The Other Side of the Treeline - RJ Gritter
Growing up in an aviation family—with his father a test pilot and his mother a flight instructor—it seems as though RJ Gritter was destined to pursue a career in aerospace. When he received his first model aircraft as a child, he likely never dreamed that he would one day become a mentor, compete in a world championship, own a full-scale aircraft, or perform in front of thousands at the 2014 Sony Open Tennis Men’s Finals in Miami. But RJ has done all of that, and this young man isn’t about to slow down.
Rachelle Haughn: How did you get started in aeromodeling?
RJ Gritter: When I was around eight years old, my dad got me an RC motor glider for Christmas. We taught ourselves [how] to fly it in a big empty field. I bought a few old radio systems on eBay and built lots of gliders out of cardboard and foam in strange configurations, trying to teach myself about aerodynamics.
When I was 12, my mom had a flight student who was an aeromodeler. He gave me a .40-size glow fuel-powered airplane called a Flightstar, and invited me to the Greensboro Radio Aeromodelers (GRAMS) club [in North Carolina], where I learned on the buddy box and soloed.
RH: What and when was your first model aircraft contest? How did you place?
RG: Besides a few fun-fly contests at GRAMS, my first real contest was in Bristow, Oklahoma, at the 2007 Chitty 3D F3P contest. F3P is the FAI classification for RC Indoor Precision Aerobatics—historically flown with foamies.
Oh boy … [I didn’t do] very well! I don’t remember exactly, but I don’t think I was dead last. I know my airplane couldn’t even complete one of the required maneuvers in the F3P sequence, and I think I actually landed upside down in the middle of the sequence in one round. It was a little rough!
Just a couple [of] months later, I flew in my first ETOC [Electric Tournament of Champions contest]. The ETOC is what got me interested in aerobatic competition. I watched the event on a live webcast in 2006 and was so intrigued that I knew I had to join in the fun, so I set myself the goal to compete in ETOC in 2007.
I built my first foamies, started to learn 3-D and precision flying, how to fly indoors, and how to build a freestyle aircraft all during that year. I was honored to be invited to compete in 2007 and, while I didn’t place well, I had a great time, learned a lot, and met a lot of great friends—all of which set the stage for my progression in flying up to my win at the ETOC in 2013.
RJ participated in several Extreme Flight Championships held at the International Aeromodeling Center in Muncie IN, including this one in 2014. Photo by Jennifer Alderman.
RH: Do you prefer flying indoor or outdoor aerobatics?
RG: My preference between indoor and outdoor varies throughout the year. I enjoy both, and the best part is having two flying seasons. I generally fly indoor aerobatics November through April, and outdoor aerobatics April through November.
That means I can fly and attend events all year, even during cold winters, and [it]
also gives me a much-needed break at the end of a hard competition season. I can set down the indoor planes in April and start flying outside again for something different and exciting.
RH: Which do you think is easier to learn and why?
RG: That’s a tough call, but I would say outdoor aerobatics is easier to learn. There’s a slightly higher barrier to entry with Indoor Aerobatics competition. For many people, it’s difficult to find an indoor venue in which to fly regularly, which is critical to perfecting the sequences.
I’ve been flying indoors for 10 years now and still have that issue. It takes a certain amount of practice just to be comfortable using the full space flying indoors, and there is a much smaller group of people who compete in indoor aerobatics, so [there are] fewer to help those [who are] just starting out.
Outdoor aerobatics eliminates a lot of those issues and is generally more popular, so it’s easier for newcomers to find a mentor and start practicing.
RH: Describe what has been your best day ever.
RG: My best day started about 3:30 a.m. in late December 2015. I hopped on a flight to Tampa, Florida, with no flight back. My mission: to pick up the Decathlon, a full-scale aerobatic airplane that I bought with my family.
RJ Gritter’s first full-scale aerobatic airplane is this Decathlon. In December 2015, he flew it from Florida to North Carolina.
I picked it up around noon and flew it home to North Carolina alone. Since getting involved with RC Aerobatics competition, it was a natural jump that I wanted to fly full-scale aerobatics, so I saved money fiercely until, with my family’s help, I could make it a reality. The feeling of finally making that dream come true and bringing the airplane home, is hard to beat.
RH: Tell us about your 2015 trip to Warsaw, Poland.
RG: The second F3P World Championship in Poland was my first time on a US national team. It was also the first time the US sent a team to the F3P World Championship, and I was honored to be able to have the opportunity to represent the US as part of our team. It was an incredible experience.
Preparation for the event involved a massive amount of work. The competition was a valuable learning experience and we all look forward to trying out for the next US team for the 2017 F3P World Championship.
RH: What was it like to perform at the Sony Open Tennis Men’s Finals in Miami in 2014?
RG: Flying an aerobatic demonstration at the Sony Open Tennis tournament was interesting. It was the biggest crowd I’ve flown for at a non-aviation-themed event.
Nobody had any idea what to expect and [they] certainly hadn’t attended to see anything fly. Our demo flights went well and I believe [they] were generally well received by the crowd. I hope a few people were intrigued enough to get involved in the hobby!
RH: How did you get involved in Camp AMA and what has that experience been like for you?
RG: My involvement with Camp AMA started with a text message from helicopter pilot and camp instructor, Nick Maxwell, asking if I knew of someone who wanted to instruct. The first year was a small group—we only had four campers! It was fun, though, and I knew it was something I wanted to remain involved with.
Instructors at Camp AMA 2015, held in Muncie IN included (L to R) Jonathan Elie, AC Glenn, RJ Gritter, and Nick Maxwell. Photo by Jessy Symmes.
Camp AMA is, without a doubt, one of my favorite flying events every year. I never cease to be amazed by the flying talent displayed by the campers and enjoy helping them however I can, as well as flying alongside them. It’s pretty clear [that] the hobby is in good hands if they’re the future of it!
Everyone has a great time at camp, both on and off the airfield. It’s even coming full circle now, as some of the early campers are returning as instructors. I just wish Camp AMA had been around when I was their age.
RH: Did you ever expect that you would be a mentor to other pilots?
RG: I couldn’t have ever imagined the position [that] I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in in this hobby. I actually started instructing pretty early—helping new pilots on the buddy box at the club where I learned to fly not long after I soloed.
Starting to fly competition aerobatics brought me into the wider community of pilots all over the country and world and allowed me to get involved in great events like Camp AMA. Many of my best friends have come from the modeling community, so I’m just glad to have had the chance to get involved in such a big way.
RH: If you weren’t working as an engineer at Aurora Flight Sciences, what would your dream job be?
RG: I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that allows me to use most of my interests and skills on a daily basis in a field I enjoy. However, if I had to pick a dream job, it would be as an experimental test pilot. Besides flying RC, I’m also a full-scale pilot, and flight testing combines that passion with engineering, as well as the thing that keeps me going—trying out airplanes and maneuvers that nobody has tried before. To me, there’s nothing quite as exciting.
RH: Did your aeromodeling experience play a part in your current career?
RG: My experience has played a significant role in my career. My early entry to the hobby allowed me to teach myself a lot about aerodynamics, structural mechanics, and aircraft stability and controls. Starting early with a lot of trial-and-error builds gave me sort of an intuitive sense for aircraft design, so when I went through classes for aerospace engineering at North Carolina State, I felt like I had a head start.
Instead of learning a lot of things for the first time, there were a lot of moments that made me think “oh, so that explains that,” or “cool, now I know how to calculate this instead of guessing.” That experience put me in a position to design several unmanned aircraft early on during school and early in my career, and put me in a good position to get a job I enjoyed right out of school.
RH: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you have with you?
RG: 1. A super-STOL (Short Takeoff & Landing) bushplane.
2. A really large tank of gasoline.
3. A compass to get me back to the US. I’m not going to miss the F3P Team Trials and Camp AMA because I’m stuck on a silly island![dingbat]