Confident in chaos

Coming to terms with radical attitudes

June 1, 2012

radical attitudes

What’s going on here?

The crew of a commuter turboprop twin flies an approach in icing conditions, enters a stall, and the captain pulls desperately on the control yoke—against the stick-pusher system designed to prevent stalls. The crew of an Airbus A330 enters a stall in cruise flight, fights its stick pusher for several long minutes, and falls some 30,000 feet—still in the stall—until hitting the Atlantic Ocean. In both cases the results are fatal to all aboard. And among general aviation pilots, similar loss-of-control (LOC) accidents continue to occur—most of them after an engine failure, or during dangerous turns in the traffic pattern.

radical attitudes Over the past several years there has been increased debate over the apparent deterioration of basic stick-and-rudder skills within the pilot population. More specifically, among pilots flying highly automated airplanes with sophisticated autopilots and flight control systems. Are pilots victims of lousy instruction, less than diligent in their recurrent training, or so lazy that they turn more control over to automation and become dangerously rusty? Whatever the case, it’s an issue and a challenge for aviation safety educators, and it has attracted the interest of the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety, based at King City, California’s Mesa Del Rey Airport. The Tutima Academy, headed by airshow and aerobatic champion Sean D. Tucker, offers several courses specializing in aerobatics. Now it has added its $3,880 Turbine Pilot Confidence Training (TPCT) course. It’s an intensive three-day curriculum that includes 11 hours of ground school and five hours of dual flight instruction.

Initiated at the prompting of light-jet brokerage and customer service provider jetAviva, the TPCT may be aimed at pilots stepping up to light jets, but despite its name the lessons apply equally to pilots of piston singles and twins.

Brain problems.

“Most LOC accidents originate when stress overpowers the logical functions of the brain,” says Ben Freelove, my instructor for the TPCT course. “When the pilot perceives a threat, the primitive part of the brain—the amygdala—takes control with an adrenaline-fueled, fight-or-flight type of panicked response.”

That response is to pull on the control stick or yoke. It’s an instinct that can stall or dive an airplane into the ground, and yet this urge is overpowering, even for high-time pilots. In a steep turn from base to final, and the nose of the airplane drops? In a steep spiral, and airspeed is rising quickly? Rolled inverted by wake turbulence? In a stall or spin? The impulse and the response is always the same: Pull—and either stall, lose gobs of altitude, persist in a stall or spin, or overstress the airplane. At low altitude, any of these eventualities usually means a fatal crash.

Tutima’s training is designed to make you stay in touch with your logical brain and teach you to carry out the sorts of corrective measures that will prevent a loss of control. That means study and practice, using one of Tutima’s Extra 300L two-seat, fully aerobatic airplanes.

The Extra is a great platform for this sort of all-attitude workout, with its plus-10, minus-10 G-load rating; super-nimble control response; 300-horsepower Lycoming AEIO-540 engine; and seven-point Hooker Harness restraint system. Topping off the safety features is the Extra 300L’s quick-jettison canopy and the FAA requirement to wear parachutes for aerobatic maneuvers.

Keep your eye on Freelove. He’s not just an excellent instructor, he’s an aerobatic star in his own right. He is a member of the United States Advanced Aerobatic Team and has a surface-level unrestricted waiver, which allows him to perform aerobatic maneuvers right down to the deck. He’ll be competing at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, this year, from July 26 through August 5.

Stalls and spins.

Freelove’s ground school sessions are jam-packed with information—far too much for the space here. But the first session drove home the fact that most wing designs are fairly forgiving in or near the stall regime. “The wing is probably not fully stalled in the way most think of it,” he said. “Even at high angles of attack, there’s air flowing over the wing.” But this doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory. While perhaps not fully stalled in this condition, the wing isn’t developing much in the way of lift, so the result is a mighty mush toward terra firma. What’s the practical application of these bits of knowledge? For that, it’s off to the Extra.

radical attitudesSoon, Freelove and I are buckled into the Extra and roaring off Mesa Del Rey’s Runway 29, bound for the academy’s practice area. Stalls are first, and I’m told to hold the airplane in the stall, and then bank using the ailerons. The Extra bucks but, as advertised, the ailerons do provide roll control. It’s sloppy and the ailerons do create a lot of adverse yaw, but they work. This maneuver, like the subsequent stall series—consisting of skidding, slipping, and accelerated stalls—is intended to condition the pilot to promptly lower the nose, then roll to wings level for the recovery. This “unload/push and roll” technique is used in recovering from inverted flight as well. Push-and-roll is logical, and we’ve all been taught stall recovery in primary training, but the problem comes when stall attitudes are encountered near the ground. That’s when the primal urge to pull on the yoke or control stick can be deadly.

Stomping on a rudder while stalled is how you enter a spin, and this is next on the agenda. These include normal spins, steep spins (where aileron is held into the direction of rotation), and flat spins (where aileron is held against the direction of rotation). Whatever the type, the recovery procedure in the Extra 300L is the same: Power to idle; apply full opposite rudder; control stick neutral. After the rotation stops, neutralize the controls, pull out of the subsequent dive, and add power to return to level flight.

It’s important to remember that those actions apply specifically to the Extra 300L’s spin recovery only. Your airplane’s pilot’s operating handbook will publish the procedures for your airplane. Freelove mentioned that the published recovery procedures for the Cessna 150 and 152, for example, emphasize moving the control yoke briskly forward to break the stall—not neutralizing the controls, as in the Extra 300L’s recovery. That’s because spin tests during certification found that without a quick forward movement, the stall and spin could persist, and recovery be delayed.

Before long, I’m comfortable with spins—and even an occasional 3-G pullout or two. The course turns into a big confidence-builder. Recovery from inverted flight—as might be encountered by wake turbulence—is next, followed by spiral dives and split-Ss (a pullout from an inverted dive). Together, these “four Ss”—stalls, spins, split-Ss, and spiral dives—are the big low-altitude killers. The first two call for the push-and-roll maneuver; the latter two call for a roll-and-pull response.

radical attitudes Ben Freelove (right) and the author after a 45-minute workout and before a debrief. I’ll never be a Sean D. Tucker, but Freelove is poised for fame in his own right.

Control failures and fun stuff

Unless you’re flying a top-of-the-line business jet such as a Challenger, Falcon, or Gulfstream, there’s no way to disengage a jammed rudder, aileron, or elevator. That’s why Tutima teaches alternate methods for dealing with a control failure in general aviation airplanes.

During one flight, Freelove hauled back on the control stick and held it there to simulate a runaway pitch trim input. To correct, I was told to roll into a wingover to shed lift and allow the nose of the airplane to drop. Similarly, strong aileron and rudder forces can be used to counter jammed rudders or ailerons, respectively. To be sure, rolling and yawing all over the sky is an unnerving way to fly to an emergency landing, but it beats panicking and losing control.

I begin to wonder if any of Tutima’s students ever forget their education, panic, haul back on the stick, and lose control during a training flight. “Sure, it happens,” Freelove said. “The urge is just too strong when some pilots are overwhelmed.”

The rest of the course is taken up with rolls, Cuban eights, Immelmann turns, and hammerheads—all of them fun to do, now that students—like me—are comfortable.

The Tutima Academy puts about 150 students a year through its training, which includes aerobatic proficiency courses and a formation flight training program. The days I went through the course, corporate pilot Jeff Gaulrapp was taking the aerobatic program using Tutima’s Pitts S–2C. Gaulrapp flies a Hawker Beechcraft Premier IA and a Phenom 100 for C.S. Flight Service in Moline, Illinois.

“I go to FlightSafety and Simuflite every six months to stay proficient in instrument approaches and the usual maneuvers, but their unusual attitudes are just a wing drop and maybe a little bit of nose-down pitch. I just don’t think they have the data for more radical maneuvers in their simulator databases,” Gaulrapp said. “This training is exactly what I needed. I felt my stick-and-rudder skills were getting a little sloppy, but not anymore after taking the course.”

Like Gaulrapp, it had been some 25 years since I’d done spins—back when I was actively flight instructing. And like Gruner I’d been a “straight-and-level guy” ever since. I realized that it was well past time I reintroduce myself to radical maneuvers. I’m glad I went and hope you can too. It’s a graduate-level, practical aerodynamics and aerobatics course that’s as educational as it is fun.

And I didn’t puke once.

Email the author at [email protected].

Photography by Tyson Rininger

Want to know more?

Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety
250 Airport Road
King City, California
[email protected]

Started in 1997 by Sean D. Tucker, the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety is located at Mesa Del Ray Airport in the heart of the scenic Salinas Valley on the central California coast. It is said to have the best flying weather in the United States. Instruction is offered in an Extra 300 or Pitts S–2C.


APT—Aerobatic Performance Training
5 days (Monday-Friday)
10 flights
8 hours in the air
15 hours in the classroom

TPCT—Turbine Pilot Confidence Training
3 days (Monday-Wednesday)
4 flights
5 hours in the air
11 hours in the classroom

PCT—Pilot Confidence Training
2 days
4 flights
3.2 hours in the air
6 hours in the classroom

AEX—Aerobatic Experience
1 hour ride
20 minutes in the air
20 minutes in the classroom

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.