Originally created 07/24/01

Georgia man wins world rank with his air aerobatic abilities



ATHENS, Ga. - Like a lot of children, Robert Armstrong dreamed of being a pilot - but he never imagined he'd be a world champion.

In June, Mr. Armstrong brought home five medals - including a silver medal for the overall competition - from the World Air Games in Burgos, Spain. By placing second in the competition, which aviators consider to be the equivalent of the Olympics, Mr. Armstrong, 45, is the highest-ranked American flyer since 1988.

Returning to Athens last month, where he spends much of his free time flying and tinkering on airplanes at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, Mr. Armstrong's achievement drew little fanfare. Despite the daring twists and turns involved in aerobatics, he said it's not much of a spectator sport because casual observers grow tired of the repetition.

"It's like the Olympics of air sport competition, but it's got a very small following," he said. "You've got 59 planes, and they're all doing the same thing. If you had 59 planes doing the same thing at an air show, people would go get a Coke and then start to leave after about 30."

Mr. Armstrong's victory was not without its obstacles. Traveling with the rest of the U.S. Aerobatics team, the group's trip to Spain was delayed more than a week when their airline flight plans fell through.

Mr. Armstrong and his teammates secured a flight to Germany - their planes were transported separately, and then flown to Spain. But while other competitors had about 10 days to practice, Mr. Armstrong and his teammates had little more than two days.

He faced another setback when, already suffering from jet lag, he fell ill with a stomach virus during the first day of competition. Although he was able to postpone his first run before the judges, he said he was in no shape to fly during the first round.

"I wasn't feeling too good, but I figured I might as well fly or pack my bags and go home," Mr. Armstrong said. "I don't remember a lot about (the first event), but I was glad they thought it was good."

By the final round of competition, Mr. Armstrong, flying a rare Cap 231, was ranked third among the 59 competitors, and eventually beat out the second-ranked flyer to win the silver medal.

"Everything you can imagine, I was feeling," Mr. Armstrong said.

Although a world ranking is new to Mr. Armstrong, flying has always been a part of his life, beginning with a childhood interest in model airplanes. He said he "blames the Clarke County school system" for his desire to fly - as a pupil at Lyons School, he longed to skip out to the nearby Athens-Ben Epps Airport.

"It was really hard to get on the school bus on a Friday when the weather was good and you could see the planes," he said.