Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter 1: The Ultimate High

The challenge of flying the Pitts Special was one of the most rewarding experiences of the author's flying career. This aerobatic biplane is quick and responsive, but not the easiest to land.

The staccato bark of the engine is loud in my ears as I turn the tiny red, white and blue biplane on to the runway. Making small corrections on the rudder pedals I align the nose carefully along the grey strip of runway, the touch the brakes. The biplane shudders to a halt and my eyes flicker across the gauges to check that oil pressure and temperature are within limits. All is in order and the runway is clear.

Now there is nothing left but to take a deep breath… and go. My left hand firmly pushes the throttle forward. As the noise of the engine swells to a shattering explosion of power the acceleration pushes me firmly back into my seat. At this instant I always have a momentary feeling of kinship with the human cannonball seen at the circus years ago, and I wonder at his thoughts at the moment of launch…perhaps a fervent wish that he had chosen an alternate way of life. But for him-and for myself-there is no going back. For this is the cockpit of a Pitts Special, one of the best competition aerobatic airplanes in the world today.

Despite the pressure of my right foot on the rudder pedal the Pitts tries to slide towards the left-hand side of the narrow runway, pulled by the engine torque of the two hundred horsepower Lycoming. But then the rudder starts to bite on the air and the biplane runs straight. Another instant and as flying speed is reached I ease back on the stick and the Pitts rockets skywards. The field drops away below. With the takeoff now accomplished I have a brief chance to relax and enjoy the view. During the climb I look out and marvel once more at this chariot in which I ride the sky. The lower wings extend barely eight feet to either side. Painted a brilliant white, each has a red and blue sunburst sweeping back from the leading edge. It is a no-nonsense, aggressive paint scheme for an aircraft designed without compromise for its unique role, and it suits this machine perfectly.
I twist in my seat to look for other aircraft, admiring the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the patterns of the citrus groves in the Santa Clara valley below. I am alone in the sky and from this lofty perch I have a spectacular view. Beyond the rugged mountains which ring the valley I can see south as far as the coat. On the horizon the Channel Islands float on an impossibly blue Pacific.

It is Saturday afternoon and I am far away from the world of designing supersonic aircraft which occupies my working life; a world of computers and arcane mathematical formulae. This is flying reduced to its bare essentials. It is a spartan cockpit. As the Pitts climbs I shiver as the wind searches out the chinks around the Perspex canopy. Under my right hand the control stick trembles imperceptibly as the ailerons sense the airflow rushing over the wing.

It is a perfect day in the cloudless sky and I find myself humming tunelessly, the sound inaudible above the roar of the engine. In sheer exuberance I slam the stick over to the right. The smoggy blur of Los Angeles, lying on the horizon off my right shoulder, disappears and the world rotates. I centralize the stick and Los Angeles reappears inverted on my left. The peaks of the surrounding mountains now jut down towards me like stalactites, while beneath the lower wings a limitless expanse of blue sky stretches from horizon to horizon. Despite the incongruity of this scene I am still sitting comfortably in my seat, restrained by my five-point aerobatic harness, while the fuel-injected Lycoming continues to roar reassuringly in my ears.
I twitch the stick and the Pitts rolls back to level flight. Peering through a cat’s cradle of bracing wires I check again that no other aircraft are in my vicinity. Satisfied that I am still alone in this part of the heavens, I prepare for the self-imposed task which lies ahead. Today I will be attempting to perfect a sequence of aerobatic maneuvers written in pictorial shorthand on a card taped to the instrument panel.
This is the part of flying I enjoy the most. Aerobatics is challenging and to me introduces a sense of adventure in our over-regulated civilization. Speed is not the challenge; it is the extension of my personal limits which is the challenge, together with the precise control of this diminutive biplane through an intricate series of maneuvers.

I ease the stick sideways and the world below tilts as I turn. My eyes search for a thin ribbon of grey which tracks across the green and brown patchwork of the fields. This is Highway 126 connecting the cities of Santa Paula and Fillmore. Today this road will serve as my reference line, and tweo convenient road junctions just over half a mile apart will serve as my airspace limits. In competition I would fly within the limits of a box of similar length and width which would be marked on the ground. The top of my box is at three thousand five hundred feet. I would lose marks by trespassing over any of the edges.

There is a strange paradox in aerobatics. I have the ultimate freedom, such as no bird has ever known, of moving freely in three dimensions, careless of the position of the earth. But at the same time my flight through space is ruled by the tightest discipline. The g-forces imposed by the rapid changes of direction are punishing both to man and machine. My apparent weight will vary, one moment I could weigh up to five times my normal weight: the next moment I can be weightless. I must perform my maneuvers within a narrow range of speeds. If I am too slow the wings will stall and the Pitts will quit flying: too fast and I could overstress the aircraft or risk blacking out as the blood is forced away from my head by the g-force. I must constantly be aware of my altitude. The ground is very unforgiving of mistakes.
The altimeter needle stops at precisely three thousand five hundred feet and I turn until the biplane is flying parallel to the road. I pull the throttle back and the engine’s roar fades. As speed decays the controls become sloppy and the stall-warning horn blows a strident note. I kick the right rudder pedal and the Pitts yaws to the right, tucks its nose down and begins to spin. Sunlight and shadow chase across the instrument panel. Over the nose I see the valley floor rotating. One round and the road reappears. Now the rotation is really winding up. Two turns are completed before I push hard on the left pedal, come forward with the stick and the little biplane obediently snaps out of the spin.

Nose down, the Pitts accelerates and I sneak a glance at the card on the panel. My next maneuver is a Cuban Eight. This involves performing the first part of a loop and continuing through into an inverted dive before I roll right-side up again. By joining two such maneuvers together I will draw a huge figure eight lying on its side in the sky.
The wail of the wind rises to a scream as the Pitts accelerates in the dive. At one hundred and sixty miles per hour I pull back on the stick, gravity pushes me firmly down into the seat and the biplane rockets skywards. I glance out at the left wingtip to check that the wings are level and as the Pitts goes over onto its back and begins to slow I look up, over the top wing, to search for the road, easing forward on the stick at the same time. The biplane is now floating across the top of the loop on an almost ballistic trajectory. My eyes find the road and I correct with stick and rudder as the engine torque tries to pull the nose sideways and the nose drops into the inverted dive. Gravity is now forcing me against the straps, trying to pull me out of the cockpit and into the void below. I ignore these unusual sensations, concentrating on the dial of the airspeed indicator and the position of the nose as it tracks along the road.

Then it all goes wrong.

As I push the stick over and roll out of the inverted dive the road slides ten degrees off to one side of the nose and I am now angling away across the valley. I am annoyed with myself, my frustration made worse because I know what is wrong. During the roll-out I neglected to push the stick far enough forward. This inevitably caused the nose to drift off to the right during the roll. It’s lucky that today no judges are watching. In competition I would lose points for an error like that. But I have to be honest in judging myself. Quick work with stick and rudder gets me back on line and the wires begin to wail again as I accelerate in the dive for the second half of the Cuban Eight. Back on the stick and the Pitts arcs upwards into the sun and floats across the top of the circle. Now heading downhill I must wait until the wail of the wind swells again, judging the moment to roll upright again so that this part of the maneuver is symmetrical with the first.
Remember now to keep that stick forward and…now…slam the stick over to the left until it hits my knoee. The world rotates smartly through 180 degrees and as I centralize the stick the nose is tracking down the road.

Progress at last.

Next comes a hammerhead stall. I pull into level flight, check my speed and pull back hard on the stick until the Pitts is climbing vertically, slowing as gravity overcomes its momentum. Timing is critical now. If I’m too late on the rudder the Pitts will come to a stop in mid-air, then; slide ignominiously tail-first towards the ground. As the wailing of the wind dies away I push hard on the left rudder pedal. The Pitts cartwheels to the left and the nose knifes past the horizon and down across the fields until it is pointing straight down towards the ground. The pattern of the orange groves below expands rapidly towards me and I pull back on the stick to regain level flight, where I check the speed and then roll inverted.

I’m working hard. In this inverted position my arms and legs are heavy and I am sweating despite the cold air on this winter day. Keeping the stick forward I push it slowly over to the left, with a touch of rudder to coordinate the half roll back to level flight. As the wings come level I see that the nose is still pointing along the road. I’m pleased with that.

Rolling into a turn to reverse my direction, I glance over the side to check my position, then do a double-take in disbelief. I’m a hundred yards past the junction on the highway marking the limit of my imaginary box of airspace. A moment of despair. How could I have made such an error? But already I can see the cause on the ground. Half a mile below me a tractor is towing a drifting tail of dust through the orange groves. There is a strong wind now blowing down the valley, although it was calm when I took off. The wind has blown me out of the box.

There is no time to brood over my mistake. The next maneuver must be complete speedily if I am not to compound my error by flying out of the other end of the box. I pull back the throttle, get the speed down to 100mph, then push the right pedal hard, simultaneously bringing the stick back and over to the right. The Pitts shudders, then whips round in a snap roll so violent that I must immediately reverse the controls to kill the rotation. In the blink of an eye we complete a full turn and as my actions deflect the controls the horizon suddenly reappears between the wings, frozen and absolutely level, as I intended. I can’t help grinning to myself. It’s coming right again.

Another glance reminds me that the last item on the card is a loop. I open the throttle and at 120mph start pulling back, my cheeks heavy under the g-forces until I look out over the top wing as we float inverted, making tiny corrections to keep straight on the road. As the biplane dives out of the loop there is a satisfying thump as I hit my own slipstream from the start of the maneuver. At least I know that the loop was straight.

I glance at my watch. Time has telescoped as it always does when I’m practicing aerobatics. It is still only fifteen minutes since I took off, but it seems twice that long. There is time to climb back to altitude and try my sequence again.

I find myself whistling inaudibly against the roar of the engine. A session of aerobatics is very therapeutic. The petty worries of earthbound life are temporarily banished and problems are put in their proper perspective. Concentration is complete. Absorbed in the process of perfecting my flying technique I am constantly learning, although it is at times a humbling experience.
At three thousand five hundred feet I check that I am alone in the sky and begin this aerial ballet again. I am more relaxed this time and it seems as if the Pitts knows this. My hands are more co-ordinated as they orchestrate stick and throttle and the Pitts responds by performing more precisely as we twist and turn through the clear air, wings flashing in the sunshine. This is the best time. Some days all goes well on the first attempt. More often it is sheer hard work in this constant striving for perfection.

As I pull up from the loop at the conclusion of the sequence I curve back into level flight and turn to head back to Santa Paula. It’s best to quit while you’re ahead in aerobatics as the cumulative effects of the g-forces are very fatiguing and the Pitts is not tolerant of mistakes on landing. Nose down and with wind wailing through the wires the biplane loses altitude, heading back towards the field which nestles at the foot of a rugged mountain crag.

As the gray ribbon of the runway slides below the left hand wingtip I peer over the side to check the wind direction from the windsock. Satisfied that the wind is from the west and that there is no other traffic to hinder my approach, I bank to the left above the field, curving round until the mountain slides across my windscreen and I am heading east again. Keeping one eye on that mountain wall uncomfortably close to my right wingtip, I fly parallel to the runway, slowing to 85mph. Opposite the end of the runway I bank left again and start to curve round towards the runway, throttled back now and beginning to descend. Only by flying this curving approach will I be able to keep the runway in sight on my final approach, when the bulbous white engine cowling will dominate my forward vision. The runway at Santa Paula is short and narrow. Parked aircraft are arrayed on either side and power lines lurk in wait just short of the runway for the unwary flyer. It helps to keep the runway in sight.
From here on in, things get busy. My eyes alternate between the fast approaching runway and the airspeed indicator ”…Keep that speed exactly on 85…too fast and I’ll never stop on this short runway, too slow and both the Pitts and I will arrive abruptly on the ground)…keep it turning…a touch of power as we start to sink…speed 82…nose down a touch…correct with stick and rudder as the wind drifts me off to the side…speed 87…nose up a fraction…over those power lines…nearly there…”
As I level out, the white lines marking the edges of the narrow runway slide out of sight behind the engine cowling. I can do no more than look ahead and keep the wings level for a long instant of time until my peripheral vision picks up the runway edge markings. Then out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of white and I ease back on the stick and throttle.
The tailwheel brushes the ground and the main wheels touch with a thump. The Pitts has a mind of its own on the ground and my feet are kept busy on the pedals, keeping the biplane straight on the runway until its speed drops to walking pace. I turn off the runway and taxi back, braking to a halt at the gas pumps. The engine coughs into silence and as I slide the canopy open the afternoon breeze, cool and fresh, sweeps into the cockpit.
The line boy drags the gas hose across to the Pitts.
“Nice day” he says conversationally, opening the fuel cap and starting to fill the gas tank. I nod my assent, trying to bring myself back to this earth-bound existence. Words are inadequate to express the joy of flying this machine on such a perfect day. I slowly unstrap the seat harness and climb stiffly out of the cockpit, ears still buzzing from the racket of the engine. I step down to the ground, unbuckle my parachute harness and find that I am grinning.
‘Yes, I guess you’re right. It’s a very nice day.”

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