You look outside and all you see is the ground flying past you; greens and browns all blurring into one shade. A second ago you were performing an immelman in your new Pitts Special S-2B, and now you and your plane are in a spin hurdling towards the ground. Your instincts kick in, you pull the power back to idle, let go of the stick, look over the nose and figure out which direction you are spinning, full opposite rudder, stop the spin, and recover.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get a taste of flying a high performance aerobatic airplane with airshow great Tim Decker in his immaculate S-2B. In his 6th year of airshow flying, Tim has perfected flying at the edge of the envelope and invited me out to his hanger in Lincoln, CA (KLHM) for a weekend crash course (no pun intended) of unusual attitude recoveries, spin training, and a taste of some basic aerobatics.
Originally meant for someone who is planning or has just purchased an aerobatic airplane such as the Pitts Special, a Christian Eagle, or Extra 300, Tim Decker Airshows offers a custom course on learning how to safely handle your aircraft by becoming familiar with safety maneuvers and techniques to recover your aircraft. But as Tim showed me, you do not have to have aspirations of becoming an airshow pilot to take advantage of this invaluable training; a simple private pilot’s license and the desire to become a safer pilot will do just fine!
Unusual attitude and spin recovery are maneuvers that were once taught to all general aviation pilots. But over time, the FAA dropped the requirement and left a vital hole in pilot safety. While some CFI’s talk about them, they themselves may only have a basic understanding of the maneuvers and how to recover. But flying with a professional pilot such as Tim Decker, who has logged over 5000 hours in both military and civil aircraft such as the U-2, F-117, T-38, RV-4, and the Pitts S-2B, and whose logbook endorsements include Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), Certified Flight Instructor Instruments (CFII), Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI) ratings, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, and a Level 1, Unrestricted Solo Aerobatics, and Statement of Acrobatic Competency License, is a guarantee of flying with someone who can teach you not only how to recognize, but to prevent and recover from these potentially fatal situations. According to a 2003 AOPA study, 28 percent of stall/spin accidents were fatal compared to other types of GA accidents. And while flying is a relatively safe activity, arming yourself with the proper training and tools to be an even safer pilot is common sense.
And being a newly minted Private Pilot, I wanted to get an introduction to the proper techniques before I developed any bad habits of my own. Even though I am a new pilot, pilots with thousands of hours can find themselves in dangerous situation such as suddenly having to perform an upset attitude recovery for a wake turbulence encounter, or sudden avoidance maneuver (impending mid-air) that results in unusual attitude or spin. So with my logbook in hand, I drove up to Lincoln for my weekend with Tim.
The plan was to simply get a brief taste of the three major components of Tim’s course, with the mindset of being a pilot who is interested in owning a Pitts or Christian Eagle. I would fly 3 flights in the Pitts and get and introduction to Unusual Attitude Recovery, Spin Recovery, and Aerobatics, with each flight laying the fundamentals for the following. Normally, each of these subjects would warrant 3-5 flights each, ensuring proper grasp of the fundamentals before moving on, but I wanted to get a feel of it all.
As I walked into the green hangar, the red and white S-2B sat calmly but looked like it was itching to jump in the air and let its’ prop take a bite of the sky. With a warm smile and hearty handshake, Tim welcomed me in. After a few minutes of small talk, it was time to get down to business. With the weather clearing up, we wanted to get up in the air as soon as possible.
First flight of the day was an introduction to Unusual Attitude Recovery. Unusual attitudes are when the aircraft is in anything other than straight and level flight. Depending on the degree of the disparity, the application of recovery will vary drastically. The two basics that I was going to be introduced to was a “nose high recovery” where my nose is pointed nearly straight up and in a banking turn where I would be climbing rapidly and losing airspeed and setting myself up for a potential spin. And in the other situation, we would focus on a “nose low recovery” where the nose of my aircraft would be in a dive, quickly gaining airspeed and approaching the never exceed speed (Vne)of the aircraft and the ground.
As I listened to Tim walk me through the two scenarios, he broke it down into the basic elements where I could understand why we were doing each maneuver. I will admit that it was a lot of information to take in, but using the models and explaining how we were utilizing the lift vectors to our advantage, I felt good to go.
So we pulled out the plane and I jumped into the front seat to get strapped in. First I had to strap on the parachute’s chest strap, two leg straps, then the 5 point harness (two over the shoulder, two across the lap, and one in between your legs) and finally one more lap belt for good measure. Oddly the tighter the straps, the safer I felt. With a roar the engine came to life. Before I knew it, we were roaring down the runway and leapt skyward.
The benefit of flying out of quiet Lincoln, was that we at our practice area within minutes. A few quick safety checks and clearing turns and it was time to get unusual! For each maneuver for the weekend, Tim would first demonstrate it, then hand me the stick and I would do it. Easy enough right? Ohhhh nooo!
Tim put the Pitts Special into an 80 degree nose high, 25 degree bank and told me to recover. Starring ahead at nothing but blue sky, I grabbed the stick and was ready to go through my recovery checklist. With my airspeed dropping really fast, I add power so I didn’t decelerate. Then I had to roll and pull the aircraft’s nose back down to the horizon (half ground, half sky), get to the horizon, and roll out to wings level. Easy enough right? Well, that is what I was supposed to do. Here’s what actually happened.
“We were doing a nose high recovery that you (Sagar) turned into a nose low one. What I (Tim) wanted you to do was roll and pull to the horizon, and then when you got to the horizon, roll out. Instead you rolled and pulled past the horizon. Then you partially rolled out and just kept going into a spiral. I think what you did was that you kept pulling harder and harder, and somehow got the lift vector past the 90 degree point and recovered. Luckily we were at 55-5600 feet, and I was like ‘Ok, this is interesting.’ But you recovered.”
How I recovered, I have no idea. But apparently if you pull hard enough, long enough, you’ll solve anything! Just kidding! Kids, don’t try this at home. Honestly I lucked out, because I could have easily turned that into spin. But save it for the debrief. Time for the “nose low recovery.”
Once again Tim demonstrated it, and then set me up for me to try it. Pull the power back. Roll wings level, Pull aggressively and briskly. Use the lift vector. If you pull too hard you will go through the stall and mush right into the ground. If you don’t’ pull hard enough, you risk hitting the ground. Easy enough right? Well, luckily I did much better at the two nose low attitudes that Tim threw at me.
Normally unusual attitudes would be spread out over 3 flights: first with some gentle ones, second with more aggressive ones, and third would be blown aerobatic maneuvers. But as we debrief and I just focused on absorbing as much as I could with the realization that I was just scratching the surface and not trying to go after perfection. It was a good time to end for the day.