This was a dream come true and I was feeling pretty darn good. In early May, I found myself sitting in the back of an Extra 300L at the end of a runway. The aircraft was mine to play with. Fortunately, there was somebody else in the plane, with a slightly better idea of what I was getting myself into. Michael Mancuso is one of the nicest guys you will meet. He’s also one of the best pilots you’ll ever see. Mike is former Northern Light #4 and he’s flying solo this year under the sponsorship of Klein Tools. If you’ve never heard of Klein, you’re about to. Klein is making some headway as the next great aviation sponsor. For their day job, Klein makes precision tools, which are in rampant use among the CART set, and aside from bringing Mancuso’s kind of flying to center stage at numerous airshows across the country, Klein also sponsored this year’s AirVenture Cup race to Oshkosh. A lot of folks don’t understand the power of inspiration for people of all ages that comes from aviation. Klein not only "gets it," but through their sponsorship, they’re doing something special for all of us.
Mancuso, meanwhile, has been flying since before he was legal (ahem) and, aside from running his family’s flight school, that’s just about all he’s been doing for the past 15 or so years (he’s 31, now). When I met Mike, I’d seen him fly only once, at EAA AirVenture 2000. The Northern Lights team flew their Extras through tight and complex formation work, with grace, precision and mastery while tossing in some opposing solo display for the adrenaline junkies. Anyway, long before I got into the plane, I knew Mike was good. The real surprise came when, in about 12 seconds at the controls, he showed me what "good" really means. More on that in moment.
A Real Airplane
After my brief experience in the Extra 300L, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not an airplane. Aside from flight characteristics that make it feel more like some kind of anti-gravity machine, this "aircraft" also has no throttle. Instead, there’s a big lever on the left side of the cockpit that is attached to the airframe and from there extends to the center of the earth. The result is this: When you move the lever the aircraft surges forward with an acceleration that corresponds to the number of inches you moved the lever … times 6.38 x 10 to the sixth power meters (the distance from the lever’s fuselage attach-point to the center of the earth). Well, that’s my theory, anyway.
I pushed that lever about halfway and stopped. Subconsciously, I think I felt that something was severely wrong with that small amount of travel, the acceleration had already exponentially exceeded anything with which I was familiar. After gulping some fresh air, I had the nerve to push the lever to three-quarters and stopped again. This time, it was because the nose had started a subtle inquiry to the left and I needed a moment to fix that. Then, during this process of acceleration and correction, it occurred to me that all of this would be less problematic in the air, where we were clearly headed, anyway … and quite soon. Feeling a bit silly about the notion of becoming airborne with less than full power, I pushed the throttle to the stop. I should have remembered to breathe, first.
"Sorry, Did You Say Something?"
But let’s start at the beginning. When I showed up at Mancuso’s flight school, Gyroscopic Obsessions, out on Long Island, Mike sat with me and gave me a quick overview of the aircraft and our pending flight. Unbeknownst to him, this was completely useless the poor man may as well have been talking to a potted plant. See, I’ve wanted to fly a plane like the Extra 300L ever since I can remember. Like a lot of you, I failed the F-16 checkride at the first hurdle: I have slightly worse than 20/20 vision, a strong desire to control the direction of my own life … and a slight aversion to killing people. Anyway, with the idea of flying taxpayer-bought jets out of reach, I became obsessed with high-performance aerobatic aircraft. Today, I would get to fly one. The feeling was … well, just imagine that the girl you’d obsessed over all your life, the one hopelessly out of reach, just walked up to you and told you she’d loved you since the day she saw you, was sick of playing this horrible, distant charade and had to have you now and forever. Are you starting to get the idea?
They say that when the human body and mind are confronted with extreme physical or emotional stimulus, sometimes the brain chooses to shut down certain channels to prevent overload. As it turns out (for me, anyway), hearing falls into that category. I remember this much, "You flew that [Mooney] 201 in here, so you know how to deal with the prop and all that … and you’re kind of tall, so we’ll put you in the back seat." After that, I heard one or two adrenal glands burst, but that’s about it. My mind swept into some sort of dreamlike coma. I was going to fly from the back seat just like it was my airplane!?
I’d be in control. Me! My airplane! MINE MINE MINE! Fortunately, before the maniacal chant spilled from my lips into the puddle of drool at my feet, a flash of sanity hit me. I wiped my bottom lip and thought, wait … is this guy crazy? Maybe he thinks I’m somebody else! Should I tell him my total time? Wait … am I crazy? I can’t tell him that, he’d never let me fly his plane from the back seat … even without the chant!
As it turned out, none of that mattered. Mike is just that good. Besides, his mind doesn’t work that way. First off, somewhere between realizing how good he is and that he’d be in the plane, too, I failed to make the connection that there are no little problems I could produce from the back seat that he couldn’t fix from the front. By the end of the day I’d learned better. The truth is, there aren’t any big problems I could produce from either seat that Mike couldn’t see coming from far enough away to have me fix. Whatever I’d done, he could coolly talk me through it until I had us straightened up and flying right … without ever touching the stick, himself. He’s just that good. But there was something else that impressed me even more.
Mike’s learned through years of instruction that, when it comes to aerobatics, total time in any other kind of flight is relatively meaningless in relation to ability. Because of this, he casts no pre-flight judgments on your ability. He treats you with the same respect he treats, well, the air he doesn’t know what you might throw at him, but he knows (I mean really knows) the parameters of the equation and isn’t all that concerned. It’s not arrogance; it’s just true. Fool that I am, I was able to interpret this confidence as a reflection of trust in me limited, as it may have been and this was reassuring. I’m a fairly happy-go-lucky guy and that doesn’t sit too well with the more regimented instructors, some of whom have me pegged before the handshake. Mike’s demeanor was disarming. I felt at home. Standing there, I got the impression there were no preconceptions in Mike’s mind but these: You are as good as you fly and at the end of the day you will fly better. He didn’t say it, but I believed him anyway.
One Part Jet Fighter…
Just sitting there, the aircraft looks like it’s ready to leap off the earth and as we left the ground, the gravity … er, anti-gravity … of that fact kicked in, big time. First of all, there’s that whole left-side lever thing (see above). Next, the tail doesn’t come up, the airplane does. Oh, I’m sure you could push the tail feathers up if you wanted to, but why? The aircraft is up to flying speed almost instantly and the continuous pull of the prop will have you accelerating to a non-pattern-friendly speed while you’re still over the runway, unless you do something about it, quickly. So here’s what I did. We broke ground in an instant, with the stick just a bit aft of neutral. Once airborne I centered the stick, thinking we could accelerate into our climb from that angle. Mike told me to hold the climb to 110 knots or so and I thought a 15-degree angle might accomplish that. As I proceeded with that philosophy, Mike said nothing. The aircraft, on the other hand, basically called me a silly little boy.
"Look Glenn, here’s how this works; I will not hold 110 knots at full throttle without at least a 30-degree deck angle and some absurd climb rate like 2,500 fpm or so that’s with the two of you and extra fuel. No offense, just clueing you in there, sport."
Right. Thirty degrees. Through the intercom, Mike told me to set power at 24 squared, which took a bit of doing. See, the plane’s got a digital tach with single-digit resolution so about ten seconds after his request, Mike started to say something, and I had to cut him off. In my delirious little-boy bliss, the simple act of twisting the prop knob and reading the numbers had me completely spellbound, "2,387; 2,396; 2,398; 2,399 … Kewl!" Oh, it was stupid, alright but a guy like me doesn’t play with toys like that every day and this day I was one big lanky kid at FAO Schwarz.
I’ll spare you my 20-minute discourse on the electrically-actuated, adjustable rudder pedals.
…One Part Ballroom Dancer
Clearly, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile … but it’s not some twitchy little aerobatic airplane either. Yes, it responds well and immediately, but the airplane’s powerful grace is somehow translated through the controls in a way that just feels … tuned. Maneuvers (any maneuvers) require very little encouragement and the plane simply follows your every movement as if it knew in advance exactly what you were about to do. The stick forces are very light, but the ratios of movement are all comfortable move the stick a little and the world moves a little; move the stick a lot and the world moves a lot. Actually, when you first move the stick, the aircraft responds like you’re standing outside of the plane and pushing directly on the wings and tail … in outer space. Whatever you pushed on just keeps moving as fast as you pushed it, until you center the stick. Still, you have to move the stick fairly far before things go blurry and they will go blurry.
We did some formation flying and I found that the throttle had a very similar feel in the air as it did on the ground. Honestly, I was exaggerating a bit, before … but the airplane responds to the throttle almost exactly like it responds to flight control inputs. That is, when you move the throttle, the aircraft moves instantly and immediately settles into a steady new equilibrium. I was so enchanted by the power that (earlier in the day) during the first half of one loop, I found myself just letting the aircraft climb in a gentle arc. We shot up and just kept going. It was beautiful. When we were nearing vertical, and still under my soft pull, Mike called from the front to say something, but I was in a dream world. This plane was amazing. "You’re going to fall out of it at the top, just let the plane go." Well, I heard that and felt my grip loosen on the stick as we started past vertical to inverted. The nose dropped a bit to the right and the right wing was a bit low. I was beginning to think I should start paying some real attention to things when something bizarre happened. The airplane, still nose-high and inverted, simply flew out of the maneuver. I hung from the straps in awe. This was an anti-gravity machine and it was out of this world.
The Moments When Things Are Clearest…
As we flew upside down, away from the failed loop/Immelman, something really sunk in. This aircraft is nothing like the Cessnas, Pipers and Mooney I’d been flying my whole life (life having begun when I got my Private). The only real similarities were that they all had wings and an engine. But those other aircraft don’t trust you. They’re built to second-guess your every move and keep you on the straight and narrow literally. Turn the yoke in one of those planes and it all but asks "You sure about this?" Turn it more and it says "Really? This much?" Pull the nose up too high and they scream "I don’t think you want to do that!" Heck, even when they stall it feels like those planes are scared all that beeping or buzzing or whistling … not to mention the shuddering. They virtually beg you to rethink everything you do. I used to think that it was bad that training aircraft didn’t do what you told them to do, when you told them to do it. I’ve got a different opinion of that, now. These aircraft will teach you how to use the forces of flight to fly an airplane conservatively and safely. Plus, if you’re trying to get somewhere in the soup, all of these good-spouse-type habits (stability, conservatism, and security) are good qualities. But they’re also the kind of qualities that turn what could be an artistic, free-spirited machine into a horizontal elevator.
Any comments on the Extra 300L deserve a separate paragraph. This is a trusting aircraft. It is a capable plane more capable than you yet it believes in you with unwavering loyalty. You think; it does. The contract is caged in steel tube and fixed in carbon fiber. The aircraft flies like a physical manifestation of respect for your abilities which is why it helps to fly with someone deserving of that respect. I was lucky; I was flying with Mike.
…Is When They’re Spinning Around
We rolled out of my half-baked loop and lined up for entry into a hammerhead. I’ve been waiting a long time to fly one of these in a plane like this and eagerly pulled hard into the vertical. Mike called out every action the instant before my mind sought instruction. It was perfect. "Hold it, hold it, hold it. A little more… OK, keep it right there, good. Wait. Wait. This is good. Just keep it there. Eyes left. Nice. A little forward stick." Realize that all this time we’re flying straight up and it doesn’t feel like anyone has put on the brakes. The airplane was just going. A few seconds later, "Now! Full left rudder, right aileron." I kicked hard and the sky swapped places with the ground. I managed to wag our tail a little as we turned into a dart dropped from 5,000 feet and again I was caught in awe. I looked straight ahead. Yup, that was the ground alright … and that’s right where I was going. We were, once again, accelerating exponentially.
I began to wonder just how long I should stare at it the ground before doing anything. For my own sake, I needed to wait long enough to see the ground get bigger … and in the time it took to think that, it did good enough for me! But just then, a call came from the front seat. "How about a half-roll?" Apparently, Mike thought we had some time. Subconsciously, my mind ran the numbers: a half roll at 140 mph and accelerating even with less than full aileron deflection, this would take much less than a second. Fine, one half-roll, coming up! My hand pushed the stick firmly to the right, the world spun below us and we were done. I sat there just long enough to feel good about myself which probably took the better part of a nanosecond and started to pull. I suppose my eyes may have glanced toward the airspeed indicator, but all that registered was that we were still shy of the yellow arc. I knew I could pull hard enough to park the needle right where it was without hurting anything … or anyone.
When the blood returned to my eyes, I was able to see that everything outside was back to normal, but it was different, too. The horizon was back where it normally was and, somehow, that was disappointing. Oddly, seeing the earth laid out flat like, and on the bottom, didn’t give me the same sense of comfort and normalcy that it had about two minutes before. Now, it was just a reminder of how I used to see things. There’s a better way of seeing things and now that I’ve been there, with a pro, I’m not going back. The change in my thinking, like the hammerhead, took about 10 seconds.
A Better Instructor…
…Makes A Better Student
Just standing there, through his demeanor, personality and love for what he does, Mike is at least on par with the best instructors I’ve flown with. In the air, I’ve never experienced such a great match. Mike fed me thoughts at the same speed my mind sought them even while landing but he’s also content to say nothing at all. He has an innate feel for when verbal instruction is useful and when instruction through experience will prove more valuable. He’s the kind of instructor who builds your confidence just enough to allow you to fully utilize your abilities, while stepping back enough to allow your abilities to show you your limits.
Somewhere up there I told you that Mike showed me what "good" really means … I haven’t addressed that yet. Mike took the controls from me once all day. I’ve flown some akro before, but never with anyone as well-versed as Mike, so after we’d flown formation with his schools Extra 200 for about 20 minutes, and Mike asked for the controls. I said, "Okay."
He passed his camera to me and asked me if I was holding it securely … twice. When I had him convinced that I’d got it really he said, "Great. Hold on." Mike pulled us up and rolled us over three times. About ten seconds later we’d finished three tight barrel rolls around the other aircraft. The plane was never more than about 40 feet away. Then he pulled our prop in, about seven feet behind the 200’s wing and parked us there at 3,000 feet. I’d flown all day and up until then was feeling very good about myself. But Mike had one more lesson for me. In ten seconds, Mike passed on the complete level of his ability and let me experience what it felt like to fly that well. I saw in him what I could be.
All my life I’ve wanted to fly. All my life I’ve wanted to be the best. I may never get there, but through Mike’s flying, and those few like him, we should all be inspired to try.