Primary through Unlimited

IAC competition is divided into five categories: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited.

There is a another contest component called the “Four Minute Free,” which may be entered by Unlimited pilots and Advanced pilots holding an airshow card. The Four Minute Free is basically an airshow performance with music and smoke that takes place after the main contest flights have concluded.Each category has its own requirements and limitations in regard to altitudes and figures to be flown. All categories fly a “Known” program, which is compulsory and created by the IAC Sequence Development Committee. The Known changes from year to year, except in the case of Primary, where it sometimes remain the same and is flown for all flights in a contest.. A “Free” program of the pilot’s choosing within a set of Aresti guidelines and point values is required for Intermediate and above, and is optional (but a good idea) for Sportsman.

The final program for Intermediate and above is the “Unknown,” which is exactly as it sounds – a series of figures from a set catalog that must be flown as directed without practice. A variation of this type of program for pilots competing for U.S. team selection and at the world level is the “Free-Unknown,” which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

hand with three medals in palm


Primary is the lowest category and it is customary for someone new to the sport to start here, but not required. This category is designed for beginners to get a feel for competition and flying in the aerobatic box in front of judges.

Primary competitors only fly the Known program, thus it can be practiced with an instructor or coach beforehand. A student who has completed an Intro to Aerobatics course and has qualified for the “Smooth” Primary IAC patch award should be able to attempt flying a contest at this level. Often a “safety pilot” will accompany beginning competitors and is either their instructor or the owner of the aircraft for insurance purposes. During the contest flights, the safety pilot cannot coach or help the competitor, but is there in case they get into trouble.

The figures flown in this category are the very basics of aerobatics: the roll, the loop, the turn and the spin. Often there will be a half Cuban eight, which combines the basic elements. The figures are simple on purpose with just full and half rolls added. Primary is appropriate for all levels of aircraft.

A word of advice: Often pilots feel like they should start competing at the Sportsman level. Why not learn the basics of the contest environment – staying in the box – as well as perfecting the simple figures in Primary before moving up? Baby steps may do you good and build your confidence. 🙂

Altitudes: 1500′ to 3500′ AGL
Low Altitude Penalty: zero score entire program
Boundary Penalty: none
Program Interruption Penalty: 5 points


The Sportsman category is the second of the five categories and a lot of fun. Some pilots will compete at this level for years, thus it can be very competitive in many areas of the country. This is where you’ll find recreational aerobatic pilots who enjoy coming out to a couple contests a year, as well as those aiming for higher categories in the future. There is a special award given at contests for the highest-scoring, first-time Sportsman competitor that acknowledges the importance of this category in competition aerobatics.

Sportsman competitors fly two programs: the Known compulsory program which changes each year and, optionally, may either repeat the Known program or fly a Free program of their own design for the second and third flights. (Hint: mathematically, it will help your overall score if you fly a Free.) Figures here will be more complicated than in Primary, and there will be more of them to learn. New figures seen in Sportsman include the hammerhead and those combining basic elements such as the “goldfish,” “shark’s tooth,” “humpty-bump” and “split-s.” There is little negative g or inverted flight.

All types of aircraft may be found competing in Sportsman. For certain types like the Citabria or Clipped-wing Cub, it is the highest level at which they’ll compete. Safety pilots are also common here.

Altitudes: 1500′ to 3500′ AGL
Low Altitude Penalty: zero score entire program
Boundary Penalty: 5 points
Program Interruption Penalty: 5 points


Intermediate is the first category where competitors fly all three program: the Known, Free and Unknown. Flying an Unknown is the greatest challenge here. The Unknown can only be mentally flown and walked before the flight – the “aerobatic dance” you’ll see pilots doing – so overall piloting skills, knowledge of altitudes, timing and split-second decision making is important for success. It is not uncommon for overall contest ranking to be decided by the Unknown flight results. It is so easy to turn the wrong direction and rack up zeros – every competitor has probably done it at some point!

The snap roll and rolling turn are introduced into competition at this level, as is some sustained inverted flight. The aircraft here tend to have more horsepower and capability, although there’s an accomplished pilot flying a Great Lakes in Intermediate in the Southwest who can win the category. Sometimes it IS the pilot, not the plane!

Altitudes: 1200′ to 3500′ AGL
Low Altitude Penalty: 60 points each figure
Low-Low Altitude Penalty (>200′) : zero score entire program
Boundary Penalty: 10 points
Program Interruption Penalty: 15 points


The greatest jump in difficulty is often said to be between Intermediate and Advanced. The floor of the box lowers dramatically, the complexity of figures skyrockets and the allure of competing at the world level beckons. It is this world-level competition that has shaped the requirements and limitations of Advanced. Every other year at U.S. Nationals, pilots may compete for a spot on the eight-member U.S. Advanced Aerobatic Team which will compete at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championship the following year.

Outside loops and rolling turns, quarter snap rolls, snaps on vertical lines, opposite direction pairs of rolling elements, and inverted spins are introduced here. You’ll see the occasional diamond and octagon figure too. Overall, there is more red splashed across the page representing inverted and negative flight, which takes continued practice for one’s body to adjust for. And with the lower altitude of the box dropping ~550′ from Intermediate, there is less room for pilot error. Aircraft in Advanced tend to either be mono-wings like Extras and their kin, Sukhois or older variations such as the Laser, or single-seat Pitts.

Altitudes: 656′ to 3609′ (200m to 1100m) AGL
Low Altitude Penalty: 120 points each figure
Low-Low Altitude Penalty (>328′) : zero score entire program
Boundary Penalty: 20 points
Program Interruption Penalty: 50 points


Unlimited is rarefied air low to the ground. There are probably less than two dozen pilots competing at this level any one year across the U.S. There’s a reason this category is called unlimited: it takes everything to fly it well. And owning an Extra 300SC doesn’t hurt. Like Advanced, every other year at U.S. Nationals, the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team is selected, which competes the following year the the worlds. it is Olympic-level flying.

Tailslides, negative snaps, and inside-outside rolling turns are the new elements introduced. The complexity of figures reaches its maximum with multiple sets of rolls and snaps on what seems to be every line. The overall negative g combined with positive g presents serious physiological challenge. If you can read Aresti and imagine what the pilot is going through, it hurts your brain to fly through an Unlimited sequence on the page.

Altitudes: 328′ to 3280′ (100m to 1000m) AGL
Low Altitude Penalty: 150 points each figure
Low-Low Altitude Penalty (>164′) : zero score entire program
Boundary Penalty: 30 points
Program Interruption Penalty: 90 points

by Susan Bell, IAC #438132