As professional aviators, we can watch air show routines and especially appreciate the years of practice and countless flight hours it must take for aerobatic performers to hone their skills – fast, loud and low; abrupt pushes, pulls and tumbles; violent, precise and crisp.
It is an incredible thing to witness. But how many of us view these maneuvers as opportunities to improve our safety and skills for everyday flying?
A step above and beyond upset recovery training, aerobatic training explores all edges of the envelope. I got my first taste of such training at the Peter O’Knight Airport in Tampa, Florida with instructor Daniel Greenwald.
“Do you know what a D-ring is?” Dan asks as he hands me a packed parachute.
This isn’t a common pre-flight briefing for me, so I listen intently to his description of the parachute harness and operating procedure (due to the nature of the training, we are both required to wear parachutes). The pack is secured, and I am soon sitting in the front seat of Dan’s Extra.
A familiar feeling of nervous anticipation is creeping up on me again. Even though I just completed a few aerobatic maneuvers in an L-39 Albatros, I know the Extra is a different animal. With a G loading limit of +/- 10 G’s, the pilot (me) is much more likely to break than the airplane. Dan is all too familiar with this hesitation and knows exactly what to say.
“I want to step you up through the maneuvers slowly,” Dan explains. “We start with the low G maneuvers followed by the rapid roll maneuvers and then if you’re up for it, the tumbles. Part of the training is learning the physiology of flight. Anyone can get sick when they are riding along in this airplane. My goal is that you will not get sick. My goal is that you will have fun and will want to do this again.”
I feel reassured as Dan situates himself behind me and the canopy is closed.
Looking forward from the front seat is a totally different picture than that of the Citations I typically fly. Two lonely gauges stare back at me from the panel – an airspeed indicator on the left and an altimeter on the right. Apparently, any additional instrumentation would only serve as a distraction. Between these two gauges and the excellent visibility out of the canopy, I’ll have all the information that I need.
With the sun beaming in, Dan quickly gets things going and we S-turn our way to the end of the runway. It is a blustery day, so Dan performs the tricky crosswind takeoff. After popping off the ground and getting trimmed out for climb, the controls are passed to me with instructions to climb eastbound to 4,500 feet.
I expected an aircraft with a 270-degree per second roll rate to be twitchy, or even squirrely to control, but I am immediately surprised to find the aircraft is an intuitive flyer. It is much lighter and nimbler than anything I have ever experienced, providing instant results thanks to the pushrod control arms running from the stick directly to the oversized flight controls. With little more than fingertips on the center control stick, it seems that all I need to do is think about what I want and it responds.
Low G Maneuvers
With an initial understanding of the Extra’s handling characteristics from flying to the practice area, it is now time to really get to know the bird. Steep turns are up first, so I begin a roll to the left. My eyes instinctively come inside the cockpit to look for the attitude indicator to get an idea of my bank angle. No such luck! My eyes dart back outside as I try to set a sufficiently steep bank angle.
As if he were sensing my every thought, Dan says, “Just look outside and try to maintain your altitude as you continue to roll. I’ll tell you when you have enough in.”
I keep banking and pulling, banking and pulling. I feel that I am nearly at knife edge in the turn and my body is getting heavier and heavier in the seat when Dan finally instructs, “Good! Hold that” at what I would estimate is 80 degrees. We continue around in the turn until my inputs become less frequent and jerky, and instead more steady. I then roll straight from the left steep turn directly into one to the right, with Dan and the airplane providing ample feedback as we go.
Next, we proceed into a normal power-off stall with full recovery using only a reduction in angle of attack. Following this we go through another stall maneuver known as the falling leaf. In this procedure, the stalled state is maintained by keeping the stick back and the wing drop is combatted by using the rudder. As the airplane falls through the sky, with the wings dipping alternatingly, we are causing one wing to be slightly more stalled than the other but then reverse the condition through the use of the rudder. After a few cycles of hanging on the ragged edge of the envelope, we simply reduce the elevator back pressure which reduces the angle of attack of both wings simultaneously, allowing for a full recovery from the stall.
“We have just flown a coordinated stall and a slightly uncoordinated stall. Now let’s see what happens when we are completely uncoordinated,” says Dan.
We set up for another stall, but this time I add in left aileron and right rudder pressure. If my cockpit was equipped with a turn coordinator, I imagine that the ball would have been roughly half deflection out of center skidding to the outside of the turn. Predictably the “less stalled” left wing comes up and over the top as the “more stalled” right wing falls. I follow the same procedures I followed years ago in a Cessna 152 to recover: power idle, ailerons neutral, full opposite rudder pressure and elevator forward to reduce the angle of attack. No surprises there.
But what Dan shows me next I have never seen before. This time it is an uncoordinated turning stall to the right, but once we enter the incipient phase of the spin, he further aggravates the spin by doing everything wrong. He pulls the stick back and to the right as he pushes the left rudder pedal to the stop and guns the power. We have entered a flat spin. Except for the sound of the motor, it is eerily quiet in the cockpit as the aircraft falls straight towards the earth while rotating around its vertical axis. The airspeed indicator in front of me reads “0” as the altimeter is unwinding like a clock. It is an oddly beautiful thing to experience.
After a few rotations, Dan follows the same recovery procedure that I did, and we are quickly back to flying straight and level.
“How are you feeling?” Dan asks.
“Really good, actually,” I respond honestly.
This will be one of many wellness checks that Dan performs throughout the flight. To be honest, if I had been feeling bad and called it quits at this juncture, I would have felt that it was a successful day. Getting to know the Extra and exploring some slow speed and even no speed envelope flying is a real proficiency booster. But the first few maneuvers peaked my appetite – I wanted more.
With no previous experience in rolls, I assumed I would start with slow rolls then progress the roll rate as I became comfortable. But in reality, slow rolls are one of the more complex aerobatic maneuvers which require precision and a thorough understanding of how to disconnect the flight controls from their typical roles (e.g., rudder can serve as pitch in knife-edge flying), so my first attempt was the simpler aileron roll.
“Start by pitching the nose up slightly, then try to push the stick all the way to the stop,” Dan explains.
I complied and finally got to see the full effect of the roll rate that the Extra is known for. When I shoved the controls of the fingertip flyer and pushed the control stick to the left-hand limit of its travel, there was no possible way for my eyes to track the horizon as it spun rapidly around me. I overshot my intended roll-out point by at least 20 degrees. After another a couple of attempts, I can time the release of the control forces to cease the roll rate right as we return to wings level after the full 360-degree roll.
Dan then shows me the appropriate way to perform a slow roll. He talks me through the complexities of starting the roll with slight back pressure, left aileron and left rudder, but as we approach knife edge, smoothly switching to slight right rudder pressure to keep the nose pointed up. We continue over to inverted flight, which requires forward elevator pressure and a check to be sure that enough aileron pressure is being held to continue the roll. Now, rolling out of inverted flight, these “backward” control inputs can be removed and slowly returned to normal. The slow roll is a beautifully choreographed dance between man and machine when done correctly.
Unfortunately, my first attempt results in a two-step instead of tango, but it opens my eyes to just how much learning to fly aerobatics has to offer seasoned pilots. We spend years learning to fly straight and level “normal” attitude flying, incorrectly thinking that this realm is the one and only: pull and we go up, push and we go down. We avoid all things beyond 30-degrees left and right, or 10-degrees pitch up or down. We are often blind to the upside-down world that exists and the duality of the rules we thought we understood. Aerobatic training opens this portal to us.
Speaking of upside-down, it is time for inverted flying. Dan has me complete half of a slow roll and then hold the airplane in the inverted position.
I am not exaggerating when I say I have never felt something quite as uncomfortable as inverted flying. The weight of your body rests on your shoulder and lap harnesses. Your feet fall away from the rudder pedals. Making sense of the horizon and other visual cues is challenging and confounded by the fact that constant forward stick pressure is required to keep from descending. It feels like every little correction that I make pushes me harder into the restraints and more blood to my head. The positive G’s of the next maneuver, the loop, is a welcome return to normal.
Combination and G Maneuvers
As we continue, Dan coaches me using lessons learned and muscle memory built from our previous maneuvers as building blocks to others. For example, roughly speaking, if you can combine the slow roll and a loop, you should have a barrel roll. Having already practiced these two maneuvers separately, along with the skills learned from my earlier L-39 training, it takes me only a couple of tries and Dan chiming in “freeze the stick” to keep me from overcontrolling. Everything then seems to fall in place with the control movements, and I feel like I am tracing the inside of a barrel in the sky.
Feeling that I have accomplished a great deal, I ask Dan to do a little bit of showing off. “I’ve always loved torque rolls, could you show me one?” I ask.
“Sure!” Dan responds and takes the controls, quickly pitching the nose up vertically. In only a matter of seconds, we are hanging on the propeller, completely stationary. Then, with a nudge of aileron, we began to rotate around the longitudinal axis of the airplane. Dan then gives a slight tug on the elevator and we flip over backward and speed back down vertically. The only thing that could make it better would be a huge column of smoke billowing out around us.
Sensing that I want to see more, Dan shows me a hammerhead, a segmented roll and a few other tricks that I couldn’t tell you the name if I tried.
With two feet firmly back on the ground and a refreshing ginger ale to settle any hint of an upset stomach, Dan and I sit in the shade of his hangar to debrief.
“Today, you experienced all the regimes of flight. You gained at least a little bit of comfort with aerobatic flight, and you learned a few new sight pictures.”
I cannot help but laugh a little. Judging by his relaxed tone and mannerisms, I may as well have been doing pattern work as a private pilot student. But in my mind, all I can think is, “That was without a doubt one of the coolest experiences I will ever have while flying!” All I want to do is give high fives and pose for pictures in front of the airplane. But that is just the adrenaline talking. As I listen to Dan breaking down the maneuvers one by one and the key takeaways of each, I return to reality.
Just as in the L-39 upset training course, aerobatics is much more than a way to have a good time or show off in an airplane. It is as fundamental as learning to fly straight and level in your first hours of private pilot training. Just because we prefer to fly aircraft right-side up does not preclude the chance that someday we find ourselves in an aircraft out of our control or beyond our comfort zone outside the 30-degree bank left and right and 10 degrees nose up or down. What do we do then?
Beyond simply experiencing what it is like to be outside the “normal” flight envelope, aerobatic flight training will also improve stick and rudder skills and general knowledge of aerodynamics. And in the day and age of the magenta line, when everyone is accused of being too reliant on automation to fly the aircraft, what better way to increase our flying skills than to push them beyond our previous limits?
The classic example is the jet that was caught in wake turbulence and flipped over. The pilot, having completed some level of aerobatic training, recognizes the situation and simply completes the roll like it is no big deal. Dan sums it up nicely in this quote:
“Every pilot should at least do upset recovery training, and even better, a beginner aerobatic course. You don’t want your first time flying upside down to be in an emergency. We want it to be done in a controlled environment. This way, when you do experience it due to turbulence, wingtip vortices, disorientation, etc. – you can recover from it much more safely.”