Part of my journey into aerobatics includes Spin Training. Spins are the downward spiraling flight airplanes go into when the wing stalls (i.e. stops producing lift) without coordinated rudder input to keep them level. Spins are a required part of aerobatic competition. Accidental spins are associated with a great many aviation accidents. One would think they’d be integral to pilot training. And they are…sort of. We’re taught about them including the aerodynamics involved, recognition & avoidance, and the control actions to recover. But actually doing spins is no longer required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations to be a certified pilot. We talk about them, get tested on them, but don’t actually do them. We’re required to perform stalls (the wings must be stalled before a spin can occur) but only just the onset of the stall, before recovering to normal flight.
I won’t go into the great debate here but the teaching of spins is the aviation equivalent of religion or politics (or even worse: the pc-mac debate!): everyone has an opinion and they are mostly strong and very likely to run the entire gamut. There are those for whom the spin is the modern equivalent of the flat earth: a fear born of uncertainty and a place best left unexplored. It takes all kinds but in their defense, spins are perhaps the least understood of basic aerodynamic phenomena and have been for over a hundred years.
For aerobatics, spins are required in all their flavors. But for the moment I don’t want to talk about spins; I want to talk about ’emergency recovery’ from accidental spins.
Part of trying new things is the certainty we will fail regularly and often. In trying new aerobatic maneuvers, one likely outcome of failure is simply falling out of the maneuver and into a spin. We practice with lots of altitude so recovery is easy, until we can perform the maneuver perfectly every time. This mastery is what allows airshow performers to dazzle us safely and consistently. Every second of their performance is only made possible by thousands of hours of preparation.
During the journey toward that mastery, we need to prepare to fail. That’s where emergency recovery training is worth its weight in gold-wrapped diamonds set in Californium-252.
Performing the steps in order, with authority, while saying them aloud
The main advantages:
Does not burn a lot of extra altitude compared to traditional recovery techniques
No need for the pilot to know the direction of spin
No possibility of making the spin worse (e.g. recovery inputs held too long inducing a crossover spin to/from inverted)
My primary flight instructor did a good job of making me not fear the spin 20 years ago, but I never knew how fun they (and emergency recovery training) can be. My understanding at this point is basic and growing. My confidence is growing by leaps and bounds!
I wrote about the rudder walk exercise a while ago and tried to explain what’s involved and how challenging it is for me.
Now I have some video to go with it, but the video isn’t that exciting until you realize a few things:
The airplane isn’t flying; it’s falling
The wings are generating no practical lift
We’re holding the airplane in a full stall with the stick all the way back
The only thing keeping the wings even close to level is my tiny rudder changes. That’s what Bill is referring to when he talks about “input” and “pressure”.
Airspeed is somewhere just under 60mph; we’re normally zipping around at 150mph
The beeping is the stall warning indicator
Descent rate is ~3400 ft/minute. (Maybe more accurately termed “free-fall rate”.)
It was a beautiful day for flying and Bill and I both had open schedules so we flew a long time, including airwork and pattern work/landings at Cambridge and Easton. It was New Years Eve and no one else was flying; even Potomac Approach (the Baltimore-Washington International control frequencies) was quiet.
This rudder walk and the simulated engine failure were the start of our flight. I’ll post some other video snippets soon.
I’m getting better! And loving every minute of the challenge.
We just happened (not an accident, I’m sure) to finish the rudder walk near a small airport (Ridgely) where Bill felt the most appropriate celebration was a nice simulated engine failure exercise. This amounts to pulling the power to idle and working through handling the emergency and setting up a power-off landing. I didn’t do it perfectly but it would probably have been a successful landing.
It happened. My mind is blown and I am officially in karma-debt: I’m the proud owner of a beautiful Pitts Special S-1S aerobatic biplane.
Here’s a laundry list of reasons this situation is seriously taxing my karma. I couldn’t have dreamed it any better:
It’s a beautiful, extremely well-cared-for airplane
It’s been based at my local airport (Lee-KANP Annapolis, MD) for 13 years
It’s in a hangar with three other Pitts, all S-2’s, owned by experienced Pitts pilots, who’ve all been extremely generous with their time and experience
The hangar is .5nm from my house
The hangar is next to Bill Finagin (in fact Bill owns both hangars and we rent from him)
Bill is a rare and valuable resource by himself, having 5 other Pitts hangared feet away is amazing
Karen took excellent care of the airplane and has been very generous with her time and experience in answering questions
Knowing the previous owner and other pilots who’ve known the airplane for thirteen years, including the mechanic who has done all the work, is extremely comforting and a very rare thing when buying an airplane
It was factory re-covered and extensively refreshed eighteen months ago
In my wildest dream the plan was to maybe hope to start looking for an airplane in late 2014. I’m so far ahead of plan I’m completely overwhelmed in the best possible way.
I’m not even ready to fly it yet. I have my tailwheel endorsement (but only 15 hours total tailwheel) and a few more Pitts-transition hours with Bill and I’m almost ready. I’m also dedicating the time and money for Bill’s Spin & Emergency Recovery course. I consider it required training and the best insurance available, not to mention just plain fun.
In the mean time I have a few small projects I can work on.
Replacing the flat wooden seat pan with an aluminum sling similar to the production builds. I’ll go with a seat-pack chute to get back far enough to get my knees out of the panel and the new seat pan should get me down another inch or so.
Order a Quiet Technologies Halo in-the-ear headset which will give me a bunch more headroom compared to the Telex Stratus 50D behemoth earcup ANR.
New vinyl lettering to apply to the cockpit panels.
It was already in beautiful condition so I’m cleaning, polishing, and waxing now so when I’m ready to fly I can concentrate on the flying for a few months.
It was homebuilt in 1993 and I’m the third real owner, including the builder.
If it’s not clear let me reiterate; I can’t believe my good fortune and I plan to make good use of it. I’m not so much an owner as I am the current custodian. (Please god don’t let me do anything stupid. I don’t underestimate my capacity for stupid.)
For a pilot it’s a happy thing to add a rating or endorsement; it’s a badge that says you’ve expanded your repertoire in some way, have a new skill or competency that allows you do to new stuff in an airplane, and it’s a satisfying accomplishment. This one was more than that for me.
On that fateful, wonderful day (October 2nd, 2013 to be exact) when I asked Bill Finagin for advice on who he would recommend as a tailwheel instructor, he responded with one question: did I just want the endorsement or did I want to really learn to fly? The question caught me a little off-guard since I’d never considered the first option. Thinking about it now, I guess I can see why some people might want “just the endorsement”. Maybe they just want the “badge” and don’t really want to fly any of the cool airplanes. I don’t understand it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course I wanted to learn to fly them, the answer was simple, but the question itself was really the important part and did one vital thing for me (or maybe to me?): it was the seed that fundamentally changed my value proposition. Let me explain.
I’m not independently wealthy and I was unemployed. Five days earlier I had flat walked away from a good salary with a great group of guys at a good company because there was precious little life in the life-work balance. I was decompressing a bit and planned to take some of that hard-earned cash to reward myself with my tailwheel endorsement. While it was an easy expense to justify, money was very much a concern. I had done some internet research on pricing and local instructors but needed some expert insight. I knew Bill taught aerobatics in the Pitts and was comparatively expensive. The price tag and the thought of flying the “tricky” and often-feared Pitts never really let the possibility of flying with Bill enter my consideration. (This is just another example of my bad habit of thinking too small getting in the way.) But I knew he was an expert whose insight would be valuable. I was taxiing back to the ramp in the Cessna and noticed his hangar was open so I wandered over to reintroduce myself and get his input.
Then he asked the question. My interest piqued, my questions grew bolder as we talked and I explained what I wanted. Can I even handle the Pitts? How much does it really cost? Where do I go after? His manner and easy confidence in this exchange hinted at the depth of his flying and teaching abilities. He wasn’t selling me but he was encouraging and matter-of-fact about the realities of flying with him in the Pitts compared to a lower-performance, lower-cost airplane. He was also already teaching me and I liked it. After twenty minutes I headed home 99% certain, still a bit in denial but with the value proposition now completely clear, that I didn’t just want to fly with him…I couldn’t afford not to. Three hours later I called him and we started flying the next day.
I was not wrong. In the last seven weeks I feel like I’ve only just now really started learning to fly. My skills and my confidence have grown. More importantly, I have found something I see myself driven to do the rest of my life. Like sailing, aerobatics takes a relatively short time to learn and then, most importantly, a lifetime to master. I’ve heard golf described the same way and I’m sure it’s applicable to many other skill-based activities. My addiction to the Pitts and to the allure of aerobatics are on display for all to see. I’m plotting, planning, scheming, and dreaming. I have new motivation for finding an income that satisfies all our needs, not just the financial ones. It’s exciting and liberating and scary.
I haven’t been bitten by the off road bug (and choose not to pay for a second bike)…until now. This trail makes me want to buy a fat tire, learn to ride it, and move to Utah! The Rush soundtrack brought back fond memories of high school, too. Thanks Fatty.
It’s official, Bill signed off my tailwheel endorsement! It’s a good feeling and I know I’ve made tons of progress in this 10.8 hours of flying. I feel confident in my ability to go out and keep learning. Despite asking around and doing some digging, I haven’t found many tailwheel airplanes available for rental. I know of only one so far and it’s over an hour away. Fortunately it’s at the same airport as the glider club so I can combine drives up there.
The last couple of hours I’ve spent flying from the back seat. It feels and looks different so it took some getting used to, and represented a spike in my workload, but I like it! Not only does it feel more like the command center (the front cockpit has just the main instruments, the radios and most engine controls are back there so solo flight has to be from the back seat) but it seems more comfortable. The visibility is a little better since it’s further from the wings. And since it sits further out on the moment arm from the main gear, s-turns while taxiing aren’t as wide. It’s also smaller and cozier, with pads at each shoulder. Stick forces are the same but the brakes and rudder pedals are hinged slightly differently. The pressure difference is minimal; Bill pointed it out and I’m sure I would not have noticed it right away.
I have the endorsement but this isn’t the end of the story. I plan to take Bill’s Spin & Emergency Recovery course and also reward myself with a very brief intro to aerobatics. And while I’m anxious to go fly other taildraggers in the meantime, I know if I am lucky enough to end up with a Pitts of my own, I’ll be right back here with Bill to brush up before getting into it.
Here is video of a recent lesson. It’s typical of our tailwheel lessons: repetitive and boring to watch, especially with the heavy overcast conditions but still challenging for me to fly and helpful in my post-flight analysis. This was five of 19 landings I did that day. For non-pilot friends and family I’ve added some explanations in the video, I hope it helps make sense of what’s going on.
Yes! I can do this. Today’s flying was good and fun and I needed it. After my sobering, and downright humbling, performance in the last lesson the confidence boost from flying well and having fun today was welcome.
It was a beautiful day and just being in the air was good. My pattern work and landings were ok and improving, and generally flying the airplane is starting to be more natural and less work. Don’t mistake, my workload is very high but I’m starting to see a slight reductions in the learning curve. I’m having fun and concentrating on not being impatient with my progress.
I feel like I’m making the step into Conscious competence and it feels good.
After 15 landings at Cambridge and then Easton, we went to the aerobatic practice area and Bill introduced the Barrel Roll. Having seen so many airshow performances, I’m loving the education that comes with learning what it takes to make the airplane do even a simple maneuver. I’m fascinated at once by how small some of the control inputs and pressures are and by the precision required. I think I’m going to love this.
This new thing of flying the Pitts was going so amazingly well that today was a good test. Not of my flying but of…I’m not sure what. My will? My interest? My determination? I flew poorly, or at least not as well as I’m capable of, for the first half of the lesson. It started with a botched takeoff that was so bad Bill had to take control. Then I botched my arrival at Easton and my next five trips around the pattern were humbling. I was behind the airplane, sloppy in judgement and control, and generally failing spectacularly to be spectacular. The most worrisome part: I wasn’t having fun.
I take solace in knowing they were all landings, safe and effective, if not good landings. I have a hunch, based on nothing of course, that it’s these kinds of days when many of the incidents and accidents that make up aviation’s safety statistics are more likely to come out to play, seek us out wherever we are, and bite us. Today was incident free. But how would I have fared if presented with something simple like an unexpected request from ATC, a system malfunction, or an emergency?
I’m being a bit melodramatic in my analysis, but humor me for a minute. After all, Bill was in the back seat doing his Instructor thing, acting as PIC (Pilot in Command), and well aware of my struggles. The chances of an accident chain escaping both our notice, while small, is never zero. But while I’m spending brain cycles analyzing my performance I have to remove Bill from the equation, just as I do to some extent while I’m flying. Of course I’m relying heavily on him for instruction and guidance, but at the same time there is a delicate balance between self-reliance and over-reliance. I trust him to keep us safe, he’s a better pilot than I’ll ever be, but to grow as a pilot I need to take an increasing amount of responsibility for the flight. How much I rely on him is relatively large right now but needs to go down as I get more experience in the airplane. Remember, the goal is not only to be safe, but have fun as well, when there is no one else around. If I’m not “pushing the boundary” of reliance, I’m not advancing as quickly as I could.
The good news is I flew fine for the second half of the lesson. After fueling at Easton we headed down to Cambridge for more circuits and I was on again. I take heart in this because hopefully it means I was able to forget the mistakes and not let them affect what came after.
The alert reader might notice this flight was the same day as my fun aerobatics flight with Dan. In fact Bill and I took off about 90 minutes after Dan and I landed, with lunch in between. The full analysis is I was probably still recovering physically from my first exposure to aerobatics. In future I’ll plan flight training further removed from any aerobatic exertions, like the next day.
My plan is to eventually fly aerobatics so often I acclimate to a point where I continue to function afterwards! (I accept that I must learn to crawl before moving on to, insert maniacal laughter, world domination.)
Onwards and upwards…and hopefully some upside-down, too.
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
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
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.