My Long, Strange Journey
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI
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
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
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 G-LOC incident (photo by Larry Salganek)
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!"
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"
• 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.
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
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
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
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 a solo aerobatic
flight - note the icy taxiway
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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