This summer, I've had the good fortune to fly OV-10 Broncos out of the Chico Air Attack Base. Chico is a small Northern California college town graced with tree-lined streets, bike paths and lots of organic produce. The airport sits just north of town, and I found the airport bums to be a friendly and welcoming bunch. One local pilot, Heather Jay, has access to a Cessna 150 Aerobat. While it's somewhat limited in performance and has no inverted fuel system, I like the Aerobat, so I offered to give her aerobatic lessons. Heather has about 600 hours and is working on commercial and multi-engine ratings. She loves to fly and thinks she might want to make aviation a career. Being the smart cookie she is, she knew that basic akro training would improve her stick-and-rudder skills, so she enthusiastically took me up on my offer.
My days as an Air Attack Pilot are spent close to my work, waiting for a dispatch to a fire. I have one day off a week, and my mornings are spent with my animals and occasionally finding a horse to ride, so I offered to fly with Heather in the evening. "Cutoff" at a fire base is always 30 minutes before sunset, and in June near the equinox, it's at precisely 8:11 pm. For our first flight, Heather showed up on the ramp at 8:10. We fastened our parachutes and took right off with a view of the setting sun over the Sacramento Valley, and I'm certain we had the best seat in the house.
Like most instructors, I assess a potential student before we get in the airplane. They say you can tell the condition of the hull of a boat by the way the ropes are coiled, and the same applies in aviation. You can tell a lot about a person and the type of pilot they might be by their attitude, behavior and dress. I've watched hundreds of aerobatic flights and am always fascinated by how a person's personality dictates their style. Flying is such an extension of who we are. I've already figured out that Heather takes flying seriously, has a good attitude and a great sense of humor, so I know the lessons will be fun.
I don't say much on our first flight. I like to see what my student's skill level and tendencies are, whether they've developed any bad habits or perhaps weren't taught good ones. Do they display confidence? Do they use their rudders? Do they keep the airplane on the centerline during takeoff? Are they more of a "by the numbers" or "seat of the pants" pilot? Do they keep their head locked inside the cockpit staring at the instruments or do they look outside?
As I suspected, Heather is an excellent pilot. She's relaxed and has a comfort level and confidence that isn't often seen in a 600-hour pilot. Her family is in aviation and, like a lot of us airport brats, aviation is often the most natural place for us to be. Still, it's my job to be picky. By the time we get to altitude, I have a pretty good idea of what we need to work on, and we started on what I call the "pre-aerobatic" portion of the training, making sure the student has a good understanding of keeping an airplane in trim by use of rudder and a good understanding of angle of attack.
My first comment about use of rudder won't come as a surprise to my other students who affectionately call me "Rudder" Wagstaff. Pity the poor student who doesn't keep the ball and my butt square in the middle of the airplane during takeoff and climb! We might not always fly in perfect trim, but knowing what it does for your performance—especially in cases where you really need it—is essential! Heather did a good job, but since her use of rudder wasn't yet perfect, I showed her how keeping the ball centered would increase the climb rate of our slightly anemic Aerobat and get us up to altitude quicker so we could really have some fun.
I start by asking Heather to demonstrate a power-off stall. Many students are taught to recover from a stall as quickly as possible, but I know how evil the secondary stall can be. I've watched air show pilots get too low for their comfort level and pull too hard when they saw the ground rushing up. The secondary stalls turned into spins. Too low to recover. Had they relaxed, decreased the angle of attack and let the air flow over the wings, they would have had the airspeed and altitude to recover. I want to make sure Heather had the right reactions when she needs them, so I worked on getting her to decrease angle of attack after the stall and not to rush getting the nose back to the horizon.
The sun was getting low, but we still had plenty of light at altitude for one of my favorite pre-aerobatic maneuvers—accelerated stalls. These are important for people who have to fly low and slow, or who have to land. The point is to show how when the airplane is in trim, it behaves quite predictably, but when it's out of trim, it stalls quite differently. We set up for slow flight and start a 45-degree turn using just enough power to hold altitude, and I demonstrate how the airplane will, even in a steep turn, generally stall straight ahead when the ball is in the center and the airplane is in trim, but the airplane will behave quite differently in the same turn when it's out of trim in a slip or a skid. Pull a little too hard, and it will flip upside down very quickly. I asked Heather to look outside for the elusive Moose, and we quickly set up for the classic Alaskan Moose turn stall or that famous base-to-final stall.
Heather was doing really well, but it was getting dark and we would have to wait until our next flight to do spins and aerobatics. As we started to head back to CIC, Heather said, "We can't go back without trying some of the fun stuff!" Just as the last sliver of sun set behind the coastal range, we did a loop and a roll, and ended the flight with a slip down to runway 13L.
On our next flights, we worked on spins, slips, unusual attitude recovery and, of course, the fun stuff—rolls, loops and a few snap rolls. Because she had an upcoming commercial rating checkride, we did some chandelles. I had not done these for ages and was surprised at what a great coordination maneuver they are. I'm going to incorporate more of them into my training curriculum in the future.
It was my privilege to fly with Heather. She gained more confidence and a few more skills that she can apply to any airplane she flies, and as always, I learned a few things about teaching. There's always a more effective way to explain a maneuver, and the more I teach, the better I get. It's a challenge for me not to talk too much, and I love to tell my students that when I stop talking, they're doing something right!
Teaching aerobatics is rewarding because you know the student will accomplish a lot, learn new skills and gain confidence in their flying. Sometimes it changes their lives. But, I find that most students need the pre-aerobatic training portion of the training—better technique with stalls, spins and accelerated stalls. After they've mastered the basics of good stick-and-rudder skills, I know their loops will be clean and square to the horizon, because they'll apply right rudder as they start the pull.
Flying aerobatics is fun, but it's serious fun and there are no shortcuts to becoming a good aerobatic pilot. Can you say "lomcevak?"