Learning to Dance

They say the two most dangerous words in aviation are ‘Watch this!‘ I considered that just as I’d said them to prepare my passenger for an E-ticket ride. I lined up with the road below as I briefly lowered the nose of the airplane until the airspeed indicator showed 120 knots, as I throttled back to stay below red line on the tach. Then I pulled the nose up, gently adding power as we pitched up past 45 degrees. Eventually, I looked across my left wing at the perpendicular horizon. Throttle went to full in the vertical, speed slowing, relaxing pressure — but not deflection — as the earth passed under our heads, then increasing it as the nose dropped through the horizon again. I was pulling power at the same time, pulling back, back, as we closed the loop.

But I wasn’t surreptitiously abusing someone’s Skyhawk. Though I was having a blast, this wasn’t just a thrill ride. I had a parachute, I was flying a Cessna 152 Aerobat, and my passenger was actually a CFI. When you take the keys to one of these airplanes and go up for a spin, you just might mean it.

I’ll tell you the point. Actually, there are several. Aside from the fact that I consider myself fortunate in having to drive about forty minutes to fly an aerobatic airplane for less than what I pay to fly our club’s Cherokee (and yes, that includes the parachute), there are other reasons why I view aerobatics as being rewarding, and here is why you might want to consider it:

  1. You will ultimately be increasing the safety margin against risks by expanding your envelope at the other end of the risk spectrum. What does that mean? The popularly known impediments to sound decision making include the traits of invulnerability and bravado. These, along with impulsivity and anti-authority attitudes, have been tagged as causal factors in accidents. However these attitudes represent a spectrum. At their opposite ends are equally dangerous attitudes. (Talk about attitude adjustment!) Someone who feels invulnerable may come to grief defying common sense, but the fearful can also get in trouble if they’re too timid to do what might need to be done. Translation: The macho pilot may live dangerously, but an overly-delicate pilot might not apply enough control authority to recover from an upset. The bottom line here is assertiveness and added confidence.
  2. That leads into point number two: expanding your envelope with regard to the actual mechanics of flight, and familiarity with other attitudes besides straight and level, climbs, turns, and gentle descents. Current training practices don’t consider performance envelopes beyond 30 degrees of pitch or 60 degrees of bank. There are no guarantees that even a Jedi could recover from a low level wake turbulence upset (other than by avoidance), but an introduction to the full potential of your flight controls will give you a better understanding of how an airplane flies, and might give you a greater chance of recovery from an unintentional unusual attitude, at a higher altitude.
  3. Then there’s the old argument about spins. Students are no longer required to do them, and many instructors are apprehensive about demonstrating them. (And just who do you think faces the possibility of unusual attitudes and other sudden surprises more than a CFI?)
  4. Last, there is the thrill ride angle. The best part, at least for me, is that it’s an absolute hoot.

I wasn’t anxious about the wings falling off. Being an aerobatic category airplane, it has limit load factors of +6 to -3 g’s. I was obeying every rule in the book — whether it was FAR 91.303 on aerobatic flight, or 91.307 on the use of parachutes. The doors have quick release handles, and I know damned well where the D-ring of the parachute is. I happen to be one of those folks who’ve never known motion sickness. I don’t know why that is. I wish someone would carve open my head and study my inner ear; maybe the answer’s in there somewhere… then again, maybe that can wait! I’ve worked on US Naval Oceanographic survey ships in the North Atlantic in the middle of winter, and I have never even been slightly queasy at sea. About the only thing that’s ever laid me low was an overdose of Cincinatti chili followed by too many helpings of Mississippi mud pie once, many years ago. I was in great shape, just having recently completed my fourth Marine Corps Marathon, and the airplane was flawless.

If you can’t cage your inner gyros, that’s not necessarily a show-stopper. Even though spins, aileron rolls, loops, and snap rolls involve sensations you may be unfamiliar with, and find disconcerting at first, most do not involve very tortuous gyrations. In particular one of the most useful of maneuvers, the aileron roll, involves no excess forces beyond +1 g (after the necessary two or so g’s for the pull-up). Although rolling seems harder for most people’s constitutions than downward (or upward) accelerations, this maneuver is great for building confidence as well as coordination. And if you’re worried that aerobatics might mean a second introduction to your lunch, don’t be. Anyone in good health can become comfortable with it after getting used to these new sensations.

Important: Done progressively, the body does build a tolerance to it, so while some might feel discomfort at first, it gets better. Knowing when to call it a day, opening the vents, and flying straight, eyes outside, is usually the ticket to keeping your training momentum — and morale — not to mention clean upholstery.

Among the most common aerobatic planes is the Aerobat. Then if you’d like to ‘tame the taildragger’ at the same time, there’s the Citabria (‘airbatic’ spelled backwards) and the Decathlon. None are terribly much more expensive than what you might be renting now. If you really want to get into competition aerobatics, check out the International Aerobatic Club (actually a part of EAA). They also happen to have one of the most comprehensive listings of aerobatic schools. (There’s a list at ‘http://www.iac.org/begin/schools.html.)

There’s no shortage of books on the subject. Among the many good ones are: ‘The Basic Aerobatic Manual‘ by William Kershner, ‘Basic Aerobatics‘ by Mike Goulian and Geza Szurovy, ‘Roll Around a Point‘ by Duane Cole, or ‘Fly For Fun‘ by Bill Thomas. Speaking of fun, if your motivation is all business, and you’re interested primarily in emergency maneuver training (‘EMT‘), there are also flight-training concerns specializing in this area as well.

BOTTOM LINE: When you think about it, the cost of this kind of exposure (whether it’s aerobatics or EMT) is inconsequential compared to the cost of not reacting promptly when an emergency requires it. Give it a shot, you’ll walk away as a better pilot.