Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
VRChat Airshow Management with the Black Aces Stunt Team
As a big supporter of airshows and fly ins, I was heartbroken over roughly two years of cancellations because of the Covid 19 outbreak across the world. During that time my substitutes for organized aviation events included airshows from the now gone Virtual Airshow group, esports style dogfights from DCS World Events and "live" VRChat aviation events.
There have been many groups and individuals that have put on airshows and tournaments in VRChat aviation's history so far, but these days the largest organization, the Black Aces, present the most frequent aviation events on the platform. While VRChat aviation is still primarily a combat focused experience overall, the Black Aces perform just as many airshows as they do player vs. player tournaments. We reached out to Riko and Uni Power, the leaders of the Black Aces Stunt Team, to discuss their operations at length.
Thanks for accepting our interview request on this unique subject. Could you please introduce yourselves? Riko: Hello, my name is Riko. I am the owner of the VRChat Black Aces, the hub for all VRC Aviation.
Uni Power: Howdy, Uni Power here! I am the Black Aces Stunt Team Lead and an assisting official of the Black Aces.
How did you both get involved with VRChat?
Riko: When Covid hit, and it ended my Senior year of High School halfway, I ended up becoming extremely bored on what became the longest spring break of my life. I saw VRChat through YouTube videos back in 2017, and I was so bored in 2020 I wanted to give it a try to see what it was like. I ended up meeting some wonderful friends and experiencing all sides of VRChat.
Uni Power: I ended up playing VRChat back in 2017 when some school friends found it on steam, since I had a VR headset at the time I joined in and had an awesome time exploring and meeting humorous people. I stuck around for a long time after finding some awesome maps that had a connecting puzzle-based story and that eventually led me through into the start of VRChat Aviation.
When were you first introduced to VRChat aviation? Can you remember your first reaction to seeing it?
Riko: I first ran across VRChat aviation in 2021, when it was in its early stage before the Virtual HOTAS system we have now. I wasn’t too much into it at first, but once the F-14 world was updated with the Virtual HOTAS and more realistic physics, I started to get way more into VRChat aviation. To the point where my friends already knew which world I was in when I was online.
Uni Power: My first real notice into flight maps was when Zweikaku's F-14's hit the public world list, I thought it would be really cool to finally be able to fly vehicles in VRChat but I didn't pick up too much traction on it until late 2020 when the Test Pilots world started getting a lot more attention.
It’s safe to say that most people are interested in VRChat aviation for player vs. player combat. When and why did you two start considering putting together airshows?
Riko: When we first started running events, we already knew that PvP was everyone's favorite, but there was a smaller crowd slowly building, favoring airshows. We also wanted a way to show off new aircraft that we have been working on instead of them just appearing in worlds out of nowhere. What better way than to show them off in an airshow for all to enjoy? It also became a thing to take people away from the competitive scene of VRC aviation and just enjoy talking with other aviation enthusiasts while an airshow is going on just like in real life.
Uni Power: After the third tournament of our original group, the tournament creator had some planes thrown together ready to be shown off; because I had won that tournament I was invited to participate with Riko in showing off the new aircraft (which I had no prior practice in flying). Eventually other creators came along ready to show off some new aircraft and we needed to start a team whose purpose was to learn the aircraft beforehand and show off its full capabilities.
I say airshow, but the term that the Black Aces use for these events is “showcase”. What is the difference between an airshow and a showcase?
Uni Power: Airshows usually consist of multiple groups/organization showing some capabilities of aircraft which we are familiar with, which in turns gives some fame to the airframe. We use the term "Showcase" because we are one group ready to show different aircraft, each which have their own functions and usability to showoff its full capabilities.
Riko: Airshows are more formed into the discipline of a team with exact and precise movements. While our showcases are more focused on showing the new aircraft we are working on and pushing these aircraft to their absolute limit. I mean what's the point of seeing planes in a game if they’re just following FAA rules?
Unlike real-world airshows, which have teams performing one practiced routine across countries, the Black Aces seem to have different choreographies in each showcase. Why is that?
Riko: Since all of this is done virtually, if we were to do the same thing every time, it would get quite boring very quickly. Bringing variety to every show with new routines and aircraft keeps something new from show to show. From seeing cold war aircraft doing low passes to futuristic planes doing backflips with lasers.
What also causes these differences in routines is that these aircraft tend to be made by different people with different backgrounds of aviation experience. From Ace Combat, War Thunder, MSFS, and DCS. So values from one world creator to another can be quite drastic since they all want to give people a different experience. So you can go from an aircraft that feels like you're flying in DCS from one world creator to doing five backflips without losing any altitude from another creator. It makes the difference in air shows, and even practicing makes every event fun, no matter how many showcases we have done.
Uni Power: We don't have a set aircraft which we practice in, for all we know we could be showcasing a cargo plane which shouldn't be able to complete a barrel roll, or we have a really fast aircraft which has a extremely tight turn radius and we need a way to show that off compared to flying a set course which may be applicable to all aircraft. Overall, it keeps the show intriguing by introducing new routines.
What is practice for the Black Aces Demonstration Team like, considering that each show is different from one another?
Riko: Quite chaotic, especially for the first couple of days due to us having to learn how the new aircraft flies and how far we can push the aircraft. It also comes down to how to match our flying to music to help emphasize maneuvers the aircraft will pull. Matching music to how they fly can truly make the show more intriguing and neck-turning. Another part is near the end when doing the final formation and trying to compensate for lag since we, for a while now, have hit VRChat's hard cap limit of 80 people in a world.
Uni Power: The big thing everyone likes to hit first is "fuck around and find out what the aircraft can't do". After the pilot is comfortable, they start planning a route which they will want to take alone or with a wingman if applicable. Next is cueing up the music; finding out what time the aircraft needs to take off to meet the end of the song playing before their routine, and then when/where they need to start playing their music so that they meet the crowd at the most striking part of the opening segment.
Eventually the team throws together ideas for the Black Aces Signature Formation (All aircraft in the sky, big group(s) bunched together), what would be the best angles to show off the aircraft in the surrounding environment in accordance to the audience, and how to break the formation to put the audience in awe.
How do the early showcases from last year compare to the recent ones?
Riko: Extremely, more organized and well formatted than before. Most showcases in the past the aircraft were learned on the spot of the actual showcase so barely to almost no practice. Still, people loved it and as we have gotten bigger as a community we started to organize our showcases more by having multiple practices and staying up late to perfect what we do. New pilots bring a variety of stunts certain pilots like to do. For example, Uni does all the Cobra Maneuvers. He loves to pull those while other pilots, like Razor, are more for the high-speed lowpasses like he did in the MiG-27 recently.
Uni Power: The first showcases had very limited practice, some members flew impromptu without a defined routine. Once the Stunt Team was created there was set group of pilots to choose from, instead of having to grab a friend to fill up any remaining spots, and it made things more smooth because we knew each person's real life schedules and could pick a set time where most people could be in attendance.
Early showcases featured more solo flights due to having poor networking, it was dangerous for the wingman to have to predict when an aircraft was going to turn due to an almost 2 second delay of input from the lead pilot, and it wasn't very pleasant to see one aircraft trailing behind instead of having a close formation.
Over time aircraft controls have swapped from heavy and slow inputs to fast and tight; Early day aircraft would require the pilot to worry about predicting a pull in dangerous situations because it would take time to accelerate into a turn or decelerate back to level from a high AoA turn, but recently creators have given us faster and full controls, now we watch out for pulling too hard on the controls so that too much velocity isn't lost so we may finish the routine on time with our music.
In both of your opinions, what do you think the some of the best Black Aces performances are? Riko: I love all the performances we have put on but if I were to choose the best that's a bit hard. September Showcase 2021 Day #3 made by Non was really good. It was also when Sacc Sync was still in the early phase and it just made the aircraft look so much better than what it was before.
Some of my favorite aircraft were also flying. The March 2022 air show created by VTail and Raptor probably has to be one of my favorites. I was so stressed out from running the tournament seeing such an amazing show with no mishaps just made everything so much better.
Last but not least September showcase 2022 Day #1 made by VTail. It was so much fun flying the Draken and the crowd loved seeing low-altitude Cobras going straight past the crowd. That airshow was simply so much fun.
Uni Power: If I had to put our showcases in a Top 3, First I would choose March 2022's VTail/Raptoritasha Russian/Ukraine showcase, featuring an interesting ekranoplan, the Bartini Beriev VVA-14, along with a performance of a duo MiG-29 set featuring some high AoA maneuvers, and a special remembrance featurette of everyone's beloved Antonov An-225. The next show I would like to favorite is the June 2022 showcase, made by yours truly, introducing some reciprocating dive & torpedo bomber, such as the SBD-3 Dauntless, SB2C Helldiver, and the BTD-1 Destroyer.
The planes had some target boats to utilize their payloads on but then things got heated as a manned Destroyer and Patrol Boat entered the stage, they were multicrew capable meaning their weaponry was fully available for users to control, and thus the first showcase with a battle between the sea and air had begun.
Lastly I would like to mention the January 2022 Showcase, featuring Reason2Die4's BigBoi aircraft. The final aircraft to be shown in the event was the CL-1201, the largest aircraft to ever be concepted by Lockheed Martin, which took the crowd's minds by the shear size of the aircraft and the noise it produced. At the end of the show, the rest of the aircraft joined each other and passed over the crowd with the CL-1201 in trail, astounding money shots were made.
Are there any maneuvers you saw happen during a performance that made you both get worried? Riko: Every showcase, I'm always a bit worried to see someone crash, but one that has made me the most worried, although he’s the only one I trust doing stunts like that, is Uni. Other than that it's really hard to choose which other one has made me worried.
Uni Power: As somewhat stated by Riko, I stretch to bring the aircraft and its maneuvers as close as possible to the crowd for the best view, sometimes they are indeed worrisome. The maneuver that started the trend was a completed backflip less than 200 feet off the ground in an experimental J-20, at the time I would agree that it was a very "cracked out" aircraft, however controls were heavy and hard to keep steady when in the moment of gliding backwards.
In September of 2021, I had convinced my wingman at the time that it would be hilarious to hover the current aircraft we were showing off, a Harrier, inside of the open hangar behind the crowd, both aircraft fit inside and circled around each other, we called it "The Harrier Dance". Overall the maneuver to top the stupidity meter was during the VTail/Raptor showcase of 2022.
Inside of my MiG-29, the final maneuver I would pull off at the end of the set was to play chicken with the ground and then cobra maneuver away, my angle was very steep during the live show and recordings caught the tail of my aircraft mere inches off the ground.
Putting on a showcase isn't just about coordinating routines in the air. Creating the aircraft and the worlds they will be flying in is also a big part of it, right? Uni Power: The creator has a big impact on the show, majority of what makes routines so different is the different types of aircraft that will be flown, and how flight physics will be set up. Another major thing is where the audience is located in the map, they may be put right in front of a cliff, there may be buildings or terrain behind them, and sometimes the sun's current angle can become a factor in trying to give the audience a nice look at the aircraft while flying. Most showcases are featured on flat land with a hangar that isn't too much taller than the stand the audience is put on, which gives a simple, very easy and basic show; if we introduce a expansion, such as a cliff, we may be able to utilize it to fly below the audience, hide from them, or just have some extra space from the ground when we want to get close.
Riko: Yeah, without them, airshows would never be possible. They put in so much effort to make each air show a one-of-a-kind. We even had VTail coding a whole new showcase manager allowing us to control what goes on in the world. It truly is a lifesaver when it comes to managing events.
Another factor is social media management and coordinating with posting video links to the online audience. How many members of the Black Aces does it take to make these events work? Riko: Other than me and Non, the co-owner of the Black Aces, we have a total of 5 organizers who truly do help with both showcases and tournaments. People like Raptor, REaSoN2DiE4, Uni Power, and especially VTail who is the photographer for our events. Thanks to Zweikaku, Stagnation, ServerBaka, and Ahri, we are able to stream these events to the public and they even help with managing our social media with Razor and VTail. Commentators also really help with Mama-san being our main commentator and getting support from Skyward staff helping with commentating. We have a total of 21 other staff who help with our events.
The most significant difference between Black Aces showcases and virtual airshows in other flight games and simulators is a live audience. What are your thoughts on having a live audience?
Riko: The live audience truly makes it so much better. It's being able to socialize with people during an event and maybe even make new friends with similar interests. In my opinion, it makes the community feel more welcoming and way more engaging. It feels like you’re at an actual airshow. What also makes it even better is that a lot of aircraft that have been scrapped or you may never see them fly in your country. Now you can see them in VR and get up close to aircraft like the AN-225. It really was a wonderful thing seeing that plane up close.
Uni Power: It's enjoyable having a live audience and livestream, when possible I always go back and see how the reactions were from the crowd. I wonder if they liked what they saw or questioned something we did.
Having that big of an audience is quite the responsibility. Is there anything that VRC has natively that limits or hampers airshows?
Riko: Well, the hard player cap is 80 people per world instance. I never thought we would hit the point where people are complaining that they can't join the instance because we hit the hard cap. Luckily when it comes to performance, VRChat has been implementing more stuff to help with the frame rate of a full instance by adding hiding avatars by a distance. When it comes to flying for the showcase, it does help. When flying toward the crowd we were lucky to have 12 frames per second before but now we can sit around 20-30. Meta Quest compatibility is probably what makes setting up these showcases the hardest for the world creators. We do our very best to make every event Meta Quest friendly but it does limit how much we can add since we have to stay under 100MB. I wish we were allowed to work with 200MB but I'm not sure if the Quest can handle that.
Uni Power: A fair note on having a live audience is a wear on performance in the show, a lot of connected users can make a world laggy in both a sense of having a good connection to the server, and also slowing down the game while your hardware tries to keep up with everything. VRChat has recently introduced some new tools for users, allowing them to slow tracking data thus allowing a breather in all the heavy processes, but it isn't flawless and we still have to keep in mind that our inputs may have delays.
Are there any plans for future Black Aces showcases that are being considered?
Riko: Showcase-wise, it matters when a world creator is almost done with their work or they want to show off their aircraft. These showcases were originally designed as a way to show off to the community what new planes were being worked on to build up hype for them. We have been discussing hosting an event more community-based summer of next year. Allowing people to make their own air show teams and show off their skills in a summer air festival. It is still in talks but it's something that's high on the possibility list.
Thanks a lot for this interview! Is there anything you would like to add?
Uni Power: Thank you for the invite, it is a pleasure to receive some notice about our showcases! I hope the Stunt Team can continue to achieve great performances, try some new things, and hopefully continue expanding the collection of planes. You can catch me on Twitter as I continue to fabricate prop planes, and I hope to keep showcasing!
Riko: If you wish to experience the aviation community you can join the Black Aces on Discord. Or if you're looking to stay updated on VRChat aviation you can check out our social media platforms on TikTok, Twitter or YouTube. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity. Seeing VRC aviation grow as a whole is truly an amazing sight to see from its small beginnings to where it is now
About the Interviewer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.