It took better than 2 hours for my stomach to finally relocate to where it was supposed to be in my body. Up until that point I’m fairly certain it was just trying out new locations to see how it liked them. I never truly felt as though I was going to start painting either cockpit or concrete in a multitude of colors, but the thought of it occurring was right there in the back of my mind for those two hours. This, of course, is after my first aerobatic training flight in Sunquest Aviation’s Pitts S2A.
When I was just learning to fly at the ripe old age of 15, aerobatics had always enticed me, from the ground that is. My grandfather, who was also my instructor (who also had an entire career worth of aviation knowledge and ability to unload on me) once took me up in a Citabria to show me loops and spins. Needless to say, the thought of doing that on purpose was asinine to me at the time. It wasn’t until some 12 years later that I decided I wanted to get my tailwheel endorsement and went up in a Citabria 7KCAB in order to obtain the endorsement.
I’ve always seemed to have a funny tendency to have a nervous leg shake when starting a maneuver I’ve never tried before. This was the case during the first flight in the 7KCAB in Palmdale, CA. At first we started with the typical airwork: stalls, slow flight, steep turns, etc. After those had been accomplished to the instructor’s satisfaction, he wanted to demonstrate, and then have me demonstrate, spin entry and recovery procedures. He demonstrated the proper procedure for entry and recovery and promptly gave control of the plane to me.
Shortly after pulling power back the leg started to do its little dance. The instructor must have felt the rudder bouncing a little and asked what was wrong. I told him about my bouncy leg syndrome and that after the first time doing the maneuver it would cease. He seemed content with that response and we continued to slow to stall. Just as the plane started to do its buffet before full stall, I yanked back on the stick, slammed in full right rudder and away we went. One turn, another half turn and then a decent recovery. I had etched the spin entry and recovery notch in my belt. From that point forward I was hooked.
Ever since then, entering a spin has never made me nervous. And the same goes for any other maneuver I did for the first time. The leg does its quick little wiggles and away we go. We did a few more spins on subsequent flights, but nothing more concerning aerobatics. In actuality, due to scheduling conflicts between both my instructor and myself, I didn’t finish my tailwheel endorsement in the 7KCAB–I was just a half hour short.
Fast forward four years to fall of 2013. I had been living on the Treasure Coast of Florida for just over a year by then, and had yet to strap on an airplane since my move, which was very disappointing to me. One late night I decided to start looking at the flying clubs and flight schools in the area to see if there were any tailwheel aircraft available to rent. After a while of searching I came to the conclusion that a taildragger is not the ideal aircraft for flight schools around here.
Then I happened upon Sunquest’s website with a tiny little picture of a Piper Super Cub in the area that says RENTAL AIRCRAFT. So, naturally, I clicked on the link and sure enough, there it was. N156T was available to rent, and at only $105 an hour wet! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I figured I’d be in and out of there with an endorsement and checkout in about 2 hours of flight time (I did after all have over 15 hours of tailwheel time at that point).
After reading the fine print, their insurance required 10 hours dual or 25 tailwheel plus 10 hours make and model. Either way I was paying for an additional 10 hours of flight instruction for a tailwheel endorsement. But it was worth it in the end. After only a handful of hours, my instructor gave me my tailwheel endorsement and afterwards, since I was paying for the instruction anyway, we started working on my commercial maneuvers.
I told myself that as a gift to myself for finishing the checkout in the Cub, I’d go up in the Pitts one day. As if I had to reward myself for flying an incredible plane with flying another incredible plane, but the logic made sense to me at the time.
The Cub and the Pitts share the same hangar. So every time we went out, there that little red devil was, just waiting to be flown. It looked like it was doing 200 mph just sitting in the hangar, taunting all who pass by to let her free of her restraints of zero altitude and chocks. Almost a month after getting the final okay from the instructor to take the Cub up solo, I decided to book myself a scream ride in the red devil.
As I said before, after doing the first spin in the Citabria, I was hooked. I wanted to get into aerobatics something fierce. I would constantly catch myself daydreaming about loops and rolls, spins and hammerheads, the whole shebang. It didn’t help that I work as a line service technician for a local FBO with all kinds of cool scream machines coming and going left and right, fueling my desire to make the blue and brown paint of an attitude indicator point in the wrong directions.
The day of my first acro flight I was slightly nervous, as one might expect. But I also felt as though this was what I needed to be doing. The humdrum ritual that is straight and level flight had actually bored me to the point of either getting into aerobatics or only flying to keep up my currency. And considering I’m a low time pilot, with just shy of 200 hours under my belt, that wasn’t a good sign concerning my future as an aviator. Aerobatics introduces me to a whole new level of flight, figuratively and literally.
After the instructor got the airplane into the air and headed towards the practice area, he handed me the controls. The practice area was only eight or so miles from the airport, and in the Pitts, we were there and at 3,500 feet in no time. He had me do some turns, Dutch rolls and stalls to get used to the airplane.
Then the fun began. He would demonstrate a maneuver, and then he would hand the aircraft to me for my turn to attempt the maneuver. The first was a slow roll. And contrary to the name, it isn’t necessarily slow in a plane that rolls 180 degrees per second. Compare it to the Cub I was used to that rolls 180 degrees in the course of a day and it’s a rocket ship.
Before the first maneuver I was primed and ready for the ole’ leg to start its shenanigans, but it never did. I’m not sure if it was because there simply wasn’t time for it to act up, or that I was comfortable enough wearing that Pitts (and yes, you wear the Pitts instead of sitting in it) and in anticipation of what was to come next that I wasn’t nervous.
After a few more rolls we went into loops then I did my first hammerhead. That was a blast. I’ll never forget the feeling of looking to the left with the Earth behind me while slowing down then slamming in full rudder and some opposite aileron to kick it around 180 degrees. That was the maneuver that cemented into my mind that I not only want to learn aerobatics, but that I need to learn them in order to compete at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.
After the hammerhead we did some half Cubans. The first one that was demonstrated went fine, the first that I did went okay, but the third one was where I forgot to not look inside the cockpit when starting the roll. That little mistake ended my day of flying much to my disappointment. At first I suggested a short break from the aerobatics. After a few minutes I did a steep turn to see how my insides liked the G’s. They didn’t. So back to the airport we went.
All in all it was a good first run for me. Doing several of each maneuver at least got me into the thought process and control input requirements for completing them. They might not look good, but they’re a good starting point for a no acro time pilot such as myself. And pulling about 10-15 minutes of pure acro for a newbie is something I’m proud to have accomplished and I’ll be back at it next week to push it a little bit further and learn a little bit more.