Rich Stowell

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Rich Stowell grew up near the airport at Sussex, N.J., watching his neighbors Leo Loudenslager, Betty Stewart and other aerobatic champions. He had a dream to fly, and when his career path landed him three floors underground in a room full of drafting tables, he chucked mechanical engineering to pursue his dream. Now he teaches aerobatic and emergency maneuvers in Santa Paula, Calif., just northwest of L.A. In this month's Profile Rich talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about aerobatic competition and instruction, the correct way to teach spin training, and offers suggestions for pushing your own envelope.

Rich StowellRich Stowell was born December 24, 1957, in Newton, N. J. He grew up near Sussex, N. J., watching his neighbors Leo Loudenslager, Betty Stewart and other aerobatic champions performing their airshow routines. He wanted to fly and took enough instruction to solo. His parents didn't exactly disapprove, but they vectored Rich back onto a more traditional career path. He got a degree in mechanical engineering and a job designing ventilation systems for office buildings. For two years he worked in an office three floors underground on Park Avenue in New York City, then he saw the light. He took that job and shoved it all the way to Florida, where he flew every day until he had a private certificate. That was just the beginning.

Rich went back to New Jersey for aerobatic training, which was always part of his plan. Eventually his job - which he kept strictly to support his flying habit — shoved back, sending him to Los Angeles, which allowed weekend visits to nearby Santa Paula, Calif., where he now teaches. In the late '80s Rich developed a syllabus for an aerobatic instruction program, which has evolved into the Emergency Maneuver Training — EMT® — program. EMT® teaches pilots how to handle unusual attitudes, stall/spin conditions and emergency and loss-of-control conditions. Working out of CP Aviation in Santa Paula, Rich stays booked year-round with students from all over the U.S., Japan and Europe. Rich has written two flight training books and has produced and hosted three educational flight training videos. He's a regular contributor to Flight Training magazine and has lectured at AirVenture Oshkosh and Sun N’ Fun.

How did you discover flying?

I grew up in northwest New Jersey, and usually when I say that people think about Philadelphia and New York City. But northwest New Jersey is full of rolling hills and trees and countryside, and Sussex airport is the local airport. When I was a teenager, Leo Loudenslager was based there with his Lazer. Because he was an icon in aerobatics, he'd attract a lot of the other popular acts and we had a great air show at this little podunk airport in New Jersey. We had folks like Jimmy Franklin, and the French Connection, who were based in New York state. We also had a lot of airline pilots who lived around the Sparta, New Jersey area, and as a teenager all of this had quite an impression on me. I hoped that someday I could do something in aviation.

My parents were fairly conservative so I was expected to finish school and get on a career path before doing anything with aviation. And that's what I did. But about two years into my career, working three floors underground on Park Avenue in New York City, commuting to Manhattan 60 miles each way, never seeing the light of day, in a room with 200 drafting tables, designing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for office buildings, I decided it was time to learn how to fly.

I took my initial lessons at Sussex airport in a Cherokee 140. I got through my initial solo there, but then work dragged me away from flying, and I was away from it for about two years after soloing. Finally it got to the point where I didn't want the corporate life, so I quit my job. My parents were living in Pompano Beach at the time. So I moved in with them, drove to Tamiami airport every day, and flew every day until I got my license. Ground school in the morning and flying in the afternoon.

Then I moved back to New Jersey to begin aerobatic training. That was really my goal. Most pilots can recall their solo as a huge event. I actually had two solos, one in New Jersey and one in Florida some time later. But those solos don't stand out in my mind because my ultimate goal was to get into aerobatics. I found a Decathlon to rent at Caldwell airport, and was training with a relatively new — at the time — aerobatic instructor named Diane Hakala. She would later go on to become the second woman U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, after Patty Wagstaff. I don't think I could have had a better introduction to the world of aerobatic flying.

What brought you to California?

I got a job offer in L.A. I really wanted to fly as much as possible and I thought the California weather would give me more opportunity to do that. So I lived near Santa Monica airport, worked in L.A. and would come to Santa Paula on weekends to fly. When I was in New Jersey packing to move to California I found a stack of FLYING magazines, and the issue on the top of the stack had a cover story about Santa Paula airport. So I knew that was a place I wanted to visit when I got out here. I fell in love with it, and started flying here regularly.

I flew my first aerobatic competition in Paso Robles in a Decathlon. At the time the International Aerobatic Club didn't have a Basic category in aerobatic competition. Sportsman was the entry level. But even at the Sportsman category you're competing with airline pilots and fighter pilots and Pitts pilots and here I am with my Decathlon and about 100 hours and my knees knocking. I was scared to death. I remember sitting in the airplane and the Starter telling me to fire it up, and I couldn't even remember how to start the airplane. But I got through the three flights, and I didn't come in last! I finished 11th out of 13, and, getting back to soloing, that contest is what I vividly remember as my first real solo. After that I competed in contests at Delano, Taft, and Borrego Springs, and just being around the competitions and the pilots taught me a lot about flying.

Rich Stowell Flying is the Pitts!

When did you begin teaching?

In 1987 the school I was renting the Decathlon from was bought out by Clay Phelps, who then started CP Aviation. We had known one another and we were about the same age. Clay was born and raised on the field, and the building we're in was the original FBO started by Clay's father back in the '30s. The previous flight school, though, had no formal aerobatic training program. Of course there were plenty of 'aerobatic lessons' being given, but not a formal system with a syllabus. Clay also acquired Santa Paula's aerobatic school - which was called the Pitts Stop - from K. D. Johnson around the same time. We set about developing a syllabus, using the Pitts Stop courses as a guideline. I think it was helpful that I had just gone through primary training and it was fresh in my mind what I wished I had learned about flying during the primary training and how aerobatic training could improve a pilot's overall skills.

I had been working on other ratings at the time—instrument, commercial, CFI. But my relationship with CP Aviation and Santa Paula airport quickly evolved to the point where one day late in 1987 I called the workplace in L.A. to tell them that I wouldn't be in that day, or the next day, or any day after that. I didn't know if I'd enjoy teaching aerobatics, or if I'd be any good at it, or if I'd be able to earn a living at it. That was 1987 and I haven't had to get a real job since!

Did you ever get the chance to tell Leo Loudenslager how he had inspired you?

Sadly, no. I always felt intimidated to talk to someone of that stature in aviation. I had seen him at IAC events, and had continued to watch him fly air shows, but I never did have a one-on-one talk with him. Betty Stewart was also an inspiration to me and I recently did get an opportunity to tell her so.

Who comes to the school? Are most of your aerobatic students from southern California?

No. About 70% are from out of state. There are a lot of aerobatic schools in California and Florida, but not a lot in between. So a lot of pilots from the middle of the country decide to take their vacation out here and work the training into their schedules. For example, my two students today; one is from Texas and the other is from Washington. It's a good spot to train. Our practice area is very close. It's an uncontrolled field, so we can fire up, taxi out and go, without a lot of waiting. We do four flights per EMT® Module — two a day — roughly 45 minutes each flight. Two flights per day is about the saturation level for learning this stuff.

There are three Modules in the syllabus. Some people like to train over six consecutive days, and other people like to spread it out. We also customize the training, and mix and match airplanes. For instance, some people bring their own plane. We then do whatever lessons are appropriate in their airplane, and move to the aerobatic plane for the other work.

And most students, by making the commitment to come here, are open to and enthused about the learning process and they typically do very well with the training. A lot of the physiological discomfort that some students have with the exercises is really psychologically driven. Once they become comfortable with the learning process, and they get used to the maneuvers, they progress quite rapidly. I've found that if they can get though the first lesson, we can do everything else after that without any problems. And in the first lesson we keep it simple — stalls, slow flight, turns, a couple of coordination exercises — things they already know how to do - but now in a different environment, and maybe a different airplane from what they're used to.

After the training, I've found that most students are actually more comfortable with spins than with stalls. I think that's because a lot of primary flight instructors are nervous about stalls themselves, and the students pick up on that.

Rich Stowell As a young(er) aerobatic instructor!
Photo by Jane Garvey
(Belvoir's ... not the other one)

Do you think that stalls are being taught improperly?

Pilots are goal-oriented people in general and you see that in the training process. "How soon did you solo?" "When did you get your license?" "When this" and "when that?" If you're going to be in aviation for the long term, it shouldn't matter if somebody is sitting next to you for ten hours or a hundred hours. So I think students and instructors should take more of a long-term, patient attitude, and focus on the learning instead of the hours. I think more useful learning would take place. The worst thing we can do is to hurry along and force the issue. We run the risk that the student will get frustrated and quit. Then we lose somebody who could have been in aviation for life.

It's also important to practice the art of slow flight. Learning to become more comfortable with the stall and the recovery. For aerobatic pilots the stall is something that interferes with us trying to finish a loop or some other maneuver. You have to deal with the stall and continue with the aerobatic maneuver, whereas in primary training the stall is a distinct and separate event. But in the typical accident scenario just like in aerobatics, the accidental stall is appears during some other intended maneuver or event, like takeoff.

The FAA says we spend about 83% of our time in the cruise and descent phase of flight, but only about 20% of the accidents occur there. We spend 6% of our flight time in takeoff, initial climb, approach to landing and landing, but nearly 60% of the accidents occur there. And there are other stall-related problems, too. If a pilot's uncomfortable with stalls, for example, he may simply fly faster. On a shorter runway the extra speed may cause the pilot to overrun. Yet the underlying problem is really stall-related.

So I think it would help to spend more time on stalls and slow flight. Also, we generally teach two kinds of stalls — power off and power on. But accidental stalls don't always happen at those extremes. I think it's a good idea to teach partial-power stalls, too, and gradually build up to a full-power departure stall. I think moving up the stall ladder gradually gives the pilot a chance to catch up with the process, to see what's happening, and it isn't as intimidating as moving from one extreme to the other.

Most instructors are prepping for the practical test. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of good instructors who do a lot of good things above and beyond that, but it goes back to that goal-orientation thing. 'This is the checklist. These items are what determine whether you get a ticket or not.' So naturally those are the items of focus during the training. But there are things around the focus that we can do to make pilots safer.

The art of slipping is one example, and something else pilots can and should practice. In the EMT® Program we dedicate one whole flight to slipping. I've discovered that a lot of pilots get their slip training the day before their checkride, when the instructor remembers that he hasn't shown it yet, and that's about all the exposure the student gets to it. But if you have a control jam, you may need to slip to keep control of the airplane. We do stalls during the slip, and then return to the airport for a few slips to landing.

Where is the aerobatic training area for Santa Paula?

We fly in the valley between the airport and the Fillmore VOR. The airspace above the valley is waivered for aerobatics, so we have to be in that valley. Because of the airways, terrain, and other nearby airspace, we can't just go anywhere we want to do our training.

Rich Stowell Flying inverted during a formation photo shoot
Photo by P. Gregory Smith

Where do the students from Van Nuys and Burbank practice?

They're in the same valley but further east, toward Magic Mountain and the I-5 freeway. We use 122.85 mostly to announce arrival and departure from the practice area, but it's a busy airspace and we encourage all pilots transitioning the area to call on 122.85 to see if anybody's using the aerobatic area. It's see and avoid. And because you can use this valley to fly between the coast and the desert without talking to ATC, we sometimes see a lot of traffic passing through.

Santa Paula itself is an interesting airport. It's a 2,600-foot strip, the hangars are pushed up close to the runway, and on the weekends you'll have airplanes taxiing on both sides of the runway. The afternoon winds can kick up to 15 knots, which can be a handful in a tailwheel airplane. You have to line your airplane up and keep it lined up and bring it right down the chute. That's actually a benefit, by the way, of the training. You get to log some tailwheel time as part of the experience.

Operating in the pattern here is different for a pilot from, say, Kansas, who's used to being able to see forever, with nothing protruding above the horizon line. Here we fly the pattern sometimes pointed right at the mountains, other times parallel but seemingly close to them. But if you cross over the ridge and go to Camarillo airport, you've suddenly got a 10,000-foot strip in the middle of flat, agricultural ground.

Should spin training be part of primary or commercial training?

That question is debated all the time on the newsgroups and elsewhere. There are really two issues. One, is spin training beneficial, and two, is it practical to reintroduce it into the training curriculum? I think it is beneficial if we define spin training as training that's integrated with typical accident scenarios, and that involves not just intentional one-turn spins left and right, but also the scenarios that lead to the spin, and unusual attitude spins. If the pilot has some tangible idea of the consequences, not only of spinning airplanes that aren't approved, but also of not being precise with the control inputs during the recovery sequence, then the answer is yes, spin training is beneficial. But just going out and doing one-turn left and one-turn right spins, completely divorced from how they relate to a skidding base-to-final turn, for example, is of no real benefit in the end. The FAA funded their own study back in 1976 which concluded that spin training — as I've loosely defined it — is beneficial in reducing the number of inadvertent spins. Why no one talks about that anymore I'm not sure.

So I'd say if you properly define spin training, it is beneficial, but yet it's not practical to reintroduce it across the board without putting it in context. Today's flight instructors are really not capable of teaching spins. In a study published in 1993 that evaluated the stall/spin awareness of flight instructors, 98% of the respondents said that their formal spin training consisted of zero ground instruction and a total of one spin to the left and one to the right. By comparison, we'd say it would be ludicrous for a CFI to become a CFII with no formal ground instruction in instrument flight, and a total of just two instrument approaches. The spin environment is just as psychologically, aerodynamically and tactically demanding as the instrument environment. You can't afford to make mistakes in either one. Unfortunately, flight instructors generally are not qualified to teach spin training as I've defined it. Then you have to tackle the issue of suitable spin training platforms—there just aren't that many available on most flight lines. Then you get into insurance and airspace issues, and as a whole, it's not practical. There aren't a lot of places, especially in southern California, where you can do aerobatics without a waiver, either. And getting to areas where spins and aerobatics could be done legally might impose undue hardship on some flight schools.

But, there's certainly nothing wrong with encouraging, without requiring — and the FAA is starting to recognize this as well — that a pilot should take a three- or five-hour spin training course. Overall, that's not a lot of training time, but you'll learn a lot even in that short time.

Do you have students from outside the U.S.?

I train a lot of Swiss pilots. They're teenagers. I train them before they go into the Swiss military. And I've trained a a lot of Japanese students. I've trained so many Japanese students that groups of them have brought me to Japan to fly with them using their airplanes. Some of my students in Japan have just translated my EMT® book into Japanese.

How friendly is the Japanese government towards aerobatic instruction?

It's very restrictive. Also very expensive, which is why they come here. The flying club that I dealt with in Kumamoto, in southern Japan, was great. The controllers were great, mixing in a four-seat aerobatic-capable airplane with 747s and other large jets. One day we were grounded because a typhoon was coming through, so the flying club got a tour of the ATC facility. The controllers wanted to learn as much English as they could from me, so it was fun trying to explain certain phrases to them.

I also got to fly a couple of times in Indonesia, which is another story. There's virtually no GA in the country. Its area is huge, there are about 250 million people, and at the time there was just one aerobatic airplane in the country, which belonged to the son-in-law of the President of Indonesia. I was there to do an air show. All the airports are controlled and I practiced out of an airport in the middle of nowhere that had one scheduled flight a day. I was there alone, except for Indonesian mechanics. I would go flying each day without filing the required flight plan, and I'd fly by the tower with the smoke on and ask the controller how the maneuvers looked. It was ironic that in a country which stifled general aviation that, because of the political connections surrounding my being there, I had absolute flying freedom.

How do you handle language issues when you're instructing?

Language usually isn't too much of a problem with the foreign students. When things turn to worms in the cockpit, nobody understands anything anyway. Even American students sometimes have trouble telling left from right. What I sometimes do with foreign students is to ask them to give me, phonetically, some key words in their language, then I tape the list to the back of their seat while we're flying. When we're upside down it's easier for me in the back seat to work in their language using the list than it is for them to try to translate English into their own language.

As far as my students here, most of the people I fly with are between 25 and 50. The typical GA pilot. In between ratings. A little nervous about stalls and spins. About two weeks ago a fellow came in who first started flying in 1939. He said he wanted to fly safer. I said, "You've been flying every year for 60 years, so you must be doing something right — maybe you ought to be instructing me." His attitude — always willing to learn — is probably why he's had such a long and active flying career. A while back I flew with a 76-year-old woman, a Santa Barbara Ninety-Nine, who had flown her Archer across the Atlantic to Germany. She had flown that Archer all over the place.

b over field Going vertical in the Pitts for an L.A. Times article

Short of taking a course, what can pilots do by themselves to become more proficient?

If you're on an extended cross-country, where you've been sitting for a couple of hours, practice slow flight before you get to the airport. This is particularly true when ferrying aerobatic airplanes, where your legs and arms can get stiff. Do some steep turns to loosen up your arms and legs a little. You're going to have to be active in the pattern, so get ready for it before you get there. And why not do a couple of takeoffs and landings at your destination to get the hang of the new airport?

Try practicing normal power-off stalls without adding power during the recovery as well. Pretend you're a glider. Break the stall and recover in a wings-level glide, without rushing to add power.

You should do this one with an instructor before you try it alone, but you can actually do an entire stall just looking out at the wing tip. From entry to break to recovery. When you can do that, next try the whole stall process with your eyes closed, recovering just by feel — you definitely want an instructor along for this one.

When you encounter an accidental stall, who knows where you're going to be looking. You might be checking a chart, or looking under the panel, so it's good to be able to react and to recover instinctively, just using feel. Feel the controls, if they're tight, you have energy that you can use. If they're loose, you don't have any energy, so you have to do something to get energy.

Being this close to LA you must get some celebrity pilots. Want to name drop a little?

Pat Harrington — who played Schneider on "One Day at a Time" — took the course. He flew a P-210 and was able to get an insurance break from taking the course. Lorenzo Lamas did the whole aerobatic course. He flies a Seneca V. While I was doing a spin training class in Colorado, I flew an abbreviated course with Rick Schroeder. So, yeah, we get celebrities in here from time to time.

Are you doing any competitive flying now?

That's on the back burner for now. Since I started instructing full-time I've been concentrating on that. Right now I'm plane-less, but I've trained a lot of pilots who are flying competitions. I initially trained Vickie Cruse — her first high-performance airplane was a Christen Eagle. It's still based here, but she now owns one of the Zivko Edge 540s with 345 horsepower. She's going to the U.S. Nationals in September to fly Advanced. A couple of years ago she was the Sportsman U.S. National Champion. So right now I'm watching former students compete and enjoy their airplanes, but I would like to return to competition myself someday.

Any advice for pilots looking at flight instruction as a career?

You probably won't get rich as a CFI, but I know you can earn a living at it if you're dedicated to it as a profession. That's what NAFI is all about — elevating instructing as a profession while making a living at it. But also look at the role models who show what's possible as a dedicated flight instructor — John and Martha King, Bill Kershner, Rod Machado — all have developed their reputations and earned decent livings as flight instructors.

My books and videos certainly help out in this regard. At the same time, I never would have guessed that from my mechanical engineering background I'd end up flight instructing, publishing my own books and owning my own video series. And yet I've never taught primary flight training! I've only taught tailwheel transitions, spin training, emergency maneuver training, and aerobatic training. I've been able to find my niche, and that's about all any of us can ask for.

Rich Stowell's books and videos are available at the Emergency Maneuver Training® website

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.