We often get questions about what rally flying is all about. I describe it as somewhere between a regulation rally (being precisely on time) and orienteering (finding unknown places). Rally flying combines precision flying skills with accurate navigation and observation. Clues are handed to you in a sealed envelope. No electronics such as phones, smart watches or GPSs are allowed. The tasks required will test you to your core. While the rules of rally flying could be described as complicated and boring, participating in one is anything but.

According to the rules “The sport of Rally Flying is aimed to improve fundamental flying skills to enable a team (Rally Crew) to navigate and handle their aircraft under Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) as independent of technical subsystems as possible. Thus, Rally Flying enhances flying safety. This overall aim for Rally Flying is achieved by:

  • emphasizing the ability to navigate by following a set of route instructions, using basic equipment
  • emphasizing the ability to follow a precise track while adhering closely to a timing test (punctuality test)
  • emphasizing the ability to perform realistic observation tasks while navigating the aircraft on a timing test (observation test)
  • emphasizing the ability to handle the aircraft on short and narrow landing strips (landing test)
  • The above tasks would demonstrate the team’s ability to perform accurately and safely.”

While this gives the aim of rally flying, it still doesn’t describe what we actually do during a competition. As a starting point to understanding the sport and the lingo, here is a list of questions that we often get asked, most of which are unique to competition flying.

Feel free to add your questions in the comments below.

When do you Get your map?

Each team gets given 2 blank topographic maps plus a task (clue) sheet and a time sheet. It is the navigator’s job to use the task sheet to find and mark each turn point on the map and draw our route, called plotting. These tasks or clues are normally co-ordinates, or distances and directions to or from other points. It may sound simple but there are many variations and combinations that can be used to try and make these more time consuming to find. Some of these include measurements in different units (kilometres or nautical miles), directions using either magnetic or true bearings, measuring to or from another point, etc. In addition, there are certain legs that need to be flown as an arc or as a follow the feature and these also need to be drawn onto the map.

An example of a task sheet showing the description of the turn point and the clues for how to find it

The standard time to prepare is 2 minutes per turn point to plot. This means that if there are 10 turn points, a start point and a finish point, there are 12 turn points in total and you will likely get 24 minutes to plot. We refer to this as ‘papers time,’ which is when the team will hand you your envelope full of tasks, maps and photos at your aircraft and in this example will be exactly 24 minutes before take-off.

This might sound like a lot if you are sitting in a clubhouse at a nice table with your tools spread out and easy to reach but plotting takes place inside the aircraft. Iaan has a special board that he made to plot on his lap while in his seat. Each special tool has a specific place to hang or stick onto so that it is easy to reach. If you drop something, there often isn’t time or space to pick it up so plotting is carefully co-ordinated.

Another important thing to note is that your plotting time coincides with the take off time. This means that the last 8-10 minutes of the plotting time is spent while the pilot is taxiing to the runway, often down an uneven dirt taxiway.

What does the pilot do while the navigator creates the map?

Each crew does this differently, based on what works for them. I use the plotting time to cut and sort our turn point and en route photos. The turn point photos go into a specially made plastic sleeve in my direct eyeline so that it is easy to see as I fly to each point. Then I arrange the en route photos into similar features or landscapes, hoping to make them easier to spot. There are 20 photos in total and these are normally half on the first half of the route and half on the second. The first half is attached onto the dashboard with Velcro on another specially made board while the second goes onto the fuel tank behind us. Halfway through the flight, Iaan will swap these boards so that we can see the second set.

What the inside of our cockpit looks like. The photo holder at the top left holds the turn point photos. The board on the right holds the first 10 of the en route photos and this entire board is swapped half way through the route.

If there is extra time, I try to study the en route photos but normally there isn’t enough time. As soon as Iaan has the first 4 turn points plotted, he passes the first map to me and carries on with the rest on the second map. This gives me time to add on my own minute markers and familiarise myself with the start point. I create a plan in mind for how to get to the start point from the airfield and what landmarks I can use to hold over before crossing the start.

How do you know when to take off?

Each morning, a start list is provided with the relevant times for each crew. For large competitions like the World Championships, the competitors are divided into two groups that alternate starting times. On day 1, Group 1 will fly first and Group 2 second. On Day 2, Group 2 will fly first and Group 1 second. This continues until the last day. This means that one group doesn’t have to sit in quarantine all day every day while the other group finishes early. It also means that you don’t have to fly in the heat of the day every day.

It is the crew’s responsibility to find themselves on the list and to set their stopwatches correctly. This start list shows your ‘papers’ time, which is when you need to be at the aircraft to receive your envelope. This is when your plotting time begins. Next it shows take-off time, which is the time you will start rolling down the runway. Rally flying is flown on elapsed time and so this time needs to be set on your stopwatch so that it reads 0 as you take off. Next on the list is the ‘Start’ time, which is the time you must fly over the first turn point, named the start point.

In a large competition, each crew takes off 3 minutes apart so that you should never be flying past any other aircraft on your route. This is far apart enough that you usually cannot see the aircraft in front of you. Sometime when they turn or climb, you catch a glimpse as the sun reflects off their wings but most of the time you are too busy to notice. It is not a good idea to try to follow someone as you never know if they are making a mistake.

What is a turn point?

These are normally features like intersections, farmhouses, dam walls, train stations, river confluences, etc. Each turn point has a description on the task sheet, such as road crossing railway line, T-junction minor roads, bend in powerline, trig beacon, and so on. These must be visible both on the map and on the ground. Each of these turn points is used as a timing point and the exact time that you need to fly over it is given on the time sheet.

Turn points test your navigation skills as you must fly to them each in turn. These are often difficult to see or similar to nearby features and there is always the possibility of getting lost or flying to the incorrect place. The ‘gate’ on either side of the turn point is 0.5 nautical miles wide and you must be within that, or you will ‘miss’ the turn point and receive the maximum score of 100 points.

Do you need to fly directly over a turn point or fly around it?

In rally flying, the ‘gate’ on either side of the turn point is 0.5 nautical miles wide and you must be within that, or you will ‘miss’ the turn point and receive the maximum score of 100 points. The ‘gate’ at the start point is extended to 1nm. The direction of the gate is perpendicular to your incoming track meaning that your timing depends on the angle at which you cross the feature, and this is particularly important at the end of an arc or follow the feature.

Who does the navigating?

The term navigator makes it seem like the navigator should tell the pilot where to fly, but this is misleading. The navigator creates the map and passes this to the pilot who then uses it to fly. The pilot should know at every moment where they are, where they are going and how quickly they should be going to stay on track and on time. Often the map is only completed once we are in the air, and sometimes only after we have flown past a few turn points. This means that the pilot must know where they are flying without any assistance, and often the navigator has no idea where they are when they eventually complete the map. Once the map is complete, the navigator focusses on observation, looking for en route photos and ground markers and helping to find features that the pilot can use to stay on track.

How does the timing work?

Each turn point has a specific time that you need to fly over it. This is in elapsed time from take-off and is based on your selected groundspeed. For example, the start point is given as 09:00 minutes on the timing sheet. Iaan marks that time on the map next to each point. That means that I need to fly over it exactly 9 minutes after take-off. For every second that you are early or late, you get 3 penalty points. There is grace of 2 seconds either side of this time where there are no penalty points meaning that you may fly over it anywhere between 08:58 and 09:02. If you fly over the point within this time, we call it a bingo and there are 0 penalty points. The maximum score for timing at a turn point is 100 points (35 seconds or more).

The timing tests the precision of your flying, and the pilot needs to account for the wind by flying either faster or slower to ensure that they reach each point at the correct time.

What is a minute marker?

A minute marker is a mark drawn on the map for every minute of flying based on your selected groundspeed. These are used to make sure that you are on time all the time, particularly on a windy day. As you pass the previous turn point and turn onto your next leg, there will be a mark to show the next round minute. These hopefully align with a feature such as a road, a river, the edge of a town and as you fly over the feature, you can see if you are too early or too late and you know if you need to slow down or speed up.

Again, each team has their own way of doing this, but we have a special ruler that has notches every minute so that when you draw the line joining each turn point to the next, there is automatically a small indent to show each minute. This has the added function of checking that the turn point is marked in the correct place.

This small section of our map shows the minute markers as small lines with a number next to it. Each turnpoint is marked with the exact time that you need to fly over it. This snip shows an arc and we spotted en route photo A on the arc after TP4 and en route photo E after TP 5.

How do you choose your speed and why do some teams fly at different speeds?

You choose the ground speed that you would like to fly at. Ground speed means that the speed you fly over the ground at remains the same, regardless of the wind. This is in contract to airspeed where the more wind, the faster or slower you fly over the ground. Choosing your speed is based on your aircraft capabilities and what you are comfortable with as the pilot. In aviation, speed is measured in knots (kts).

1 knot = 1.85 kilometers per hour = 1.15 miles per hour.

In rally flying, we choose to fly at 75 knots (kts) ground speed, which is equivalent to 139km/hr or 86mph. This is slower than what we would normally ‘cruise’ at, but you must consider how much you can speed up or slow down to account for the wind. For example, if there is a 15kt wind, we will need to fly at 75kt- 15kt = 60kts airspeed on legs where there is a tailwind, and at 90kts airspeed where there is a headwind in order to maintain 75kts over the ground. Where there is a crosswind, it does not impact timing as much, but you may end up ‘crabbing’ or flying at an angle to stay on track. It is important then to not get distracted and blown towards the wrong place.

What is the difference between a turn point photo and an en route photo?

Each turn point has a photo that can either be correct or incorrect. To make it a bit more confusing, the photo can be taken from any direction, but it must show the feature that you are flying over, for example a t-junction. As you fly over the feature, you must look at the photo and decide if the photo is the actual feature and therefore correct or if it is just a very similar looking feature and therefore not correct. These must be marked on your answer sheet. Correct answers score 0 points, incorrect answers are 100 points and leaving it blank is 50 points. This is normally the pilot’s responsibility.

En route photos are split into two halves. 10 are on the first half of the route and 10 are on the second. These can be anywhere along their half of the route and do not need to be a feature on the map. For example, they can be a crop circle, a cluster of trees, a rock outcrop, a farmhouse, etc. These are all taken in the line of flight. Each one must be marked on your answer sheet. This is done by marking the photo on the map and then measuring the distance from the previous turn point before writing it onto the answer sheet (often while we are still in flight). If you mark it within 0.5nm of its location, there are 0 penalty point. There are 15 points for marking it between 0.5nm and 1.0nm, 50 for marking it incorrectly and 30 for leaving these blank.  

The photos form part of the observation portion of the competition. Unfortunately, I still spend most of my attention to navigate and make sure the timing is correct and so most of the observation falls to Iaan as the navigator.

Examples of photos

What is a ground marker?

Another part of the observation task is finding ground markers. These are similar to en route photos in the way that they are marked and scored but they are 3m by 3m wide white canvas symbols that are laid on the ground. That looks quite large from the ground but from the air they are tiny and are particularly difficult to spot and identify from a distance. They are typically near roads or easily accessible by car as someone needs to go and lay them out each day.

Can you spot the ground marker? What shape do you see?

What does a bingo mean?

Bingo is a term used for scoring no penalty points either for timing or for landing. The more of these, the better. Each turn point can be bingo’ed if you fly over it within 2 seconds of the given time. In addition, you can bingo your spot landing meaning that you get no penalty points for the landing.

What is a spot landing?

One spot landing is completed during every rally route. This is either when you land back at the airfield or can be at an away airfield somewhere during the route.

The spot landing can be done using any configuration (as much flaps and power as you want) but you must try to land on a 2m wide line on the runway, called the bingo line. Before or after this line will score you penalty point.

This portion of the competition tests the pilot’s skills at landing on short, narrow and unfamiliar airfields. While the competition lines are not near the end of the runway, consider that landing short of the runway either due to misjudgment or an engine failure could be dangerous, hence landing ‘short’ of the bingo line results in higher penalty points.

Landing scoring sheet showing how the landing scores work
A bingo landing and what the landing box actually looks like on the runway

How does an arc work?

An arc is where you fly an arc instead of a straight line. There can be up to 2 arcs per route. The radius of the arc is given to you when plotting. Navigating can be tough as you have no long-term reference as you must constantly turn. While there are no penalties for not flying the arc, it affects your timing, which is based on the longer distance of the arc rather than a straight line. In addition, there are often many en route photos on an arc as the route planner knows that you are likely to be slightly off track here, making them much more difficult to spot.

What is a follow the feature?

This can be any feature such as a road, river or a powerline. These can be as straight or as curvy as the route planner would like. They are very similar to an arc in that there is no penalty for not flying it but it affects your timing and you can expect many photos along the feature.

Who is more important, the pilot or the navigator?

Rally flying requires two people, a pilot and a navigator. Both have critical roles during the competition, and neither could complete their role without the other. The pilot is not able to fly the route without an accurate map produced by the navigator (there is not enough time to do it yourself). The pilot needs to keep the plane in the air while navigating and timing, the navigator then focusses on observation.

What are “other” penalties?

There are penalties for just about any mistake that you can think of. Here are a few that haven’t been mentioned yet:

  • Opening the safety envelope (if you get lost or cannot finish the plot in time)
  • Fly at 90° to the track for more than 5 seconds (normally if you get lost or you turn the wrong way after a turn point, it happens)
  • Not following the joining procedure when returning to the airfield
  • Flying lower than 500 feet at a turn point
  • An ‘abnormal’ landing (e.g. landing nosewheel first)
  • Handing in your answer sheet late

How does the scoring work?

Every mistake results in penalty points, which means that a perfect score would be 0 points. That would include perfect timing at every turn point, identifying every turn point and en route photo correctly, finding all of the ground markers and a bingo landing.

Scoring is broken up into sections:

  • Navigation: the total for timing errors at each turn point.
  • Observation: the combined total for turn point photos and en route photos
  • Landings: the total for the landing
  • Alt and Track are penalties for flying below 500ft or turning 90° of track.
  • Other: total penalties for ground markers and other penalties, excluding altitude and track errors.
  • Each of these is added together to get a total for the route. The team with the lowest total is the winner for the day.
  • For South African Nationals, three routes are flown and added together. The team with the lowest combined total for all three days is the winner.
  • For World Championships, four routes are flown and added together. The team with the lowest combined total for all four days is the winner.
A marked answer sheet. Note en route photos A and E match where we marked them on the map example above. These are summed to get your ‘Observation’ score.

Do you still talk on the radio while flying a competition?

For most of the competition, the answer is no. This is because there are so many teams competing that the radio would be completely blocked if there was a problem. In addition, you could potentially give clues to your team or friends if you reported your location or direction.

There is radio silence except for a few key points. These include lining up on the runway and flying overhead the finish point or the intermediate finish point. There are Air Traffic Navigation Services at the airfield but they cannot tell you when to depart or how to join overhead the airfield. The only information that they can provide you is spacing from other traffic at the airfield, the runway direction and wind conditions.

What is quarantine?

After the morning briefing, all pilots must go into quarantine. Quarantine is normally in a single hangar and each crew enters one by one after having their phones, smart watches and any other ‘contraband’ such as maps or GPSs removed. You must wait in quarantine where no electronics are allowed until it is your turn to go to your aircraft. This is a way to prevent teams from cheating by looking at the live tracks once the early teams get airborne, or from communicating with pilots who have already finished flying.

Unlike quarantine for Covid -19, you are allowed to talk to one another if you would like. Some teams prefer to use this time to chat or read, some prefer to sleep, and some prefer to meditate. If you are in the second group of the day, be prepared to sit in a very hot hangar for 3-5 hours. Before your ‘papers’ time, you may go to your aircraft 20 minutes before paper to pre-flight and prepare.

How do the teams work?

An individual team is made up of a pilot and navigator. These roles are fixed during a competition. Technically you could swap and nobody would know but it is better to stick to your roles and your team’s cockpit procedures. There is more than enough to keep both busy with different tasks at all times and changing will only distract you!

In an international competition, the individual teams also represent their country team. Most competitions allow 5-10 teams per country.

The scores from each day are added together and the team with the lowest score wins. The top 2 teams from each country are added together to get the country team winners. There is also a spot landing winner and the team with the lowest combined landing scores win the spot landing competition.

What do you win?

There is no prize except a certificate and sometimes a trophy or a medal.

If you have any other questions, feel free to add them in the comments below.