One to remember

Today I consider to be my first, true experience with aerobatics. Oh sure, I took a .8 hour ride in a Pitts 17 years ago and Bill showed me a loop, roll, and hammerhead turn on my first flight with him. But today I actually flew aerobatics!!

Dan's Pitts S-2B

Dan’s Pitts S-2B

It all started about a year ago. I happened to be at the airport on a Saturday morning when I saw Bill’s hangar open and the Pitts waiting patiently inside. I couldn’t resist and uncharacteristically intruded on he and his student by asking to take some pictures. Bill said sure, offered to roll his airplane out into the brilliant fall sun, and also pointed out there were four more Pitts in the open hangar next door. I couldn’t have been more excited. That was my first introduction to Bill. That morning I also met another Pitts pilot named Dan. He was working on his plane and was very open to my questions and interest, sharing great enthusiasm for both aerobatics and the airplane. I don’t know if I made a pest of myself but I was thrilled when he answered my question about a ride with solid encouragement. We tried to match schedules off and on for almost a year. Today we made it work.

I didn’t want to be a bother and offered to just ride along while he practiced his routine. Fortunately he is a wise aerobatic pilot and knew I wouldn’t make it through his routine feeling well. (I was scheduled to fly with Bill right after.) He explained we would use a 10-point system, with 10 being how I felt right then, to keep track of when it was time to quit. After each maneuver I would give him the number according to how I was feeling. We did a briefing covering the plane, parachute, canopy release, etc. and planned that Dan would show me some basics and let me fly. Now we’re talking! Remember, at this point I have a couple hours dual-received instruction in the Pitts with Bill but even just touching the controls and flying straight-and-level is exciting. Imagine my excitement at getting to fly actual aerobatics!!

Dan's Pitts S-2B

Dan’s Pitts S-2B

Once in the practice area we got oriented with ground references and climbed to practice altitude. Dan would demonstrate a maneuver with me following him lightly on the controls then I would fly a few while he critiqued. We did loops, half Cuban Eights, and Immelmans. After each one Dan would check how I was feeling. Big surprise; I was feeling great!

Like most aerobatic forms the loop is easy to fly and hard to fly well. (This simple fact is what I find irresistibly compelling about flying in general and aerobatics specifically. It takes a relatively short time to learn and a lifetime to master.) But the loop is important because it forms the basis for so many other maneuvers.

He had me start with a hard 4G pull from level flight, while looking through the sighting device on the left wing. This is a simple wire structure with spokes making it easy to see both angle on the horizon and lateral position of the wing. Keeping it stable on a point of the horizon is the goal, since that means the airplane is moving in a circle along a consistent vertical plane in space and not wobbling. This tracking is controlled by the rudder but the pressures change at different points of the loop. At the initial pull up some left rudder is needed to counteract the gyroscopic force of the spinning propeller, approaching vertical the P-factor has more affect than the gyroscopic affect and some right rudder is needed. Approaching inverted and for the remainder of the loop left rudder is brought back in again. The forces are small but very noticeable in their absence. I’m only just starting to understand the nuance and hope to get the chance to keep learning more soon! Almost every aerobatic maneuver has dozens of subtle control inputs required to make it work. From the outside everything looks so easy and simple, when the fascinating reality is there’s a ton going on and a thousand minute judgments to be made every moment.

The Half Cuban Eight starts just like a loop but instead of continuing down the back side, we stop the loop and fly an inverted 45 degree down line. In that line we half-roll to upright and then pull out of the dive. (A full Cuban Eight would then pull back up into the same maneuver again in the opposite direction.) It was a great novel feeling hanging on the seatbelts on the inverted 45 down line. I got excited and rushed the half-roll and the ending pull to level. Dan tried to get me to relax and draw the lines before and after the half-roll. These are factors aerobatic judges take into account in competition.

The Immelman starts with a half loop but then stopping the loop at the top and exiting inverted, followed by a half-roll to upright.

By this time I was still feeling like multiple-10’s but Dan was wiser than that. He demonstrated a hammerhead turn then we headed home. My grin was a mile wide even as the adrenaline started dissipating and I found myself a solid 8 on the short ride back to Lee. In fact, I waited a while after we landed and had lunch before going flying with Bill. As it turned out I was still pretty tired and it was evident in my flying. Thanks again go out to Dan for the insight and wisdom to stop when we did. I’m sure I would have pushed on, had a great time, but then been completely unfit to fly with Bill. “Everything in its time.”

I can’t wait for my next taste of aerobatics. I’m pretty sure there is no going back from here.

Thank you Dan!!

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