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The 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally

After the great fun of the first ESA-ECB Air Rally in October 2020, we were impatient to arrange another one. So, after only a few months, we launched the 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally.

Dive with me into the memories of this exciting competition!


The 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally was made possible by the invaluable support of:

and by the artwork of Tom Colbie Art and the photographic account of Elena Barsottelli

Why an Air Rally

In October, we arranged this type of contest for the first time. While there were a few things that we knew we would need to fine-tune, all participants had a great time and were enthusiastic about the Air Rally. Indeed, it’s a great way to keep navigation skills and situational awareness honed. Naturally, the use of GPS is strictly forbidden.

You can read more about this type of competition in my previous post here. In this article I will simply say that flying an air rally requires you to fly a route as close as possible to your flight plan. Basically, It’s about being at the right place at the right moment!

The route

One of the key aspects for the success of a Rally is the route. In facts, waypoints must be challenging enough to identify. At the same time, they must be at a sufficient distance to prevent conflicting traffic and allow for a certain duration of the flight. Luckily, we had a friend of the Deutsche Flugsicherung to help us there and design the perfect route.

In our route, we had fountains, castles and even the final straight line of a car test track to conclude triumphantly the race.

All of them proved to be challenging, but if you made your flight plan well and followed it to the letter, it was achievable by all pilots.

Finding some balance during Covid-19 times

We initially planned May 8, hoping that the pandemic situation would be lighter. Sadly, the then-new Delta variant made things more complicated. Despite all restrictions, we managed to carry on with our event and had the great honor to be supported by very special guests:

Filippo Barbero and Filippo Fontemaggi, former Italian Airforce pilots, supported us as judges, and Elena Barsottelli, one of the most talented aviation photographers, documented the whole ESA-ECB Air Rally for us.

Sadly, no audience could attend and we had to cancel the presentations that our guests had prepared. I hope this article and the video below, will transmit all the enthusiasm and energy of the event. We hope to hold all presentations at the next occasion!

The pilots, the planes, the start

Finally, comes the moment of the race. Pilots receive the explanation of the rules and soon start their planning. Each crew is different from another: there are commercial, private and even student pilots. And the beauty of the Air Rally is that it’s so unique that flight hours don’t necessarily matter.

The handover of the routes

For this edition, we also had very different planes: a few 4-seaters (a Piper, a Maule and a Mooney) and many 2-seaters (Diamond Katana, Aquila A210 and the beautiful historic Ercoupe 415-D).

The Ercoupe 415-D

When the time for planning is over, we reconvene in front of the terminal and assign the starting time. Ori and I are the first to start with a declared speed of 115 kts.

Our race

I have already checked the Piper PA28 that will take us through this challenging route. The engine is warm, the red and white livery of the plane shines under the morning sun.

We hop on, but first let two special passenger accommodate. As the stress to fly the route as precisely as possible wasn’t already enough, we invited our Airforce guests onboard (please note that we were all already vaccinated and tested negative to multiple tests). I had already checked the weight and balance in case they trusted me that much.

And indeed, I took it as a very big sign of trust when they happily sat in the back of the plane.

The engine starts smoothly, we taxi to the holding point of RWY 26. As the plane accelerates on the asphalt the emotion leaves pace to concentration. The route officially starts on the first waypoint in Dieburg. I make use of the few minutes available to adjust the power settings and the elevator trim.

It’s a very clear day. As we enter the race track, I can see the bend of the Main river where the Aschaffeburg castle (our next waypoint) is located. I rely then on this visual reference and focus on my speed. Ori measures the time with its cronograph. I ask him a check when we are about 2 miles from the target. We seem to be doing fine.

Bias and illusions

Off to the next point! The next one is probably the one target that worries me most. Indeed, it is the fountain in the garden of an old German palace. I think I know the palace, but this makes me even more worried: there are so many historic buildings around Frankfurt. I may convince myself (and my navigator) that the target is that one castle with which I am more familiar rather than the correct one. In the end, the difficulty of a Rally lies all here. Trusting your planning and instruments more than your instinct.

Bias and illusions can trick us during a navigation. Many pages have been written about the subject and, thankfully, I read some of them.

As we get closer to our supposed target and the target time, we scan the ground intensely. In my recollection now, I may swear to have spotted at least 5 fountains!

But eventually there she is! In the front of the Philippsruhe Palace as described.

Intense traffic, difficulties over Ronneburg, and finally on ground

As more planes taking part to the Rally depart, also the radio chatter becomes more intense. I pay particular attention to where Tiago with his fast Mooney is. Fortunately there seem to be always proper separation.

In such context, it’s important to use the frequency for concise meaningful information. On each waypoint, I declared my position, the following reporting point, the heading and expected time overhead.

After the Ronneburg Castle, we were supposed to make a left turn. However, we found ourselves a few hundred meters left of the castle and had to make a right turn instead. This caused quite some difficulties to find the following one, the farm , but eventually we managed. Sadly, not without accruing some delay on that leg.

Ronneburg Castle seen from Tiago’s plane. Photo by Elena Barsottelli

Once found the solar farm, we confidently headed to the old Frankfurt airport, located in the district of Bonames. The airfield was opened by the Allied Forces and was used until 1992. Although converted now to a public park, the runway is still paved and the markings well visible.

We crossed the centre of the long asphalt strip right on spot and turned South for the final two waypoints: the stadium of Offenbach and the straight of the Opel test track.

As I landed the PA28, I realised the intense effort that one hour of such navigation meant. I felt truly satisfied for managing to keep the attention so high regardless of the final ranking.

On adifferent note, I was also quite happy for flying around two of the best pilots I may possibly know without being shouted at for some mistake!

The final ranking

Thanks to the great work of Mikel who coded the algorithm for the score, we had the ranking in matter of few minutes:

1st place: D-EMUX – Crew from ESA Aviators
2nd place: D-EXDA -Crew from Frankfurter Verein für Luftfahrt
3rd place: D-ETLK – Crew from Hanseatischer Flieger Club Frankfurt

Following the overwhelming positive response, we just can’t wait to organise the next Rally!

Don’t miss the video below for a visual report, and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel for more updates!

Watch the full video

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Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut

Penguin released the English translation of “Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut” by ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti last week (link here). The Diary is a very personal account of what happened to the Writer from the moment she was selected for one of the first stages of the recruitment for ESA Astronauts till she landed back in Kazakhstan after 200 days in Space on board of the International Space Station.

Please trust my opinion, this should be the next book you read, if you are even just remotely interested in aviation and space exploration.

Indeed, let me say that only a few books were able to capture my interest, satisfy my curiosity and then pierce my layer of critical filter to touch directly my core values and feelings.

Richard Bach wrote in a famous article: “Any [pilot] who would print his loves and fears and learnings on the pages of magazines says farewell to the secrets of his mind and gives them to the world.” This is what Samantha Cristoforetti did by opening her diary to us.

But let’s get to what I loved of the book:

All the information you wish for, never overly technical

Only a few people have the gift to explain complex things in easy terms. Thanks to this great ability of the Author, I managed to discover a lot of aspects and details of the background of a space mission without getting lost in difficult scientific explanations.

The language is direct and clear, the way you would indeed expect from a pilot and astronaut, but don’t think the book is at all a dry description of technical aspects.

To the contrary, you’ll see how relationship, teamwork and friendship are at the core of space exploration. Reading the book you realise how all space missions rely on a planetary network of agencies, scientists, expert, trainers, technicians that work around the clock and around the globe. Astronauts in training travel around the globe to the different agencies to train on modules, procedures, suits and tools over a period that lasts around 2 years.

If the extent of this global cooperation is somewhat new to you, you can’t avoid asking yourself, why don’t we cooperate so well with each other also in all other fields?

The descriptions

As said, the book is far from being some sterile technical account of events. A side that I truly enjoyed are the descriptions of places, people and rituals. I don’t think I will ever visit the Cosmodrome of Baikonur or Star City, the complex outside Moscow where astronauts train, but in my head I could almost tell you how the coffee and cookies taste and what precise tone the carpets are. I could imagine to walk in the room where they serve a royal-like buffet before the departure of the astronauts and I could imagine to smile and nod while hearing a toast in Russian. I could almost feel the pain in my forearm when the Author describes the difficulty of grabbing an object while wearing the rigid gloves of the EMU, the NASA suit for extravehicular activities.

Reflections on human life

This is not a book about philosophy nor about politics and a few ontological questions pop-up very discreetly only every now and then. However, who saw our planet from 400km of height acquires necessarily a different perspective on the life on our planet. The lifespan of the whole mankind is absolutely irrelevant compared to the age of Universe. Yet too much of our life gets wasted in fights and diatribes. If we became more aware of how insignificant our existence is compared to the rest of Universe, perhaps we would be more compassionate towards each other.

I loved this aspect of the book because it’s a feeling I also share. Let me be clear, I have little to share with the experience of the Author. I have very little experience of microgravity limited to a few instants in some aerobatic manoeuvre and I would probably never be able to spend more than a week with the same 6 individuals in the limited room of the International Space Station. Nevertheless, I understand somehow the feeling, as this is similar to what I and many other pilots feel after a flight where we managed to contemplate the beauty of nature: humbled and grateful.

In conclusion

I found it a very inspiring reading and I would strongly recommend it to anyone, but especially to young readers.

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut is truly a great book and I am confident you will be as satisfied with the reading as I was. Now, when I look at the sky and spot the ISS at night, I feel a whole new sense of familiarity with that strange object and its inhabitants.

The book is available in English, Italian and German at any online bookstore (not sure, why the changed the cover in the English edition, I personally prefer the Italian version, below).

Also, all proceeds of the Author go to charitable organisations.

Do you want to spot the ISS at night or verify whether it was that light spot in the sky? check here:

As usual, I am happy to hear your comments!