Every job has its perks. Airline pilots, for example, fly practically free all over the world, doctors and nurses have the inside track on good health care, Formula One drivers are privileged to drive some of the most exciting cars available and are well paid for it, building contractors can live in lavish luxury at a fraction of the cost you and I might pay, and so on.
For our part, aviation journalists often have the opportunity to fly new airplanes at minimal cost or on someone else’s nickel. In my case, I have a good friend in the aircraft sales business who owns a near-new American Champion Super Decathlon. Rich Manor bought his 8KCAB Decathlon just over a year ago, and like many folks who have achieved success in the aircraft business by long hours and hard work, Rich is so busy working that he rarely has time to fly his new airplane.
In contrast, everyone knows aviation journalists don’t work hard, and accordingly, I sometimes take Rich’s airplane for walks. With 180 fuel-injected horses out front, the 1,800-pound Super Decathlon is a joy to fly in the normal upright mode, an enthusiastic, comfortable, fun taildragger with good short-field numbers, and it doesn’t mind grass or dirt runways, either. It offers strong climb and even reasonable cruise speed as long as you’re not planning to fly too far. What’s really fun in a Super, however, is to cut loose with some basic acro—nothing too exotic, just the usual garden-variety loops, rolls, hammerheads and variations thereof.
With the benefit of aileron spades and a semi-symmetrical wing, the Super Decathlon does practically everything well, although nothing in the Pitts or Extra class. It’s even modestly capable of inverted maneuvers, but not with me in either seat. By any measure, it’s an excellent aerobatic trainer, with more than enough maneuverability and performance to get through most of the positive G tricks many pilots enjoy. No Lomcevaks or rolling tail slides allowed, but other than that…
I couldn’t help marveling during a recent 45-minute session of vertical and inverted fun in Rich’s airplane at just how much a decent acro airplane can teach those of us who don’t fly aerobatics on a regular basis. I’m a relatively inexperienced acro pilot, with only about 250 hours of vertical and inverted fun divided between perhaps two dozen types of airplanes over 40 years. I’ve been fortunate, however, to fly with some of the world’s best aerobatic pilots—Patty Wagstaff, Bob Herendeen, Duane Cole, Art Scholl, Bob Hoover, Bobby Bishop and a host of others, and those folks could inspire anyone to love aerobatics.
One reason I like to stay at least modestly proficient at aerobatics is simply self-preservation. I do much of my flying in some of the world’s busiest airspace, and I’m especially sensitive to the likelihood of driving through the roiling wake of a long-gone heavy. In Southern California, the approach paths to LAX, Orange County, Burbank and Ontario are all concentrated in a 50-nm area, sometimes overlapping, and even if you’re doing everything right, you may fly directly beneath the vortices of a big guy without knowing it. The results can be devastating as well as permanent.
Before I joined the Civil Air Patrol as a cadet in Anchorage, Alaska, at the age of 13 and began to learn the laws of the sky, I just naturally assumed every airplane was capable of operating in every attitude and that no special training would be required to fly straight up, straight down or upside down. It seemed only logical that, just as boats, cars and motorcycles function in two dimensions, airplanes should be capable of operating with virtually unlimited freedom in three.
It came as a shock to learn that the vast majority of airplanes aren’t legal for aerobatics. While that doesn’t mean most airplanes won’t do a simple roll when properly flown (Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston once rolled the prototype 707 over Seattle during an air show in the 1950s), normal-category airplanes aren’t stressed for acro maneuvers.
As a result, I took an aerobatics course in an old rat-bag Citabria shortly after earning my private ticket. I had an absolute ball frolicking around the sky for 10 hours with an ex-WWII fighter pilot as an instructor, who interspersed his advice with colorful stories of flying combat in P-47s and P-51s over Europe. I’ve dabbled in aerobatics ever since, gauging my aggressiveness on how strong my stomach is feeling at the time. I can’t report that I’ve ever been rolled inverted in my Mooney by the vortex of a 757, but at least I know what it looks like if it happens, and I may have a fighting chance to recover as a result of my upside-down training.
I’m aware that not every pilot has a friend with a new Super Decathlon. That’s okay. A Cessna Aerobat, Champion Citabria, Beech T-34 or other acro bird can serve nearly as well. The whole idea is to learn to recognize what’s happening and not manifest the automatic, elbow-jerk reaction of pulling back on the yoke or stick. If you’ve just flown into an airliner’s tip vortices and been rolled upside down on final at low altitude, you’re unlikely to recover from the resulting split S.
Upset training, the ultimate in unusual attitude preparation, is a great idea for every pilot, and besides, it’s fun, depending on how masochistic you are. (High-G maneuvers become progressively less inviting as you get older.) There are a number of schools around the country that specialize in educating pilots to handle an unexpected upset. Aerobatic training isn’t cheap, there’s no rating associated with proficiency and it’s not even available at every airport, but when you can find it, it’s an investment well worth your time and money.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].