Low-impact aerobatics

March 1, 2000

Recent aerobatic converts are eloquent about what aerobatics can do for you and the joy of the experience. We usually don't get to read about those who suffered kinesthetic chaos or found a library book that just had to be returned during the scheduled flight period. Many say that you're not a real pilot unless you have partaken of the loop, the Immelman, the split-S, and gut-wrenching snap rolls. Fire-breathing aerobatic enthusiasts will be bored with this article, but there are thousands of reluctant dragons who may want to come along for the ride. It won't hurt.

I've had some exposure to aerobatics during my flying career, and while my stomach has never embarrassed me, the experience never left me gushing about the rapture — or is it rupture? — of inversionary flight. Any flight instructor will opine that the fourth time you get unceremoniously dumped out of a departure stall in one day of training, the serene attitude of instrument flight starts to look pretty good. No negative Gs, no spins — just good, aerodynamically solid flight at gentle attitudes.

But the world is changing. Many corporate flight departments and even air carriers are now investing in what they call "upset training." The purpose is to prepare pilots for a divergence from normal flight due to turbulence, either wake or natural. While there is a Boeing for almost every conceivable chore, they haven't built an aerobatic version — yet. Aerobatic specialists provide the training in special aircraft. The message is that airplanes do function inverted, and if there is sufficient altitude — a very important detail — an upset should not be a death sentence.

Few private pilots ever see an aircraft upside down or in a spin. At the typical FBO, the training machines are not well-suited or may be prohibited from performing these maneuvers. The garden-variety CFI frequently has limited training in spins. Both pilot and aircraft must be up to a more demanding task than normal flight. Sometimes one or both are not, with tragic results.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation was recently asked to conduct some specialty training for a law enforcement organization. There was the usual instrument and VFR review in nonaerobatic singles and twins, but these pilots were also interested in upset training. Knowing the reticence that some of them might have, even if it were not spoken, I wanted to explore the idea of a gentle introduction to aerobatic flight. Oxymoron, you say?

My first aerobatic ride was in a Lockheed T-33 many years ago. It was pretty exciting while I was young and indestructible. The second time was in a Cessna 150 Aerobat. The poor underpowered beast made a great production of clawing its way to a safe altitude, and the worst part was the anticipation of what was about to happen. The maneuver itself was almost anticlimactic. Climbing at 400 feet per minute up to 5,000 feet agl — well, doing the math you'll see that there was plenty .of time to question sanity, whether the affairs were in order, and how lunch was going to look the second time around. These are the usual issues that confront most new pilots facing the aerobatic gauntlet. Going straight up (and down) with the unconditioned sensation of 4 Gs made that a less positive experience.

Next came spin training for the instructor certificate and the occasional spin, planned and unplanned, while giving instruction to my own students. It wasn't bad, but I didn't do it on a regular basis to stay highly proficient — and, as I mentioned, the 150s at the flight school were tired and slow.

Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman, and in this case it was a superb aerobatic instructor who has worked with ASF on a number of occasions over the past several years. Nancy Lynn flies an immaculate red Extra 300 and was very amenable to the idea of easing reluctant pilots into the aerobatic arena.

I had flown with Nancy before and had a good ride, but this time I wanted to explore the concept of "low impact" aerobatics on the hunch that it would help those who were uneasy about topsy-turvy stuff. The concept is simple. There are two parts to overcoming the fear of aerobatics. First is the psychological aspect of looking at the ground where it normally isn't. It is a rush to see terra firma above the aircraft, directly in front or behind. For some people this is a bit of a shock the first time, and they need to get used to it.

The second part of coming to grips with aerobatics is the physical reality of G forces. When you were first learning to fly and making 60-degree banked turns, two Gs felt like a lot. Nancy and I planned a strategy to see if a solid intro lesson could be done at about three Gs. It would be enough to let the average 170-pound aviator feel like 510 big ones. With relatively light Gs it's much easier to savor the spectacular views that aerobatics confer without feeling threatened by bodily mischief.

The Extra 300 is one of those viscerally satisfying aircraft that looks good and sounds much better than a Harley at full bore (Harley purists will disagree). The view through the canopy is what one might expect out of an F-16, and the climb performance, while not quite jet-like, is better than that of almost any other piston aircraft. We rumbled into the aerobatic airspace box that Nancy established with the FAA, checked for traffic, and I took the stick to get the feel of the Extra. Like the fighter, just think about moving the stick and the aircraft is there — now, precisely. A few steep turns reminded me about two Gs. Next we went to 45-degree climbs. Doesn't sound like much until compared to the normal 10- to 15-degree climbs that comprise normal flight. Next came 45-degree descents, which were also visually stimulating.

All this is confidence building. No big pulls or yanks, a spectacular view of seeing the ground where it normally isn't, and just a modicum of G forces. The next maneuver was one of my favorites, the barrel roll. Climb at 45 degrees, and then ease the stick over to one side. The aircraft describes a nice, big lazy arc, rolls over, and before you can say, "Holy Fajitas," it is rolling back upright; there is so little pressure on the seat or shoulder straps that it seems like this might be worth pursuing after all. We did another just to prove that the first one wasn't a fluke.

There are two other maneuvers that an intro ride should cover because they approximate the upset scenario from wake turbulence and the very dangerous cross-control stall in the base-to-final turn. Nancy wanted to explore hanging inverted for just a little to show the aircraft would do that, so we rolled over and hung from the straps in level flight. Nothing violent but uncomfortable, being at negative one G. You can feel the blood making its way into the upper extremities — an unusual sensation. We decided that this maneuver should wait until a little further into the curriculum.

I remembered aileron rolls from the past and thought that might be a good way to tackle the induced roll from a wake encounter. Pull up 30 degrees, lay the stick over, push a little while inverted, continue the roll, and you're back upright immediately. That worked. Very little discomfort, and you get the requisite upside-down time.

The clock was ticking, and we needed to move on. The Extra spins beautifully and recovers as soon as you ask. Since this was old territory for me, we went to the cross-controlled stall after doing one spin, just for old times' sake. To make the cross-control more realistic we found a highway to simulate the runway, overshot the turn, and cheated with the rudder to bring the nose around, while keeping the bank flat with aileron. Very predictably and quickly, the Extra rolled over to the inside of the turn, and then we were spinning earthward. A normal spin recovery completed the sequence.

My physical reaction to high-impact aerobatics is usually a rapping good headache, minor nausea, and a really tired feeling afterward. A nap is a sure cure. But this flight encompassed 10 maneuvers, and the G meter showed only negative 1 and positive 3. It looked very different from normal flight but felt almost normal — just exactly as we hoped it would.

Several closing observations: When and if you decide to go for this type of training, use the right aircraft — good tools make the difference, and it will enhance your experience. It certainly doesn't have to be an Extra, but something with good performance and visibility will make the flight much more enjoyable. Second, be sure you get an instructor who understands your objective and will let you fly. Having your hands on the controls is better than two Dramamine tablets when it comes to evading motion sickness. Being a passenger is miserable, and my condolences to the instructors who have suffered through the rides. The instructor should have considerable experience in aerobatics. Membership in the International Aerobatics Club (IAC) is a good start. If you're uncertain, you might go to one of the schools that specializes in teaching aerobatics. The best instructors will be calm and compassionate in demeanor — just like the best ones who teach normal flight. They have nothing to prove and are only there to help you achieve your objective of becoming used to the idea of really unusual attitudes and recovery from them.

Will this training significantly cut the accident rate from wake turbulence or low-altitude stall? Statistically, that does not seem to be the case in countries that have required spin training. As mentioned earlier, if the upset happens low enough not even Bob Hoover himself would be able to recover. What this does is provide awareness and an appreciation for the impossibility of those situations. It is also a definite confidence builder. Low-impact aerobics gives people the benefit of life-extending exercise without causing physical pain. Low-impact aerobatics may do the same, and it's a lot more fun. After that, if you decide to go for the spinal compression kind, go for it!


For more information on aerobatics, see AOPA Online. See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.