|By John Lorenz
Three of us bought a genuine, 180-horse, acrobatic, Bellanca 8KCAB Super Decathlon. It was just sitting there you see, the price was right, and it was such a pretty airplane…. And then there was the sickly-sweet allure of learning to fly at unusual attitudes. I never did care for stalls, and detest roller-coasters: could loops and rolls possibly be enjoyable, or would they just scare me silly? Would John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s beautiful lines about “dancing the skies,” and “wheeled and soared and swung” have more meaning if I could experience something resembling what he knew in a Spitfire? Could I possibly get comfortable doing such maneuvers? And on a more sinister side: spins. I’d studied spins in books and even done them on several occasions, but not enough times to develop a confidence that I could reliably recover from them. The theme that spins are killers was stuck firmly in my mind.
Well, the first several times I pulled the nose up in a loop and saw only blue sky as my cheeks sagged under a four-G load, the first few times the bottom dropped out from under and the ground spun in front of the windshield, I felt that maybe aerobatic flying wasn’t really going to fit my definition of “fun.” Hanging inverted from a seatbelt is unnerving; have you seen the tiny bolts that hold seatbelts to an airframe? It feels like you’re about to be launched through the skylight like an inverted Polaris missile. Only slowly did I get comfortable with having the ground swapping positions with the sky, or with discovering them in uncommon locations on the windshield. Only slowly did confidence build that the airplane was not out of control, that in fact it was me making it do these strange and wonderful things, and that I could cajole the airplane back to straight and level with enough predictability to make a betting man happy. I began to look forward to the flights instead of forcing myself to make them, and I began to daydream and speculate about the control inputs necessary for maneuvers I hadn’t learned yet. I still don’t like roller coasters, but the difference between aerobatics and a roller-coaster is this: here, I have control.
As the butterflies slowly began to settle, we began to use the airplane to investigate the subtleties of the stall-spin. For instance, we reproduced, at altitude, the classic stall-spin scenarios such as the stall during an uncoordinated base-to-final turn, and the stall in an uncoordinated climb. Yup, these would be dangerous down low. We practiced to see how far into the incipient spin one could still recover without actually spinning, and how quickly we could get out of a spin once one was wound up. Might be useful someday, but probably not: mostly it’s just gaining familiarity with the possibilities of flight and enjoying the control over the machine. But we found out that an incipient spin can be recovered from early by releasing the stick and applying hard opposite rudder. In fact, you have to MAKE the plane spin, but unfortunately, the intuitive reaction to a stall (full aft yoke, opposite aileron) is one way to do it.
Stalls and spins are useful maneuvers for proficiency and safety, but loops and rolls….eventually….are just plain fun. It turns out that they are relatively easy to do; the difficulty lies in doing them with anything resembling precision. Rolls are supposed to end upright and on the same heading and at the same altitude as they started, but for a while the only consistency we had was the ability to finish the maneuver headed straight down. I’m nowhere near a skill level that could be thought of in terms of “precision,” but I can see progress. At least we’re no longer referring to each other as “Corkscrew” or “Lawn Dart.” Loops with insufficient airspeed at the top of the loop flop over backwards instead of carving a graceful arc in the sky. Making a loop end at the same altitude you started with takes more finesse than just hauling back on the stick until the second time a horizon comes back into view. Recovering from the whirligig of a spin somewhere close to a planned heading takes a certain amount of forethought and an ability to ignore the insane view of the earth spinning crazily below while at the same time concentrating on a pullout position that is part of that spinning pattern.
Knowing it makes me smile, Lizzie calls the maneuvers “rollies, twirlies, curlicues, and slides.” What the words lack in technical correctness they more than make up in expressiveness. And in fact, there seems to be a lot of expressiveness in acrobatic flying. Even different instructors, and the various textbooks on acrobatics, disagree on how some of the maneuvers should be flown. Maybe that freedom, in contrast to some of the more stringently formatted and constrained types of flying, is part of the fun.
We’ve decided that Magee was right.