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Aeros with Alan – Opening your Personal Flight EnvelopeSPRING is a wonderful season because it offers a new start. No matter what your previous thoughts were, Spring always encourages the examination of new options. It is the ideal time to consider exactly what you want to achieve with your flying during the coming summer.
Most of you reading this article will be pilots. As an audience, you will have immensely different levels of experience and expertise in handling an aeroplane. You will also, therefore, have different experience of aerobatics. From none at all to... well, maybe even more than me.
The aim of this article is to put aerobatic flying into a personal development context and then to try to dispel some regular myths about what is actually involved in aerobatic competition flying.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
'Pushing the Envelope' is a ghastly term, full of drama but completely without meaning. An 'envelope' has a completely different meaning to different people. For some, it is simply about stamps and addresses, while for others it conjures up pictures of epic recklessness. A good realisation of the term would be to discover your postman experimenting with completely untried and life-threatening ways of delivering your mail. Let your imagination go wild on this one.
In flying terms, though, we all think we understand about 'the envelope', but I'm not sure we all agree.
Any good Flight Manual or Operating Handbook will define the aircraft's flight envelope in terms of speed and strength limitations. However, an aeroplane can do nothing except occupy space-time in a static sense until a pilot gets into it. For aviation to take place, it is necessary to have a pilot-machine combination and for this reason alone the definition of 'the envelope' becomes somewhat meaningless.
Safe flying depends not only on staying within the aircraft's published flight envelope, but within the flight envelope of the pilot-machine as a bio-technical system. This a completely different water boiler of aquatic life-forms.
The flight envelope that is critical for you, as an individual, is not that of the aircraft but that of yourself, defined by your particular combination of skill and experience. The thing is, only you know what this is. And if you are not objective about assessing its limits, you are headed for some scary moments.
By far the best way to become a safer pilot is to undertake tasks that expand the dimensions of your own Personal Flight Envelope (PFE).
Fly more types of aircraft, hopefully some radically different in some respect from a basic training aircraft. Fly faster or slower than 'normal'. Climb or descend at different speeds.
Do all these things with the help of someone who already has them well within his own PFE. Take care to remain within the aircraft's own published envelope.
Expanding your PFE in this way is critical to your personal development as an aviator, and personal development is the key to a long and happy flying career. Flying the same aircraft to the same destinations for the same dirty weekend is stifling and one of the main reasons why ex-PPL holders buy a boat instead.
The best way to continue this personal development is with, or under the close guidance of, an instructor experienced in such arcane matters.
It is a fact of the current flight training industry that many flying instructors have themselves a very restricted PFE and are thus unable to help. Hence the need for the motivated would-be aviator to seek help from the older and more experienced in the aviation fraternity. Fortunately, there are still such people about if you look for them.
With the right guidance, you can expand your PFE until it matches that published for the aircraft to which you have current access. Thereafter, 'pushing the envelope' further is a no-no until you can find an aeroplane with a broader spectrum of capabilities. Then you can start again until the limits of this new machine are reached.
Developing as an aviator is a bit like being a hermit crab. You must keep discarding one shell for another, larger one to continue to develop.
In my own development, since I first learned to fly in 1967, I can recount the following progression: Cessna 150, Chipmunk, CAP-10, Pitts Special, Yak-55, Sukhoi-26, CAP-232. These are all aerobatic types, of course.
Interspersed with these I could add a short multi-engine section, Aztec, Chieftain and Twin Otter to illustrate how things might go at the start of a commercial career.
For both the private and the commercial pilot, the most satisfying and long-lasting area of personal development is in the continued increase of handling skill. Other forms of aeronautical progression - heavier, more complex, worse weather, bigger airports, all eventually become mundane.
This is my motivation for an aerobatic career and it is my reasoning for encouraging all my readers to look to aviation as a personal development tool. It is my hope this will help convince those contemplating their first step along the aerobatic path that this is a good idea. Of course, you will have a lot of fun along the way as well, but fun alone will never justify the cost.
Some LOOP readers will already have some experience of aerobatics and will have developed their own PFE into a Bigger Thing as a result. If you are one of these, you will already be a respectable distance along the axis of personal development as an aviator.
The question facing you now is, "How much further can I go?", possibly followed by another question, "How will I know when I get there?"
For personal development to continue beyond casual acquaintance, within any subject, it is necessary to set goals and measure progress.
So it is with advanced aircraft handling, just as it is with business or golf. The difficulty is measuring progress. In golf, this is easy. Provided you can count strokes (or develop foolproof methods of modifying a scorecard undetected) you can measure progress.
In business it is more difficult. What do you count? Cash, numbers of staff, your happiness, their happiness? Some of these are less definable than
In aerobatic flying there are two ways to determine progress: subjectively from within the aircraft, and objectively from outside it. However, you cannot fly the aircraft and be outside it at the same time.
This leads into my next section which aims to explain the difference between 'aerobatics' and 'competition aerobatics.
'Aerobatics', as taught and flown by the majority, is viewed and critiqued from within the aircraft, either by the sole occupant or by both occupants in the case of an instructional sortie.
All feedback is predicated on what can be observed from within the aeroplane. The height at which the manoeuvres are flown does not matter, so long as the height is a safe one.
For many, the higher the better. At height, the effect of the wind in moving the aircraft relative to the ground is neither relevant nor discernible and can be ignored.
Similarly, other matters are affected by the internalised viewpoint. Definitions of manoeuvres must be based on parameters actually measurable from within. A simple loop, for example, may be defined as having a constant rate of pitch throughout. This can be measured, at least to a good approximation, by eye.
So the 'Aerobatic' pilot is encased in a world of self-set criteria and subjective assessment. Even this, eventually, can become repetitive, self-serving and mundane. Even self-deluding.
'Competition Aerobatics' is different primarily in one basic respect, and this has nothing to do with flying more aggressively, pulling more G, or anything to do with handling of the aircraft.
The difference is that the pilot has to make the mental leap from flying solely by reference to what he sees from inside the cockpit to understanding what someone else will be seeing from a pre-determined point on the ground.
The same can also be said of the difference between 'Aerobatics' and 'Display Aerobatics, and this explains why good competition pilots also make the best display pilots.
In competition aerobatics, a loop has to appear circular to someone on the ground, with two significant implications for the competition pilot. First, the loop must be placed geometrically at a spot and at a height where its roundness might be observed. Second, the effects of the wind and changing airspeed will dictate something of a different target from the constant rate of pitch.
GOALS AND FEEDBACK
The aims of competition flying therefore are simple: to define and structure the setting of goals, and to provide objective observational feedback on each pilot's ability to attain these goals.
This is an exceptionally good method, probably the only method, of seeking and maintaining a lifelong process of personal development in aviation. It is the only thing that is continually changing, setting new targets and rewarding achievement.
STARTING IS EASY
Most pilots take their first steps in aerobatics via the AOPA syllabus of instruction. This is an excellent beginning and can lead almost immediately to the next step toward of becoming a true aviator - taking part in a Beginners' event organised by the British Aerobatic Association (BAeA).
The end result of the AOPA course is the ability to fly a basic 5-figure aerobatic sequence at a safe height. The starting requirement of a competition aerobatic career is the ability to fly a basic 5-figure aerobatic sequence not below 1500 feet AGL. See a connection? The difference is the base height, and 'working down' to 1500 feet can be achieved with just a little more effort.
Objective feedback on your flying is not something you should fear, even if you are an instructor.
Airline pilots do sim checks. Military pilots do check rides. All PPLs now do a biennial flight review with an instructor. Instructors also have to renew their ratings. Feedback in all these situations is intended to be positive. So is judging and critiquing aerobatic contest flights.
The BAeA holds a number of Beginners' events throughout the summer, including this year one especially aimed at aerobatic flying instructors. A quick visit to the BAeA website will let you find the location nearest you. It may be surprisingly close. Why not take that step?
Aerobatic flying meets every requirement as an exceptional personal development tool for turning pilots into aviators. Set goals, achieve them with safety, enjoyment and satisfaction.
Aerobatic contests are both social events and milestones in this personal development. They are the only objective way of measuring your skill in handling aeroplanes.
Be safe and enjoy your flying.
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