Riding to the airport, you’d think this was not the sort of day one does an aerobatic flight. A thick layer of stratocumulus choked out the sky from horizon to horizon, and although I had not gotten a weather report, it was obvious this was more than just a morning fog layer that would burn off later. The weather was changing; a front was passing through.
Still, I knew that Jeff is emboldened by past experience to give flights a go even if the weather seems marginal, as often when pushing through the three-dimensional space of clouds one finds holes or other avenues not immediately noticeable from the ground. So, I pressed on to the clubhouse, ending up uncharacteristically a few minutes late, and thus finding Jeff waiting patiently behind the front desk.
I dispatched the Citabria but Jim, the club’s awkwardly cautious owner, was eager to point out that the bird had only 1.2 tach hours left before it was due for its hundred-hour check. Jeff quickly assured Jim that he was aware, and that he would have the plane back at Oakland Aircraft Maintenance before the tach rolled over.
Outside the clubhouse and on the way to the hangar, Jeff ran the math aloud to ensure he could make good on his hasty promise. “It could end up that we take 0.4 hours to get there and another 0.4 to get back,” he said, warning me that today’s lesson could be short. Honestly, I wasn’t so dismayed — the aerobatic flights are typically better when they’re shorter, and though I dare not admit it to Jeff, I had a knot in my stomach at the time.
Preflighting the Citabria, Jeff gently but firmly urged me to be expedient (but certainly not careless) in my duties. At first I thought he was chasing the weather, but he assured me that while there was forecast a chance of a rainstorm, the main concern is getting the airplane back before it was too late. I was a little confused as to why this meant I had to expedite my preflight, as the tachometer only runs when the engine is turning, but I didn’t wonder aloud.
Jeff was obviously extremely eager to get my checkout finished today. We had missed the previous two lessons, the first because I wasn’t feeling perfectly well and didn’t want to risk a flight that tends to be hard on the human body, and the second because one of the parachutes unexpectedly partially deployed. Because of that I was extra-careful to treat the parachutes gingerly, moving them around like live bombs.
I asked if we’d be going to Mt. Diablo, as oftentimes the East Bay is clear when clouds blanket the Bay and our alternate training spot, San Pablo Bay. He quickly assured me that he had gotten a weather briefing and this weather is blanketing the entire Bay Area — this was not just coastal fog. Despite that, however, the best bet was still to survey the Mt. Diablo area looking for a clear spot to safely perform stunts.
Jeff had also brought his video camera this time, intent on filming me in the aerial dance. We had a brief discussion about his progress in learning the virtual ropes of ArmA II during the punctual preflight, then brought the plane out of the hangar and prepped it for taxi. Jeff left the hangar doors unlocked, knowing that we’d be delayed by the imperative that the plane be returned to Oakland Aircraft Maintenance.
The wind typically favors the 27 runways, but today it was approaching unusually from the east (another omen of changing weather to come), so ground had us taxi to the opposite runway, 9R, which was fortuitously right nearby the Citabria’s hangar. Jeff was still in his hurried state so he handled the radio, the taxiing and the runup, leaving me to watch the dials. All the while I nursed the knot in my stomach, worrying intensely that I had eaten something bad and would find out in the air.
At the hold-short line, tower had us wait a good five minutes while a timid and confused airport worker bungled his way across the runway. Jeff, frustrated with the tachometer slowly clicking up the time, had me shut off the engine while we waited. Tower finally piped through with the clearance, I fired off the engine, and Jeff took the runway with a rolling start, already almost at takeoff speed by the time the plane finished its turn onto the runway.
The Citabria leapt easily into the air under Jeff’s control, and right about when I started to wonder if he was just flying because he likes to fly, he finally relinquished control of the vehicle to me. He told me to start my turn to Mt. Diablo at any time, and feeling like turns are always more fun at lower altitudes, I went ahead and began my turn immediately, banking over the rows of parked planes at KaiserAir 200 feet below me.
I picked out the very tip of the peak of Mt. Diablo over the East Bay Hills, and honed in on it. Jeff gently tapped the shoulder in the direction he wanted me to look (a habit of his), and I found his finger pointing towards a quarry to the left of the mountain.
“See the dug-out part of the hill? Head there. It should put us on a course for Mt. Diablo.” I was confused, but decided to heed his advice. As the plane continued to climb we saw more and more of the earth behind the hills, until Mt. Diablo became obvious to Jeff. “Oh, guess we were a little off. Turn right about 30 degrees,” which I did, putting me back on my original course. Oh well.
Past 4,000 feet we started to breach the first cloud layer, a scattered assortment of cumulus clouds that denied us large swaths of the East Bay as practice sites. Above us the second layer, a thicker broken layer at 6,000 feet, put a ceiling on how high our aerobatics would be.
Jeff had me do gentle banks from time to time as he scoped out potential holes. We found what we thought was a promising spot, but Jeff had me check the VOR, only to reveal that we were too close to an airway. As we passed abeam a giant but benign cumulus, its form gave way to reveal an ideal spot: A hole in the clouds above uninhabited farmland, sufficiently far from controlled airspace — exactly what we needed. Jeff instructed me to complete my climb at a safe altitude, and then we’d jump right into the training.
“I figure you know what you’re doing, and you’re a skilled aerobatic pilot,” — I didn’t believe him, but complement accepted — “so let’s jump right into routines. Let’s see…” he thumbed his mind for a good routine. “How about … a left hammerhead, followed by an aileron roll, then a snap roll, then a split-S.”
It was a very similar routine to one I had done the previous lesson, but because of the Citabria’s underpowered engine, all of our routines shared a good deal of similarity. You start with the faster maneuvers then move on to the slower ones as you use up your energy.
As he listed off the maneuvers I began my clearing turns and chose a line to use as my reference. “When you’re ready, Captain,” he said (as he always does), and that was my cue to begin.
I pitched the nose forward and reduced power back, calling out the airspeeds as I passed each ten-mile-per-hour tick.
“One-twenty … one-thirty … one-forty!” I looked at my left wing and pulled briskly back on the stick. The plane began a gut-wrenching pitch to ninety-degrees vertical. I mistakenly brought the power out, and Jeff was quick to correct.
“Full power!” I reversed my mistake. “Threetwoone right rudder left aileron!” Jeff’s countdown was quick, and I stuck my hands and feet in opposite directions. The plane flopped a little on its reversal, but I was able to keep mostly smooth. I was now looking directly at the ground, watching the airspeed indicator for 120.
At 120 miles per hour I began my pitch up to 30°, then immediately added full left rudder and aileron to commence the aileron roll. When the plane was inverted I added a touch of forward stick pressure to keep the nose on the horizon, and followed through to level.
“Snap roll, you’re looking for 85,” Jeff ordered. I pulled up until I captured 85 miles per hour. “OK, break it!” Following his orders, I pulled the stick the last inch to my gut in a fast flick, beginning the stall. At the moment of the stall I added left rudder, and the plane began its autorotation. Halfway through the first rotation I began my recovery procedure, neutralizing the controls and applying opposite rudder, and the plane recovered almost right on target horizontal with the horizon.
“Split-S now, 80!” I was already at 80 so I began my aileron roll, aborting it halfway through and pulling sharply back to dive over into level flight in the other direction.
“Whoooo!” Jeff exclaimed. “That was awesome!” Aerobatic flight always gets him excited. “Resume your climb and let’s figure out what you’ll do next.” As I climbed and repositioned myself for the next routine, he built up the string of maneuvers.
“How are we doing on the tach?” It was a frequent question. Jeff was watching the tach time to make sure we had enough left to get back home before the limit was reached. “We probably have time for one more routine, and that’s it.” Short and sweet.
“Let’s start with a cuban eight — a full cuban eight — then a barrel roll, and a spin.” The routine was only three maneuvers, but two of the three were notorious for making me feel sick. He was trying to push me a bit in our short lesson. “Climb a bit and then go when you’re ready.”
After reaching 6,000, I commenced the maneuver, diving down for speed again and counting off the tens. At 145 miles per hour, I pitched up sharply, this time bringing the airplane around the vertical until I was inverted and pointing 45° down, at which point I commenced a half aileron-roll to return to wings-level.
“145 and do it again!” I watched the speed increase and at 145, I did the same thing again, completing the full cuban eight. Upon returning to wings level, I abruptly stopped.
“I forgot which maneuver came next,” I admitted sheepishly. Jeff sighed, reminded me of the routine, then had me climb and do it again. This time, he was sure to call out each maneuver in the routine.
I did the full cuban eight a second time, this time prepared to enter the barrel roll when it completed. Upon returning to wings-level I quickly sighted a landmark off my left wing — the Clifton Court Forebay — and used it as a reference for the barrel roll. “Tighter, more aileron, more rudder,” Jeff corrected me as I worked through the maneuver, bringing the plane in a wide circling loop.
“OK, pitch up, one-rotation spin.” Jeff continued to remind me of the routine. I pitched the nose up sharply and watched the airspeed dial wind down. When it dropped below the green arc I broke into the stall with a quick pull of the stick, shoved the rudder to its stop, and watched as the plane dipped down and began to spiral earthward.
“One-half … one … recover!” I was already on the recovery routine, regaining control of the aircraft right as it finished its first rotation. I restored straight and level flight and we both exhaled.
“Awesome, excellent routine. I hope it looks good on camera — it’s hard to hold it steady when you’re pulling G’s. And we still have some time left on the tach.”
We flew back under very low power, inching towards Oakland at 85 miles per hour, hoping to conserve tach time. The languorous pace allowed me much time to discuss my future as an aerobatic pilot with Jeff.
“This is where you have to put your ‘commercial pilot’ skills to bear. I always take passengers up and do a few easy maneuvers at first to make sure they can handle it. I don’t get into the routines unless they really want to. That’s where the hammerhead and aileron roll are useful — they’re visually compelling but easy on the stomach. I wouldn’t take them up and do a bunch of spins right off; you don’t want to clean this airplane.
“Spins are more of a ‘watch this’ maneuver. Those are the two most dangerous words in aviation: ‘watch this.’
“If one of your guys gets sick, I usually tell them to just look out the window at 45°, where you get the widest view. Just stare at the horizon. It’s important that you be a perfect pilot when they’re recovering. Hold it steady, rock steady. Not even the little banks and turns.”
I admitted to him that I had had a stomach ache, “but apparently it can go both ways. I had a stomach ache, and I was a little concerned, but after the first routine it was gone.” I found it amusing that aerobatic flight would cure an upset stomach.
Approaching Oakland Jeff debated among which of the different runways to land on. He had debated landing 33 for a while, despite the tailwind, to put us right next to the Old T’s (where OAM is) after the rollout. He informed me that if we were to land with the tailwind, he should do the landing. Sure, it might be because he has more experience, but of course there is his strong desire to fly the plane now and then.
Ultimately he settled on landing 15, the opposite direction, with the headwind. I had not yet had the pleasure of landing on this runway. Tower gave us our clearance to land on 15, and I studied the layout of the field as we got closer, trying to ensure I was heading for the correct runway.=
Once I was positive I was on base for 15 and not another runway, I pulled the power out and let the airplane sink. Jeff had the camera out again.
“Make it a good landing,” he encouraged me for the camera. I was tempted to make small adjustments to my descent rate as the runway came closer, but I decided to just trust my instincts and let the plane fly itself down to the numbers.
As it turns out my instincts were dead on. Without any corrective input I had set up a perfect initial glide path, and the Citabria whisked past the start of the runway inches above the ground. I needed only add a touch of power to round out the wheel landing, setting the plane down gently on the runway. Admittedly, I was right of the centerline, and keenly aware of the camera behind me, I worked diligently to regain the center and make it look good.
We had told tower we wanted to taxi to OAM, but of course we had completely forgotten the need to fuel the plane first, so we amended our request and asked to go to Kaiser. At Kaiser I shut down the plane and secured it against the increasing winds. Jeff compared the departure and arrival ATIS and noted the pressure and temperature were dropping, something I remarked is “never good.”
Rodrigo was at Kaiser with a student pilot; he dropped by and Jeff shared the video he took with Rodrigo. Jeff keenly chose the rather benign video of me landing the plane, something Rodrigo is probably more comfortable with than aerobatic flight. At any rate, he seemed satisfied with my performance. I worked to give him no reason to doubt that I was still a proficient taildragger pilot, locking the controls and chocking the wheels just like he taught me. I even made a show of checking the fuel caps to make sure they were secure.
“Rodrigo should work for the FAA,” Jeff said, casting light on their different approaches to safety as instructors. It’s a comment I think Jeff intended to be mildly derisive, but one that Rodrigo would probably take as a complement.
Jeff was ready to explain to me how to taxi to the Old T’s, but I reminded him that my “alma mater” of sorts was Alameda Aero Club right next door. I therefore had no trouble navigating to the other side of the airport, where I enjoyed a little nostalgia as I taxiied the Citabria past the aircraft I learned to fly in. Oh, how far I’ve come…
…and how far there is yet to go.