RC Aerobatics - Your First Contest

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Written by Peter Vogel RC Aerobatics As seen in the January 2019 issue of Model Aviation.

airplanes are ready
Airplanes are ready to compete at a Pattern contest in Sacramento CA.

I’ve heard from many people that they are interested in attending an RC Aerobatics (Pattern) contest, but they are worried about some variation of the following:

  • Am I good enough? I don’t want to embarrass myself!
  • I don’t know what a contest is like. It seems really intense.
  • How do I find contests near me?

Because this will be published in the January 2019 issue, and the first contests of the season usually begin in late February (depending on where you live), it seems appropriate to cover getting to your first contest. Let’s take those concerns in reverse order!

Finding a Contest

The best place to search for a contest is the National Society of Radio Control Aerobatics (NSRCA) website, listed in "Sources." At the top of the page is the main navigation menu, where you can select "Event Listings" then choose "List Events" that appears on the left.

Events on the NSRCA website will be listed in chronological order, starting with the next contest to occur and going forward in time. If you don’t find something there, most of the NSRCA district pages (in the main navigation menu under "Districts," choose your state’s or a neighboring state’s NSRCA district) have an event calendar.

The contest schedule typically shifts only slightly from season to season, so look at the 2018 calendar if the one for 2019 isn’t yet posted. It will give you a good sense of what to expect for 2019!

Getting Ready to Attend Your First Contest

So you found a contest near you that you’d like to attend! What’s a contest like? What do you need to know?

To start with, if the event is listed on the NSRCA website and preregistration is enabled, you should definitely preregister! That helps the contest director (CD) know how many people to expect and helps him or her to load the scoring program with the registered pilots’ details ahead of time.

Call the CD and let him or her know that you are planning to attend and that this will be your first contest. The Pattern community is incredibly welcoming, and most CDs will make sure to pair you with someone who is relatively experienced and will "show you the ropes." If you prefer, you can wait until you get to the contest to mention that this is your first time competing.

In the nervousness of attending your first contest, make sure you pack everything you need. Make a checklist! Fuselage? Wings? Radio? Batteries/fuel? Battery charger? A generator (in case the field doesn’t have power for chargers)?

The first order of business at a contest is filling out the AMA Flight Safety Declaration and Participation list when you pay your entry fee. This is also a great time to talk with the CD if you want to let him or her know you are new to competition.

Next, get your airplane together and ready for the first round. Some people might be taking practice flights. I prefer to arrive the day before a contest and practice if I am unfamiliar with the field.

The CD will usually hold a pilots’ meeting to discuss any local quirks to running the contest or field rules to be particularly aware of, assign judge numbers, announce who is flying where, discuss any key safety issues of which to be aware, and how to call for fire or medical support in the event of an emergency, etc.

After your airplane is ready for flight and the pilots’ meeting is over, it’s time to figure out where you are in the flight order. You’ll find that most contests fly two flightlines at the same time, and most CDs have the Sportsman and Intermediate classes fly on the upwind side of the field so that their takeoffs do not cross in front of the other flightline.

Somewhere near your flightline, you’ll find the CD has some kind of system set up to show the flight order for the forthcoming round. It might be as simple as a whiteboard or many contests use clothespins on a pole.

After each round, the CD will rotate the flight order by either moving the last pilot to the front or the first pilot to the bottom of the class order. Watch for who is flying and know when you are "on deck." Get your airplane ready, find someone to call for you (the CD might have assigned someone to help you at your first contest), and be ready to fly after the pilot in front of you lands.

When it is your turn to fly, your caller will position your airplane on the runway. Ask the judges if they are ready and, if they are, announce your intent with "Takeoff, beginning now," and take off! At a 2-meter altitude, declare, "Takeoff complete." Feel free to check that you are in trim, etc., turn downwind for a free pass, make a clean turnaround (I recommend a half-reverse Cuban 8), announce that you are "in the box," and begin the sequence!

How did your flight go? Especially with Sportsman pilots, the judges might take a few seconds while your caller retrieves your airplane from the runway to mention a few things that you could do to improve. These are generally things that they noticed repeatedly in several maneuvers. This advice is gold. One flight in front of judges is worth six practice flights on your own!

When your caller returns with your airplane, make sure it is disarmed (I highly recommend an external arming system so that it’s easy for your caller to disarm the airplane without removing the canopy), turn off the receiver, and then turn off your radio—in that order! Safety at a contest is paramount! I’ve seen several accidents and near misses that were completely avoidable. Charge the battery immediately so that you’ll be ready for the next round.


Are you good enough to compete without embarrassing yourself? The answer is yes. We’ve all been first-time pilots! My goal at my first contest was to not get all zeros! The Pattern community is welcoming and helpful, so don’t hesitate to attend a contest! You’ll be glad you did!





If I want to try flying in a Pattern Contest for the first time, do I need to purchase a Pattern plane or would any aerobatic plane do?

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