As a professional pilot and CFI, I felt confident in my ability to handle a loss of control (LOC) situation. After all, after having spin training and then even providing spin training to CFI candidates, I felt more equipped than most to handle this potentially deadly scenario. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt like I had a bit of a hole in my training. Most civilian pilots do not have the benefit of “advanced” flight training that our military counterparts receive early in their careers. Even unusual attitudes in a jet aircraft simulator can feel somewhat lacking. If I found myself inverted, I knew the idiom, “roll, don’t pull.” Testing this bit of advice for the first time when stakes are high seems ill-advised, however. In an industry where preparation is king, not knowing how to safely enter and exit extreme attitudes seems foolish! Why don’t we learn aerobatics in aviation? I have read about loops, rolls, spins, and hammerheads in a book, but I wanted to experience this type of flying firsthand. Ultimately, I wanted to be sure that I could recognize, respond, and safely exit a potentially deadly scenario. Only training can do that.
After searching for the right aerobatic school all around the United States, I finally settled on Patty Wagstaff Aviation Safety in St. Augustine, Florida. I felt comfortable with them because they are more than a flight school that happens to have a Super Decathlon. They specialize in aerobatics, upset recovery, formation flying, and all-things tailwheel. They occupy a very specific niche in the aviation community, and from my perspective, they are the aerobatic experts. And they were only one state away. Of course, there are many flight schools throughout the country that specialize in aerobatic training and Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT.) In a later article, I hope to discuss other training providers, as well.
I enrolled in the five-hour aerobatic course with the intention of completing it over a three-day period. It includes ground instruction and five hours of flight training: four hours in the Super Decathlon and one hour in the Extra 300. This video will share some of my experience over this fun and educational weekend.
Amazing, right? I will refrain from providing aerobatic instruction here; after all, I am an aerobatic novice myself. However, I do have a few takeaways from my experience.
Aerobatic training prepares you for the worst-case scenario.
Probably the biggest lesson I learned is that the fundamental skills translate to any and every aircraft you may fly subsequently. It’s easy to think that you’re just going to go do some sporty maneuvers in a piston aircraft. Not so. This training makes pilots more confident in any airplane: light trainer or heavy jet. I have discovered, however, that these maneuvers can look and feel dramatically different in a jet aircraft at 35,000 feet. I am glad that I learned some basic aerobatics in a snappy and responsive trainer, but I look forward to completing UPRT in a jet, at altitude, to experience the differences in feel and responsiveness.
While many believe that aerobatics is about “pulling G’s,” I found it to be the opposite. My instructor tailored my training to show how one can exit extremely unusual attitudes without exceeding the structural limitations of any aircraft (in an emergency situation only.) Furthermore, he was careful to practice maneuvers that would reinforce this muscle memory. For example, I did perform loops because they are a foundational aerobatic maneuver, but we didn’t focus on them. Of the “loop-based” maneuvers, I would instead perform the “half-cuban.” This excludes the last quarter of the loop where the pilot “pulls through.” This final portion of the maneuver puts the most positive G’s, and subsequent stress, on the aircraft. Rather, at the end of the loop, while inverted and approximately 60 degrees nose down, you simply do a half roll, and you’re right side up again! The “half-cuban” more closely approximates the proper response in a business jet if you find yourself upside-down. My knowledgeable instructor hammered this home with repetition, so that I would execute this automatically. Should I ever be faced with a windscreen that is brown on top and blue on the bottom, “roll, don’t pull” is now more than a saying, it’s an automatic response.
A good pilot is always learning
This phrase gets used a lot and for good reason. Persistent learning in aviation combats several things. Externally, persistent learning helps a pilot keep up with an ever-changing landscape. Regulations, technology, and technique change, and we need to keep up. Internally, we forget. Skills, concepts, and rote knowledge disappear with dis-use. If you’re a professional pilot, you probably haven’t thought about some of these fundamentals in a while. Perhaps the most you think about rudder input anymore is when you engage the yaw damper after take-off. The sheer stick-and-rudder nature of aerobatic flying makes you consider foundational concepts. What is adverse yaw? What is an incipient spin? As we progress into ever more advanced training, the empirical nature of flying just assumes you know these things cold. But we forget. I found it very worthwhile to dust off these aerodynamic concepts and think about them for a few days. For the CFIs out there, this training may be even more critical. You are the aviation community’s tether to the greenest aviators, and they need this knowledge. An aerobatic course provides a deeper understanding that you can then, in turn, pass on to your students.
It’s a lot of fun
An extension of the good pilot is always learning idea, a good pilot cultivates his or her love of aviation. Let’s face it: if you do this for a living, whether you are a flight instructor, airline pilot, or corporate pilot, flying can become monotonous. That’s precisely what we are paid for. “Do it the same way every time” my airline pilot father drilled into my head. However, monotony can create boredom, and in turn, dissatisfaction. I would argue that if the most exciting thing about flying has become your paycheck, you may be doing it wrong. Time to freshen it up. While aerobatic training doesn’t provide a new rating or certificate, it does provide a “bucket list” type experience. Sure, it will make you safer and smarter about flying, but it may help stoke your love for flying again. Go do some loops and rolls and get that first solo feeling again!