Truly loopy

June Casagrande

From his earliest experiences riding in airplanes, upside down has

always seemed to make as much sense to Steve Andelin as right side up

or sideways.

“The very first airplane rides I took were with my father in his

Aronca Champ,” Andelin said. “He used to take us out to the hills and

do loops and rolls, and that’s what I thought flying was. I didn’t

think of it as straight and level.”

With that kind of introduction to flying, it’s no surprise that

Andelin became an aerobatics pilot -- a flyer trained to perform

difficult in-air maneuvers that are an airplane’s equivalent of

acrobatics. The 44-year-old Newport Beach resident is now ranked the

No. 3 aerobatics pilot in the nation. In 2001, he was No. 1.

This ranking has earned Andelin a spot on the U.S. Aerobatics

Team, which will compete against 14 other countries in Lakeland,

Fla., June 25 to July 4.

The 33-year-old competition, put on once every two years by the

International Aerobatics Club, starts with a qualifying round in

which each pilot from each country takes turns flying maneuvers

predetermined by the club. Then, the pilots get to fly maneuvers that

they choreographed for themselves in advance.

Then comes the hard part -- the routines pilots don’t know about

until the judges give them a sheet of paper describing the routine

the night before.

“No one gets a chance to fly it in advance,” Andelin said.

“Everyone’s time with that routine is their first time.”

Judges watch from the ground, where a “box” 1,000 meters by 1,000

meters is marked in white. It corresponds to the area in the air

within which pilots must perform their moves or lose points.

The moves themselves make this task so difficult. The maneuvers in

any routine could include loops in which pilots must fly in a perfect

circle in the air. There are “outside loops,” in which the top of the

plane forms the outside of the circle, and “inside loops,” in which

the belly of the plane forms the circle’s outside edge.

Then, there are “rolls,” with the planes rolling side-over-side

like a dog rolling over. If that’s not scary enough, there are tail

slides. Picture a plane shooting straight up in a perfect line toward

the heavens then quickly stopping all acceleration. The plane slows

to a complete stop before beginning to fall, tail first, toward the

ground. In a momentary, precision maneuver, pilots must turn the

plane so that its nose aims straight down.

“It’s challenging,” Andelin said. “You have to work at it all the

time to stay oriented, to know where the airplane is going to end


There are only a handful of plane designs allowed in the

international competition, all of them tiny prop planes specifically

designed for aerobatics. Andelin owns his own Vivko Edge 540, which

he will fly in the competition. The Russian-made Sukhoi SU-26 and the

French Cap-232 are the other types of planes seen in the competition.

“I think we have a good chance of winning this year, we have a

good team,” Andelin said.

The U.S. men’s team has won three times in the contest’s history,

as has the U.S. women’s team.

“It’s not the adrenaline. It’s the skill of knowing you can make a

plane do exactly what you want to do that’s so addicting. It’s not

like sky-diving. That’s an adrenaline rush.”

When he wants to, Andelin can easily straighten up and fly right.

His job depends on it. The father of twin 1-year-old boys is a pilot

for American Airlines.

And while you still may think Andelin is crazy, he’s certainly not


“My wife Sheila and I have an understanding. I can fly aerobatics

competitions, but no air shows. Now that’s dangerous.”

* JUNE CASAGRANDE covers Newport Beach and John Wayne Airport.

She may be reached at (949) 574-4232 or by e-mail at