If you haven’t really seen it or felt it, will you be able to follow the crucial procedures when you unexpectedly find yourself in an upset situation with seconds to react?
Following weeks of anticipation and excitement, the time has come for my upset recovery training. I arrive at a hangar on the east side of Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport (KTPF) belonging to Dr. Daniel Greenwald – longtime flight instructor and founder of the Angle of Attack Experience. We are not here to fly, but to prep for our next day of flights in Dan’s two personal aircraft, an L-39 Albatros and an Extra 330LT. Seeing as this would be my first exposure to upset recovery/aerobatic training, there is much to discuss.
As Dan begins an abbreviated ground training session, I quickly conclude that when it comes to aerobatic flying, I do not know what I do not know. Thankfully, this is not Dan’s first time around the patch, and he recognizes where my knowledge of “normal” aerodynamics ends and uses that in conversation to build a bridge to “abnormal” and aerobatic aerodynamics. For instance, one concept new to me is disconnecting the flight controls from their typical roles. In “normal” attitude flight, when on the front side of the power curve, we are all well aware that pitch is controlled by the elevator. However, if you are in 90-degree knife edge flight, the pitch will now be controlled by the rudder, and thus I learn a new term: “top rudder.”
As our conversation wraps up, Dan produces a couple of books for some nightly reading – “Fly for Fun” by Bill Thomas and “Better Aerobatics” by Alan Cassidy. I later sit in my hotel room reading and chair flying the assigned maneuvers (aileron roll, slow roll, loop, barrel roll), and my excitement begins to morph toward nervousness. Though I hold multiple type ratings and fly aircraft all over the world, it has been a long time since I have found myself out of my element. But here I am working very hard to grasp the most basic building blocks of aerobatics. I take a big bite of humble pie, do my best to channel my inner student pilot and keep my nose buried in the books. But in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I bit off more than I can chew?
The next morning, Dan and I arrive to the My Jet Manager hangar located at the Lakeland Linder International Airport (KLAL). I soon get my first glance at Dan’s meticulously maintained Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. The red, white and blue paint scheme quickly draws my eye. Even as it sits in the hangar, the L-39 looks fast with its long, sleek fuselage framed by dual engine inlets.
A man on a mission, Dan dives right into the pre-flight inspection which begins at the Sapphire auxiliary power unit with a check of the unit’s oil level. As we are adding oil to the small jet engine, Dan explains that much like in large business jets, the starting of the main jet engine is accomplished by using battery power to start the small power unit, which then can be used to power the start of the much larger main aircraft engine.
A certified A&P, Dan continues the pre-flight in a thorough and methodical manner, explaining the different systems as he goes – hydraulic (normal and emergency), pneumatic, fire suppression, ejection seats, etc. He is also careful to point out any aftermarket modifications that may have been made that alter the aircraft from its original version. Combining this in-person tutorial with the information I read in Dan’s recent Twin & Turbine article (“L-39 Albatros: Own and Fly a Fighter Jet,” Feb. 2019), I feel that I have a decent working knowledge of the airplane.
Dan offers to let me fly from the front seat of the aircraft and I excitedly accept. He then spends a few minutes discussing the location and use of the different systems that I will be required to operate, specifically the ones he will not have access to in the back seat (Sapphire and engine start controls, flaps, gear, GPS navigation). Following the cockpit tour, Dan dives into the ejection seat training – a briefing utterly unique to me. Maybe it’s the thought of strapping myself to a rocket capable of launching me from the aircraft with a force of 16 G’s or just the possibility that it could be required, brings me a level of anxiety. Things are getting real.
My harness is strapped and cinched, a helmet is put on my head, the canopy is lowered and I latch it closed. “Go ahead and turn on all of the red switches on the front of the lower right-hand panel,” I hear Dan yell forward to me.
“Battery – On, Engine Bus – On, Radio Master – On,” I yell back. With the last switch, I hear the intercom crackle to life.
“OK, com check one,” I hear clearly through my headset. Now working like a seasoned crew, Dan walks me through the before engine start and starting engine checklist with a very natural call and response method. We monitor the engine start indications then quickly complete the remaining switch flips and before taxi checks. I finally look out of the cockpit and am struck by the incredible visibility from the wide-open canopy.
Dan continues to coach as I start to taxi to the runway, which I discover is no small feat considering that the nosewheel is free-castering and there are no toe brakes. Instead, there is a brake handle (think bicycle) mounted
vertically on the control stick that can be squeezed to apply brakes evenly to both main wheels, or alternatively full rudder pedal deflection in either direction will apply differential braking. Slowly, I lurch the jet left then right and we make our way toward Runway 23.
“Keep in mind that the brakes are $35,000,” Dan says as I once again bring the aircraft to an abrupt and inadvertent stop while trying to make a left-hand turn. I laugh nervously and try again to taxi to the hold short line without any more trouble.
With the engine run-up complete and takeoff clearance obtained, I clumsily bring us into position on Runway 23 and push the power lever all the way up. With 3,800 pounds of thrust coming out the tailpipe of the AI-25TL engine, I release the brakes and my back is pushed into the ejection seat as we quickly accelerate down the runway. We rapidly reach 100 knots and Dan instructs me to raise the nose 5 degrees. We set our initial climb attitude, retract the gear and bring up the flaps. Anyone familiar with flying CJ’s or other light jets will be familiar with the performance of the L-39. With a climb speed of around 220 kts and a climb rate from 2,500-4000 fpm, it is nearly identical to that of most light business jets.
We point the nose south and scout for a large enough hole in the scattered layer of clouds. Dan spots one that he likes and tells me to climb through it. But clearly not satisfied with my “corporate pilot” climb technique, he takes the flight controls and shows me how to do it fighter pilot-style. We rocket above the cloud layer and the controls are transferred back to me.
“Alright, starting on a south heading, level at 11,500, let’s do steep turns left and right,” says Dan.
I roll in left aileron and start what I would consider to be a standard 50-degree banked steep turn. Dan, sensing something still hasn’t clicked in my brain, shouts, “It’s a fighter jet, dude! Bank it and pull!”
That is all of the motivation I need. I push the stick hard to the left and pull it towards my belly. I quickly feel the higher G loading set in as the G meter on the Garmin rolls through +2.0 G’s. Channeling my inner Maverick, I lead the roll out and swing the stick hard right. The jet happily rolls through wings level and into a nearly 80-degree bank back to the right.
Once we level out back to our south heading, Dan asks me to close the throttle and pitch the nose up 20 degrees for a clean stall. I comply and hold the nose up until I feel the onset of a noticeable, but not overly violent buffet. Instinctively, I drop the nose and cram the power in.
As I wait the 8 seconds required for the engine to spool up from idle to full power, I hear “Woah there, cowboy. It looks like you got the memo to reduce your AOA!” The L-39 is apparently very sensitive to pitch and I have effortlessly brought the nose down 20 degrees below the horizon. Though a little excessive, I think I have done my training proud.
Now fully recovered from our stall I am asked, “How’s your barrel roll?”
I laugh and opt to let the master show me the ropes first. Dan takes the controls and we pitch 20 degrees nose up and then comes a hard bank right and the world below fills the canopy. I do my best to track Dan’s control inputs as the aircraft continues to roll before bringing us back to straight and level flight.
“Beautiful,” is all I can summon. Now it’s my turn. I pitch up just as Dan did and begin my roll to the left. We are up and over the top quickly but my roll rate isn’t keeping up with the pitch as it should.
“Roll,” I hear through the headset. “Roll, roll, roll.”
With Dan’s help, I get the roll caught back up just in time to bring the nose up to the horizon. I complete the maneuver in what I would characterize as a valiant first effort. With precious jet fuel burning, we quickly move on to the aileron roll.
“Pitch up 10 degrees, neutralize the elevator and then just roll it as hard as you can,” Dan instructs.
Refusing to be accused of not flying the aircraft like a fighter jet a third time, I commit to the maneuver. I push the stick as hard as I can to the left and feel it hit the stop and I hold it there. The airplane rolls rapidly around its longitudinal axis, and I find that my eyes have a hard time keeping track of the roll rate. But I am able to catch the roll just in time to level the wings as we approach 0 degrees of roll.
“Nice, try it to the right now,” Dan says. He doesn’t have to tell me twice.
Next, Dan takes the airplane and completes his version of a course reversal which involves a 90-degree bank and a 3 G pull. With the sudden onset of G’s, I feel my head start to drop and I immediately begin pressure breathing to try to keep the blood in my head from being pulled to my feet. We roll out on a north heading and Dan begins briefing me for the unusual attitude portion of the flight.
“You have two conditions: high energy and low energy. If you are high energy, the appropriate response is to roll wings level and then bring the nose up to the horizon and pull power if you have to for airspeed. Low energy, you want to simultaneously add full power, roll into a knife edge and let the nose fall to the horizon.”
This is all information that as a flight instructor and a professional pilot I have heard and said countless times. But as Dan starts putting me through the wringer of rolls and G’s, most of my logical thinking is pushed aside as I try to keep from blacking out. Just when I think I can take no more and I am utterly disoriented, Dan gives me back the flight controls. I open my eyes and all I see is blue sky. Instincts take over and I roll the airplane into a knife edge and let the nose drop down to the horizon where I level it out and return to straight and level flight.
“What happened to your power?” Dan asks.
I realize that in the heat of the moment, in a maneuver I have performed hundreds of times in aircraft and simulators, I forgot one of the crucial steps of the upset recovery procedure. It is at this point that I am struck with the reality of the situation and why upset recovery training is so crucial. When given the controls of a jet that is pitched up 70 degrees and in a 40-degree bank; when you can hear the air noise dropping off as the airspeed decays and the G forces drop from +3 to less than 1 – and you have never actually been in this situation before – items can be missed.
Suddenly, I am far removed from the fun of barrel rolls and am reminded what this training is really about. Yes, a basic understanding of aerobatic flying is beneficial for upset recoveries, but the reason behind those maneuvers is this: If you haven’t really seen it or felt it, will you be able to follow the crucial procedures when you unexpectedly find yourself in an upset situation with seconds to react?
I enter the next upset scenario with a greater appreciation and resolve to execute the maneuver correctly. This time, when given the controls, I see a canopy full of ground and I immediately start verbally talking myself through the procedure etched in my brain: “Nose is low; power to idle; wings level; slow pull up.”
Even as I say the words “slow pull up,” I feel the G’s start to come on in a way that a simulator simply cannot recreate. My eyes find the G meter again and I notice that it is creeping towards the +3.6 G limit of the CJ4 that I regularly fly. Yet another notable lesson: Even with a conscious effort to not overload the airplane, it can easily happen when adrenaline is coursing through you after being faced with a view of the ground and an airspeed climbing through 300 knots.
We make our way back to the Lakeland airport and Dan demonstrates the landing profile to me in the form of a low pass. As the jet spools up, the flaps and gear are retracted, and we pull up into a steep climb, Dan then hands the controls back to me so I can take a shot at an actual landing. As he instructs me through the pattern, I again see nearly identical speeds and pattern spacing to those I would fly in the CJ. With this assurance, I configure the airplane, make the turn to final and at about 100 knots over the fence, commit to the landing by finally pulling the power to idle (power is kept above 80% N2 until there is no possibility of a go-around due to the engine spool up time).
With a slight nose-up flare, the trailing link gear contacts the runway, helping me look like a seasoned professional. Speed brakes are deployed and I am able to use the hand brake to slow the aircraft down and exit the runway.
One flight down. Many lessons learned. One flight to go.
Stay tuned for “Part 2” – Jared’s flight in the Extra 330LT – in an upcoming issue.