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The Pioneer Team have become a truly international formation display team


Words and images by Keith Wilson


Most members of the Pioneer family will be aware of the Italy-based, four-ship formation aerobatic display team known as the Pioneer Team. They were originally founded in 2005 operating four Pioneer 300 aircraft but have since upgraded to the Pioneer 330. What may be slightly less-well known is that the Pioneer Team have become a truly international display team and during the last two years have made spectacular appearances at two large events held at Shangjie Airport, Zhengzhou (ZHSJ), located in the Henan province of China.

The first appearance was at the inaugural Formation Aerobatic Championships (FAC) held in April 2017. The FAC was to be organised under the banner of the FIA (The World Air Sports Federation) with FAI approval to Class 2, meaning it would be entry by invitation rather than through a world body.

The event was organised by World Air Carnival Limited, a company set up specifically to stage aviation events across China. Sadly, FAC 2017 could not be billed as a ‘World’ event because - despite being asked - no US team was available or more importantly, willing to travel to China and compete. The concept of the new event was both innovative and inventive; while ahead of the event, anticipation for everyone involved was very high.


Twelve aerobatic teams from around the world were selected on merit and the FAC was judged on normal aerobatic competition ARESTI lines for two sequences – ‘Classic’ and ‘Signature’.

The ‘Classic’ eight-figure sequence was designed by each team to incorporate five mandatory aerobatic figures demanded by the competition organisers; plus three others of their own choice, along with the necessary turn-around manoeuvres, to achieve the maximum K-factor, using pre-described figures with any linking figure of choice.

The sequence endurance was between 4½ – 5 minutes, with a maximum of 8 minutes permitted. The ‘Signature’ flight was for each team to fly their very best air display routine in an 11–12 minute slot. All teams had to perform both ‘Classic’ and ‘Signature’ programmes on each of the three show days - all in accordance with published FAI/CIVA aerobatic regulations.


Twelve teams entered from Australia, France, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Russia, South Africa (2), Spain and Great Britain (3) – all competing in piston-powered aircraft. Competing teams consisted of two-, three-, four-, and six-ship formation display teams. The teams of varying sizes were judged against each other by providing a multiplication K-factor to those teams with more than two participants as follows:


Two aircraft - unchanged

Three aircraft - plus 8%

Four aircraft - plus 14%

Five aircraft – plus 18%

Six aircraft – plus 20%


Initially entered as a competitive team representing Italy, technical issues with the Pioneer Team aircraft just ahead of the event prevented the team from actually competing, although they did perform their dazzling formation display airshow performance twice-daily to a very receptive audience.


Logistical nightmares!

Logistically, the event provided significant difficulties for both the organisers and all of the competing teams. Apart from the four locally-based ‘Team Extreme’ XA42 aircraft of the South African team, all of the remaining competing and participating aircraft had to be shipped-in by container from around the world. Two large hangars were provided by the organisers to allow the teams to re-assemble their aircraft and as soon as the containers arrived on site, the contents were soon emptied and moved into the hangar where the aircraft was reassembled ahead of the mandatory flight testing. Each team had their own engineers present, able to re-assemble the aircraft and – more importantly – sign them off for the competition. Clearly, the portability of the Pioneer aircraft was soon shown to good effect when all four aircraft were expediently re-assembled and test flown before the team were able to start practicing.


Back to China in 2018

The Pioneer Team returned to China in late-April 2018 to participate in the Zhengzhou Airshow 2018. This year, the air show emphasis was on pyrotechnic displays and the clever use of pyros by the Pioneer Team provided a popular conclusion to their twice-daily flying programme. Led by Corrado Rusalen (1), the team featured Silvia Rappo (2 - left wing), Marco Savini (3 - right wing) and Alberto Biagetti (4 – box).

Photogenic performers

I was fortunate to have been the resident photographer at Zhengzhou in both 2017 and 2018 and was able to fly with the Pioneer Team at each event. Reproduced here are a series of images of the Team photographed at both events. It was a pleasure to fly alongside and photograph the professional pilots that make up the Pioneer Team and I sincerely hope you enjoy the images at the top of this page.