NIH'er Goes Aerobatic in Vintage Stunt Plane
By Josť Alvarado
On the Front Page...
John Nagy gets his highs -- literally. He also gets his lows, his spins, his vertical downs, his loops and his rolls.
The NIDA public affairs specialist is the proud owner of a bright red Zlin Z526F Czechoslovakian military trainer, a legendary airplane used in acrobatic flying, or aerobatics, which has made real a childhood dream for this former commercial airline pilot. The craft earned Nagy first place in the basic category of the Pennsylvania Aerobatics Championships held last month. Not bad for his debut in aerobatic competition.
Not many people share Nagy's passion for acrobatic flight. The NIH'er has joined the ranks of fewer than 800 pilots across the country who compete actively, according to the International Aerobatics Club, a 6,000-member organization that regulates and sanctions aerobatic competition in the United States. They are the elite among 800,000 licensed pilots in the nation.
Contrary to what you might think, aerobatic flying is not the preserve of daredevils and stuntmen, but a skilled sport practiced by amateurs like Nagy. All sorts of career people -- from stockbrokers to doctors and lawyers -- fill its ranks, competing in regional contests like the one in Pennsylvania. Although many hot-shot pilots make money flying exhibition shows, people like the 60-year-old Nagy see aerobatic flying as a leisurely pursuit as well as a personal challenge.
A Precious Dream
Nagy's hobby is born of a deep passion for airplanes that began in childhood. His father took him to the Cleveland Air Races in 1947, where an "airplane without propellers" was featured. But the young Nagy was not impressed so much by the novelty of a propeller-less plane as by the groundvibrating roar of a squadron of P-38 fighter planes, which had been used in World War II. "I never forgot that moment. I was hooked. I had to fly," Nagy recalls. "Most pilots have had similar experiences that make them want to pursue the dream."
But Nagy was not to realize his dream until 1980, when he saw an ad in an airline magazine for a flying school that guaranteed attainment of a pilot's license for an affordable price. "(Before then), I thought it was too much of a precious dream. I was raising a family and didn't have money to go skiing, to say nothing of flying an airplane. It was something I put way in the back of my mind," said Nagy, who until then had worked in marketing, a job he lost due to the economic downturn of the period. His career as a pilot was about to begin.
The Czech Connection
The early 1980's saw Nagy make the rounds as a flying instructor and freight runner between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He operated his own company, dedicated to aircraft rental and flight instruction. Late in the decade, after clocking 5,000 hours of flight, he turned to piloting small commercial planes in the Northeast and Atlantic coast.
Nagy's adoption of acrobatic flight during this decade shows the influence of family ties linking him to a rich Czech aviation culture. Besides having Czech lineage from his mother's side of the family, Nagy has received encouragement and cultural influence from Terri, his Czech wife who has been an aerobatic pilot for 10 years. She was decisive in developing his love of flight to its fullest. Nagy noted how the Czechoslovakians have "the most committed culture to aviation of any nation on Earth. For years, anybody in the Czech Republic who wanted to learn how to fly could do so free after passing a medical exam. They are also the only nation on Earth that requires a mastery of basic aerobatic flying in order to pass the flight test and obtain a private pilot's license. They have more pilots than anybody and every one of them is an aerobatic pilot." This historical commitment to flying has also made it a superior producer of aircraft.
His wife introduced him to aerobatic flying. The aircraft she owned was too small to seat both of them, so when it came time to buy a new one, she sought a two-seat aerobatic plane they could afford. That's when the couple discovered the Zlin Z526F military trainer. It had been sold as scrap in the U.S. in 1980, and before that had belonged to the Hungarian airforce, which had ordered it from a Czechoslovakian factory in 1972. The Nagys bought it from a Kansas dentist who had it "sitting in a pool of oil, not looking like much." Nagy restored the Zlin to and beyond its former glory, including an $8,000 paint job.
Nagy pointed out the airplane's legendary reputation, which began the moment it was introduced in 1957. The Zlin bested its counterparts because it could perform a maneuver that was thought impossible at the time -- the lomcevak or somersault. The Czechoslovakians improved the propeller so that it could protect against engine over-speed. This and other design innovations made it the first airplane able to perform maneuvers without breaking a sequence, according to Nagy. "Without exaggeration, it is the most successful sport aerobatic airplane in history," he explained. "It won every world championship from 1958 through 1969. No other airplane even comes close. All 12 of those victories were by 12 different nations, and each one did it with this model. This plane is still very competitive at the three lower levels of national competition in the United States. There are five levels of competition; only at the top two does this airplane fail to compete, mainly because of horsepower and strength. At the lower levels we can compete forever." Nagy's Zlin is one of only 30 known to exist across the country. In fact, he edits the Zlin Newsletter and keeps track of owners and parts they may have; he also has access to a Zlin representative from the Czech Republic.
Aerobatic maneuvers are not arbitrary and chaotic. They follow a given set of rules and are constrained to an alloted area. Competition in the U.S. takes place in a cube of airspace 3,300 feet high. The box is divided into varying heights, depending on the pilot's level of competition. For safety reasons, beginners are not allowed to go below 1,500 feet. In the unlimited category, flyers can descend to within 300 feet of the ground. Even though Nagy compares the risks in acrobatic flying to those of motorcycle racing, he points out that "about the safest place you can be if you're going to fly aerobatics is in a contest."
In Pennsylvania, Nagy's Zlin competed with four other planes in the basic category, performing maneuvers in a corridor between 1,500 and 3,500 feet. The competition is scored similarly to ice skating, using five judges who look for imperfections in a sequence of figures each pilot must execute. A perfectly flown figure is worth 10 points, with half-point deductions for imperfections. Nagy won with 85 percent of the possible points.
He says it takes extreme concentration and uncommon willpower to get the airplane "to do exactly what you want it to do." He affirmed that it's more a mental process than a physical one. "It's the difference between putting on a golf course and playing the fairways; there is something about the will to sink a long putt that is similar to what you experience doing an aerobatic maneuver perfectly. And being able to do that instantaneously, on demand, is a very exhilarating experience. It's a big rush of pride and satisfaction."
There is no room to rest on your laurels in aerobatic competition. The only direction you can go is up. Winners in one category can't compete again on the same level. Recounting his experience in Pennsylvania, Nagy says that competitors propel a winner to a higher level of competition with complimentary cheers of "Move up! Move up!" Nagy will spend this summer learning new, more difficult maneuvers required of the next higher category of competition. He looks forward to regional contests scheduled in Virginia in the fall.
Clearly, he is addicted to the natural highs of flight. "I believe that flying releases endorphins that bring pleasure as much as drug rushes, and maybe much bigger. Flying is one of the biggest pleasures I have experienced."
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