The plane, a Siai Marchetti SF-260, invokes nostalgic memories of the days when pilots were the “heroes of the skies,” carrying out mid-air duels one-on-one, like Mediaeval knights at a chivalric tournament. Perhaps it’s the Marchetti’s original role as a military training plane that invokes such associations. The “little warrior” was built for pilots-in-training before they graduated to fighter jets. Or perhaps it’s the plane’s green-and-brown paint job, so reminiscent of camouflage – despite the orange accents on the propeller, tailfin and wings. And when the pilot turns on the artificial exhaust fumes and performs breathtaking loops, rolls and turns while leaving a trail in the sky, the illusion is complete.
Of course, there’s nothing war-like or militaristic about the air shows where aerobatic pilot Ralf Niebergall of Neuwied displays his skill in the Marchetti. The emphasis is on fun for both pilot and spectators. The aircraft has been belonged to Niebergall’s family since 1980. Built in 1967, the “Flying Ferrari” is an authentic classic airplane – and one every pilot dreams of flying.
For Ralf Niebergall, the Marchetti is much more than just a plane in which he performs aerobatic stunts. “She’s my baby,” he says tenderly, and professes that they make an unbeatable team. No wonder, since it was in this plane that he learned to fly – which is quite extraordinary in itself. “It’s like showing up to your driving lesson in a Ferrari,” he explains. Somewhat adventurous, admittedly, but in aeronautic terms, it was the perfect way to begin his career as an aerobatic pilot. Ralf Niebergall got to know the SF-260 inside and out. After all, stunt flying was all he ever wanted to do. “Ever since I was a kid, I found flying in a straight line utterly boring,” he confesses. So it was logical for him to take the controls of the Marchetti. He got his pilot’s license in 1987, and has since put 2,000 hours of flying time under his belt – more than 1,000 of them in aerobatics.
Ask Ralf Niebergall what he finds so fascinating about stunt flying, and he waxes poetic. When the Marchetti’s heart begins to beat and he takes to the air, he is always aware of the exciting challenge of controlling the aircraft while pushing it to its limits. He is a pilot, but also an artist, and wants to share his acrobatic skill with his audience. His show is not an aerobatic competition, where stunts are judged and rated, so he is free to decide which formations he wishes to perform – another reason his job requires his full concentration. He has to put everyday concerns out of his head the moment he gets into the plane and closes the roof. Just because he doesn’t suffer from stage-fright anymore doesn’t mean he’s careless. Although he doesn’t consider aerobatics innately dangerous, he knows there are risks involved when flying in inclement weather, especially because the plane is not equipped for instrument flight. Any attempt to fly in bad weather conditions is reckless, and an experienced pilot knows better than to press his luck.
Safety is his top priority, and he avoids life-threatening situations. So it’s no wonder Ralf Niebergall relies on a SINN pilot’s watch. He became familiar with the SINN brand while serving in the army. What began as a collecting hobby has turned into nine successful years of collaboration with the company. “With regard to SINN, I’m a true believer. The company manufactures pilot’s watches that withstand enormous stress and are absolutely reliable. That’s vitally important to me as a pilot.” That may sound like a platitude, but it is based in fact, as many military training planes – including the Marchetti – have the shortcoming that their fuel level indicators don’t always function accurately. To calculate the fuel quantity and flight time, Ralf Niebergall used to rely on the Pilot’s Chronograph 103 and the Cockpit Navigation Chronograph NaBo 54. More recently, however, this task has been accomplished with the help of the Duochronograph 757. “I know these timepieces will never let me down. No other brand can compare to a SINN watch.”