This month we caught up with Steve Slater who is the CEO and Director at the Light Aircraft Association. Steve joined the Association from a successful career in PR and marketing communications, where he ran a leading agency working in sectors including aviation, the motor industry and tourism, both in the UK and in Asia. He was for 15 years ‘the voice of Formula One’ in the Far East, working as commentator with the Singapore-based Star Sports TV channel. He was also part of the team which created the Singapore Grand Prix, Formula One’s first-ever night race.
Steve, tell us what is the Light Aircraft Association’s role?
The LAA is Britain’s biggest sport flying organisation, we have just short of 8,000 members and we look after and oversee the maintenance and inspection of about 4,000 aircraft. We have a lot of aircraft that is used for competitive flying or for handicapped air racing which fly at handicapped speeds or activities such as Air Race 1 which is the closed-circuit racing. This is wingtip to wingtip racing which can be up to eight aircraft at a time and is in sight of the people, flying at around 30 feet and at speeds of up to 250mph. It’s a spectacular air sport.
How did you first get involved?
It was a lot of years ago as a teenager and I got my first sight of Air Racing at an airfield in the North-East of England called Durham Tees Valley Airport where they hosted a round of the British Championships. As a teenager I spent two seasons down there on the pylons as a Pylon Marshall making sure nobody cut the corners, from then on in I’ve had a passion for flying for all of my life. I did my first solo flight aged 17 and I’m very lucky now to be the chief executive of the LAA. I fly a vintage aircraft myself and through the interest I’ve always had in air racing, when the opportunity came for us to get involved with Air Race 1 and subsequently the Air Race E series, I couldn’t wait personally to be involved, it was a natural fit for our organisation.
What are the main challenges you face?
Our first challenge is making sure everything is safe and airworthy. We do that by a team of inspectors who are all experienced aircraft engineers and we also have an engineer based at our LA headquarters which look at things like structural analysis, vibration analysis and things like resonant in the air frames because we’re running these propellers at very high speeds. The aircraft themselves are right at the cutting edge of the ability to fly at these speeds in a relatively low amount of horsepower, any of these aircraft are capable of travelling in excess of 200mph.
What is the most impressive moment you have witnessed at Air Race 1 in the standard version of the sport pre-electric?
I think anybody who has seen closed circuit air racing finds it an incredible experience. It’s like formula one in three dimensions because not only can you overtake to the left or right, you can also overtake underneath or above. There is an awful lot of energy that goes into it. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to travel as a race commentator for TV for the Air Race series out to China and to Thailand the year before. In Thailand the most memorable moment was during the race for the gold trophy when two of the fastest aircraft in the field dived around the pylons at 240mph. I never expected I would see what are normally 100 horsepower aircraft doing 240mph. If you could imagine your family car engine yet this has got the same speed as a formula one car, that is exactly what it’s all about, to see these aircraft dicing wingtip to wingtip was absolutely awesome to watch.
Is Air Race considered to be safe?
There is always a risk of collision from wingtip to wingtip or propeller to a tail and sadly sometimes airplane racing has proved risky. In recent times the safety record has been remarkably good, the other challenge is aircraft flying very close to each other close to the ground. The air turbulence can flip an aircraft by almost ninety degrees and if you are too close to the ground you are at risk of an impact. It all comes down to pilot training, they must all go through a proven training school and everybody polices themselves very carefully, pilots are very critical of their own performances.
How is electric air racing different to standard air racing?
Electric air racing is very much in its formative stages, we’ve got the first four teams at the moment preparing their aircraft, none of them have yet flown, we do have some power units which are in the proof of concept and in the final stages of development. In the next year or so we will see pure electric aircraft taking to the air for racing purposes, there are also some other slower, more training style aircraft flying with similar power units at the moment but what will happen is the rate of development is going to accelerate over the next few years and Air Race E will be a catalyst for that. Nothing moves technology on faster than a competitive environment and you can’t get more competitive than Air Racing.
How important is research in developing more efficient/faster planes?
The research comes down to the individual participants and one of the most important things is to keep this category of racing affordable because most of the people that are involved in it are relatively private individuals. We’ve got pilots who simply do this or flying for fun and therefore the cost of it has to be not significantly greater than that of a traditional combustion engine, the likes of which have been used for formula air racing for over 75 years. These engines now are being replaced by the electric power units initially we’ll have evolution rather than revolution in that we’ll have some of the air frames and aircraft that have been petrol powered until now coming out with electric power units or even rechargeable systems. In the future after that we will see more radical developments that will take advantage of the flexibility that electric power gives you and we might well see some very streamlined designs coming out to take advantage of that.
If you were an Air Race pilot, what plane would you want to fly and why?
There is a little racing aeroplane which is the most popular basic template design for racing aircraft called a Cassutt which was designed in the 1950’s. There is also another aircraft which would be my personal choice which is called a shoestring racer, instead of using a steel frame which the Cassutt uses, the shoestring uses a carbon composite monocrop which is like a formula one car which has the potential to be a real world beater.
What is the potential of Air Race E and what excites you most about it?
Air Race E is taking traditional formula air racing into a completely new direction and in fact sport aviation as a whole. For the last seventy years we in sport flying have been using fossil fuelled aeroplanes using petrol engines which have developed to become very reliable, very robust and remarkably economical but we do need to look at new developments. We’re not going to have fossil fuels forever and what we’re looking at here with Air Race E is the sharp edge of the development of the next generation of power units and those power units may well be pioneered in Air Race E aircrafts, but once they have demonstrated their ability in short, very fast races, the next challenge to come will be to develop those units so they can be used for longer flights. They can be used for training flights and I would say that a local flying club or flying school teaching people to fly who may be potential airline pilots in the future within this decade will be moving across to electric power units which will be emission free, they will be quieter than the existing petrol power units and will be emission free so it’s a win-win all around.
Why is developing electric-powered aviation so important to the environment?
A lot of aviation technology is quite old fashioned in some ways. The opportunity to move away from those fossil fuels into electric power which is going to be quieter and potentially more efficient in the future allows for flying to continue without worries of the environment and the environmental impact of the flying that people are doing. Electric power will revolutionise flying over the next decade or two and the Air Race E series is right at the cutting edge of it.
What are you most looking forward to seeing from Air Race E in the future?
One of the great things that Britain is good at is innovating. We’re brilliant at coming up with new ideas and making them work and this is a classic example where at the moment the Air Racing world is American led but with Air Race E I’m seeing British technology and British individuals coming up with solutions that people in other countries haven’t even thought of yet. If there’s one thing we can demonstrate with Air Race E is that we are still able to be creative thinkers and we are still able to lead the world in this.
With almost 70 years of history, no other UK association has the depth of knowledge and experience in looking after aviation as the LAA. From lowly beginnings they have built an impressive association that today boast around 8,000 members and oversees the airworthiness of 2,600 aircraft, plus a further 1,500 aircraft build projects. They’ve forged an enviable reputation for determination and fairness within the corridors of power in the UK and Europe and are one of the principle representative groups providing balanced consultative input on matters such as airspace, planning and safety regulation.
The LAA have committed their support to Air Race E in developing the technical regulations and potential design oversight for the sport of electric airplane racing, which will be sanctioned by the Formula Air Racing Association (FARA) and its counter-part in France, APAF.