How not to start learning aerobatics!
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253 Warbird Lane
Driggs, Idaho 83422
Teton Aviation (FBO)
Phone: (208) 354-3100
Hours: Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Friday 8:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Published: January, 17 2022
Let us start by saying perhaps I did not choose the easiest route and I never expected to fully embrace aerobatics because, I hate to admit it, but I was afraid of flying. I had no problem building and flying R/C planes but putting my life in a real plane that I was in charge of seemed to be where I drew the line. I knew too much about how things break being a mechanical engineer which also contributed to my unrealistic fear of flying. The other factor which should have discouraged me from even thinking about aerobatics was that I often became seasick on vessels and could only take one roller coaster ride at the amusement park before becoming nauseous.
Despite this, when I was 51, with a new pilots certificate in hand, my friend convinced me to come and train with him at an IAC aerobatic practice session in Wilson, NC. He sat in the back of the Decathlon and talked me through loops and rolls. I went home, scared out of my mind, and did my first loop. Not knowing where I was when I finished the loop and eventually I learned I was 90 degrees off heading. I was soon able to understand and correct my shortcomings with the correct rudder and aileron input at the beginning and throughout the loop. Moving on to perfection competition loops need to be round to the person on the ground judging. So you would initially think you are pulling consistent G’s throughout the loop, but I can tell you, you are very light in the seat at the top of the loop. In fact, you may feel the 5 point harness tugging on your shoulders when at the top of the loop. When we practice we have someone on the ground on a radio coaching the pilot in the air. “Hold it off, hold it off, hold it off, ok now start the pull” to round out the loop. It is simply not as intuitive as one might think. You start off pulling around 3.5 to 4 g’s at the entry and then again at the exit but at the top of the loop, you are most likely at or close to 0 g’s.
Next, the rolls, those for me were much simpler, well perhaps the aileron rolls! With aileron rolls, you pitch the nose up about 5 degrees and plant the stick in your knee and hang on for the ride. If done correctly you will roll and come out on the same heading but the plane will eventually be nose down about 5 degrees when you have completed the 360-degree maneuver. After completing and understanding the aileron roll and you can handle the workload it is time to introduce rudder and elevator for the slow roll. What I have found here with the Super D is you have to provide the correction about 90 degrees prior to when you think you will need it. Meaning as 90 degrees prior to going inverted you should be feeding in some elevator, so you are not losing altitude. The same holds true for the momentary knife-edge positions and rudder inputs. The main difference between the aileron roll and the slow roll is the plane's C.G. draws a straight horizontal line with the slow roll which is critical when judged at an IAC contest.
Let's dig into aerobatic competitions and what one might expect. First, they are a blast! It is a great group of people with a common interest coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. At my first contest, I was wound up pretty good. I am not very competitive by nature and was more concerned about flying in the aerobatic box which is approximately 3,300 ft x 3,300 ft on the horizontal plane and from 1,500 to 3,500 AGL. All of my practicing started at 5,500 AGL where there is plenty of room for recovery if I had made a mistake. What made this so challenging was having to perform spins, enter on a heading, spin 1-1/2 turns toward the earth, stop exactly on heading, and then draw a straight line down after stopping the spin before pulling out and heading for the next maneuver.
The folks who develop the routines for primary and sportsman categories do a good job getting you in a position to enter the maneuver from a previous maneuver. So, for instance, you may have finished a loop at the bottom with a lot of energy and head into a 45 degree up line, which is capped with a straight horizontal line. If you bleed off all your airspeed and chop the power at the right moment, you draw that straight line and enter the spin pretty much immediately and at a safe altitude. But trust me, starting at 3,500 feet or even busting out of the top of the box (judges don’t know) you still feel really close to the ground and the first few times are quite the adrenaline rush. The other challenge is figuring out how to stop a spinning object headed straight for the earth on a certain heading.
Now with these three fundamental aerobatic maneuvers, you can pretty much piece together a routine which may include a ½ Cuban and some other easier maneuvers. As confidence builds and hanging around with other aerobatic pilots you can eventually be bold and learn hammerheads and inverted flight. Just don’t progress into inverted flight quite the same way I did. In my simple mind, I thought having gone through the loop and at the top it would be easy to stay inverted with a simple down elevator stick input. Little did I know how much forward stick input you would need to hold the decathlon inverted, not its natural mode of flight. While inverted the horizon got closer and closer to the dash, full power was in, airspeed was increasing, and I was gradually losing altitude. Well, in the moment, how does one get oneself out of this predicament? Pull the stick back and finish off the loop? Well, that was not the smartest of decisions with increased energy and full power but, in the end, I was back to normal flight at 2,500 AGL. Altitude is your friend when you are stupid! I went home that evening beating myself up pretty good, I knew how to roll an airplane, and I could have rolled out of that predicament, and even better, I should have rolled inverted to begin with.
Just a few other notes about flying aerobatics. When I was training to become a pilot the instructors would basically beat it into you not to overspeed the engine. We, the competitive aerobatic pilots, keep the engine wide open unless we are setting up for a spin and even then on the downline we are pushing in 100% power. Flying an aerobatic sequence is all about energy management. Where will you be with your energy in the ship when you finish a maneuver and will you have enough to enter the next maneuver.
Another other fun fact. Pilots are the worst ones to introduce to aerobatics. Take a person off the street that has no clue how to fly a plane and you can do aerobatics all day with them. Take a pilot who has been taught to fly within a certain performance envelope and take the plane to the edge of its performance, well the anxiety starts to hit. Anxiety leads to airsickness! Plane and simple. Also, it is best to have a little food in your stomach to ease off on any potential nausea. Simple but somewhat counterintuitive.
Today, when I have not flown aerobatics for quite some time I will need to head out to the practice area and simply introduce g’s through steep turns and other lighter g maneuvers and build back up a tolerance before going all in. It takes about a week or two to get back to the point where I can sit in the rear seat and go along for the ride while someone else is performing a maneuver. I gradually build up with loops, and rolls, then some hammers, and eventually link them together. Spins, well those take some time for me to build back up to but once there they are a ton of fun and even more fun to do with brand new pilots.
I have taken many a new pilot up for an introduction to aerobatics and I always try to leave enough gas in their tank (not quite ready to call it quits) and do a spin or two. First I demonstrate and then I allow them to try it. This comes from my very first spins in my 20’s when I clearly thought one control would get me out of a spin and was completely wrong. I feel that any pilot should have at least some experience with unusual attitudes and how to get themselves out of it if they ever wander off course from a normal flight attitude.
Now, flying aerobatics near sea level is a lot of fun. Flying out here at Driggs where the airport elevation is approximately 6,200 ft MSL is a bit different. The plane is all mushy. I have stalled the wing on the vertical and inverted doing loops. Spins can be quite difficult to get into with no passenger in the back seat. That is not to say aerobatics is not fun at 9000 feet. Where else can you go and use something like the Grand Teton off in the horizon to set your vertical upline for a hammerhead. After practicing aerobatics at this altitude in a Pitts it is always fun to go back east to sea level and grab a handful of stick. Before you know it you are through the loop or have completed the roll. There is a ton more performance out of the engine and airfoils that contribute to your entertainment.
Aerobatics are a lot of fun. You can put $30 of gas in the tank and bounce around in the sky. An amusement park may cost you well over $100 and you must stand in ridiculous lines. No lines, not waiting, and you are off to have the time of your life where nothing on earth really matters when you are tumbling around in the sky.
If you are interested in learning more about aerobatics, here are a couple of books that I found to be quite helpful.
Basic Aerobatics – Geza Szurovy, Mike Goulian
Better Aerobatics – Alan Charles Cassidy
Your upside-down friend,