Engaging in aerobatics—moving dramatically in the third dimension above our planet on a gloriously clear day—ranks right up there among the most delightful things a human can do. If flying represents freedom and an escape from the mundane of beetling across the surface of life, aerobatics is painting that escape and freedom with the broadest brush and most vivid colors imaginable. Those who have flown akro know this viscerally and happily spread the word. It’s fun at a level that is hard to imagine.
Hold that thought for a moment because we’re going to move from a hugely enjoyable niche of aviation to look at a corner that is not nearly as pretty, our lousy rate of landing accidents, and consider how learning the former might improve the later.
If you are one of those pilots who feels the need to justify spending the money to learn to fly aerobatics, reducing the risk of a landing accident is another reason beyond the age-old “if I get flipped by wake turbulence, I’ll be able to recover from it” rationale. By the way, that one may well be true.
It’s no secret that we general aviation pilots are not exactly adept at dealing with the time between we touch an airplane’s wheels to the ground on landing and decelerate to taxi speed, especially if a crosswind is involved. If you want numbers, take a look at the accident data in the Used Aircraft Guide (UAG) published each month in our sister publication, Aviation Consumer. Each month you will find a breakdown of the 100 most recent accidents for a given type of airplane. Over the years the data have shown that accidents connected with landings make up 20-40 percent of all prangs for nosewheel airplanes and 20 to 65 percent for tailwheel machines. The vast majority of those crunches are runway loss of control (RLOC) events; a few are crashes during a go-around after running off the runway and some involve going off the end of the runway and hitting something.
The common thread among them is that the pilot was able to touch down on the runway and rolled for some distance before losing control off the airplane (pilots almost never lose control and/or stall prior to touchdown).
RLOC accidents have been analyzed, in depth, for years. The conclusions have been consistent in showing two major causative factors: an approach speed greater than 1.3 Vso and/or a reluctance or delay on the part of the pilot to make control inputs necessary (often to the stop) to overcome a wind gust or swerve.
It’s really pretty basic—extra speed on final means more energy to be dissipated during landing and rollout, and energy is a squared function. When you double the speed, you quadruple the energy; increasing the risk of loss of control. The lowest risk landing involves touching down as slowly as possible so as to have the minimum amount of energy to deal with on rollout.
The problem is that keeping the energy down to a manageable level means flying the airplane slowly, which means the controls feel sloppy on final and that scares pilots, so they add speed to get crisper control response—which substantially increases their risk of rolling the airplane into a ball after they put it on the runway. And that’s on a calm day. When turbulence or a gusting crosswind is added to the equation, the discomfort with the “sloppy” control response combined with the fear of an inadvertent stall causes pilots to tack on as much as 20 or 30 extra knots as they come down final—too often with unpleasant results during rollout.
Let’s be honest—how much did you like practicing slow flight and stalls when you were getting your rating? Instructors tell me that the pilots they fly with on flight reviews generally haven’t done any slow flight since their last FR.
Back when we were working on the private rating, we were told to continue flying the airplane throughout the landing roll, to progressively increase aileron deflection into the wind to help keep the wind from picking up the upwind wing and to use adverse aileron yaw to help with directional control. By the time we were rolling slowly, we were to have full aileron deflection cranked in. We dutifully did it until we passed the checkride. After that. . .
Next time you’re at the airport in a position where you can see control deflection of airplanes rolling out on landing, see how many or few pilot make use of aileron deflection during rollout or even land on the upwind wheel in a crosswind.
Unless you use the crab-and-kick-it-out method of crosswind landing (very few pilots do), the final portion of a crosswind approach involves a side slip coordinated to keep the airplane pointed and tracking straight down the runway, which means touching down on the upwind main wheel. It also means keeping the downwind main wheel off the runway for some time with increasing aileron deflection. Yet, that requires significant finesse and a willingness to eventually go to full aileron deflection, something pilots are reluctant to do. If the airplane is hit with a gust during rollout, it may be necessary to immediately go to full rudder deflection, something else that is uncomfortable for many pilots.
When the airplane touches down well above stall speed the tires will be rolling, but there is so little weight on them that they are of minimal value for directional control, even if the pilot shoves the nose down to put the nosewheel on the ground. The airplane is still flying and, even at speeds below the stall, the aerodynamic controls are very effective—so it’s essential to use them. The problem is that RLOC accidents show that pilots aren’t willing to use the aerodynamic controls to their full effectiveness during the period exposure after touchdown—the time between touchdown and the airplane rolling slowly enough that the tires are effective for directional control.
Expanding Your Envelope
One of the most effective ways for a pilot to learn exactly what the controls will do and how to make the airplane go in the direction he or she desires, at any airspeed, is to learn aerobatics—especially in a more modestly-powered airplane such as a Cessna 150/152 Aerobat or Citabria, where sloppy control-handling cannot be rectified with power.
Other than the tumbling maneuvers possible in very advanced akro aircraft, everything in aerobatics is made up of some combination of a loop, roll and snap roll (which is a spin in a horizontal plane). That’s it—and if you want a book that explains this clearly and concisely, Conquest of Lines and Symmetry by the late Duane Cole is one of the best ever written.
Aerobatics involves flying the airplane throughout much of its performance envelope, especially at the low-speed end. A pilot learns how to listen as the airplane informs him or her just what is going on, and fairly rapidly figures out how to fly the airplane very near the stall but not to stall inadvertently. To get an acceptable roll rate when doing an aileron or slow roll (an aileron roll is a positive-g event; a slow roll involves one negative g when inverted) requires that the pilot put the ailerons all the way to the stop—something he or she may not ever have done in flight. The pilot rapidly learns about the effectiveness of the ailerons at various airspeeds, that the ailerons are still effective near stall speed and that putting them to the stop is often a normal and appropriate technique used to get the airplane to go where he or she desires.
Stalling When You Want To
A snap roll involves intentionally stalling the airplane, inducing autorotation with the rudder and then stopping the rotation with the rudder and breaking the stall at the moment desired by the pilot. After a few lessons, a pilot knows that a stall is not an aeronautical boogeyman, but something that is understood, can be entered and recovered from at will and rapidly becomes comfortable flying the airplane very near stall speed knowing that it isn’t going to stall unless she or he wants it to.
Loops teach stall awareness and recovery as the airplane rapidly changes speed from well above cruise to barely above stall and back. The Immelman is especially effective in teaching control of the airplane at very low speed, as it is a half loop to inverted and then a half roll—at very low speed—to level flight. The combination of getting the airplane to roll as quickly as possible at low speed—discovering how effective the ailerons really are—and finessing pitch to keep the airplane right on the edge of stall speed while maintaining altitude, is a huge confidence-builder for the low-speed end of the performance envelope that translates directly to controlling the airplane on landing.
After doing a few loops, you aren’t ever going to be uncomfortable with high pitch attitudes, where the nose blocks your view forward. Part of learn aerobatics is learning where to look to get the information you need as to where the airplane is going—you establish reference points that allow you to make the airplane go where you want it to. If flaring to make a full-stall landing in your airplane means the nose blocks the view ahead, and that makes you uncomfortable so you’ve been landing in level attitude at the speed of heat, learning aerobatics will rapidly help eliminate that discomfort so you can touch down at a much safer speed. The nose-high attitude won’t bother you—you’ll simply, and unconsciously, adapt by coming up with reference points that allow you to keep the airplane straight while greasing the landing.
One long-time technique used by aerobatic instructors is to have their students do an exaggerated crosswind landing—touch down on one main wheel and hold the other off until it touches down despite all the student can do with the ailerons. Once the student demonstrates an ability to fly the airplane down the runway on one wheel, the instructor will have the student touch down on one main, hold it there a few moments, then pick the airplane up and touch down on the other main and hold it there as long as possible.
My akro instructor did that with me, and my level of confidence in dealing with crosswinds soared.
Two effective techniques to use to reduce your risk of losing control during a crosswind landing are to make sure you’re on speed during approach and touchdown (not faster than 1.3 Vso and near or at stall at touchdown) and that you make whatever control inputs are needed to make the airplane go where you want it to during rollout—which means ailerons to the stop and can mean the rudder to the stop. One of the best ways to become comfortable with those techniques and flying an airplane near stall speed is to learn aerobatics. A side effect is that you’ll discover one of the most fun aspects of flying that exists.
Rick Durden holds an ATP and CFII with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings, has taught aerobatics over 40 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.