“We’re way too fast, slow down as much as you can” says Ori as we approach Schloss Auerbach, one of the many castles in southern Hesse, built by nothing less that King Charlemagne. I reduce power, pitch up the nose to the limit of stall and extend flaps. In matter of seconds our speed drops by 35 knots. “Great! Now off to RID VOR”. This way we headed to gain the second place at the 2020 ESA-ECB Air Rally.
What is an air rally?
Back a few years, air navigation was conducted relying only on paper charts, compass and stop watch. There was no GPS and even no radio navigation aids (like VORs). A great way to train pilots was to have them compete in races of precision. Pilots would need to reach given waypoints exactly at the time declared and every deviations either in terms of time of space would add to a penalty. The crew to complete the course with the least penalty would win.
Today, most pilots just rely on their GPS, after obtaining their license. Moving maps and GPS are indeed great tools if used properly, but one should not lose proper navigation skills, so air rallying is a great way to keep one’s ability honed and have fun with other pilots.
The idea of our own Air Rally
2020 has been an incredibly bad year for most people because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Aviation was among the sectors that were hit harder.
I had been planning for months to join a very special competition, the Air Rally of the Six lakes, organised by Aeroclub Como and to be run with Seaplanes. Due to COVID-19 my original plans were sadly frustrated and the race was first postponed and then cancelled.
I really did not want to give up, after so much preparation. At the same time I wanted to make any possible event meaningful for who was truly suffering because of COVID.
After a lot of reflection, I put some ideas down on paper and discussed with some friends, members of the flying club of the European Space Agency. After a brief call, we decided to go ahead and put the foundations for the first ESA-ECB Air Rally together with fund-raising for various intiatives.
A very special guest
We were also blessed with the participation of Paolo Ferri, former Spacecraft Operation Manager of the ESA Mission “Rosetta” and Head of Mission Operations when the Air Rally took place. Paolo was fundamental for the success of our event: he was our honorary judge, he took all the air-to-air pictures and gave an unforgettable presentation about Mission Rosetta. The talk with him was truly a special experience to understand the intricacies behind one of the most complex missions of space exploration in the history of mankind.
I strongly recommend to take a look at the Masterclass series, which he recorded for the European Space Agency, and to his recently published book about mission Rosetta (“Il cacciatore di comete“, the comet chaser)
Finally the race
Pilots and navigators gather around the table of the flight planning room. For this edition of the Rally it was decided that the pilots would agree together the route rather than receiving a given one from the judges.
After a brief discussion the route is decided: EDFE (Egelsbach) -> RID VOR -> The entry of Eicher See (a small marina on the side of the Rhein River) -> the Coleman Airfield (a former US base) -> Castle Auerbach -> RID VOR and then back to Egelsbach.
All navigators work on their planning, calculate routes, times and speeds. Check the weather and wind corrections. The hall is silent, but the tensions is high. It’s a friendly contest, that’s clear, but nobody wants to lose.
All crews walk to their aircrafts, run the pre-flight checks and start the engines!
Ori and I decided to fly with a Diamond Aircraft DV20 of my flying club. We chose it mostly because it’s responsive, offers amazing visibility and can accelerate or slow down in matter of instants, should that be needed.
We had a shocking surprise as we hopped on, though. The directional gyro, a really important instrument for precision flying, had been removed due to some malfunction in a previous flight.
When flying the compass gives very erratic indication due to the movement of the plane on different axes and its acceleration. For this reason, when flying the gyroscopic compass is preferred. It keeps a steady heading thanks to a fast-spinning rotor and is not subject to the errors which affect the compass.
Running this type of competition without that instrument meant that our competition was already going uphill. We don’t lose our cool. Visibility is good and I am confident that we can locate the way points also visually.
We accelerate on the wet runway 26, we detach from the asphalt at 55 knots and the DV20 climbs nicely through the cold sky. On the ground, the participants stare with awe at the planes lining up and departing one after the other.
“Whisky-Foxtrot, Uniform-X-Ray we’ve acquired you”
Close to RID-VOR, we were in contact with the mighty Maule of Christian. Paolo, on board, took great air-to-air shots of all aircrafts.
Too fast! Too fast!
The rally was going well, we were practically perfect on all waypoints. We just had a slight delay on the entry of Eicher See, but still nothing dramatic if we could make sure that the other legs would be flown precisely. But just as we approached Castle Auerbach, a castle in the hills erected by King Charlemagne, Ori warned me that we were very fast and had too much advantage with respect to the planned target time. I pitched up the plane, applied carburetor heat and reduced power. As soon as the airspeed indicator dropped below 90 knots I also applied full flaps and reapplied power to maintain the plane at 55 knots. The DV20 maintained its speed without any issue. At such a low speed any turn must very gentle and the bank must remain very contained in order to prevent a stall.
“We made it!” announced Ori “now off to RID”. I “cleaned” the aircraft, which means retracting flaps, and pitched down to get back to our cruising speed.
The last leg was exhilarating. We joined in formation the other aircrafts who kept orbiting around RID and then landed back in Egelsbach winning the second place of the 2020 ESA-ECB Air Rally.
More visual narrations of the event
Exclusive sketches by Watercolorasia
The main purpose of the event was to raise charity. The many donations received were given to the ONG “Emergency“ which offers free medical care in war zones and in areas affected by extreme poverty, attending a patient every minute since 1994.
I would like to thank wholeheartedly Paolo Ferri for his involvement and for sharing his unique experience. I would like to thank Gavox Watches for sponsoring the first prize , all the volunteers who supported our event, Holger Neuhaus for the amazing pictures, Dirk Wagner for the moderation of the event with Paolo Ferri, Diamond Aircraft for letting us use their space and Motorflugschule Egelsbach for additional logistical support.