Your connection with the sky

The Challenge

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I’ve written before about the fact that aviation provides challenges worthy of any level of skill.  And I thought that now might be a good time to check back in from my wanderings on the frontiers and tell you that – yeah – it’s still true.

Not that I expected to find anything different.  But my current explorations are of degree, not of kind.

Several years ago, after having had my private pilot certificate for about four years, I began flying aerobatics.  My first ride was with Brett Hunter in 2007 in a modified Pitts S-2C that didn’t even have controls in the front cockpit.  Later, I started flying acro in a Citabria and a Super Decathlon.  When we shot the first Acro Camp movie last year, Don Weaver brought the Pitts S-2B over from Berz Flight Training at the Ray Community Airport and we used it in the film.

I flew in the airplane (note that I said “flew in the airplane” and not “flew the airplane”) with Don for the camera and tech shakedowns and the, later in the summer, I flew with Don while he practiced for an upcoming IAC competition.

Since then, Don has talked me into signing up to fly in my first aerobatic competition.  I'm going to fly the IAC Primary sequence at the Michigan Aerobatic Open July 7-10 at Jackson County Reynolds Field (KJXN) organized by IAC Chapter 88.  Don is taking the Pitts and will be my safety pilot for the competition.  I've been flying the maneuvers with Don for a week or so and I' have a lot more practice to get through before tyhe contest.

The Pitts is freaky-powerful.  There’s a 260-hp engine in the nose that pulls about 1,650 lbs of airplane, fuel, and pilots off the runway and through maneuvers with serious acceleration.  It’ll climb at 2,700 ft./min., dive at 182 knots, and easily withstand +6/-3G. 

It’s a taildragger with a big nose.  You have to taxi like a drunken sailor so you can catch glimpses around the side of the nose to see where you’re going.

All of the really important stuff is in the back seat of this two-seat machine.  Which is why the instructor sits back there.  In the front, you have a stick and a pair of rudder pedals.  You have a big handle for the throttle and metal rod that controls the propeller’s pitch.  You have rudimentary engine gages, an airspeed indicator, and a G meter.  And darned little else.

Your head sticks up just a little past the top of the fuselage.  You can’t see much of anything forward as you look through the network of wing supports.  You can’t see much of anything to your left or right, either unless it’s straight out to the side.

If you ordinarily fly Cessna 172s and 182s like I do, flying the Pitts is eye-opening to say the least.  You line up on the runway, push the throttle full forward, hear the massive howl of that engine, and get pressed back against your shoulder blades as the airplane accelerates forward.  A few seconds later, you push the stick a little and the tail comes up. 

You can see a little better now, but you can’t see the runway in front of you.  You’re simply keeping the runway edges in your peripheral vision.  You have several more seconds before you lift off.  And there’s nothing you can do other than just sit there behind this huge engine, dancing on the rudder pedals and whispering admonitions to Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli to keep you from sloughing wildly over into the runway edge lights or worse.

Then you’re off and climbing.  You settle into a pitch attitude that gives you 110 knots and weave back and forth as gracefully as you can so that you can see any traffic ahead of you.

The aerobatics are really interesting.  I’ve flown as much as most straight-and-level pilots in Citabrias and Super Decathlons.  They require a lot of skill because you have only so much energy and you can’t just power though the maneuvers.  You have to have finesse to fly good acro in a Citabria or a Super D.  Many say that it’s actually easier to fly acro in a Pitts.  I believe them.

But you also have to get used the size and ferocity of the tiger whose tail you grip in your right hand.  The ability to power though maneuvers brings with it a lot of sensitivity of the controls and a need to respect the speed with which the airplane can exceed its design limits if you let it. It also means that you can throw yourself around the cockpit pretty smartly if you’re not smooth.

I’m flying the IAC Primary sequence in competition next month.  I climb at 45 degrees nose-up, then I spin it down for one full turn.  Pointed straight down at the ground, I put in full power, then pull out.  Now doing something like 160 knots, I pull up and over the first five eighths of a loop, then fly upside down at a 45-degree angle before rolling upright and pulling out.  I probably have about 160 knots of airspeed again, so I pull up again and this time I do a full loop.  I’m getting to the other end of the box by now, so I have to turn around.  I bank over to 70 degrees, neutralize the stick, and then pull hard for 180 degrees of turn.  If I’ve done everything right at this point, I have enough airspeed to slowly roll all the way around 180 degrees without losing any altitude.

They call this “primary.”  Hah!  Really?  But, if you look at the tougher sequences for the sportsman, intermediate, advanced, and unlimited categories, it really is primary.  So, after practicing elements of the sequence, we fly back to the airport. 

If you think that taking off in a Pitts is exciting, try landing!  Remember what I said about the nose being so high that you have to swerve back and forth as you taxi to see what’s in front of you?  That taxi attitude is the same as your landing attitude.  So you can’t see the runway upon which you’re going to land.  You get a last glimpse of the runway centerline as you’re on short final and you try to fix that picture in your mind.  You pitch up into the same tail-low attitude that the airplane has on the ground.  (After all, you’re trying to land on all three wheels at once, right?)

The landscape to either side of you comes up around your shoulders slowly and you hold that attitude, straining your peripheral vision.  Once you get low enough, you begin to see the runway edges off to the side.  Ideally, you want to see it on both sides.  If you don’t, it’s time to power up and go around.  If you do, you just hold that attitude and wait.  And wait.  If you’ve experienced a longer three or four seconds than the three or four seconds it takes for a Pitts to land from that point, I don’t want to hear about it.

Thud!  That’s the mains and the tailwheel.  You’re down.  Kind of.  The stick comes all the way back.  Keep that tailwheel down.  Thud again!  You’re really down this time.  Now it’s all about your feet.  Keeping the big machine somewhere close to the middle of the runway that you still can’t see over the nose.  After a few more seconds, you slide your feet up onto the toes of the rudder pedals so that you can use the brakes.  Be gentle!  You don’t want to hurt the tires or the brakes.  And you don’t want to lock one up and go sideways.

Eventually, the airplane comes to a stop.  You’ve done it!  You just took off, flew aerobatics, and landed.  In a Pitts.  One of the most legendary aerobatic airplanes on – or off – the planet.

Why am I writing this on a blog that’s ostensibly aimed at non-pilots or low-time student pilots whom AOPA is trying to encourage to learn to fly?  What does this have to do with learning to fly in a relatively benign Skyhawk, Skycatcher, or Cherokee?

Everything, everything, everything!

I need you to know that this flying thing is deeper and wider and higher than you can possibly imagine.  I regard myself as a pretty competent and skilled pilot for a guy with my experience (about 330 hours).  But there are aircraft, airports, activities, and circumstances that still put me way back on my heels, wondering what the heck I’ve gotten myself into.  It takes me right back to the feeling of my very first time trying to operate a Cherokee and discovering how much I had to learn.

I need you to know that there will be days during your primary training when you’ll find yourself in the airport parking lot shaking your head and wondering how you’ll ever be able to operate an aircraft and feel as though you’re in command of it.  I need you to know that those days are humbling, but those days will form the hard-fought basis of the pride that you’ll feel when you break through a plateau in your training or learn a new skill or pass your checkride.

Would you really still be reading this if flying wasn’t, at some level, a challenge that appealed to you? 

We lost the mere browsers and posers 500 words ago.  It's just you and me now.  We can talk as kindred spirits:  You’re a person who appreciates challenges.  Especially ones that you know in your gut that you can meet with the right training and encouragement.

Flying is one such challenge.

I drive out to the airport to go fly that Pitts with Don because the sensations of my initial training come back to me powerfully when I strap on that airplane.  Just like before, I have a strong, patient, and competent instructor in the airplane with me.  Just like before, I’m behind the airplane more than I like to admit.  Just like before, I have a lot to learn.

But, just like before, I have moments of competence.  Sometimes, I even execute elegant little pirouettes or screaming pulls that give me a glimpse of the pilot – of the human – that I will become if I keep this up.  So do you think I'll keep it up?  Yeah.  Me, too.

If you’re thinking about flight training, I can promise you this:  Flying is a challenge worthy of your time, treasure, enthusiasm, and passion.  And there are professionals like Don Weaver and organizations like AOPA that can give you the tools to take on the challenge at every stage.

And you might even find that the challenge is addictive.  That, far from being discouraging, it turns into the fuel for that fire in your belly and calls you back to the airport again and again, seeking more and better things to which to aspire.

I believe this with all my heart.  That is why, even when I'm holding on for dear life behind that huge engine and tap-dancing down the runway waiting for Pitts to lift off, I have never, ever wondered why I do this.

5 Responses to “The Challenge”

  1. Larry James Says:
    June 28th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    You have really captured the thrill, challenge and pure fun of flying aerobatics in a Pitts. It really is rewarding isn't it? What a blast!

  2. Interesting read, I always wanted to fly acrobatics!

  3. I am usually to running a blog and i really admire your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and hold checking for new information.

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