There comes a time, I suppose, in every pilot’s life when they at least consider pushing their limits into flight regimes or maneuvers they haven’t experienced yet. Actually, we all do during our initial and advanced training. Usually, it happens with a CFI riding along in the seat next to us—either instructing or, at the very least, riding shotgun to save us from ourselves when we get in over our heads.
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On this particular day, I thought I knew enough to attempt a new maneuver without the safety net of the CFI...or even the benefit of discussing it with one.
After all, how hard could it be? I had seen lots of airplanes do it at many airshows. With enough altitude, what could possibly go wrong? I had successfully looped my ’46 J3 Cub several times already without stressing the airframe or my confidence! Why shouldn’t a barrel roll go just as smoothly?
As I climbed to my practice area, I had plenty of time to rehearse my plan mentally...drop the nose, build speed, pull up, wait a bit, jam the stick full left and wait for the full span Cub to roll all the way over. Sounded good at the time.
When I reached what I considered to be a safe altitude, I did some clearing turns while bolstering my nerves. Just to ensure my confidence, I looped the Cub once more just to prove to myself that I was, indeed, an aspiring aerobatic pilot. The fact that my airplane was 70 years old never crossed my mind. Or, if it did, I readily dismissed any misgivings by convincing myself that the planned activity shouldn’t stress the airframe beyond its design limits. Apparently, obsessing about something enables us to miss all the warning flags that crop up along the way. As I write this, I see them now. Somehow, they didn’t matter that day.
A couple more clearing turns, and it was time. I pushed the nose down until the airspeed increased to about 100 mph. That should be good. A quick pull on the stick started bringing the nose up and bleeding speed off. As the nose came up through the horizon, I planted the stick in my left thigh and held it there. The Cub reluctantly responded with an agonizingly slow roll to the left. Forty-drive degrees, then 90, then something more than 90, but less than 180. And then it happened...the nose dropped out and headed down. The maneuver had suddenly become a mutilated split S. I was inverted but not vertical. The agonizingly slow roll rate had already convinced me that options for the best way out didn’t include a roll to upright. So I pulled through the dive. EVER, SO, GENTLY! The noise increased dramatically! Wind noise, engine noise. Crap! The tach was creeping through redline. I pulled the throttle closed, but probably later than I should have. The engine continued to windmill due to the airspeed, which by now had also increased to well above Vne of 120mph. The airspeed was pegged at 140. I had read that a Cub windshield fails first at about 125mph.
A lot goes through one’s mind in a situation like this. For me, it went something like...
“Oh, SH*#, that wasn’t supposed to happen! Wings level, stop the dive. So this is how it ends. I have stupidly killed myself. Engine overspeed, chop the throttle! Good God, I’m too fast! Watch out for the windshield. Fly it all the way into the crash. Pull back EASY, EASY, EASY! Listen and feel for parts coming off of the airplane. Nose up a bit more to bleed off excess speed. Back to Vne. Whew, not dead yet! DUMBA$$, DUMBA$$, DUMBA$$! Finally, 60 mph, safe to roll some throttle back in and nose back down to straight and level. BREATHE! Thank you, God, for saving me from my STUPID DUMBA$$ MOVE! SLOW turns and pitch changes to check integrity of aircraft. Land and complete THOROUGH inspection of aircraft. Hey DUMBA$$, don’t EVER do that again in this airplane! Thank you God! I love my family! I nearly left them. STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”
As the airplane settled back into its normal cruise, my senses were on hyper alert. There was no sound of torn fabric flapping in the wind. There were no vibrations of bent or failed structure. Nothing at all to indicate that I had just crossed the “do not cross” line. I had somehow survived my incredibly stupid stunt. Gingerly, I banked the aircraft shallowly. First left, then right. What I could see of the lower wing surfaces looked normal.
A slight pressure forward and aft on the stick produced the normal pitch oscillations I was familiar with, so the elevators must be okay. Even though I hadn’t stressed the rudder with anything other than the overspeed, I pressed gently left, then right on the pedals to check the yaw and feel for vibrations from the tail. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Satisfied that at least the critical parts of the airplane were still with me and functioning correctly, I pointed the nose toward the nearest grass airstrip. Coincidentally, a good friend lived there as well. I knew he could help me inspect the entire aircraft, and he could keep his mouth shut about it as well.
A few long minutes later, I was safely parked in front of his hangar, debriefing the incident with him as we inspected the airplane. No damage was found except to my nerves and ego. It was a life lesson learned.
At first, I felt I should never tell anyone else about it. But then I realized I had been fortunate to survive, and if I didn’t use this to help others, the lesson would only be of value to me. I know that sharing experiences like this exposes oneself to criticism. Yet if it reaches only one person and saves them from having a similar experience or worse, it will have been worth it!
I have since debriefed this episode with several CFIs and learned some valuable lessons, including how to safely perform the maneuver (in a different airplane!) as well as these obvious gems I’ll leave with you.
1) NEVER attempt any maneuver in an airplane without proper and thorough training!
2) Don’t attempt any maneuver in an airplane not explicitly designed for and deemed airworthy and capable of that maneuver.
Live to fly, fly to live!