Ferenc Toth has been at the top of his game since the turn of the century. The FAI Glider Aerobatics World Champion won his first major competition in 2000, aged 32. That was the FAI European Aerobatic Glider Championships, held in Provence, France, and it was a close battle between him and Jerzy Makula – the ‘grandfather’ of glider aerobatics – for the top spot.
Three years later he won the ultimate prize – the World Championship gold medal, when he again battled it out with Jerzy Makula for the first place on the podium. Since then his form has barely wavered – he has been on 11 podiums at major international competitions since, including winning the European Championship title twice more. His win at the FAI World Aerobatic Glider Championships in Hungary in 2016 is his third World Championship title.
“Three World Championships and three European Championships,” he agrees, adding that he has also been part of the winning national team at three World Championships, too. “Fifteen or sixteen gold medals from different programmes in total,” he adds.
Toth competes in the Unlimited Class of Glider Aerobatics, flying a Swift S-1, a dedicated solo aerobatic glider. A classic, it is considered the ultimate competition wing for glider aerobatics.
Besides a good glider, what is his secret, what makes him so good? He laughs, but he has an answer. “I think my secret is I can concentrate during my flights. Everyone is nervous in competition, of course, but when I am in the aircraft, before release, I can concentrate for the next four of five minutes.”
Before his World Championship win in 2015 he had 36 training flights in the year. In 2016 it was 50. “I practise but not so much,” he says. “But I think my secret is I can be calm and fully focused.”
He adds: “Everybody is a very good pilot, maybe some of the better than me, but I am clear in my head.”
Is that something he trains for, or is it a natural calmness?
“I think it is a natural trait. So that’s why I am lucky. Maybe you can learn it, but for me it is natural.”
His performance at the FAI Glider Aerobatic World Championships in Hungary was all the sweeter because he won on his home turf. “I was happy that I could be in my country.”
That gave him a home advantage, he agrees – “I know the place, I know the performance zone. So it’s maybe easier” – but it also added stress. “Because I wanted to win here, I wanted to show everybody.”
Toth started flying gliders in 1986, and spent nearly the first decade of his flying career in standard gliders. But he always thought he would enjoy aerobatics.
“I became an aerobatic pilot in 1995,” he says. But like all aerobatics pilots he realised there was an itch he wanted to scratch.
“Everybody starts with the standard glider, looking for thermals and flying. But aerobatics pilots need more adrenaline, more challenge.
“When I was a young pilot with only two years’ experience I always wanted to do a loop or something. The standard turn was 30-degrees, but no, no, I would like to do it at 40-degrees! I always wanted to do more than the rule allowed.
“I wanted to do something more. Nobody forced me, nobody pushed me, it was just a feeling from inside.”
That “feeling inside” has been pushing him on now for more than 20 years. He has been an instructor, an aerobatics coach and a team trainer as well as a power precision and glider cross country pilot. But now, older, he has less time for flying than he once had.
“I only fly aerobatics now. But I am a professional airline pilot and work full-time for Whizz Air as a regional manager.” What’s that like, flying commercial aircraft during the week only to switch to aerobatics at the weekend?
“Wizz Air support me,” he says. “They release me for championships. As a pilot in peak holiday season it’s very difficult to take holiday, but the chief of the company has told me, ‘OK guys, we support you’. It’s a big help.”
He adds: “in my job I am sitting in the cockpit pushing buttons, but of course I love it. But when I’m in the glider yes, this is flying.”
He has flown the Swift S-1 throughout his career, but he thinks something new will be needed in the next few years. “Presently this is the best in the world. Almost 90% of the pilots fly this. It’s very good, but now we are very close to the limit of the aircraft, so we need a new one.
“The pilots all have very good skill, everybody is able to do difficult figures, but I think in the next two years we will need a new one. We need higher speed and faster rotation. I’m not an engineer but I hope someone can solve it!”
Glider Aerobatics at the highest level is fairly elite. “The number of pilots in the world is small,” he says. “Unlimited Class will see maybe 20 pilots in the World Championships. Maybe only 150 pilots in the world compete in international competitions.”
As a pilot, those competitions must always involve more than one person. “You are alone in the cockpit but it’s teamwork to get you in the air,” says Toth.
“If you have a powered aerobatic airplane you can fly alone, but in glider aerobatics you are unable to move the aircraft alone or take off. That’s why the numbers are lower than in powered aerobatics, because you need a team.”
Teamwork must be something that Toth is good at, because it’s kept him at the top of the sport now for a generation.
“When I’m training I’m happy,” he says simply. “When we are flying in the air everybody has the same feeling – of freedom and being happy.”
It is that, plus the ’something inside’ that continues to drives Toth forward: “I can teach everybody to fly the basics of gliding, but I’m unable to teach everybody aerobatics. You can learn it, but if you don’t have it inside you are unable to step forward.”
Whatever that “it” is, it keeps him coming back. That and the thrill of competition, the satisfaction of winning.
“Being in a World Championships is stressful,” he admits, “but when I win, yes, that makes me happy too.”
See Ferenc Toth’s lifetime results: www.goo.gl/WCkODL