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My Long, Strange Journey Into Aerobatics

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI

 

Me with the L-39 Albatross - my first jet


Those who fly always remember their first solo. I’ve pursued flying seriously, and while I remember a few other milestones, none have compared to the initial solo until now. Some time ago I become interested in aerobatics, and the training I’ve taken has led me on a circuitous route toward the day I would fly a plane inverted for the first time without an instructor present. I’ve also had to overcome some anxiety about aerobatics – enough that my first solo acro flight took on some of the same importance as my initial solo years ago.

I think most people who decide to get into serious aerobatics do so in an orderly fashion, building experience to the point where they feel ready for something more exotic than straight-and-level flight. They learn to fly in a Cessna or Piper, go on some trips, take their friends for rides, maybe pick up an instrument rating, and eventually sign up for an introductory course in a Decathlon or Zlin. If this progression constitutes walking up the steps and through the front door of the church of aerobatics, mine was more like hopping backwards on one foot through the side entrance.


AN ATTEMPT AT NORMALCY GOES AWRY

By the time I earned my flight instructor's license my total aerobatic experience consisted of some spins in a Cessna 152 and a few aileron rolls in a friend's Yak-52. In other words: barely a toe in the water. But it was enough to hook me into pursuing it. And in my defense I did at least TRY to do things in a somewhat normal fashion...

I signed up to take a basic aerobatics course in a Beech T-34 prop trainer at the Jet Warbird Training Center in Santa Fe. The plan was to complete the course and then take a flight in one of their jet fighters for the grand finale. But alas, it wasn't to be. Just days before I turned up in New Mexico, the FAA grounded all T-34's due to wing spar problems. My trip was already booked, so the instructors suggested doing the aerobatics in their jets instead. Despite the hefty cost, this was just too tempting for me to pass up.

So I happily looped and rolled a MiG-15, a T-33 and two other jets during my visit to Santa Fe. This was one of the great experiences of my life - how many people get to do their first aerobatics in a jet fighter? (Click HERE to read more about my jet fighter experiences)

On another visit to New Mexico a few months later (those jets are really addictive!) I did get to fly the T-34. I found aerobatics more difficult than in the jets, but couldn't pinpoint why.

But I also decided I needed a closer location for my aerobatic training and something cheaper to fly than a MiG-15. After some research I settled on a 10-hour course at Aerial Advantage in New Hampshire, flying a Super Decathlon.

Aerial Advantage is home to airshow and competition pilot Rob Holland. He and his staff are specialists in aerobatic instruction, and their course had two considerable perks. Upon completion I would be certified in tailwheel aircraft - that sort of instruction can be hard to come by. And secondly, they allow pilots who complete the course to rent the Decathlon and fly it solo, which is unusual.

I was also glad to get into a more formal and realistic course. As outstanding as the jets and instructors are in New Mexico, it was really putting the cart before the horse to learn aerobatics in jets if I intended to pursue the activity.

Before my first flight in the Decathlon Rob gave me detailed briefings on the airplane, parachute, and how we would progress through the curriculum. When we began discussing the details of aerobatic maneuvers I quickly realized there were some holes in my aviation knowledge.

I’ve always known that a propeller airplane is subject to four forces which cause it to turn to the left under some circumstances. These are engine torque, slipstream, P-Factor, and gyroscopic precession. In basic flying these effects are easily countered with right rudder pressure. But in aerobatic flight these forces become vitally important, and much more involved. In particular, gyroscopic forces become noticeable in ways not typically seen in normal flight operations. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, some of these effects become reversed when flying inverted!

Rob patiently explained how these forces affect the airplane during different phases of aerobatics and I suddenly realized why that T-34 flight had seemed so difficult after the jets – jets aren’t subject to these forces! It’s the propeller that is responsible for left turn tendencies. A jet just goes where you point it, whereas a prop plane needs to be continually finessed to keep it headed where you want it to go.

Luckily for me, the Super Decathlon is a good trainer. Easy to fly, particularly for a tailwheel airplane. We began working through the curriculum, beginning with aileron rolls, slow rolls, and inverted flight. Next were maneuvers in the vertical plane, starting with loops and progressing to Cuban 8s and hammerheads.


DELAYS, DISTRACTIONS, & G-LOC

I had gotten through about a third of the syllabus when the New England weather began asserting itself. Two week-long trips to New Hampshire resulted in only two days of flying. Work and my own flight students also prevented me from progressing in the course. However, I grabbed other opportunities for aerobatic experience when I could.

In June 2005 I learned I would be taking a business trip to New Mexico. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, and I quickly called my old jet instructor to set up a flight. After a week of seminars in Albuquerque I drove up to Santa Fe to fly an L-39 with Larry Salganek. He had previously introduced me to aerobatics in his other jets, and I was eager to smell kerosene again. But this time the L-39 had a harsh lesson in store for me.

I felt good in the jet that day. Having flown it twice before, I regarded the Albatross as a friend. Very few bad habits, pretty easy to fly, but still a demanding aircraft. I spooled up the jet engine and taxied us out to the runway. The gear and flaps went up after takeoff and I climbed us to 13,000 feet. I did a few steep turns and aileron rolls and then asked Larry for a loop.

I pulled the stick back and quickly realized I had pulled too hard. A gray haze appeared at the edge of my vision, which is the first sign of danger from excessive G-forces. Larry told me to ease off the stick, which I did as we floated over the top, and my vision cleared. Then on the way down I made the same mistake, but worse. This time it was a rapid buildup to 6.5 G’s, and the gray haze quickly returned. My vision tunneled, then the tunnel snapped shut and I became a victim of G-LOC: “G induced loss of consciousness”.

When I passed out I let go of the stick, which caused the plane to unload and the G’s decreased. I think I was out for about two seconds, but the disorientation was extreme. As I came back I vaguely heard Larry as if from very far away telling me, “Get the nose up!” My vision returned and I found us diving for the deck, which is a sight nobody should have to wake up to. Realizing I had gone into G-LOC, Larry then took control and recovered the aircraft. We were never in real danger because we had a lot of altitude, and Larry is used to students doing dumb things like that.

But the disorientation was hard to shake, and I felt as if I had gone twelve rounds by the time we landed. After remarking that I looked white as a sheet, Larry pointed out in the de-brief that I needed to learn to “pull for the G’s”. The L-39 is not the same as a Decathlon, and the stick forces are different. But a 4-G loop is a 4-G loop in any airplane, and I would need to train myself to recognize what that felt like in order to do it properly. I decided that this advice and the experience of going into G-LOC was worth far more than I paid for the flight.

 

G-meter in the L-39 after my GLOC incident (photo by Larry Salganek)


OVERCOMING ANXIETY

After my L-39 flight and a quick hop in an Extra 300 a few weeks later, it was back to work in the Decathlon. As I plowed through the course in Nashua I found I had to deal with some fear.

"I'm not a daredevil or a risk-taker," I often say to skeptical listeners. This remark is often met with rolled eyes and gasps of indignation. "But you fly small airplanes. And you SPIN them and fly them UPSIDE DOWN!" the skeptics sputter. "What do you mean you're not a risk taker? You must be the adrenaline junkie of the universe!"

Not true.

I have no interest whatsoever in scaring myself. I think roller coasters are silly, skydiving foolish, and bungee jumping too stupid for words. For me, flying and aerobatics are about learning and exercising skills, not inducing adrenaline flow. Indeed, if I ever feel an adrenaline rush during aerobatics it probably means I did something wrong. And while risks are involved in aerobatics, they are more reasonable than most people realize. When it's done properly, aerobatics is quite safe. By "properly" I mean:

• At a safe altitude, and in a proper geographical area
• Within the performance limitations of the airplane
• Within the performance limitations of the pilot
• With proper safety equipment

I'm all about safety in flying, so these elements are never in question for me. I feel the risks are minimal and acceptable, so I have few real worries about aerobatic flight. But I do still have some anxiety. My anxiety comes from the fact that I've just never been an upside-down kind of person. Never very good at gymnastics or diving. Never even learned to stand on my head. Going inverted just isn't normal to me.

Fear of the unfamiliar is natural. But just as natural is the fact that continual exposure makes what was once strange become familiar. So with practice, my anxiety began to slowly melt away. After enough spins, one realizes the plane will indeed stop spinning when opposite rudder and forward stick are applied. After doing enough hammerhead turns, I realized that pointing the plane straight down at full throttle would not result in my death as long as I pulled up at the right time with the right amount of force.

As the hours in the Decathlon built up, I became more and more comfortable with what I was doing. The air sickness began to go away too.


GOING SOLO

In October 2005 I completed the course and received my endorsement to act as Pilot-In-Command (PIC) of a tailwheel aircraft. This cleared the way for me to go solo on my next trip to New Hampshire in November, just under two years from when I began seeking out aerobatics training.

(Interestingly, no certification is necessary for aerobatics. Theoretically, you could do it right after your Private Pilot checkride without having received any instruction at all. I think the FAA realizes very few people are likely to do this and that most will seek instruction, thereby making an endorsement unnecessary. A legal document is issued only for low-level aerobatics, such as one sees at airshows. This comes in the form of a waiver from the regulation that aerobatics must be performed no lower than 1500 feet. Experienced airshow performers can be waivered all the way to ground level.)

I had hoped for clear skies for my first solo aerobatic and tailwheel flight, but New England’s weather was uncooperative to the last. The forecast was acceptable, but not what I wanted. There was a cloud base at about 5000 feet, which made me decide not to attempt any vertical maneuvers. I didn’t relish the idea of entering a cloud at the top of my first loop, so I resigned myself to rolls and inverted flight.

As I approached the practice area I used the ratchet next to the seat to tighten my straps. After clearing the area I dipped the nose to pick up speed and executed my first roll. It felt great, and I did a few more. Just like my first solo, it felt right. Exciting, but with no doubt that I was fully prepared and capable of the task.

After more rolls and some inverted flight the clouds seemed to be thickening, and I decided to return to the airport. My landing was good and I taxied back very carefully. In a tailwheel aircraft there’s no relaxing until it’s tied down again.

The next day would bring a different level of excitement.


I SURVIVE AN AEROBATICS-RELATED ACCIDENT

My approach to the airport began normally enough. I was headed straight for the runway, but realized too late that my speed was too high. I tried to correct, but it was too late. I hit, and ended up in a ditch.

This happened in my car, at the icy entrance to the airport on my way to my second solo aerobatic flight. There’s an old adage in aviation that the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of a flight. I seemed to have proven it conclusively. Not a good way to begin the day. Luckily, there was no apparent damage to my car. But it still rattled my nerves. I was still swearing when I got to the hangar to inspect the airplane.

Again, the weather wasn’t what I was hoping for. It was cloudy, but the ceiling was a bit higher than the day before. I could do loops if I was careful and the clouds stayed where they were. But what really concerned me was the ice that had caused my undignified arrival to the airport. It was all over the taxiways, and on some of the runway. Not what I wanted for my second tailwheel flight. I decided to taxi out and have a look.

The Decathlon is quite docile for a tailwheel airplane, but I was very cautious on the ice. As I taxied I decided it was OK as long as I continued slowly. That was when I saw the jet.

As I contacted ground control a big Hawker business jet taxied past me, and ground instructed me to taxi to the runway along a different route. As I did so the Hawker took a turn and came to a stop perpendicular to my taxiway, which meant I would have to pass behind it. Since the jet was sitting still with engines at idle power, I decided it was safe to keep going. As I passed behind it the Decathlon suddenly lurched in the jet wash and the tail began to swing and slide on the ice. I stomped on the rudder pedals, applied power and swore through gritted teeth. Once past the jet I had full control again, but now I was even more rattled.

After running up the engine the tower cleared me onto the runway, where I got my first good look at the conditions. There was ice at the edges, effectively cutting the width in half. It was workable, but I’d have to be on top of things when I landed. Maybe it would melt off a bit while I flew…

The throttle went forward, the tail came up, and I had the same thought that came to me during the takeoff on my first solo years ago: “OK, I’m up. Now I just better be able to get this goddam thing back on the ground again.”

Out in the practice area I climbed to find the height of the clouds. They were high enough to permit vertical aerobatics, but I would verify my entry altitude carefully before each maneuver. I did one roll and then entered my first loop: back firmly on the stick, pulling for the G’s as Larry taught me. Rudder to correct for gyroscopic movement as Rob taught me. Ease off the stick and float over the top, look up for the horizon. Pull for the G’s again on the back end, and back to straight and level.

Next came a half Cuban 8. Up into the loop again, float over the top and look up. On the start of the back end stick forward for a little negative-G, hold it a second, roll left to upright, and pull up. Hey, let’s do that one again!

And finally some spins. Climb up as high as possible, throttle to idle, aft stick. Wait for the onset of the stall and step on the left rudder. The nose swings down and left and the plane starts to wind up. One, two, three turns. With opposite rudder and forward stick the plane recovers smartly, and I pull up into straight and level. A few rolls for good measure and then it’s back to the airport.

The ice is still there. I remind myself of the hundreds of landings I’ve coached my students through, and that I teach them a good landing begins with a stable approach. Time to practice what I preach.

Throttle and trim for 100 mph on downwind; the tower clears me to land. I walk the speed down to 80 as I turn base and final, trimming for each increment of 10 mph. I make certain final approach is on track with no drift, and use my peripheral vision to check height as I enter the flare. I tuck the stick into my belly to hold the plane off the runway as long as possible, and I’m rewarded with a sweet 3-pointer right down the middle. Careful to keep it tracking straight and clear of the icy fringes of the runway, I let it roll out to walking speed and take the first taxiway. Careful again as I enter the parking area and shut down the engine. Another one for the logbook.

Now I just needed to get my car out of the ditch...

 

After my first solo aerobatic flight - note the icy runway

 

Epilogue: Rob Holland, my instructor in the Super Decathalon went on to become World Aerobatic Champion in 2008. The last time I visited with him, Rob was still eating bacon cheesburgers only minutes before taking off on aerobatic flights - a practice which has always left me both nauseated and humbled to be in his presence.

 



















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