Features  / 09.13 /

Upside down, inside out

The benefits and misconceptions surrounding aerobatics and upset training


Aerobatics and upset training share many of the same skills, but they are different and have fundamentally different goals. If you’re actually rolled upside down by a Boeing 747 while on final, neither of these skills is likely to save you unless you’re flying something like an Extra—and really know how to fly it.

aerobaticsIf several hours training in those skills is unlikely to allow you to recover from inadvertent inverted flight at 400 feet, what good is the training? The answer is that even with limited training in these areas, you’re unlikely to let that Boeing 747 roll you inverted in the first place, because you’ll see it coming and properly deal with it.

When it comes to increasing safety, both aerobatics and upset training accomplish the same basic things, but do so in different ways. The benefits include:

  • They break the impulse to pull back when things are getting out of hand. Pulling is seldom the correct move.
  • They get your eyes and brain familiar with high roll rates so you recognize one when you see it developing and crank in full control to stop it.
  • They make you comfortable with throwing the ailerons to the stop, when it’s needed.
  • They keep your panic in check because you have already experienced the horizon pointing the wrong way, so your brain continues to function.
  • They teach you the relationship between speed and G force so you know when you can pull and when you can’t, and how to do it.

Aerobatics and upset training: the differences.

The primary difference between aerobatics and upset training is that in the beginning, aerobatic training is aimed at teaching complete maneuvers—for example, a loop or a roll. Upset training doesn’t have planned maneuvers to fly. It teaches you to find your way back to straight and level, when you suddenly find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, like upside down, nose pointed at the ground, and the airspeed building. It deals in unexpected, fractional maneuvers.

If you’re only going to take one of the two types of training, take upset training because it can be useful while flying any type and size of airplane at any time. However, it’s unlikely you’ll take upset training without progressing into regular aerobatics. Upset training takes only two to three hours and basic aerobatics tagged on top of that will take another two hours. So, take both.

Aerobatic training for the beginner.

We’ll answer the question that is always asked first: No, you’re not going to vomit. OK, so we can’t guarantee that. We can guarantee that very few people actually get that sick, and it’s because of one of three reasons, or a combination of the three. The first and very common cause of vomiting will be a new instructor who is trying to impress you with his skill, completely forgetting that you don’t know enough to judge it. You can, however, judge his rotten approach to instructing, as he beats you senseless running from maneuver to maneuver. If you get an instructor like that, find another one.

The second cause is flying aerobatics right after a big, heavy meal. Don’t fly on an empty stomach, but go easy on the grease. A light lunch is perfect.

Many people get sick because they’ve convinced themselves that they’ll get sick, and they worry about it so much that it actually happens. Even so, it’s not unusual to feel queasy 30 to 40 minutes into an early lesson. That’s nature’s way of saying you should fly level for a while or maybe return to base. Those kinds of feelings generally disappear after two or three lessons because you build resistance to G forces and motion very quickly. It is the rare individual who never overcomes the nausea. If that’s you, read Bob Hoover’s autobiography, Forever Flying, and how he got sick every single time he flew, but he was determined to beat it. Given his career, it looks as if he was successful.

Where to find training.

A surprising number of schools teach basic aerobatics; a smaller number get into the really advanced maneuvers. Which school you chose depends on why you are taking the training and what it is you want to accomplish.

The vast majority of pilots take aerobatics because it is something new and looks like fun, and almost any aerobatic school can satisfy those needs. As far as experiencing something “new,” that’s easy. The first time a pilot sees the horizon do a 360 in the windshield, he instantly knows he’s just stepped into a new world—and it is the rare pilot who isn’t totally enthused by the experience. It is much more “different” than most people expect. One of the biggest surprises is that light aerobatics don’t hurt as much as most people expect, if at all. If, for instance, their introduction to aerobatics is via the simple aileron roll, which is the normal first maneuver, they are invariably amazed by the lack of sensations felt. There are no Gs, and if you had your eyes closed, you wouldn’t know you had just rolled upside down and back upright again because it’s strictly a one-G maneuver. Your body doesn’t know anything has happened. Only your eyes and your brain are affected.

A smaller number of schools can take pilots past intermediate maneuvers into advanced category action. And that’s where the real effort and borderline pain begins. However, everyone starts at the beginning and slowly works up to the more complex, more demanding maneuvers. So, by that time, they’ve had enough experience that they know what they’re getting into.

The International Aerobatic Club lists flight schools and instructors on its website (www.iacusn.org/schools). When considering a school or instructor, ask for names of prior students so that you can confirm the instructional quality.

What will the curriculum entail?

Most schools build their curriculum in three- to five-hour blocks. It takes just five hours to cover aileron rolls, loops, slow rolls, inverted flight, Cuban eights, and Immelmans. However, while at the end you’ll be able to do the maneuvers, there will be limited precision and proficiency involved. That takes more exposure.

Throughout this whole process, it’s important that you don’t let the instructor go too far or too long and get you seriously sick. The instructor has no way of knowing how you’re feeling. To make the time both productive and enjoyable, the second you start to feel anything suspect going on in your innards, let him/her know.

What kinds of airplanes?

The pilot who is new to aerobatics generally comes from the standard four-place aircraft, and the introduction to aircraft used for aerobatics training will be an experience in itself. Only the Cessna 150 Aerobat is commonly available in the nosewheel, side-by-side, aerobatic arena. Everything else will likely be tailwheel and tandem, both of which will be new concepts to many pilots.

aerobatics

The most common aerobatic trainers are part of the Citabria/Decathlon series. Descended from the Aeronca Champ, these airplanes are great for introducing a pilot to basic aerobatics as well as tailwheel flying. They are easy to fly, although a little heavier on the controls compared to other, more advanced aerobatic trainers. Their training costs, however, will be about half the price of the others. And you won’t be quite as overwhelmed by the raw performance (which is part of the fun) of the higher-powered birds.

The other two common aerobatic trainers are the Pitts Special, a hyper, little, semi-pugnacious biplane that is a world unto itself with a rabid following, and the Extra 200/300 series. The Extras are finesse personified—very smooth, very light, easy to land, and a joy to fly. The Pitts are loaded with character and about as “different” an airplane as most people will ever get the opportunity to fly. It’s a toss-up as to which is the better advanced trainer. Both are terrific basic trainers.

Upset training.

Upset training, also called unusual attitude recovery training, is all about safety. It’s aimed at developing an awareness of what the airplane is doing and how to correct any out-of-limits attitude in the safest, fastest way with the smallest amount of altitude loss. What is seldom mentioned when discussing this kind of training is that without meaning to, the student develops the ability to instantaneously recognize what the airplane is doing, so he or she isn't easily panicked. They are even safer pilots than one who has had nothing but traditional aerobatic training. This works in the same way that boaters become safer boaters when they’ve been tossed into the deep end, while wearing clothes, and have been taught how to survive the unexpected rather than experiencing only traditional swimming.

aerobaticsIn upset training, after seeing some scenarios, the student eventually will be told to duck their heads or close their eyes while the instructor puts the airplane in a bad attitude—e.g., well past 90 degrees of bank, nose down at a serious angle. You open your eyes, analyze the situation to determine the shortest way to the horizon for both the nose and the wings, and what to do with the power. This is invaluable training. The open-eye training that precedes it teaches you to recognize the developing situation so you’ll be able to head it off earlier, if it happens for real.

Fun with benefits.

The bottom line is that both aerobatics and upset training are fun. Especially aerobatics. It’s downright screaming-your-brains out fun. You’re up there frolicking around like a sea otter underwater, where gravity is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, and you’re seeing the world from an entirely different perspective. But, the real kicker with aerobatics is that, at the same time that you’re having hard-core fun, you’re also becoming a much better pilot. What’s not to like?

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his website (www.airbum.com).


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