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Musings: The eagle and the chicken

In this corner, intrepid Naval aviator. In that corner, me: 'Squawk'!

I’m not proud of the fact, but I can hardly deny it: I’m a coward. I get uncomfortable at the least hint of departure from controlled flight, whether moderate turbulence or a full-break stall. Probably 1,950 of my 2,000 fixed-wing hours have been flown straight and level. If I have a strength, it’s instrument flying; I’m happiest plowing through nice, pillowy stratus, climbing and descending at 500 feet per minute and turning at standard rate. If you want to illustrate the difference between aviator and mere airplane driver, I’m your man.
September Briefing Musings
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Illustration by Asaf Hanuka

I have my reasons. My first lesson came at age 41 after 23 years of motorcycling. I took 10 spills in the first five of those years, so my gut equates that tipping feeling with impending abrasions. It’s left me especially terrified of spins. As the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s statistician, I pore through thousands of NTSB accident reports to tally up the ways pilots come to grief. And did I mention my exceptional sensitivity to inner-ear disturbances?

So when I was offered upset recovery training in an unlimited aerobatic airplane, I signed up before I could change my mind.

Dean Castillo (call sign “Demo”) is a compact, muscular man who simultaneously radiates intensity and relaxation. He flew F–14s and F/A–18s during his 20-year Navy career and gives the impression of having been there and done that without needing to brag about it. He was chief instructor for Prevailance Aerospace, a Chesapeake, Virginia-based company that provides unusual attitude training to clients ranging from experienced corporate pilots to individual owners like myself.

Knowing there was no attitude from which he couldn’t recover helped keep the lid on my jitters. So did the knowledge that I couldn’t break the airplane itself: an Extra EA–330LX that’s rated for plus/minus 8 Gs with two on board. Castillo assured me I’d lose consciousness well before that.

Um, thanks.

The “quick inverted check” would have woken me up if my heart hadn’t already been racing. The airplane rolled upside down in about half a second. I hung in the straps just long enough to wonder what I’d gotten myself into before we snapped upright and I found enough breath to say, “Wow.”

I was given the controls with an invitation to “get the feel of the airplane.” My initial inputs were gentle. A stall series progressed from a nose drop at 64 knots to the falling leaf, stick full back, mushing downward in excess of 1,000 fpm. It would have been remarkably docile had my efforts to keep the wings level with rudder not provoked a series of progressively more radical wing drops. I gave up, lowered the nose, and opened the throttle to climb. The second attempt was better.

When Demo asked if I was ready for spins, my answer must have been equivocal, because his tone of voice was a pat on the back: “You can absolutely do this, buddy.”

Watching his demonstration was a little less petrifying than trying it myself, but the abrupt drop to something like 90 degrees nose-down and frenetic rotation still stopped my heart. His impossibly calm narration dissected the maneuver into distinct stages: “There’s the break. Now we’re in the incipient phase; notice the pitch oscillations? And now it’s mature; pitch attitude’s stabilized. So recover: power’s already to idle, ailerons neutral, so use full opposite rudder to stop the rotation and forward elevator to break the stall. Wait to build airspeed before pulling up so we don’t stall again.” We lost 3,000 feet in what seemed like five seconds, although 36,000 fpm is probably an overestimate.

Then it was my turn. My first attempt was a credible first attempt. Stick and rudder weren’t well coordinated, but the recovery was positive, if sloppy. The second try triggered a series of pitch excursions so violent that I recovered before being told; Demo said I hadn’t held full back stick, so the spin got stuck in the incipient phase with a series of semi-stalls and semi-recoveries. On the third, I was slow to release rudder pressure after rotation stopped. After an instant of hesitation, the Extra spun in the opposite direction. “That’s called a progressive spin.” Demo’s tone was amused. “We usually save that for the second lesson.”

After a couple of minutes flying straight and level, we did a few more spins in each direction. This time the progressive ones were deliberate. There was just time for a demonstration of unusual-attituderecoveries—nose-high and overbanked, simulating a wake-turbulence upset, and nose-low as in an uncoordinated base-to-final stall—before our hour was up and it was time to return to base.

I still prefer the middle of the envelope. But in the following weeks, I booked additional spin practice in a Cessna 150 and an American Champion Decathlon, and felt more comfortable working on aggravated stalls in my Piper Arrow. I’ve completed more unusual attitude training, and my terror of losing control has eased to a more rational wariness. I guess my phobia should have known: No civilian’s going to beat the U.S. Navy.

ASI Staff
David Jack Kenny
David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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