Tuesday, 16 August 2011

aerobatics, the beginner’s perspective (part 1)

2011 has been a bit of a strange year for me all told. Several events have led to major changes in life, lifestyle and perspective – the most significant of course being our catastrophic house fire back in January. Nothing I’ve experienced works quite as effectively to focus the mind on what is actually important, than losing all your possessions (although I can’t say I recommend it to anyone). The events following the fire also served to change a few of my views on life – living in a borrowed caravan on my own driveway for instance, led to me realising that actually houses and home comforts, whilst being nice, aren’t actually really necessary. Being seven months on from the fire and having still not had all of the [frankly piffling amount of] insurance money we are owed has taught me that insurance companies are generally pretty damned useless and should not be relied upon (and also that having a nice comfy sofa to sit on is something we all tend to take for granted). The list goes on and on and on, but at the end of the day, no matter how negative the events of life, all of them can be used to have a positive effect on your perspective if you allow it. All of them.

So, here we go, perspective. It’s all too easy to get bogged down and focussed on little things and miss out on the bigger picture – losing perspective. This applies to pretty much any aspect of life (as well as life itself of course), and flying aerobatics is no exception. The biggest learning curve I am currently going through is very definitely one of perspective, or perhaps perspectives [plural]. Let me explain:

Flying itself is a fairly complex pastime to take up – you have all sorts of things to learn and think about and eventually you kind of have to do them all at the same time. The controlling the aeroplane bit is actually a relatively small part of what it is to fly – you have to navigate, talk to people on the radio, maintain heights and headings, listen to people on the radio, look out for other aeroplanes, keep track of how much fuel you’re using, keep an eye on how the engine is performing and a good number of other things, and all of that is just in straight and level flight. It sounds like a lot doesn’t it? When you’re first starting out learning to fly (actually, no matter how experienced you are this all still applies) it can all seem quite overwhelming, to the point where the big picture can end up blurred or lost as you fixate on perhaps just one or two things at a time – for instance concentrating on maintaining an altitude and spending far too much time looking at the altimeter and trying to make micro-adjustments can all to often mean you fail to spot that other aircraft heading toward you…

Learning to fly aerobatics is something that gives me immense amounts of satisfaction, primarily because it presents such huge challenges – learning how to handle a high performance aeroplane with precision and accuracy is enormously difficult and as a result incredibly rewarding. It can also be hugely frustrating at times, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down by this and lose sight of the sheer joy of it all.

I’ve always been a perfectionist in everything I’ve ever done, and to me mistakes are the enemy, things to be analysed and understood so that in future the causes can be resolved and the consequences eliminated. This is at once a really good way to approach aerobatic flying, and also a really bad one because I often end up fixated on what I’ve just done wrong in a manoeuvre in the middle of a sequence rather than focussing on what should be coming next (which as you can probably imagine then usually leads into a spiral of more and more mistakes and frustration). The big picture in this case is really quite simple – what does it look like? I need to be thinking “what is it looking like to the judges on the ground?”, and if I’ve screwed something up, “ok, what can I do to minimise the impact of my mistake on the rest of my sequence?”. I should NOT be thinking “bollocks, bollocks, bollocks, arse, that was shit…oh crap I can’t remember what’s next”.

Next weekend I’m heading to Leicester to be judged in my first aerobatic competition. This will be the first time anyone will have told me what my flying looks like – the first time anyone will have told me their perspective on my big picture. I’m excited.beginners sequence notated

Recently I’ve been doing some fairly complex flying, learning manoeuvres and sequences that are far beyond any that will be expected of me in the beginner’s (or basic) category. Hopefully this will mean that I’ll have a good chance of not screwing things up too badly. In the next category up (the Standard category), the sequences are about 10 manoeuvres long, including one that is “Known” and one or two “Unknown” that are given to you on the day to be learned and memorised. Next year I will be entering the Standard category and hoping to do quite well, but right now the single, 5 manoeuvre “Known” sequence of the Beginner’s class is feeling daunting enough…

The 2011 Beginner’s Known Sequence, the Beginner’s Perspective

The diagram above is the sequence I will be flying, with some of my ‘notes to self’ included. Allow me to attempt to explain:

  1. The whole thing will start at an altitude we’ve worked out taking into account all the height gains and losses of the manoeuvres to come. We’ll be flying parallel to some form of line feature (probably the airfield runway at Leicester) – this will be what I use to make sure we’re not changing heading during the manoeuvres. Three distinct wing rocks (dipping one wing to one side) then herald the start of the sequence – the first wing rock being just before we start to dive to gain airspeed, the final two being carried out during the dive. At approximately 160mph we will pull to straight and level for a moment or two before we pull into the first manoeuvre: the Loop.

    Pulling sharply at first to begin the climb, I’ll be looking out to each wingtip to make sure we’re pulling up straight. I’ll relax the pressure a tiny bit and allow the aeroplane to pull upwards through the vertical, pulling slightly harder to gain the second, slower part of the circle. At this point I’ll be looking up through the canopy watching the horizon come into view. I’ll be making sure our wings are level as I’m also really relaxing the pressure to allow her to float gently over the top and begin her descent. We’ll drop gracefully downwards through the vertical, gaining speed, tracking parallel to our line feature. A sharper pull out during the fast bottom section will bring us back to straight and level flight after we’ve hopefully drawn a perfect circle.
  2. Next, the Half Cuban (half Cuban 8) starts exactly the same as the simple loop we just flew. I’ll pull until we’re floating over the top, but then, just as begin our descent I’ll push the stick forward and arrest our loop so that we’re end up flying downwards at 45degrees, inverted. At this point, I’ll have been looking at the sighting frame (a piece of metalwork that lets us judge angles against the horizon) on the left wing to know where to stop, and looking up through the canopy I will see the ground below us with our line feature running parallel to us. We’ll pause at this descent attitude for a moment before a sharp roll to the left will swap our horizon back to normality (blue up, green down) and we pause again, now in a 45degree [upright] descent. After another pause we’ll pull back to straight and level flight and will hopefully now be flying in the exact opposite direction to which we started (still watching that line feature).

  3. Next, we have yet another looping manoeuvre, but this time with a twist (quite literally). The Quarter Clover starts just the same as our other loops have, still making sure we’re not going all egg shaped by pulling too hard over the top, but this time as we’re pulling through and diving downwards, I’ll start a slow roll to the left, very carefully watching my line feature – I will be stopping the roll when we are at a 90degree angle (perpendicular) to this feature, at the same time still pulling out of the loop. This is a difficult one to explain, but basically we should have done a loop, but ended up flying out on a different (90degree) heading – we’ll be flying towards the [runway] line feature at the end of this, once again perfectly straight and level.
  4. We’ll be coming out of the last manoeuvre quite fast, which is good because the next part of the sequence is the energy sapping and somewhat intimidating Stall Turn. A very sharp pull back on the stick will see us pulling about 5g until I arrest the movement with the sighting frame showing me that we are flying vertically upwards. Its important that we are actually vertical and not slightly over on our back here (an accidental inverted spin is very easy to get into in this one). Taking a look at both wing tips, I need to make sure we aren’t yawing (nose dropping to one side) or rolling off heading – as the aircraft slows I’ll be needing to input a bit of right rudder to stop the yaw, and some right aileron to stop us rolling left due to the engine torque effect (this becomes greater the slower we are flying). Flying straight up means we slow down pretty quickly, and just before our wings stall I’ll kick in full left rudder to make the aeroplane seemingly pivot around the left wingtip. Well, this is the plan – if I get the speed wrong it’ll look a bit weird. Immediately after I’ve kicked the rudder left, I’ll need to push in full right aileron to stop us rolling in the turn, and push the elevator forward. Once we’re round, I have to make sure we fly a perfectly vertical down line for a few seconds (the ground will start coming up to meet us pretty fast as we accelerate), before pulling out sharply to straight and level again. The pull will be quite high ‘g’ again and I’ll need to make sure I’m using my core muscles to make sure I don’t grey out too badly. We should also end up heading straight away from our reference feature.
  5. Assuming I haven’t screwed everything up, the final manoeuvre in the sequence is one that I regularly manage to fluff up in isolation, although oddly when I’m not over analysing what I’m trying to do, my Slow (aileron) roll technique is often pretty much spot on. I guess the trick is to just fly this one and not think about it too much!

    This type of roll isn’t as simple as you might think – unlike a ‘ballistic’ style of roll, you can’t just pull the nose up, whack the stick to the left and let the aeroplane do it’s thing in a nice ballistic zero-g arc (this is the simplest type of roll and one of the first things you learn when you start flying aerobatics). No, this type of roll requires that you remain straight and level and just roll round the longitudinal (nose to tail) axis of the aeroplane, which means that you need to use the rudder to offset the differing amounts and directions of lift that the wings are giving you at the different points of the roll…yeah, I’m struggling to explain this…

    Ok, try to picture an aeroplane as it’s momentarily flying in a ‘knife-edge’ attitude – say with the right wing pointing vertically up and the left wing down toward the ground. At this attitude the wings aren’t producing lift, and in fact the most lift is being produced across the fuselage of the plane (yeah, that one was a revelation to me too). At this point the weight of the engine will be pulling the nose of the aeroplane downwards because of the reduction in lift. The way to stop the nose dropping earthwards (which will actually be to your left as you sit in the plane), is by putting in some right rudder. Of course as the roll progresses, the wings are constantly changing angle, and as such the elevator and rudder inputs also need to change to maintain that straight line…so yeah, it’s one of those things that feels utterly impossible until it clicks and starts to just work by instinct – I still tend to balls these up when I’m trying them in isolation and thinking too much!

So there we have it, that was the sequence I’ll be flying next weekend. Hopefully I won’t get too bogged down by details, and perfectionism, or fear or stress, and will be able to simply enjoy the dream of flight. Wish me luck. 


  1. Way too complex for me :) Good luck!

  2. dipeetmehta@hotmail.co.uk18 August 2011 at 20:01

    THIS IS BRILLAINT! GOOD LUCK WITH IT :D Sorry to hear some news but good luck flying :D

  3. Hi Dipeet, thanks for reading - fingers crossed it goes well at the weekend!