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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
in the L-39 after my GLOC incident (photo by Larry Salganek)
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" 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.
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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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