IN EVERY SPORT THERE IS PRACTICE.
STUNT IS NO DIFFERENT!
By Chris Rud
Since returning to stunt in 2015, I have been on a quest to figure out the best way for me to improve. I have had some great help along the way, so I thought it would be a good idea to pass along what I have learned.
I have been watching a lot of baseball this season, and I have noticed that stunt and baseball have a lot in common. Both have a lot to do with consistency, averages and peaking at the right time. If you followed the Cubs this year, they went from being one of the hottest teams in baseball to a team that couldn’t hit. They peaked too early, and didn’t win the division after being up at least five games in September.
My entire practice regiment is built around peaking for the big day whether that’s Top 5 day or the Top 15 at the Worlds. As I told Joe Gilbert at the World Championship, “This is a Marathon”, and you have plan to peak at the right time. I’m asking myself how do I make sure the plane is at its best for the conditions, and if I’m flying strong enough based on what the judges are looking at. It takes a lot of focus and good feedback from coaches you trust.
I build my season around three main initiatives.
I normally build at least one plane per year and sometimes two. Currently I’m building two. As a matter of fact, I’m always building a plane, but it seems that I average about two a season. If you base it off the calendar year, then Jan-Mar I’m typically in the finishing process. I try to complete the plane(s) by the time it gets up to about 50 degrees. I don’t fly the new plane until I have flown 30-40 flights on last year’s plane. I find this helps get me a good base for where I ended last year. Sometimes I want to change everything, and I resist that urge. Often, it isn’t the plane that’s wrong – it’s me, being rusty. After 10-15 flights, I then allow myself to make changes. I find that starting with last year’s plane gets me semi turned up and gets me ready to start trimming the new plane. If you aren’t flying well, you might try to trim out something that isn’t the plane’s fault – it’s yours. When it’s this early in the season I really try and ask myself: is this a plane problem, or is it me? Sometimes it is the plane, and you compromised in your flying all last season. So, just slow down and keep asking yourself – was I settling last year, or is this a pilot error?
After I feel good pretty good as a pilot I start trimming the new plane. I won’t go into how I trim, as Paul Walker wrote a great set of articles a few issues back, but I will say that it’s almost pointless to practice until you are happy with the trim. Practicing with an out of trim airplane only hurts you in the long run. A great example of this was in 2017. I wasn’t happy with my Peregrine XL, which I had brought to the NATs. It didn’t turn the same inside as it did outside, not even close. I had made an enormous fake fix on the handle to compensate for the problem. I had so much bias in the handle that Jose Modesto walked passed it in the pits at the NATs, and gave me this look of pure confusion … or maybe it was pity. You will have to ask him.
The bottom line is I was trying to make do with a terrible trim problem. It got so bad, that after appearance judging, I went and practiced with David Fitzgerald. We had a maybe a 10-13 mph wind and the plane just wouldn’t turn inside when it wound up. It was so bad that I thought I was going to hit the ground. David decided that we were going to take a good hard look at the airplane back at the hotel. After an hour or so of many competent people (Paul Walker, Chris Cox, Bob McDonald and David Fitzgerald) looking at the control system, Paul Walker noticed that the stab didn’t appear to be lined up properly. Sure enough, it was a 1/16 of an inch low at the aft end of the stab!
That’s a LOT of incidence! Since it was a take-apart, we were able to shim the stab to make it straight. The next day was spent fixing the handle to make it right again, and almost all the handle bias was removed. The plane flew great and I was able to make the top 5, win the Team Trials and get 7th at the World Championships in France. I almost stopped flying the airplane because of the problem, but once resolved it became a world-class airplane. To sum it up, don’t start practicing until the plane is at, say, 85-95% trimmed.
Once I feel that the plane is in decent trim, I invite my coach Fred Krueger out to start watching. Fred is a huge support, and meets me out 2-3 times a week to watch me fly. He brings his video camera and notepad. The video camera is used just so that I can see what he is seeing. The camera isn’t all that good for anything more than interactions and consistency of shape. Now there is a big difference on camera between consistency of shape and shape. The angle of the camera clearly distorts the shape.
Let’s talk about practice progression. At the start of the season I focus on intersections and shapes. The foundation to the stunt pattern is shapes and intersection. Size follows this closely, but often I hear that people start with bottom and corners. Those are the icing on the cake. If you have an issue with shapes and intersections as a maneuver progresses, it will only compound the initial issue. Let’s take the clover for example. It’s common to start the clover at the right height and come out of the first loop too low. What happens next is that you either have a very small bottom left loop, or a noticeable climb in the intersection. Then what comes next is a choice – which intersection do you hit next? Both will look wrong! You get the point. It makes it difficult to correct mistakes if you start with the wrong shape and/or intersection.
Fred and I spend maybe a hundred flights just talking after each flight, and working on one thing for per maneuver and usually just five of the maneuvers. More than that, and I have a hard time remembering what to work on. I’m interested to see how this will change as I switch to electric. I’m assuming that we will just fly those five maneuvers, and we will just have a walkie talkie to hear his feedback. The junior Chinese pilot and his dad had a similar setup at the Worlds Championships this past summer. It seemed to work, as he qualified for the top 15.
As Fred coaches, he doesn’t comment on bottom bobbles or high or low bottoms. They are obvious and don’t help my mental state. When we first started he made a few comments on them but we quickly realized it doesn’t help. One thing that is a little harder for the pilot to notice is slanted bottoms on maneuvers. If the plane dives a foot or even a foot and a half, it’s hard for the pilot to see that. If Fred sees a consistent climb or dive during the inside square, he asks me if I can see it. If I don’t, he points it out. Sometimes I can see the slant, and other times I can’t.
Now after a few hundred flights, and I start feeling like there isn’t much consistent problems with shapes, intersection or size, Fred starts to write down the bottom or corner mistakes he sees. Here is the important part, he doesn’t mention the issues on bottoms until he’s seen the mistake a lot. Like three times in a session. That means either I’m not seeing the issue, or we need to look a few turns or so before to find the issue. This is important to note.
Most of the time the issue on a particular corner doesn’t begin in the corner where you notice an error. Many times, it happens in the corner before, or even two corners before the actual error. Best example is in the square eight. If you are over-rotating the bottom left corner, it could be that you are under-turning the top corner that precedes the bottom corner. This causes the plane to turn harder than it needs to, which can cause a higher chance of missing the corner. Since Fred has coached me for a few years, he knows what to look for my consistent mistakes.
To go back to my baseball analogy, Fred is looking for consistent issues. We are changing two things for our coaching program this year. I got a great practice chart from Kaz Minato at the World Championships, and what we are doing is charting all the mistakes for a given week, and then important them to a spreadsheet. That way I can see the mistakes that I consistently make, so they can continually be charted, and my focus can stay on them. The most important thing is that when you are in the Finals you know what to focus during those flights. I find that if I’m not focusing on at least something during each maneuver, my mind wanders, and I make random mistakes.
The second new thing is a program developed by Alberto Solera, which takes your video footage and traces the flight path of the airplane.
This is a great tool which essentially saves a lot of time. What I used to do was take the video footage Fred shoots, and then put cellophane on my computer screen and trace the maneuver with a marker to see if the plane is flying over its previous flight path. This was a painstaking process, and one I only did once maybe twice a month. Now I can do 5 flights in about 30 minutes! I again will document the errors for review later, and ask Fred to look for them as I practice. You can download this program for free and use on a PC. Great job Alberto!
Fred can’t travel with me to every big contest. In fact, he has never made it to coach me at a big contest! He’s the silent hero in my stunt program. So, what do you do when you have an entire week or two when you don’t have your local coach? You FIND ONE. My first priority is always to find a coach. Now realize that is ONE coach, maybe two, but never more. I learned this the hard way. What happens with lots of different feedback about all the one-off issues instead of the consistent errors. It will drive you mad! So, pick one who has the time and the desire to help. Often it isn’t another competitor. Other pilots are too busy, though they would love to help. This isn’t always the rule, but it helps. At the World Championships Keith Trostle was my coach, with help from Kaz Minato towards the end. They worked together and gave me feedback that they discussed together. I remember the first time I asked Bill Werwage to coach me, he asked to watch three of my flights before he would even make a comment.
Now, the last part of this article is about innovation. I save nearly all my experiments until after the NATs. There is enough work to be done to get into top shape before then. I start preparing for the next season as soon as the big contest are over. This last year I experimented with electrics and inline planes as I built a test plane to learn with. I have cut into that airplane at least 7 times to make control adjustments. That was the second airplane I built this last year in preparation for the 2019 season. My point is not to go and make a whole bunch of innovations prior to a big contest, but if you do, make sure you have done some previous testing prior to the start of the season.