to fly for several hours before the weather turned cold.” After a long winter, Niccum is practicing in earnest to get used to his borrowed aerobatic mount.
The airplane that Mike Wiskus is flying was also made especially for AWAC competition. Wiskus started his competition career flying a Pitts much like Niccum’s. At the end of the 1999 aerobatic season, Wiskus realized he wanted to get an airplane that could carry him into world competition. He started looking for the perfect plane. A friend, Tom Kerns, found a wrecked Pitts S-1-11 on eBay. Tom wanted the engine and a few parts and wondered if Mike wanted the airframe. He did. Wiskus stated a painstaking restoration process. After more than 1,200 hours of work, Wiskus has the ultimate flying machine, a highly modified airplane he describes as “1,100 pounds of pure adrenaline’ – the Telex Pitts.
Niccum and Wiskus have dreamed of being on the U.S. Advanced team since they started flying competition. They took their dreams one step further, set goals, and are working to make them happen. There have been times when the AWAC has seemed so far out of reach that many of us would have given up. But, Niccum and Wiskus have the drive and determination to carry them to Sweden and home again. They will make us proud to say that Minnesota sent two pilots to the 2004 Advanced World Championships.