“Am I Nervous?”: An Aerobatic First Solo


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!

Taming the Beast

Taking off is the easy part; now let's see if he can LAND it...

From the Wright’s very first powered flight in 1903 to ordinary, everyday folks taking flight from a local airport today, the very act of breaking ground and venturing into the sky has always been associated with memorable moments.

What’s yours? Even if you’re not a pilot, there’s a good chance you can recall a particular flight to see a loved one, embark on a vacation, or maybe even start a new life somewhere else. Honeymoons, college careers, and countless other indelible memories often begin with a flight. Sometimes I think it’s the only element of commercial air travel that still retains the slightest semblance of the romance and magic of the old days.

As for me, it’s a tough call selecting just one flight as my “most memorable”. There are so many choices: the control jam in the middle of an aerobatic sequence? The electrical fire in a U-21A? Perhaps one of the partial engine failures I’ve experienced could be considered most unforgettable.

Of course, not all my notable flights have centered around near-death experiences! There have been many joyous and poignant occasions as well: my first solo, first instrument approach to minimums in actual IMC, scattering the ashes of loved ones, taking an old friend for their last flight, introducing kids to the wonders of aviation, helping those in need through Angel Flight, and more.

A memorable flight by anyone's definition.  The Wright brothers make the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903.

A memorable flight by anyone’s definition. The Wright brothers make the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903.

There is one particular flight which keeps coming back to me. It’s hard to say that this is the most memorable, above and beyond all the others. But I can state with certainty that this is not a flight I’m likely to ever forget.

It was April of 2006, and for some masochistic reason I’d decided to get checked out in a Pitts S-2B. If you’ve never had the pleasure of flying one of these, it’s the kind of airplane that can go from exhilarating to terrifying and back again in extremely short order. All of Curtis Pitts’ designs have what you might call “personality”. Depending on the quality if your last landing, of course, you might call it something else. Something wholly inappropriate for polite company.

It’s not like I was a neophyte when it comes to high-performance aerobatic tailwheel airplanes. I was already instructing in the mid-wing Extra 300, which has it’s own list of challenges. The mid-wing limits visibility from the back seat during landing. I had trouble landing that aircraft until I realized I was sitting a wee bit too low in the seat and not picking up the necessary sight cues. Ironically it was a flight from the front seat of an S-2B that clued me in on that.

Mastered?  Maybe not... but I always put up a good fight when doing battle with the S-2B...

Mastered? Maybe not… but I always put up a good fight when doing battle with the S-2B…

Even with the Extra 300 experience, though, the Pitts was a worthy challenge. I’m actually surprised the FAA certified it at all. I mean, the fuel tank is inside the cockpit. And if the plane ever goes over on its back you won’t be able to open the canopy and can easily end up covered with fuel if the tank gets crushed by the engine that sits directly in front of it.

A friend of mine actually did have to make an off-airport landing in his Pitts S-2B later that year. I recounted his mishap in a previous entry. Yuichi was lucky — the fuel tank remained intact. But if you read his story, you’ll see that he was trapped upside down in the plane. If the fuel tank had ruptured, any spark would have turned him into a human candle.

Like I said, the Pitts is a worthy challenge.

But! Once you’ve mastered — I mean really mastered — this airplane, I firmly believe you can fly anything. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. I once ran into a NASA astronaut in Las Vegas who said he’d taken the controls of many different flying machines ranging from gliders to helicopters to supersonic jets to the space shuttle, and in his opinion if you could land a Pitts you could land anything. Did I mention he was also a test pilot before he joined NASA?

(No, I didn’t ask about night traps on a pitching carrier deck in the middle of a typhoon. I think he was an Air Force guy…)

Anyway, back to the story. I’d been flying a series of dual flights in the Pitts with a fellow CFI and was doing well in the relatively benign wind conditions prevalent at John Wayne Airport (KSNA). I’d completed the full spin course in the airplane, including all upright and inverted spin modes, plus crossovers from upright to inverted and vice-versa. But I had yet to solo when the day arrived to move the airplane out to Borrego Springs a the two-day training camp which preceded the annual spring aerobatic contest.

No problem, though. The plan was for me to solo out there during the training camp. In many ways, Borrego was a better environment for it. A longer runway, less traffic, no wake turbulence concerns, and fewer distractions. What could possibly go wrong?

The first flight at L08 was dual and honestly felt a little rough around the edges. The emphasis had gone from focusing exclusively on landing the airplane to flying competitive-level aerobatic sequences before doing so. Eventually it was determined that I was “good to go” and the next flight found me in the cockpit by myself for the first time.

Taking off is the easy part; now let's see if he can LAND it...

Taking off is the easy part; now let’s see if he can LAND it…

To say I could feel the eyes of the world on me would be an understatement. The training camp was populated exclusively by tailwheel aerobatic pilots, and everyone was watching. I don’t recall much about how the training session in the box went — I did well at the contest the next day, so it couldn’t have been too bad — but I’ll never forget what happened next.

After vacating the box I flew over the airport and entered right traffic for runway 8. By the time I reached pattern altitude, it was clear that the wind had picked up. A lot. Welcome to the desert! After turning final I noticed that the windsock indicated I’d be landing with a tailwind. So I went around, congratulating myself for catching the change, and re-entered for left traffic on runway 26. Problem solved!

Or not. Oddly enough, the windsock on the other end of the runway was showing a tailwind there, too. Another go-around. Circling overhead, I took a careful look at the windsocks and noticed they were each pointing in different directions, and moving all over the place. The turbulence had increased significantly, and the wind velocity at each sock seemed to be at least 20 knots because they were fully deflected.

Time for Plan B! But first I’ve got to make a Plan B. I briefly thought about simply waiting it out, but that strategy doesn’t work for long in a Pitts. I took off with about 15 gallons of fuel, and the airplane has a very thirsty 540 cubic inch engine which will burn through that in about 45 minutes when you’re running full-rich, just as you would be when punishing the engine during an aerobatic sequence.

I’d never encountered this before. Both ends of the runway were indicating tailwinds and the mid-field area seemed to have a substantial, direct 90 degree crosswind. If you’re not a tailwheel pilot, you might wonder what the big deal is. Assuming you’ve got enough runway — and at 5,011 feet, Borrego certainly is long — what’s the hazard?

Tailwheel airplanes are directionally unstable on the ground, and landing in a tailwind means you’ll lose rudder effectiveness (and therefore control) as you slow down after landing. In most airplanes, the landing is “over” once you’re on the ground. OK, not really — but that’s how many pilots fly, and they seem to survive somehow. But the guys flying tailwheel aircraft know that touchdown is when the fun begins, not ends, as the aircraft tries to go everywhere except straight.

I radioed down to the ground to ask for an opinion on the conditions there at mid-field and was told the winds were gusty and coming from various directions. They were seeing the same thing I was. Question is, what to do about it?

The suggestion came back, “Just pick a runway.” Well, I’ve only got two to choose from. I elected to circle over the airport a couple more times. Then I realized things had indeed changed! The windsocks were all fully reversed. Both runways now indicated a headwind! I was starting to wonder if this was some sort of trick they played on pilots crazy enough to try and solo a Pitts. The aerobatic equivalent of asking for a “bucket of prop wash”, as it were.

Flying solo and loving every minute of it.

Flying solo and loving every minute of it.

By now I was starting to think more about fuel. Or the lack thereof, I should say. In a Pitts, the fuel level is indicated by a simple tube connected to the fuselage tank. The turbulence had the fuel flowing up and down the tube, so it was hard to get a reading. This S-2B was also equipped with a fuel totalizer, and it indicated that I was fine for now. But the thought of needing to divert to another airport meant I’d have to watch things carefully. Aside from a small residential airpark, there are no airports terribly close to Borrego Springs.

Another look at the windsocks. They’ve all reversed once again! Tailwinds on both runways. Hmmm. Suddenly, the wisdom of “just pick a runway” began to dawn on me.

I flipped a mental coin and re-entered the pattern, bumping my head on the canopy over and over again and I descended on base and then final. The approach looked good. Real good, in fact. I kept expecting something nasty to happen, but it never did. I fought Mother Nature all the way down to the ground, floated for what seemed like an eternity, and made the softest, smoothest touchdown I’d ever experienced. “Am I on the ground? I think I’m on the ground….”

“Oh &#@*, I’m on the ground!”, I realized. The wind hit me from the right, but I danced on those pedals and kept it straight. Then the left, then the right again. The stick was all the way back and she was solidly on three wheels. Nothing left to do but keep it straight on the rollout. But — there was a gust from in front of the little red biplane, and it got light on the wheels in a big hurry. Airborne again, dammit! Okay, stay with it… re-flare…. plenty of runway left… squeak! Or was it “plop”?

Who cares! I did it. My goal was achieved: land a Pitts without breaking anything but a sweat. As far as I was concerned, the entire week was a success at that point. I’d proved to myself that it was possible to coax, manhandle, and sweet-talk this red devil back down to Mother Earth.

Taxiing back in to the ramp at Borrego Springs.

Taxiing back in to the ramp at Borrego Springs.

After extracting myself from the cockpit, I went into the airport terminal (really nothing more than a semi-permanent trailer sitting on the ramp) and bent over the desk to see the digital ASOS wind readout. The direction was all over the place, but what really caught my eye was the velocity: gusting to more than 40 knots.

Borrego is like that. I recall being on the judging line once when a front passed through and you could actually see it coming. The wind shift on frontal passage was so strong that it broke a PVC pipe used in the shade structure over my head, which proceeded to hit and crack the top of the white resin chair I was sitting on. I heard it but didn’t see anything because my eyes were filled with sand. The wind blew the rest of the afternoon.

In the southwestern U.S., these aerobatic contests are always held in the desert, and there’s rarely a shortage of “sporty” wind conditions once afternoon hits.

I’ve had a few other notable experiences getting back on the ground after landing, but none quite as memorable as that first Pitts solo. The legends are true, my friends: what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Constant Speed Propeller Maintenance

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that pilots tend to give insufficient attention to two critical airframe elements: tires and props. I’ve already covered tires, so today let’s look at the perils of improper maintenance on a constant-speed propeller.

On January 23, 2003 at about 4:20 p.m., Rob Cable — the grandson of Cable Airport founder Dewey Cable — took off from that airfield to perform a post-annual test flight in his twin-engine Beech 95 Travel Air. Six minutes later he was killed when the Beechcraft crashed in Rancho Cucamonga.

This accident was big news in the Southern California flying community. Cable Airport bills itself as “the world’s largest family-owned public-use airport” and anyone who’s been there can tell you what a scrappy little place it is. From the friendly people to the quirky Maniac Mike’s Cafe to the gently rolling terrain that seems to encompass every bit of the airfield, a trip to Cable always reminds me of what general aviation can — and should — be.

Set against the San Gabriel mountains just north of Ontario Airport, family-owned Cable is going strong long after so many other airports have fallen victim to the ravages of time and development.

Set against the San Gabriel mountains just north of Ontario Airport, family-owned Cable is going strong long after so many other airports have fallen victim to the ravages of time and development.

The NTSB investigation soon found that the cause of the accident was a mechanical failure. This alone made the crash significant. Statistics point to pilot error outweighing mechanical failure as the root cause of fatal accidents by a ratio of about 9-to-1.

In this case, it was determined that a 2.5 foot-long portion of one of the right engine’s propeller blades had failed. Think about that for a moment. This aircraft was equipped with two-bladed props, each of which had a diameter of about six feet. Therefore each blade was about three feet long. Losing 2.5 feet of a blade meant that the hub was now attached to a three-foot blade on one side and a broken 6″ stub on the other. Can you imagine the difference in weight between the two sides of the propeller?

According to the NTSB, the resulting imbalance cause a vibration severe enough that it overstressed the engine mount and tore the right engine off the airframe. A witness reported “reported observing the right engine hanging straight down toward the ground with the propeller stopped”. At that point the center of gravity would have rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.

It should be noted that while this was a massive failure, I’ve seen cases of props shedding just an inch or so off a blade tip causing such severe vibration that instruments in the cockpit were shattered, cowlings were torn away, and other serious damage was created.

One of the most famous constant-speed prop failures occurred during a test flight of the the Rutan Voyager in 1986. A blade broke off the rear engine near the prop hub. Voyager was equipped with composite propellers with blades which were much lighter than the metal Hartzell unit on Rob Cable’s Travel Air. Dick Rutan later wrote that after figuring out which engine had the problem, he moved the mixture control to the cut-off position. As the rear engine slowed down, the amplitude of the vibration increased, eventually tearing the powerplant completely off it’s mount. Those engine mounts were designed to handle 10g, so you can imagine the forces at work. Rutan said that after landing at Edwards Air Force Base, they found the engine lying on the bottom of the cowling, attached only by a safety cable they had installed for just such a purpose.

The famous Rutan Voyager in the hangar.  Note the composite MT Propeller assemblies on the front and rear engines.  They were replaced a few months later with metal props after losing a blade in flight.

The famous Rutan Voyager in the hangar. Note the composite MT Propeller assemblies on the front and rear engines. They were replaced a few months later with metal props after losing a blade in flight.

In Voyager’s case, the MT propellers were so troublesome that they were soon replaced with more traditional metal props specially manufactured by Hartzell (in record time — something the folks at Hartzell are still proud of) with specially shaped blades. The increase in aerodynamic efficiency more than made up for the increase in weight, and the program went on to successfully circumnavigate the planet on a single tank of gas.

Anyway, back to our story. The NTSB delved into the Travel Air’s maintenance records and found that, rather than being neglected as one might expect, the props had just been overhauled! Their next stop was the FAA-approved Repair Station that did the work, T&W Propeller in Chino. This is where things got particularly interesting for me, as I owned an aircraft with a constant-speed prop that had just been overhauled by that very same shop.

You can read the full report if you’re so inclined, but here’s just a partial list of what was found on the accident airplane’s propellers:

During the Hartzell participant’s teardown examination he made a series of observational findings. He observed the following discrepancies between the overhaul procedures specified by Hartzell in its maintenance manuals and the physical evidence found in the propellers:

1. The blade internal bores were clearly not in compliance with overhaul requirements for inspection, rework, and finishing. There was no paint and there appeared to be no chemical conversion coating in the bore area. There was extensive corrosion in the internal bearing bore area A, as defined by Hartzell Service Bulletin 136H. The participant stated that a proper overhaul requires removal of the blade bronze bushings in order to accomplish rework and inspection.

2. The hub arm of the right propeller had cadmium plating on top of deep corrosion pits. Such corrosion is required to be removed during overhaul.

3. A blade clamp in the right propeller had cadmium plating on top of deep corrosion pits. Such corrosion is required to be removed during overhaul.

4. Blades from the left propeller were too long. The aircraft is approved for installation of a propeller having a diameter of 72 to 70 inches. The length of blade L1 was measured to be approximately 32-5/8 inches long, which corresponds to a 74-inch diameter. Blades from the right propeller were measured to be approximately 31-5/8 to 31-3/4 inches, which is the correct length and corresponds to a 72-inch diameter.

5. Blades from the left propeller were impression stamped 8447-4 and 8447-12, and should have been stamped 8447-12R. Blades from the right propeller were impression stamped 8447, and should have been stamped 8447-12A.

6. Remnants of phenolic washers were found in the left propeller. The washers were approximately 1 to 2 inches in diameter and installed over the hub pilot tube, between the hub arm and blade butt of both blades. These were not Hartzell parts and such usage is not authorized.

7. Small particles, which appeared to be plastic cleaning media, were found in the grease in the blade balance hole.

8. The cadmium plating on the blade clamps and hubs was unusual. While much of the surfaces had bright cadmium plating, there were numerous spots that had no plating, areas of dull gray appearance, and areas that appeared worn. Portions appeared to have either deteriorated plating or had not been plated. Given the report that the propeller had only 5 hours of operation since overhaul, the general condition of the cadmium plating was considered very poor.

9. One O-ring, used as a seal between the clamp and hub was severely deteriorated. It had many cracks around the circumference of the outside diameter. The other three blade clamp O-rings were in good condition. It appeared that the deteriorated O-ring had not been replaced during overhaul.

In conclusion, the Hartzell participant made the following statement regarding the observed overhaul procedure discrepancies: “The most significant discrepancy was the presence of obvious, significant corrosion in the internal bearing bore area of the blades. This, plus the absence of required corrosion protection (chemical conversion coating and paint) in this area, clearly indicates that proper overhaul was not accomplished.”

Even if you don’t speak “A&P”, the gist is undoubtedly clear: T&W Propeller was criminally negligent in the performance of their work and it resulted in a fatal accident. The FAA quickly issued Airworthiness Directive 2003-13-17, which required another overhaul of my improperly zero-timed constant-speed prop. I believe the price tag for the two overhauls was nearly $6,000. Welcome to the world of aviation! It reminds me of an old joke where a prospective student pilot asks a grizzled veteran how much money it would take if he wanted to learn to fly. The answer: “All of it.”

It was about this time that I realized that the “FAA Certified Repair Station” designation means absolutely nothing. I sent the prop to a small, non-CRS shop in Bakersfield called Johnson & Sons and got a better result for less money. Caveat emptor.

I also started researching propeller-related failures and realized that most of them are a direct result of neglect on the part of the owner or operator. Just like an engine, props have a recommended Time Between Overhaul (TBO). For most constant-speed props, it’s 2400 hours or six years, whichever comes first. Not many us of put 400 tach hours on our planes each year, so the six year calendar interval will almost always be reached first. And for reasons I’ll never understand, it’s the calendar limit which is most likely to be ignored. Inside the hub are seals, bearings, and other parts which age with exposure to the thermal cycles, humidity, and so on. But time and time again, you’ll find aircraft with 500 hours and 10 years on the propeller assembly and the owner claiming it’s not anywhere near TBO.

The recommended TBO is not mandatory if you’re flying under Part 91, and as a result it’s not uncommon to see aircraft with 10, 20, or even 30 years since the prop and/or governor were overhauled. Personally, I’d much rather fly behind a 30 year old engine than a 30 year old prop. Why? I know how to fly an airplane without an engine (and not just because I fly gliders)! If the powerplant takes the day off, I can still control the aircraft quite nicely. But losing a blade? That’s likely to create a problem no piloting skill can rescue you from. The more I learn about propellers, the more convinced I am of this. At the very least, I’d have the prop hub opened and inspected by a (hopefully) trustworthy shop for what’s called a “re-seal” job.

I visited the Hartzell factory in Piqua, Ohio about ten years ago and took this photo of an actual constant-speed propeller which had been cut-away and turned into a display model. (Extra credit if any of you can tell me what type of constant-speed prop this is. Clue: look at the relationship between the spring and the piston in the hub.)

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

You can see that the blades are individual pieces held in the hub by a beefy retention bearing. With the prop spinning at 2600 RPM, there are more than 20 tons of centrifugal force trying to rip that blade out of the hub. As I mentioned, even if a shed blade didn’t hit the airframe as it departed, the resulting imbalance would almost certainly tear the engine off and shift the center-of-gravity to an uncontrollable location.

Suddenly, skimping on that prop maintenance doesn’t seem like such a hot idea, does it?

A spinning prop also exhibits gyroscopic properties, so every time the aircraft is pitched or yawed, immense forces twist and bend those blades. You can see an extreme example of that in a slow-motion video of a helicopter main rotor blade that I posted a while back. Rotorcraft airfoils are far less rigid than any constant-speed prop, but the principal is similar.

Aerobatic pilots know all about gyroscopic effect. If you’ve been amazed by scenes like this at an airshow and wondered how they do it, most of the spectacular maneuvers like tumbles are produced with gyroscopic effect.

The aircraft is largely being thrown about the sky from forces generated by the prop. But you pay for it with high stress on the item the prop is connected to: the crankshaft. My Pitts S-2B once broke a crankshaft due to high stress imposed on it from a two blade metal Hartzel prop after repeated snap rolls. After that, the owners elected to spring for a new light-weight, 3-blade composite MT propeller.

The takeaway is this: propellers are under high stress in flight, and although they’re quite reliable, due to their nature when things go bad they are more prone to an unrecoverable failure than a reciprocating powerplant and thus deserve even more respect than the engine they are attached to.

Aviation Myths, Part 3

Is this dangerous?  Depends on the altitude, dude.

[For the rest of the series, see Part 1 or Part 2]

Myth #11: Aerobatics are dangerous.

Aerobatic flight has played a prominent part in many fatal accident reports. Sadly, that has given acro a bad name. A more thoughtful analysis, however, clearly shows that many — perhaps most — of those crashes are due to intentional low-altitude maneuvering. When aerobatic flying is pursued in a prudent, intelligent manner with sufficient altitude, the risks are far outweighed by the benefits.

Many fatalities come from the world of air shows. Air show flying can be extraordinarily dangerous because there’s virtually no structure or limit on what a pilot is permitted to do. As long as pilots don’t direct the energy of the aircraft toward spectators, a person holding a zero-altitude waiver can perform multiple outside snap rolls starting 1′ off the deck if they so choose. The flying is certainly dramatic, fun to watch, and a demonstration of complex skill. But pilots are free to fly without much, if any, altitude buffer. And many of them do.

Competitive aerobatics, on the other hand, is highly structured, limited, and categorized to the specific skill level of individual pilots. The altitude cushion is far higher and the safety record is much, much better. I’ve been involved in competitive aerobatics for eight years and know of only one accident during a competition.

The other category of accidents is people with inadequate training, experience, and/or equipment performing low-level aerobatics and buzzing terrain just to try and impress spectators or passengers. I’ve written extensively about why that’s a bad idea.

Speaking of buzzing, here’s a YouTube gem of a Bonanza and L-39 flying into IMC while in formation at low altitude. You’ll see the terrain flash by before the Beech loses part of the right wingtip in a tree.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Low-altitude = high-risk. When you take out the low level stuff, aerobatics becomes a much different thing. There’s room the screw up a maneuver, laugh about it, fix it, and still be far above the ground. That’s safe. That’s sane.

I’m a big proponent of aerobatics because in my experience, nothing does more to build up a pilot’s stick-and-rudder skills and confidence than the precision, proficiency, and control demanded by quality aerobatic flight. An inadvertent spin, wake turbulence encounter, or other upset is far more likely to be handled properly by a pilot with aerobatic training. Aerobats are comfortable with full control deflections, odd sight pictures, high pitch/bank/yaw rates, accelerations, and sounds which can cause the straight-and-level crowd to freeze up, panic, or even worse, aggravate the situation with improper control inputs.

Myth #12: “Aerobatics” means exceeding 60 degrees of bank and/or 30 degrees of pitch.

Well 'chute!

This misconception is rampant among pilots. I’d say 85% of my primary acro students give me that definition when I ask about it early on in training. The FAA defines aerobatics in 14 CFR 91.303 as “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.”

Notice how there are no specific bank or pitch angles attached to the definition? That’s why a 45 degree pitch angle after takeoff in a Cub would be considered aerobatic (it’s not necessary for normal flight), whereas flying solo in the Pitts S-2B, that same pitch angle would be just about right for holding a normal Vx climbout and therefore, NOT aerobatic in nature. The FAA’s definition is simple and elegant, yet also allows for the differing performance characteristics of each aircraft type.

The 60/30 degree thing comes from 14 CFR 91.307(c) and concerns parachutes, not aerobatics:

(c) Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crewmember) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds—

(1) A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or

(2) A nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.

Myth #13: A spin in the pattern is unrecoverable.

This myth is demonstrably false. I’ve performed thousands of spins, and every plane I’ve spun eats up about 500′ of altitude from entry to recovery during a full 360 degree spin. Of course, that assumes the guy in the pilot seat can effect recovery properly and do so within 360 degrees of yaw. Might we have yet another argument for spin training? I think so.

I’m not suggesting you try a spin from a typical 1,000′ AGL pattern altitude. That would fall into the “low altitude follies” category of myth #11. But to say that a spin in the pattern is unrecoverable is just false. With even a little practice, it’s not hard to recover from an inadvertent spin in less than a quarter of a turn. That would eat up but a couple hundred feet of altitude and be more of a wing-drop than anything else.

I’d even go so far as to say that if you doubt your ability to stop a stall-spin entry from 1000′ AGL and recover to level flight before hitting the ground, you need to get some instruction before proceeding further. With sufficient training, the recovery technique will become virtually automatic. Idle power, full opposite rudder, lower the angle-of-attack.

Myth #14: Exceeding 30 degrees of bank in the pattern can lead to a stall/spin.

I was at an uncontrolled airport one day watching pilots do their thing, when a student pilot entered the pattern and announced her intention to land on runway 25. On her first attempt her Cherokee blew through the final approach course and she wisely went around. The next time she did the same thing. The third attempt was a larger pattern with an earlier turn to final which resulted in an undershoot. Trying to fix that, she allowed her glidepath to get too high. Another go-around.


By this point the student was pretty rattled and, I’m sure, more that a little embarrassed by her inability to land. You could hear it in her voice as she made various radio calls. After four or five attempts someone had to talk her down via the radio.

What the heck had happened, I wondered? Was there an abnormally high wind aloft just pushing her through the final? Was she turned loose by her instructor with insufficient training? Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane. Was the traffic on the CTAF too distracting? Maybe she was from a quiet country airport (as if we have any of those in Southern California…).

Further investigation revealed that her CFI had taught her not to exceed some arbitrary bank angle in the pattern. I don’t remember if it was 20 degrees or 30. Maybe it was 15. The exact figure is not important. This poor lady’s instructor had told her that the way to avoid an inadvertent spin in the pattern was to limit her bank angle.

For a long time I thought her CFI’s instruction was terrible, but thankfully not common. Unfortunately that’s starting to change. I even see this kind of advice provided by AOPA in their publications now! A quick Google search turned up an AOPA Safety Publication where the author suggests limiting base-to-final turns to as little as 15 degrees.

I am in agreement with teaching 30-degree banked turns in the pattern, for all the reasons mentioned. But I make an exception for the turn from base to final. The pilot flying this traffic pattern has begun his turn early, using a much shallower bank–perhaps 15 to 20 degrees. The result is a somewhat sloppier-looking, but safer, pattern. It gives the pilot more time to assess the effect of any crosswind and adjust his turn to smoothly intercept the final approach course. Because he starts the turn to final with a shallow bank angle, he can safely increase his bank (within limits) to counter an overshoot. Likewise, there should be little reason to tempt the pilot to skid. Even if he does, at the shallower bank this is much less likely to result in disaster. Check out the stall speed versus bank chart in your aircraft’s flight manual. Although a pilot who increases his bank from 30 degrees to 45 degrees and one who increases it from 15 to 30 are both increasing by the same number of degrees; the effect on stall speed is much more dramatic in the first case.

The stall speed only changes if one is maintaining level altitude flight during the turn. Who makes a base-to-final turn like that? The bottom line on this issue is that it’s wrong to attach a specific bank angle to safe flying or spin avoidance, regardless of whether it’s in the pattern or elsewhere. Maintain the same load factor on the airplane during the turn and the stall speed doesn’t change whatsoever!

You can spin a plane from wings-level flight. That how most intentional spins are performed, actually. Likewise, you can continuously bank a plane a full 360 degrees, turning in the opposite direction while you do so, and neither spin or stall. It’s called a rolling turn — a competitive aerobatic maneuver.

Let’s go over it one more time: spins are only possible if the airplane is allowed to exceed the critical angle-of-attack while in an uncoordinated state. It has absolutely nothing to do with airspeed, bank angle, altitude, or proximity to the traffic pattern or runway. If the poor girl flying that Cherokee had been properly taught, she would have avoided tremendous stress, embarrassment, and risk.

Myth #15: Flying is difficult.

This last one is for the non-pilots. I wish I could tell you that it takes super-human effort to fly, that only a steely-eyed genius with hand/eye coordination even the best video game gurus could never hope to possess can operate an aircraft. That’s what many passengers seem to think.

Alas, the truth is that physically flying most airplanes is not hard. Landing can be a bit of a challenge, especially if your standards are high and you want to nail it every time. But the taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, and descent are pretty easy. I’ve had total neophytes do all the flying on many occasions. I’d only take over for the last few seconds before landing. It’s just not that hard.

Now, learning the regulations, aerodynamics, aircraft systems, meteorology, navigation, emergency procedures, signage, ATC communication, aeromedical factors, decision making, performance calculations, and the dozen other areas one must master in order to fly in today’s world? That’s a bit tougher. But the physical act of flying an airplane is not as hard as aviators would like to make you think.

Best Bang for the Buck

AOPA never disappoints in the photography department

With a title like that, you’d think I’m about to expound on the virtues of a massage parlor which offers the proverbial “happy ending”. Alas, it was only the alliterative qualities of the title which I was after, and so we’ll be sticking to aviation topics today. And P.S., please get your mind out of the gutter, my friend.

Anyway, aviation is a tough place for the dollar store crowd. When it comes to bargains, the list is short. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to owning an airplane. The first thing any veteran aircraft owner will tell you is that there’s no such thing as an inexpensive airplane when it comes to overall cost of ownership.

Sure, you can buy a piston twin in today’s market for almost nothing, but good luck with the fuel burn, insurance rates, and parts supply. A relatively low-time Gulfstream III can be had for a few hundred thousand dollars, but the maintenance cost will exceed the value of the jet within months. Even the vintage tailwheel aircraft like the Citabria and Cub, which are the airplanes I think of (after laughing, of course) when someone utters the word “bargain”, can eat a hole in your pocket as they require true artisans to work on (and frequently fabricate) the wood-and-fabric airframe components.

AOPA never disappoints in the photography department

While the word “bargain” is a relative term, if you want maximum performance and fun for your dollar, it’s hard to beat a single-seat Pitts. AOPA’s Dave Hirschman recently penned an article about the Pitts S-1, accompanied by some gorgeous photography.

You can get a high-quality S-1 biplane for $30,000 in today’s market. Fuel burn is low, the airplane is mechanically simple, and I can’t think of any other model which approaches the cruise speed, climb rate, aerobatic capability, or sheer fun you’ll get out of one. The aircraft is still not cheap to own, but the ratio of dollars spent to smiles generated is approached by few airplanes. Perhaps an RV-3 or Wittman Tailwind might come close.

The Pitts has the added advantage of making a seriously skilled pilot out of any individual with the temerity to try and land one. High approach speeds, short coupled landing gear, and a total lack of forward visibility in the flare mean this airplane separates the men from the boys when it comes to skills. Even the best of us can be humbled by this overgrown R/C model with just a moment’s inattention.

Having said that, I would take issue with one aspect of Hirchman’s article. He writes:

In the early 1990s when I had just begun flying a Pitts, I was practicing touch-and-go landings at my home field (General Dewitt Spain Airport in Memphis, Tennessee) one still morning. When I put the airplane away after about a dozen trips around the pattern, a veteran Pitts pilot took me aside and warned me against the practice.

“Don’t do any more landings in a Pitts than you absolutely have to,” he said. “No one ever completely masters them, so touch and goes only tempt fate.” (I regarded that piece of advice as overly fatalistic then, but I’ve since come around to the old sage’s way of thinking.)

The old sage’s line of thinking has been applied to stalls, spins, night flying, aerobatics, carrying passengers, and even flying without a GPS. It’s tempting fate to do it, so don’t. What’s so annoying is that if you take this to it’s logical conclusion, you’d never fly at all. No one ever completely masters flight, so why not avoid tempting fate and just stay on the ground?

My S-2B -- a larger, two-seat, certified version of the S-1

Isn’t this the same logic that keeps instructors from taking students aloft when the weather is less than perfect? At some point you’ve got to take a risk in order to gain the experience and proficiency that will keep you safe when you fly. There’s a line there you don’t want to cross, but I question where many people choose to place it.

Besides, the old sage’s logic flies in the face of a primary reason to own a Pitts: the difficulty of landing it. Would the airplane be as intriguing to its legion of followers if the landing sequence was docile and forgiving? I think not. In the end, it depends on what you’re looking for out of your flying experience. Unless you seek an aircraft which will challenge you from the moment you start taxiing until you shut the thing down at the end of the flight, a Pitts is best avoided.

Waiting for the starter to give me the "go" at Borrego Springs in 2006

Based on my years of owning a Pitts, teaching in them, and flying everything from jets to seaplanes to gliders to warbirds, I’d opine that if you can land a Pitts — I mean really land it well and do so on a consistent basis — then you can land anything. A Concorde, a space shuttle, a lunar lander. I once heard a NASA pilot say the exact same thing, and he actually flew the space shuttle!

Nothing I’ve seen or heard of compares to the challenge of landing a Pitts in the kind of strong gusting crosswinds you’ll find at virtually any aerobatic contest around the country on a given weekend. The exhilaration of completing a bone-crushing Advanced unknown sequence, covered in perspiration, amped up with adrenaline, and entering the pattern with the realization that, in many ways, the best part of the flight is yet to come.

Forget the aerobatics — that’s the real fun in flying a Curtis Pitts design.