Thalheimer, a veteran aerobatics instructor and member of the 1995 U.S. Advanced Aerobatic Team, has been competing since 1983 and has logged more than 2,000 hours in the two-place Pitts. He decided that we'd concentrate on building the skills I'd need to deal with some potentially frightening real-world situations: stalls that end in spins, such as a turning-base-to-final stall and spin; or a wake turbulence encounter when you are following a heavier airplane and you suddenly find yourself inverted close to the runway. In other words, the lessons were similar to those in an "advanced maneuvers" or "unusual attitude recovery" course.
After years of flying the most basic general aviation aircraft, it takes a while to get used to the immediacy of a high-performance aerobatic thoroughbred and to the forces that such an airplane can subject you to. (Yes, my breakfast stayed down.)
I had been flying for years and had never done a spin. Thalheimer showed me what the ground looks like when you view it straight through the windscreen, revolving counterclockwise. And he drilled me on how to recover from a spin as quickly as possible. Putting myself up-right after unexpectedly going inverted wasn't that tough, either, once I knew how to do an aileron roll. But I found it hard to remember not to pull back on the controls, sending myself straight into the ground, when every nerve in my body was screaming at me to do just that.
However, aerobatic training did more than show me just how much fun it can be to fly at the edges of the envelope. The real advantage of this training is that it demonstrates the gravitational forces that act on your airplane, requires you to understand them, and shows you how to deal with them.
As many pilots had told me over the years, aerobatic training does give you a great deal of confidence-the feeling that you can make an airplane do just what you want it to do. Along with that comes respect for both the capabilities and limitations of your machine as well as a real understanding of what the control surfaces do and how they relate to each other.
Confidence breeds a positive approach to the tasks and pleasures of flying. If you don't fly very much (and most members of our largish local flying club log an average of an hour a month), it's easy to become tentative with the controls. When was the last time you did some Dutch rolls on the way out to the practice area? Or some 720s around a point, just to stay in shape?
Coordination is the next benefit of aerobatic training. Aerobatic flight requires that you perfect the way you use the controls, singly and together. The Pitts will not respond well to anything less. Eventually you start to think about your control surfaces in a whole new way. When is a rudder not a rudder? When it's an elevator. Doing aerobatics demonstrates something that every pilot knows, but doesn't always appreciate: The airplane has an ever-changing, fluid relationship with the air that surrounds it. The more you bank, the more horizontal your rudder becomes, and the more it acts like an elevator. If nothing else, aerobatics gave me a whole new respect for the rudder.
Even the most basic aerobatic instruction can teach a new pilot (or a more experienced low-time one) that the best way to master the controls is with pressure rather than movement. Gentle insistence results in more precise, more comfortable flying. Best of all, developing this sensitivity helps you learn to feel what the airplane is telling you. "It talks," says Thalheimer, and I'm learning the language.
When I was a brand-new pilot, my wife's Uncle Ed took us up in his Cessna 172. He was an airline pilot with a huge number of hours, and I remember admiring his easy confidence, his obvious affinity with the machine as he flew. The best thing about aerobatic training is that it takes you a few big steps toward that kind of unity with the aircraft. Thalheimer calls it flying outside of the airplane. And that's exactly how it feels.