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Teachable moments

Getting upset in the AOPA Extra 300L

We’re on the back side of a loop over western Maryland’s verdant fields. The Extra 300L’s nose is pointed straight down, the sleek airplane is quickly accelerating—and then it happens.

Extra 300L

Photography by David Tulis Richard McSpadden in the Extra 300L. Flying the Extra is strenuous but also fun and exhilarating. AOPA Aviation Technical Specialist Jon Gandy couldn’t help smiling and laughing during aerobatic flights with AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden.

The front-seat pilot abruptly hauls back on the control stick, the stall warning chimes, and the wings exceed their critical angle of attack and stall. The Extra buffets, and then—its protests still unheeded—snap-rolls a quarter turn.

Momentarily relaxing back-pressure on the stick fixes everything. The angle of attack is reduced, smooth airflow reattaches to the airplane’s symmetrical wings, and a firm, 4-G pull returns the Extra to level flight.

“What the heck just happened?” the bewildered front-seat trainee asks. “What was all that shaking about? And why are we 90 degrees off heading?”

This “teachable moment” was provided by the AOPA Extra 300L, a two-seat, unlimited aerobatic airplane donated by veteran instructor and former Microsoft manager Bruce Williams. The AOPA Air Safety Institute is using the extremely capable aerobat for upset recovery training and creating educational videos designed to help pilots avoid loss-of-control accidents.

Upset recovery training gives pilots a deeper understanding of a concept we’re all taught academically but struggle to internalize—namely, that an airplane can stall at any attitude and any airspeed.

The pilot inadvertently stalled the Extra—even though its nose was pointed straight down at an airspeed well above its power-off stall speed—because he was alarmed by the airplane’s extreme nose-down attitude and sought to recover immediately. The combination of the Extra’s light but authoritative elevator and the pilot’s adrenaline-boosted startle response produced an aerodynamic stall that the pilot didn’t want or expect.

Suppressing that “panic pull” reflex is one of the biggest benefits of upset recovery training. Such education can be a lifesaver if it allows pilots to recognize the harbingers of an inadvertent stall, particularly at low altitude. Loss-of-control accidents account for about 48 percent of all fatal general aviation accidents, and they most often happen during the base-to-final turn, after takeoff—especially at high density altitudes—a partial or full engine failure, or while performing go-arounds.

Williams, who helped develop Microsoft’s hugely popular Flight Simulator X program, taught aerobatics, upset recovery, and spins in the Extra 300L for about 20 years before donating his airplane to AOPA.

The Extra can easily perform every spin permutation including inverted, flat, and accelerated varieties, but Williams says the main benefit that pilots get from spin training is learning spin avoidance, not spin recoveries.

“By practicing multiple spins, pilots get remarkably good at recognizing high angles of attack and yaw—the two essential elements for the onset of a spin,” he said. “They can easily recognize and avoid these precursors so that they don’t stall. And if they don’t stall, they can’t spin.”

Spin recoveries are excellent confidence builders, but such knowledge is largely academic because the low-altitude stall/spin accidents that lead to fatalities often take place at traffic pattern altitude or below where recovery is likely impossible.

“Even if a pilot’s spin recovery technique is flawless, it won’t help if there’s insufficient altitude to recover,” Williams said. “The key to reducing accidents is avoiding inadvertent stalls and spins in the first place.”

Upgrading the Extra

The AOPA Extra 300L was originally equipped with a mechanical attitude indicator and directional gyro in its six-pack instrument panel, but those were replaced early on with Garmin GI 275s—two in the rear cockpit and one up front. The new displays stay oriented throughout 360 degrees of pitch and roll, and allowed ASI to test under-the-hood recoveries from extreme in-flight upsets (see “Rudder and Wrench: Trust your Instruments” p. 84).

I take flight training opportunities very seriously and wanted to make the most of this one, the main takeaway for me was just how much fun this kind of flying is. I just couldn’t help smiling.The GI 275s and the Garmin GNC 355 com/nav unit that drives them also improve the airplane’s cross-country capabilities and reliability. The Extra has been displayed at Sun ’n Fun and EAA AirVenture in 2022, and it’s scheduled to attend an upcoming AOPA Foundation High School STEM Symposium in Memphis, Tennessee, late in the year.

AOPA is also providing aerobatic flights as incentives for some of the educators who teach the AOPA High School STEM Curriculum. About 10,000 students are currently enrolled in the free program designed to introduce high school students nationwide to aviation careers.

Mild or Wild

The Extra 300L is a no-compromises aerobat. Its composite wing and tail are attached to a steel-frame fuselage, and the only fabric covering is on the rear fuselage. The side-hinged canopy is made of optically perfect plexiglass that’s free of distortion.

The rear cockpit is for the pilot in command, and the trainee sits up front. The rear cockpit is ergonomically excellent with electrically adjustable rudder pedals, a floor-mounted control stick that feels friction-free, and a supportive seat back with an adjustable recline angle. A five-point, ratcheting harness holds each occupant firmly in position.

Engine start is normal for a fuel-injected Lycoming AEIO-540, and without a muffler the Extra at idle sounds and feels like a loping 1970s muscle car. Runup is standard, and it involves switching between the airplane’s wing and fuselage fuel tanks. The 10-gallon fuselage tank is the only one with an inverted fuel system, and it’s also used for takeoff and landing.

Forward visibility is nonexistent on the ground, so constant S-turning to clear the area ahead is required during taxi.

Takeoff acceleration is brisk, and a hint of forward stick gets the tailwheel off the ground. Holding a tail-low attitude, the Extra with two people aboard lifts off after a ground roll of about 900 feet, and it accelerates in a 10-degree nose-up attitude to about 120 KIAS during climb-out. Climb power is 24 inches of manifold pressure at 2,400 rpm.

A new Extra pilot’s biggest challenge is to not overcontrol the airplane. Control surfaces are exceptionally light and responsive, and rudder, elevator, and ailerons all seem to have power steering. Slight movements produce dramatic and immediate results.

Inside, the airplane is loud and surprisingly drafty, especially in the front cockpit. There’s no heater in the AOPA Extra, so dress warm.

Aerobatic maneuvers can be as mild or wild as the pilot desires. The roll rate is about 360 degrees per second, and that’s quick enough to be a blur at first to pilots using full aileron deflection.

Over-the-top looping maneuvers typically start at about 160 KIAS and cover about 1,500 feet from bottom to top using full engine power. The stick pull gradient is linear but light, and a heavy-handed pilot can easily pull more than 4 Gs and bleed off energy.

Spins are graceful and predictable, both upright and inverted, but the pilot must hold full pro-spin inputs throughout each spin, or the airplane will recover on its own. Tumbling gyroscopic maneuvers can impose sharp spikes of negative Gs, so it’s a good idea to enter them at less than 100 KIAS to make them less punishing to the occupants. (The airplane is rated for plus or minus 8 Gs with two people on board, so it’s nowhere near its limits.)

Landing the Extra is different than other aircraft because a curving approach is far simpler than a long, straight-in one in which the runway disappears under the nose. A curving approach keeps the runway in view.

There are no flaps, so the airplane flies at a nose-high attitude at slow speed, and the three-blade MT Propeller provides lots of aerodynamic braking. Slowing to the 80-knot final approach speed happens quickly at idle power.

The landing flare requires some patience as you work the stick aft for a three-point landing. The tailwheel tends to touch down first during a full-stall landing at idle power, and the Extra tracks straight ahead during rollout with little or no pilot input. Even in crosswinds, the Extra is exceptionally well behaved on the runway.

More of everything

Introducing new pilots to the AOPA Extra 300L is like providing driver training in a Ferrari. A race car has a steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake just like a Honda Civic, yet it’s most certainly not a Civic.

“Everything about being in the Extra seems exaggerated,” said AOPA videographer Josh Cochran, a private pilot with 200 flight hours who made his first aerobatic flight in the AOPA Extra with Richard McSpadden, senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute. “From the acceleration on takeoff to the way it handles, there’s just more of everything.”

AOPA staff pilots have been invited to get upset recovery training in the AOPA Extra, and they’ve done so enthusiastically. Some are new to aerobatics, so seeing the horizon go around is a novel experience. It also makes once-theoretical concepts tangible and instantly understandable.

“We did loops where we intentionally stalled in different positions throughout the maneuver, and that really made an impression,” Cochran said. “I knew that airplanes can stall at any attitude or any airspeed, but actually seeing it happen and feeling the sensations gave me a much better understanding of what’s really going on with the wing.”

Jon Gandy, an aviation technical specialist in the AOPA Pilot Information Center with commercial and multiengine ratings, wanted to see advanced aerobatic maneuvers in the Extra.

“I take flight training opportunities very seriously and wanted to make the most of this one,” he said. “The main takeaway for me was just how much fun this kind of flying is. I just couldn’t help smiling.”

Sarah Deener, AOPA senior director of publications and an instrument-rated pilot, brought her husband Matt and two children to the airport with her on the morning she flew the Extra.

“The rolls were the most enjoyable part of the flight to me,” she said. “That airplane can really make the horizon go around.”

Happily, the motion-sickness bags in the Extra have so far remained unused, although several flights ended early because of queasiness. The staff pilots receiving the training handle the controls during the majority of each flight, and that helps. When driving on a winding road, it’s seldom the driver who feels sick.

McSpadden was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot before joining AOPA, and he’s had to modify his message for the association’s civilian-trained pilots. During a flight with Cayla McLeod Hunt, AOPA social media marketer, McSpadden repeatedly directed her to “unload” before rolling the airplane.

“She finally asked me what I meant by ‘unload,’” he said. “Evidently, it’s word that’s not used in general aviation, so lots of people found it confusing.” (Unloading the wing means reducing the angle of attack so that the wing produces little if any lift—and that enables the wing to roll faster and avoid aerodynamic stalls at low airspeed.)

“Lift vector” is another term common in military aviation that perplexed AOPA staff members. When McSpadden would ask the front-seat pilot to “put the lift vector on the horizon,” he was directing the pilot to bank hard and pull—but the message frequently required further explanation.

One of the more demanding coordination exercises was called “keep the heavy end up.” In it, the instructor rolls the airplane slowly while the student uses “top” rudder to prevent the nose from falling. When the Extra is flying at knife-edge, for example, top rudder is the only control surface available to keep the nose from dropping.

After hours of strenuous flight training, the consensus among AOPA staff members began to emerge: Rolls are fun and confidence-inspiring. Loops introduce high G-forces and show the necessity of looking out the sides and top of the canopy for orientation. Spins and snap rolls are jarring are disorienting. Sustained inverted flight and outside maneuvers are cruel and punishing.

Still, some staff members can’t seem to get enough.

“I want to go again,” said Erick Webb, AOPA social media marketer and a private pilot with a tailwheel endorsement. “Whenever there’s an open seat in this airplane, call me. I want to be in it.”

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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