A Judging Perspective
Steve Johnson
Jan 2011

I have been flying aerobatic competitions since 1994, and it seems that in the last few years I have noticed that more and more score sheets come back to me after a flight with no comments written by the judges.  I have also heard from other competitors that they have noticed this reduction of comments on score sheets as well.  With this article, I hope to make two points; first to provide a method of judging and critiquing competition sequences that provides good qualitative feedback to the pilot, in a manner that is easy for the Judge to use and is consistent for all pilots; and second, that comments on score sheets may be the only critique of flight figures a pilot gets, especially newer competition pilots who don't know about practice days and coaches yet, so the comments are very important to the pilots!

The written score is the judge's quantitative analysis of a figure flown.  That score can provide a pilot with an overall gross description of his figure relative to the perfect figure, but doesn't help with what was specifically wrong.  The comments section of the score sheet provides an area for qualitative, or descriptive, analysis of the figure.  This is what is needed by competition pilots to make corrections to bad or poorly flown figures.

To begin, remember as an IAC Judge, we start with the assumption of a perfect figure.  Once we see errors, we start deducting from that perfect "10" score.  As a Judge, I feel that I must be able to state verbally, with clarity, the errors I see that will cause deductions from the perfect 10.  I don't think it is right for me to say "I didn't like that figure", and give a deduction.  Obviously, there will be shades of ambiguity at times, and we have to use our best judgment & judging skills to clear up the questions in our minds.  That is why we have multiple judges on the line.  Each judge may see something different that causes that judge to arrive at a certain score.  But as long as a particular judge maintains the same method or system throughout the category they are judging, their judging will be fair to all pilots.  So, when I see a mistake I can verbalize, I say it out loud - to my Recorder.  When I see the mistake and verbalize it, I must also determine the severity of the mistake; how many points must be deducted for that mistake.  I use the word "slightly" for point deductions, no modifier for 1 point deductions and "very" or "a lot" for multiple point deductions.  Sometimes, my speech will get more colorful, especially for those more spectacular mistakes or brain locks, but those normally end up being a Zero anyway, though I do try to give good comments for the airshow figures and tumbles.

By using "slightly" and "very" regularly in my spoken critique, the Recorder can use their own shorthand to get these comments on paper quickly.  Then, immediately after, I identify the actual mistake causing the deduction. If you have ever been on a Judging Line, you have heard these comments; positive up, steep before, steep after, long or short after, pinched, etc.  A new pilot may not understand these comments, but when they bring their score sheets to me after the flying (along with a cold beer)  I will explain what the shorthand means and the mistakes I saw to create those comments.  Thus the pilot gets some written critique of his flight, and I can use the comments to help me remember what I saw.  I am not the only judge on the line, there are always different opinions, and I will get back to this later.

I can even use this system even when judging Unlimited.  A new recorder may get behind, but I always tell them to get the score if nothing else.  A good Recorder, though, can easily can keep up with my verbalization through Unlimited flights. 

While I am verbalizing the comments to the recorder, I am bending fingers down on one hand.  I bend a finger half way for points and all the way for 1 point.  Multiple points off requires me to put multiple fingers down.  At the end if the figure, the fingers left tells me the score.  And yes, sometimes I have had to look at my fingers to see what the score really was.  If I get below a 5.0 in score, then I start raising fingers back up as at 5.0 points off, all of my fingers will be down.  When the figure is completed, I open my hand to start scoring the next figure.

I teach this system to new Assistants and to new judges when they ask.  Most do like it after they get used to it.  Give it a try with some lower category flights, and then try it with higher categories when you are comfortable.  Things do happen, and sometimes, as a judge, we may miss part of a figure, or points get lost in the sun.  Assistants can help, and if we have to, we can give an "A" score so our score is averaged with the rest.  But these issues should be in the minority for most flights.  Give this system a try.  I think you will find it makes your scoring as a judge easier and more consistent between pilots, and you will help another pilot, and yourself, become a better competitor using the comments the judges provide. 

Most newer aerobatic pilots have not had ground coaching or been to many practice days yet.  The only feedback they get is the comments on score sheets from their flights.  Here is a method for pilots to turn those great new comments into a good qualitative critique that can be used to correct issues in future flights.  When I have comments on the score sheets for my flights, I review the comments for each figure in a semi-formal way.  To start, I look at figure 1, and only figure 1, for the comments from all judges.  If a majority of the judges gave me the same comment, I write that down on a separate piece of paper.  When I get conflicting comments, for example positive up and negative up for the same figure, these cancel out until a majority of judges have the same comment.  Then I go to figure 2.  On the separate piece of paper I again write down the comments that come from the majority of judges for figure 2.  I go through each figure in this manner, writing down only the comments that come from the majority of judges.  When I have gone through my entire sequence, I have the new piece of paper with only the majority comments written down.  There are usually only one or maybe two main comments that are similar throughout the sequence.  These are the mistakes I try to correct in my next flights.  We can never fix all of the mistakes; that is one of the joys & frustrations of competition aerobatics.  But if one mistake shows up throughout a sequence, and we can fix that one mistake, our scores in the next flight will increase. 

For example, suppose a sequence has a hammerhead, a wedge and a humpty bump.  Each of those figures has a vertical up line as a component.  If a majority of the judges called positive on the up line in those figures, resetting the sight device or changing the sight picture will fix those portions of the figures next time.  The comment "pinching the tops of loops" applies to all loops; full loops, half loops, and reverse Cuban 8s and full eights.  Fixing the pinched top issue will increase the scores on all these looping figures. 

As pilots move up in the categories, the comments may become less specific, and probably judges will have fewer areas of agreement in critiquing figures.  This is good!  The judges have fewer big or gross mistakes to critique, so the pilot is flying better.  But it is also bad, in that the pilot must make more precise corrections, and maybe only to specific figures.  This is where good ground coaching and practice days can help.  By concentrating on one figure during a practice flight, a pilot can learn the subtleties of that figure for his flying style and airframe, without worrying about the next figure or box positioning.  Once the figure is learned, then it can be flown in the sequence to determine how it fits with the other figures and the energy requirements needed. 

Just to recap, comments on the score sheets are the judges' main method of communicating those qualitative problems with the figures flown, and they are the best method a pilot has, at that time, to learn of the problems, and correct them.  So please judges, make the comments.  You know you want them when you fly.  After a contest, a pilot can take the comments from all the flights, use the method described earlier to find the 1-2 main issues to fix, and go to a coach for more one-on-one training to eliminate the issues found.  This will help new pilots move up in the categories when they are ready, without the frustration of not knowing why they don't score better.  Comments on the score sheets are important; so judges do your jobs and give the pilots the information they need to become better.  Grow our sport through better communication to new pilots so they have more fun and come back again.