“Am I Nervous?”: An Aerobatic First Solo

Posted by in Aerobatics, Aviation, Instructing

One can’t help but feel a bit like a proud papa watching a student make his or her first solo flight. The feeling never gets old. It’s akin to teaching your kid to ride a bicycle: one moment you’re there along side them, and the next you’re not. No encouraging voice, nobody to make sure Bad Stuff doesn’t happen. It’s all on them. An exhilarating moment for both parties, but while one is out having fun, the other is left behind, ground-bound and hoping he did everything right.

The main difference is that crashing is a wee bit more expensive in an aircraft than on a bike. Or rather, that used to be a difference. Today, some airplanes are getting less expensive (twins, LSAs and homebuilts, I’m looking at you) while the price of a high-quality bicycle seems to reach ever more frequently into five figure territory. I wonder what Wilbur and Orville would have thought about such a thing.

When you’re signing off an acro pilot, there’s a lot more to worry about than with your typical single-engine GA aircraft. To start with, they’re not heading out to do a bunch of straight-and-level flying. Aerobatics is by definition a more full exploration of the aircraft’s performance envelope. They’re going to be operating with high angles of attack, extreme and (for most people) unusual attitudes, full control deflections, spinning, and zipping around the sky with several times the Earth’s normal gravitational force.

The airplane itself has a landing gear configuration so unstable that, for the most part, they don’t make it anymore. Simple objects like loose keys, coins or pens aren’t much of a hazard to most pilots, whereas in an aerobatic airplane they can fly around the cockpit, jam the controls, and make your life generally unpleasant. Don’t ask how I know that. The same goes with seat belts and cushions, which can get wrapped around or block the second set of controls. For extra fun, those controls are behind you and totally inaccessible in flight.

By the time they solo, the student has recovered from a plethora of botched aerobatic figures. They’ve fallen out of loops, rolled their way out of nose-low attitudes, and fixed inadvertent spin entries. But there’s no way to experience every possible combination of botched control inputs or emergencies. What if this, what if that. The possibilities are endless.

A few weeks ago I had seven or eight upper cowl fasteners fail all at once on one of these airplanes, and the high pressure inside the cowling (which is designed for engine cooling) left a big hole where the cowl should be tightly attached to the airframe. Instead of looking over the cowl, we could look through it. Who’s ever rehearsed that one?

Anyway, recently the first-solo honor went to a tailwheel and primary aerobatic program graduate from Sunrise Aviation with whom I worked. Graeme is about as dedicated as they come, because he lives and works south of San Diego. Any further south, in fact, and he’d be in Mexico. There should be some sort of award for braving that much traffic, especially since we’d get into the airplane and travel right back in the direction he just came from!

As is becoming the norm among the up-and-coming generation of whippersnappers, Graeme worked triple duty as Pilot-in-Command, videographer, and narrator on his first solo, later editing the raw footage into what you’ll see below.

Didactic benefits of videotaping training flights aside, how fantastic is it to have high-definition footage of stuff like this? Decades from now he’ll be able to re-live the experience in all its glory. When I was in his shoes, the best we had was a Polaroid Instamatic camera.

I got a good laugh out of his opening comment: “Am I nervous? No. Terrified.” I know exactly how you feel, my friend!