Sport pilots race in skies

Not long ago, the Athens Aero Club and the Aerial Sports Association sponsored the Rally Flying race at the Tatoi airstrip north of Athens. Pilots and navigators who were involved in the event described the atmosphere of the aerial showdown. «Participating in the race is like being in psychotherapy,» said Vangelis Koukakis, 32, an instructor at the Athens Aero Club, just before the Cessna 152 («the teaching airplane which forgives mistakes») took off. «The experience of a flight during which you are required to fly with surgical precision is one of a kind.» Most of the aircraft that take part in the competition are instructional Cessnas and Pipers with horsepower of between 150 and 200. They are considered ideal, since their wings are found on the top part of the fuselage and allow pilots to see territory and orient themselves without too much trouble. According to regulations, the crew members must finish the course with precision in both time and form, and the course isn’t announced until just before the pilot and co-pilot embark. Every deviation from the course and the timetable, which is observed by organizers through wireless electronic systems called GPS Loggers, is cause to deduct points. The top finishers are those who manage to get the least penalty points. The top Rally organizer, Christos Malamas, says a file with the details of the course is handed to the crew just before they board the aircraft. In 30 minutes, they must set a course using traditional methods, such as rulers and protractors instead of the now-standard radio communication equipment such as flight calculators, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and mobile telephones. «The feeling of participation in a competition is unique and doesn’t compare with some kind of touristy flight,» said Vangelis Giokaris, 60, a mechanic who has 18 years of experience in the Rally Flying competitions and has participated twice in international competitions. The competition at Tatoi took place within the framework of the so-called «Greek Club 2006.» During the course of the year, there will be three to four more Rally Flying competitions under the aegis of the Hellenic Aerial Sports Association and the Hellenic Aviation Championship. People from 10 aero clubs participate and the six champions who emerge represent Greece in competitions abroad. «The international Rally is harder and the competition greater,» said Natalia Anemodoura, a Greek champion of the event. «Foreign crews train all the time, in contrast to what happens here, where we don’t even employ a trainer and we must cover all expenses with our own money if we want the national team to participate [in the international event.]»