Your connection with the sky

Airshow Pilot Training: Why It Matters to You

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On Sunday 6 November, I rode along with The Hoppers, a four-ship team that flies the Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross.  It was a one-day practice session that took place at various airports across northern Illinois. I shot the team’s promotional video over the course of two days at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival in July.  It was overcast with low visibility both days for the initial shoot. 

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The video turned out fine, but there’s nothing like sunshine to make the aircraft look better and the maneuvers look more dynamic.  I offered to go back up to shoot more on a different day when we might have a better chance of getting sun on the airplanes.  Plus, it’s not like flying again in an L-39 is such a bad thing.  You could accuse me of hoping for overcast skies on the first shoot so I’d have an excuse to go fly again, but you can’t prove anything.

We launched out of Battle Creek (KBTL) around 0830 local and met up with two of the other team members at Waukegan Regional Airport (KUGN) about an hour later. 

The profile called for departure fromWaukegan with hops to two other nearby airports (nearby being a relative term if you’re flying in a Mach 0.8-capable jet), namely Quad City International Airport (KMLI) inMoline and Whiteside County Airport/Jos. H. Bittorf Field (KSQI). 

When we arrived atWaukegan, the Patriot Guard Riders were on hand awaiting the arrival of the body of Army SFC David Robinson, who died while serving with the Army inRiyadh,Saudi Arabia.  The Hoppers saddled up to go practice, but timed the departure to fly a missing man formation for SFC Robinson.  WGN TV captured the formation and you can see it here

The remainder of the day consisted mainly of The Hoppers practicing formation flight and their airshow routine. Formation takeoff, form up into a finger-four, switch to diamond and/or arrow, several formation passes, a break on a line away from the crowd, and single-ship high-speed passes down the show line.

It’s one thing to watch a jet team from the show line.  It’s quite another to watch the sequence from the back of one of the jets, listening to the radio calls, experiencing the Gs, and trying to capture it all with a handheld camera.  I had six or seven cameras mounted among the aircraft, but the handheld camera usually ends up capturing at least half of the usable shots because you can pick and choose what you shoot.

The weather was again overcast, but I got good sun on the aircraft as we joined up over Kenosha before landing at Waukegan and again at a couple of places en route to the other sites.  I’ll likely add in the footage that I shot Sunday with the other footage and add another chorus of the music to extend the video.

Shooting the video was a great experience.  But there was more to it than that.  I got to fly the jet for the climb and cruise over Lake Michigan and again en route between a couple of the airports that we used in Illinois.  I have very little jet time (at least jet time at the controls).  An hour in the Cessna Citation Mustang in 2009 and that’s about it.  But it turns out that many of the skills that one learns through primary training and the instrument rating work no matter what you’re flying.

Bear in mind that I took the controls with the jet well-trimmed and on course.  I flew a basic climb and cruise, and some very basic stationkeeping in an en route spread formation.  I had a well-qualified airshow formation pilot in the front seat.  I was not pilot in command (because, among other things, any turbine-powered aircraft requires that the pilot have a type rating in the aircraft type before logging PIC).  And no cranking and banking. 

But still, I reaffirmed what I’ve thought for some time.  For the most part, Newton and Bernoulli don’t really care whether you’re flying an L-39 or a Piper Cub.  Yeah, there are differences in behaviors at high and low speeds and some control surfaces that are different (e.g. flaps and speed brakes).  And things happen a lot faster in an L-39 than they do in the aircraft that I usually fly.   But, for the relevant part of the flight envelope, the skills that I’ve developed by training for ratings, flying with the Civil Air Patrol, and flying light aerobatics all cross over to flying a jet trainer.  And that goes for the skills that you’re developing when you begin or continue your flight training.  Pitch, power, and trim matter no matter what fixed-wing aircraft you’re flying.

Here’s the other, and perhaps most impressive, thing about flying with a jet team like The Hoppers.  I got to sit though their debriefs from each flight.  These are guys with thousands of hours in all kinds of aircraft.  Each could be forgiven for having an ego about his skills.

But egoes, if team members brought them to the practice at all, get checked at the ramp.  Each flight (and, sometimes, each repetition of the routine during the same flight) concludes with a brutally honest debrief of what happened, what was good, what was bad, what was a safety issue, and what to do better the next time.

And that’s nothing compared to what will happen in a few weeks at the International Council of Air Shows Convention in Las Vegas.  In two separate sessions, the airshow performers and the air bosses will head into conference rooms and close the doors.  The things that go on in those rooms constitutes some of the most important business that happens at ICAS.  The comminutes of airshow performers and air bosses go over accidents, incidents, and anything else that they’re seen or experienced over the course of the prior year that affected safety and how to improve it going forward.

I’ve never been to one of those sessions.  Make no mistake, I’d love to go.  And my audience is hyper-interested in what gets said behind those closed doors.  But I steer clear because I’m at ICAS as a member of the media.  And the purpose of those meetings is to have the kinds of full and frank discussions that save lives.  As much as I’d like to be there and as proud as what they do in there makes me to be associated with these people, I don’t want my presence to keep anyone from speaking his or her mind.

In any case, I take it as a real lesson for my flying.  If these people – whose flight skills are light years ahead of mine – can give and take objective (sometimes harsh) criticism, the very least I can do is try to apply that to my own flying.  I seek criticism each time I fly with another pilot.  Especially on my flight reviews and on annual stan/eval rides for CAP.  And I seek criticism from pilot-rated passengers in the airplane even when I’m on a routine flight.

I don’t always take every criticism to heart or change things based on what I hear.  But I shut up and listen for as long as the other guy or gal is talking.  Failing to solicit and fully consider criticism means failing to take an opportunity to learn and become a better and safer pilot.

The next time (or the first time!) you head to the airport to train, remember that the skills that you’re learning are some of the same skills that you see your airshow performer heroes using in the box in front of the crowd.  And, perhaps more importantly, the next time your instructor or a fellow pilot criticizes you, remember that the willingness and ability to accept and fully consider that criticism is also a vital skill of both Cessna 152 drivers and airshow pilots alike.


One Response to “Airshow Pilot Training: Why It Matters to You”

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