Monday, January 15, 2007

Are you crazy?

“You dive for speed of 140 mph, pull up and keep increasing back pressure until aircraft is beyond vertical”…. the instructor was explaining how to do a loop holding a little toy airplane as an example. This was a ground briefing for my intro to aerobatics class. I listened intently and tried to concentrate on remembering the sequence he was describing but I was failing miserably as another voice (this time in my head) kept screaming – “you are going to fly upside down –are you crazy?”

The instructor then described the roll, the hammerhead and, probably seeing the blank stare back, told me not to worry, it would be easier once he showed me each figure and let me follow him on the controls. We grabbed our headsets and headed to the hangar to get the airplane.

The voice in my head was starting to realize that screaming was futile and I was committed to trying that aerobatic thing, so it calmed down…until we came closer to the little Citabria. One glance at the plane and the voice came back with the vengeance “you are going to fly upside down in THAT FLIMSY THING?” You see, I have never seen a fabric covered plane prior to that. Compared to Citabria, the Cessna 172 seemed to be built like an armored personnel carrier.

This may be a good place to explain how I ended up trying aerobatics in the first place. By the time, I discovered that such thing existed I was past my first solo. I got through mandatory stalls, spins and spirals lessons OK, however, I was reluctant to try stalls on my own and when I did I always had some fear in the back on my mind. I am not a risk-averse person, quite the opposite actually, with the deep wreck and cave diving background, so being fearful was an entirely new sensation and I did no like it.

Thinking of what exactly I was fearful of, I realized that I read a lot (and probably too much) about unusual attitudes and possibility of ending in one while practicing stalls. Yet, I was not sure if I would be able to recognize the situation and respond correctly. The basic aerobatics course was supposed to cure that fear by teaching me a lot about unusual attitudes and recoveries. I soon found a place that was offering acro training nearby and booked an intro lesson figuring I’d see if I liked it first and then think about booking the full course.

And that was how I ended up in that hangar staring at the Citabria, having no clue about aerobatics airplanes or anything aerobatic for that matter, doubting the airplane abilities, but determined to find out if I could do it.

Walk-around complete, the instructor explained how seat belts worked and soon we were in the air. He gave me the controls and doing some easy turns and climbs, I realized that the “flimsy” construction of the fabric-covered Citabria also made it lighter and much more responsive then a typical Cessna trainer given the same horse power. I was almost enjoying myself when we got to the practice area and it was time to do a first loop.

Similar to spins, no amount of reading about loops or watching videos can adequately prepare one for the feeling of earth disappearing under your feet and then re-appearing from behind (I should mention that I have never done the roller-coasters either). And prior to that point, I have done no reading about aerobatics, so the aerodynamics of how the plane flew upside down were all a big mystery to me, adding to the anxiety.

My first ever loop could be described as “oh my god ….oh my god we are upside down … and that’s all there is too it?... let’s do it again”. So, we did loops, hammerheads (I somehow managed to fly a good one), rolls and even a snap roll for a good measure. It was then that my stomach stepped in and ordered straight and level flight home looking at the horizon. But I lasted for over half an hour, so I knew I could do it.

I was smiling and bubbling about this experience for weeks after that flight, so the addiction to aerobatics was instant. I had to wait for over 6 months and get my tail wheel endorsement before my next acro lesson but the wait was well worth it as I also had plenty of time to read books that explained how the plane flew upside down.

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