Earlier this year, Red Bull USA asked me to help judge the aerobatic portion of its Paper Wings competition, the world’s largest paper airplane contest. To learn more about the physics of aerobatic flight—the hair-raising stunts pilots perform at air shows—I traveled down to Ruston, Louisiana, (on Red Bull's dime, full disclosure) for the wildest ride of my life.
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The Extra 300L is a mechanical marvel, specially outfitted to perform a wide range of complex aerobatic maneuvers. Powered by a Lycoming AEIO-540 engine and a Hartzell propeller (Kevin’s preferred propeller), it can safely pull up to +/- 10Gs, or the unit we use to measure the effects of acceleration on the body. It has a steel fuselage and a single carbon-fiber wing with a larger-than-usual set of ailerons that help it turn quickly through the air.
Once Kevin gave me the full safety debriefing—think: “This is how a parachute works,” and “No, I won’t leave you in the plane if something happens”—we strapped in and taxied out to the runway.
Over the course of our 15-minute flight, we reached a top speed of around 200 knots (230 miles per hour) and an altitude of more than 7,000 feet (data courtesy of FlightRadar). Kevin, who has been flying since the age of 16, and is one of the youngest aerobatic pilots flying today, walked me through every step of each maneuver.
First up? An aileron roll. Kevin pitched the plane up, and then, as we pulled into a parabolic arc, rolled the plane to the right.
That was just the beginning.
We flew inverted (upside-down), did a loop, a hammerhead (where the pilot pitches the plane directly upward and then turns 180 degrees to the left once it stops generating lift), and a series of tumbles that sent the plane hurtling end-over-end toward the ground. A high-speed “air-race turn” took us up to 10Gs, or ten times the force of gravity.
It was the ride of a lifetime, and I’m so grateful to Kevin for taking me up with him. Additionally, a very special thanks to aerospace engineer Bernardo Malfitano for chatting with me about the physics of aerobatic flight for this video. He has an excellent lecture on YouTube about what it would take for certain aircraft—like, say, a Cessna or a jet airliner—to perform the kinds of aerobatic stunts that an Extra 300L can easily ace.
Next up, Kevin and I will be judging the aerobatic portion of Red Bull’s Paper Wings competition, in which participants submitted TikTok videos of their craftiest paper airplane designs. Students from more than 490 institutions across 62 countries have participated in “Qualiflyer” events for the competition so far (one paper plane flew a staggering 50 meters!), but only a handful of them will have the opportunity to travel to the Paper Wings World Finals at Red Bull’s famed Hangar 7 in Salzburg, Austria.
May the best plane fly.