With the Red Bull Air Race once again ramping up, it is perhaps timely to revisit the distinct advantages of aerobatics for the man in the street (well, the man in the air). Aerobatic training is not only fun: it may also save your life. Aviator got to grips with life upside down in a pair of safe hands.
No amount of knowledge or theory can replace the motor skills necessary to roll an airplane smoothly upright, whether to perform a good aileron roll, or for survival following an aircraft upset. Furthermore, every pilot should be aware of the limit load factors of their airplane. However, do you really know what 2.5 or 3.5 G’s feels like? Following a high speed dive recovery from an over-banked nose low attitude, with adrenaline flowing and heart pounding, it is pretty easy to overstress the airplane as excessive backpressure is applied, since most aircraft do not have a G meter.
Having said all that, you do not have to be an aerobatic pilot to recover an aircraft from a wake turbulence encounter with minimum altitude loss…but it helps. An aerobatic pilot will, if faced with a similar unusual attitude, be able to apply his or her aerobatic skills to recover much more effectively than a pilot who has no such training. In fact, most pilots, without aerobatic or emergency manoeuvre training, will pull through into a Split-S manoeuvre when faced with an inverted, unusual attitude. That is totally incorrect and possibly deadly as the aircraft will lose a lot of altitude and build up airspeed fast.
As for coping with G loads in an emergency, aerobatic training can provide you with the seat-of-the-pants feel for different G loads. Also, you will learn to feel when the airplane is approaching the stall or critical angle-of-attack, regardless of attitude or airspeed. If an aerobatics pilot pulls back excessively on the stick at the top of a loop while inverted and nose low and the aircraft buffets and stalls, he or she knows to instinctively release a small amount of back pressure to un-stall the wings, then continue with the remainder of the loop. Are you totally confident doing stalls, upright? I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t really encountered fixed wing manouevres at all. Until I went for a spin with an aerobatic instructor in his stunning and sprightly Super Decathlon.
Before leaping into the air in the robust trainer, Jeremy Miller, as any good aerobatic instructor would do, initiates a ground briefing on the physiological effects of aerobatic flying and the aerodynamics involved. Using a model plane, he gave me a better understanding of angle of attack, stalls, and spins, as well as a good understanding of aircraft performance, structural limits and V-speeds and what they mean. Having been briefed, we headed for the tarmac and climbed into the gleaming Super Decathlon which deserves more than a brief mention!
The Super Decathlon has always represented one of the best combinations of utility, comfort and aerobatic talent in the two-seat, sportplane class. Since its introduction in 1977 as a powered-up version of the original Decathlon, the 180 hp Super Decathlon has been perhaps the best compromise between a utility or touring plane and a pure aerobatic trainer.
Once in the air, under Jeremy’s expert tutelage, the aircraft proved to be a docile performer in my unsteady hands. The tandem seating means you’re sitting in the middle of the aircraft so doing a manoeuvre to the left looks the same as a manoeuvre to the right: it has a sense of elegant symmetry. The fully symmetrical aerofoil means it flies true when inverted as it does the right way up. Combine this with a fully inverted fuel system and you can do truly inverted manoeuvres without worrying about a thing. The Super Decathlon is the bee’s knees of the aerobatic trainers, performing like a terrier: compact, robust and pugnacious.
Inside the airplane, controls are extremely simple and systems are mostly non-existent. All electrical switches are mounted on a panel directly above the pilot’s left shoulder where they’re accessible to either seat. Elevator trim is also positioned on the left side panel where both pilots can reach it. Only the starter, mixture and prop controls are dedicated to the front cockpit where I was privileged to sit on my second venture into the air (I ‘demanded’ two flights…just to make sure). A conventional joystick controls pitch and roll and the rudder pedals are large and effective except under my guidance where they proved startlingly ineffective but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it soon!
However, the Super Decathlon hates being on the ground – it was conceived to be airborne and with massive acceleration and a 180hp engine out front lifting a small amount of airplane, the Super leaps off the ground in less than 500 feet and gallops uphill as if its tail was on fire. On our first take-off, Jeremy had climbed to 700 feet before we had even reached the end of the runway.
Then the fun began. Jeremy took us through all the standard tricks without breaking a sweat and in total control at all times: loops in all their variations including Cuban eights, a gamut of rolls (half vertical, aileron and barrel), hammerheads and stall turns. And then it was my turn. Indescribably thrilling! I took the Decathlon up to 130 knots and dived for all I was worth, before pulling back on the stick and floating her round a rather marvellous loop, even if I do say so myself. Now, pulling the plane back to the correct altitude as you reach the bottom of the loop is one of the most thrilling experiences I have ever had. Fun does not begin to describe it.
Back on the ground, Jeremy explained the background to aerobatics. “There are three types of aerobatics. Firstly, gentleman’s aerobatics: the kind you can do with your mum on a Sunday afternoon. The sort of things the school will teach as a matter of course. Then there’s the airshow aerobatics designed to look harder than it actually is – an airborne sleight of hand so to speak. Finally there is competitive aerobatics which is full-on and hard-hitting and, to be honest, can be uncomfortable really.”
He continued, “the aerobatics I teach are the gentleman’s type which is all about people just wanting to have fun. Primarily it is the fun stuff. We don’t do anything more than three or three and a half negative Gs. Competitions pull up to positive five and negative three.” I remembered standing in the media tent at last year’s Red Bull Race in Perth, almost choking on my hot dog as the announcer screeched through the tannoy that Peter Besenyei had just pulled 11 Gs on the manouevre we had just witnessed. I can’t even begin to imagine the physical punishment that puts on the body.
Even after such a short stint in the aircraft, I was a convert to aerobatics and would encourage anyone to consider an aerobatic expedition. Everyone should take a trial aerobatic flight once in their lives. Pilots with aerobatic ratings must have a whiz round in the Decathlon – short of truly technical praise I can only say that the machine rocks. Ultimately, once you’ve experienced this you will compare flying to cross-country skiing whereas aerobatics is like the giant slalom. Whatever your motivation, aerobatics in this plum of a machine is for the old school, new school and the undecided.
And, if not for the thrill, fixed pilots should at least undergo some training for the safety benefits which Jeremy was keen to highlight. Putting pilots into serious unusual attitudes is one of the best ways to make sure a pilot can successfully recover when the airplane gets rolled upside down
It is an unfortunate fact that any airplane may end up upside down, or vertical, or anywhere in between due to wake or other turbulence, wind shear, pilot distraction or some other cause. You may find yourself and your airplane in a very unusual attitude. The first time you find yourself in such a situation should not be your first exposure to ‘aerobatic flight’. The margin for error in a non-aerobatic aircraft is too small for that.
There is no substitute for knowing that you have done something and are able to do it again if necessary. If you have never been upside down, you don’t know what your reaction will be. Typically, you will not have much time to analyse and think and your intuitive reaction will most likely be the wrong one. Lack of confidence and training promotes panic, which will lead to hesitation and inappropriate control inputs. A delay in response can be fatal as airspeed builds rapidly, the wrong control inputs can overstress the airframe and cause the aircraft to break apart or hit the ground. I would suggest preparing yourself for such an eventuality whilst having more fun than seems legal by undergoing a few hours aerobatic training.