Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Akro At The Beginning

Every Age is Golden if we’re lucky enough to be part of it

One of the most common comments heard among aviators is, "I was born a generation too late. I missed the Golden Age." Even though I'm an antiquer and warbird-a-holic, I've not once said those words. This is because I have yet to enter a decade that, in one way or another, wasn't a Golden Age, including this one.

I got to thinking about the Golden Age thing while I was writing the American Champion Xtreme pirep for this magazine. I found myself reflecting on my long, long relationship with aerobatic airplanes, starting with the often-underrated Citabria in the '60s. Looking back, I have to marvel that I was right there and watched the growth of modern aerobatics. It was the start of a golden age that continues to this day. This may not seem like much to those who have somehow managed to avoid being exposed to akro flight, but to those who recognize upside-down as nothing more than the other half of right-side-up, it's a big deal.

While I can clearly remember a time before I could do aerobatics, I can't begin to remember a time when I didn't lust after them. And I think that's common among a lot of pilots. For many of us, that may be borne of hundreds of hours spent standing in the middle of a circle at the age of 13 or 14, our right hand orchestrating the two wires that lead out to a small, but snarling, airplane at their end. As we rotated in a circle, our entire world was reduced to a tiny piece of space encircling the recently completed airplane we were more or less controlling. Initially, it was a victory to do nothing more than complete a lap without digging a divot out of the dirt with our airplane. However, as it is with flying in general, once level flight was mastered, other dimensions gained in importance, and soon, our fragile projectiles of balsa and silk were scribing sloppy loops and arcing directly overhead in wingovers. In a short time, level flight was to be avoided. Anyone could do that (after destroying probably a dozen airplanes). The drama of three-dimensional line and symmetry (or the lack thereof) sucked us in, and the skin-in-the-game feeling of knowing that the slightest lack of attention or hesitation on our part meant yet another pile of scrap at the end of the wires.

The sound of a model engine's high-rpm scream coming to an abrupt halt still rings in my ears today. I was much better at building than I was at flying.

Just as it was, and is, to modelers, attitude control and awareness is second nature to akro pilots. Every second they're off the ground in any airplane, they're totally aware of what lies past 90 degrees of bank and how to handle a windshield full of either sky or dirt. That's just part of an akro pilot's sensibilities. And it's wonderful to see that same kind of mind-set developing in students as they're being trained. It's also great fun to watch a non-akro type suddenly discover the thrills and satisfaction to be found in the third dimension. That's the reason I always talk students through their first loops and rolls, rather than doing them myself. This way, they know for a fact that it's their hands and their skill that's changing the world as they know it. Although their headset is constantly coaching them, they know that the previous to-be-avoided extreme attitudes they're now experiencing are the result of their input and their input alone. Oh, sure, they aren't actually alone, but the maneuvers and the discovery of the new dimension belong to them and no one else.

It's difficult to properly convey what a kick it is to be an instructor and hear students whooping and hollering as they put their heads back on the top of a loop and watch the horizon creep into their vision from the wrong direction. The grins on their faces can almost be felt in the other seat as they look out at the wing tips to see the horizon circling around them. Ditto, when talking them through their first aileron roll, and that first one is always an absolutely head-wrecking experience for them. The biggest part of the thrill is that they know they did it themselves.

I remember so clearly the first time I saw the horizon twist around the nose of an airplane in a roll. I was still in college, and I was in the back seat of a P-51 owned by a local pilot, Dr. Dick Snyder, who later raced it. This was long before the warbird movement had taken off, which made the nature of the flight 10 times more exotic than it would be today. So, I got my introduction to the heady world of warbirds AND aerobatics on the same flight. FYI—in those days, a Mustang was worth less than $10,000! I had probably 150 hours at the time, and the flight totally supercharged my lust for edge-of-the-envelope flight and drove the gotta-do-it needle right off the dial. I was seriously hooked, and nothing has changed since.

Today, I tell my akro and Pitts students to picture me as the guy in the dirty raincoat on the edge of the school yard who says, "Here, kid, try this. It really isn't addictive."

Like hell it's not addictive! In fact, one of my life goals is to turn as many pilots as possible into aero junkies who can't live without the skills required for every kind of high-demand aviating that's out there, aerobatics and otherwise. Did I mention that this kind of flying is wonderfully addictive? And that's a good thing.


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