Jim Bourke was one of eight Americans who traveled to South Africa this fall to compete in the World Aerobatic Championships.
It was the Corvallis pilot’s first time competing at the international level. Though he didn’t score as well as he had hoped, the adventure, he said, was unparalleled.
“The experience of being in South Africa is really interesting because it’s just so different than anything I’ve ever seen before,” Bourke said last week at the Corvallis Municipal Airport before taking his plane for a jaunt.
Aerobatics involves flying an airplane in loops, rolls and spins. Though Bourke grew up with airplanes because his father sold them, he started flying aerobatics just 10 years ago. He quickly moved up the ranks to compete in the most advanced category, known as unlimited. Only about 20 people in the country fly unlimited, Bourke said.
“It’s a very select group of people,” he said. “It takes years to be really good at it.”
He said the world championships are like “unlimited plus.”
The championships took place in September in Malelane, a farming town in the northeastern part of South Africa. The pilots flew near Kruger National Park, a game reserve.
“The day I got there, there was a herd of elephants, maybe 30 elephants, hanging out right there,” Bourke said. While there, he’d also see hippos, water buffaloes, rhinos, crocodiles, giraffes and gazelles.
The opening ceremony featured traditional warrior dances by Zulu peoples, Bourke said. The 40 pilots walked in with their country teams.
It was too costly to ship his own airplane, an Extra 330SC, to South Africa, so Bourke rented one. It was tough to fly with an unfamiliar plane, he said.
“It was my first Worlds and there’s a lot I learned from it,” Bourke said. For one, he doesn’t want to fly without his own airplane again.
When it was his turn to fly the four-minute freestyle, an event he considers his specialty, he realized his rented plane had already been taken apart to be shipped back to France, where it came from. He borrowed a plane he had never flown before, making his well-oiled routine feel unpredictable.
“I dove in and did my first maneuver and realized I just had to survive this,” Bourke said. “That’s all I can do.”
He ended up scoring second-to-last in that competition.
Of the 12 countries in attendance at the championship, the United States took third, behind France and Russia.
After departing South Africa, Bourke went straight to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the National Aerobatics Championships. There, he was able to fly his own airplane.
“It’s made for this kind of thing,” Bourke said. “What it’s really good for is just going straight up and blowing smoke all over the place.”
In Wisconsin, he took second place in the freestyle event. His plane tumbled through the air to a mash-up of "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This" by Eurythmics. To see a video of the performance, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQLRr2OG3F0.
About 100 pilots competed in the national championships at all five categories of skill, Bourke said.
Though there are many airplane enthusiasts, aerobatics is a niche sport because of its physical demands and the high costs involved, he said.
“Flying aerobatics is another level of expense and risk and takes more training, and I think it’s just something that most people probably imagine they can’t do,” he said. “They can, but they probably don’t think they can.”
Aerobatic planes are expensive, Bourke said. Sometimes, multiple pilots will buy one to share and take turns flying. For Bourke, it was after many successful years in the software business — he owns Knife Edge Software — that he was able to get into aerobatics. Currently, he’s designing a virtual reality game featuring his own plane, which is blue and orange and has a toothy grimace on the nose.
Aerobatic pilots also have to be able to withstand increased G-forces, which could cause them to lose consciousness. Bourke said he flies in two-seater airplanes with pilots who are trying aerobatics for the first time, so they can learn their limits.
“We fly very, very grueling, physically demanding sequences that really pass the limits of some of the pilots who can’t make it through those sequences,” he said. “That’s the sport. Like any other sport, you get to where you’re testing people at their very limits of endurance and their ability.”
Though he’s been flying aerobatics for years now, he still gets scared, Bourke said. He’s had two friends this year die while flying. He said it’s almost never the airplane at fault. Sometimes the pilot is performing stunts too close to the ground. Maybe they run out of gas.
“It’s very fun and you can get caught up in the fun and forget you’re doing something that’s very risky and could kill you,” he said. “You have to remind yourself that what you’re doing is a privilege, and you have to be sharp 100 percent of the time you do it.”
“It’s a very punishing sport if you’re at all foolish,” Bourke added.
He said maintaining some level of fear while flying is a good thing. It reminds him he’s doing something dangerous. When trying a new maneuver or changing his routine, he tries it high in the air many times before flying closer to the ground, he said.
Bourke plans to continue competing and fly in the next World Aerobatic Championships in 2019.