Safety Pilot: Low-impact aerobatics: The Swiss way

Broadening his aviation horizons

May 1, 2013

Bruce Landsberg

Learning about unusual attitudes—not the pilot’s but the aircraft’s—is an excellent skill and need not be painful. It’s good experience since most of us work hard to avoid them. One way that the AOPA Foundation helps aviation worldwide is to offer our services to AOPAs in other parts of the world. So when AOPA-Switzerland invited me to speak at its annual safety seminar (at their expense) last February, I enthusiastically accepted.

My friends Daniel Affolter and Philippe Hauser—president and secretary general of AOPA-Switzerland, respectively—had arranged a special adventure. Philippe had asked about skiing, but I’d rather be flying to see how the Swiss do it. After a two-hour nap from the evening’s trek across the Atlantic, it was off to St. Gallen-Altenrhein airport where the Fliegermuseum runs an active flight program for its members.

Capt. Paul Ruppeiner (retired Swissair captain, Swiss Air Force instructor, and squadron leader) and Simon Maurer, also a most accomplished aviator, would fly Daniel and me in two Pilatus PC–7s for a flight over the Alps. The PC–7 is a PT6-powered tandem trainer similar to a Beech T–34C that the U.S. Navy uses for primary training.

We briefed emergency procedures and departed as a flight of two into the hazy Swiss afternoon. The scenery was spectacular through the PC–7’s canopy. Paul asked about some aerobatics and somewhere around 3 to 3.5 Gs in my somewhat fatigued condition seemed about right.

The opening maneuver was a lazy 1-G formation barrel roll. Rolling out the barrel is a great way to ease into the upside-down attitudes. You get the “visual wow” without the attendant physiological discomfort. We were getting into the Alps and I was astonished by two things—the spectacular view and how close the aircraft were getting to the mountains. Not to worry, the Swiss do this sort of thing all the time.

The next scene was right out of the movie Top Gun as we followed the terrain, slid down small valleys, and up over jagged crests where few, if any, humans had been. It was only 150 meters to sheer rock walls in snow-covered, dead-end canyons.

The PC–7 was pointed square at the rock wall ahead, closing at 190 knots. And then a smooth 2.5-G pull up over a vertical jagged spine, a modified wingover at the top, a 90-degree turn, and a slide back down to the 150-meter formation with endless ridges and valleys.

Around the next peak was a large lake nestled in a valley. How about a loop? Not bad­—now you try one! I have the aircraft; 220 knots entry nose down; and pull (harder, pull harder); and then we’re on the down side—keep pulling—and the terrain looked normal again. The mountains are farther away than they look.

How are you feeling? Try some formation as wingman? OK. You’re watching the hills? The captain grinned, “I’m watching everything.” I have the aircraft and we’re reasonably tight but I lost the tuck when ground shyness compelled me to move out as lead, as I was sure to go poof into a snow rock wall. Paul chuckled, “I keep telling you it’s farther away than it looks.”

He took back control, whifferdilled over the top of lead. A brief pull to 3.8 Gs and he apologized immediately, but I was suffering no ill effects. It was some of the most intense and beautiful flying I have ever experienced. Forty minutes since takeoff, the sun is low to the horizon and we’re on an overhead break for the formation touchdown. Three green, no red; gear; and flaps—and back to the normal world of aviation.

There’s a protocol to follow for unusual-attitude flights to do them safely. Find a professional instructor who does this all the time. A superbly maintained aircraft, suitable for the mission, is essential. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Extra 300, a Pitts S–2, a PC–7, a Citabria, or some other aerobatically capable machine. The airspace needs to be wide open.

The instructor should tell you exactly what’s about to happen, being cognizant of your physical and psychological condition. You’re also much less likely to overstress yourself if you do most of the flying. Start with 3 Gs with an occasional gust to 3.8. Anybody can yank and bank, but artists have a soft touch. Bob Hoover performed aerobatics for decades in Normal category twins, which are not recommended for the rest of us, but it proves my point. Unusual-attitude training broadens your aviation horizons nicely—the Alps are optional but add greatly to the ambiance!