CUB HOME > AEROBATICS (as published in The Wall Street Journal, 17 May 2001)

Here's One Way to Fly:
Stop, Drop and Roll


Chandler, Ariz.

"Good morning. My name is Matt, and I'll be your flight instructor today. The menu begins with the basic spin and moves on to the delayed-recovery stall, accelerated stall, and our house specialty, the Mueller-Beggs recovery. You'll finish with a delectable variety of aerobatic maneuvers -- loop, roll, hammerhead stall and the ever-popular Immelmann turn."

No, of course he didn't say that. But after 90 minutes of Matt's affable, rapid-fire instruction -- in a cubicle resembling the one in which you close the deal on a new car -- the only way I can grasp any of this information is by making a private comedy of it.

I am more than a little bewildered. Leaving New Hampshire, I nearly missed my flight because I forgot that Daylight Savings Time was upon us; then at Chandler Municipal Airport, I was an hour early for ground school because I didn't know that Arizonans don't spring forward and fall back. The day's temperature is 30 degrees above the one before, and instead of snow-filled pine forest I'm flying over the Gila River Indian Reservation, a seemingly uninhabited desert a few miles south of the urban sprawl of Phoenix.

Even more intimidating, I'm not flying the tame little Piper Cub from home, but a Great Lakes Sports Trainer, an aerobatic plane with two cockpits, two wings and many struts and wires. Its design dates to 1929, though this particular aircraft -- Four Seven Lima by name -- was built in 1977, one of the last of a long and honorable line.

And instead of avoiding a spin -- a dreaded and often fatal misstep -- I mean to enter one. Over the intercom, Matt in the rear cockpit wants to know what two things are necessary for a spin to happen.

"The wings must be stalled," I dutifully reply. Stalling an airplane is part of the checkout routine, for planes and pilots both. You climb to a comfortable altitude, make a turn or two to ensure that the sky beneath is empty and point the nose as close to the zenith as it will go. The Piper Cub shudders and dips its nose, anxious to recover on its own. Other planes may stumble off to one side or the other, usually the left, and a few "mush" earthward with the nose in the air. But they all stop flying, because the airflow has separated from the wings and can no longer provide the lift that enables them to defy gravity.

"And what else?" asks Matt's urgent voice in the earphones.

"Yaw," I say. When a plane is turning, the wing on the inside of the turn is lower than the other. That's the direction in which the spin will develop.

"Okay," says Matt from the rear cockpit. "Do it."

I ease the throttle back to idle. The front cockpit has only three flight instruments: forward airspeed, vertical speed and altitude. This economy of instrumentation is no doubt intended to lessen the chance that a frightened student will mistake one dial for another. When our air speed drops to 80 mph, I pull the control stick into my belly.

The nose rises, but long before it reaches the vertical I experience the little shudder that says the Lakes is no longer flying. I step on the left rudder pedal -- hard. I didn't begin to take flying lessons until I was 66, and I soon found that I didn't pick up information and technique as quickly as the other kids. But two things I learned very well: Never turn a plane when it is stalled, and never stall a plane while it is turning. So stomping that rudder pedal is one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

And the results are spectacular. From nose high, the Lakes instantly pitches down, and the desert begins to revolve in front of my eyes. "Incipient spin," Matt says in my earphones, meaning that the Lakes will straighten out if I merely release the controls. A long moment later, he adds: "That's one turn." One? Each of those 360 degrees feels like a complete revolution.

A spinning aircraft follows a helical path, like a bicycle plunging down a spiral staircase. Its speed depends on the aircraft, the combination of stall and yaw that caused it to spin and even the density of the air. As a rough guide, however, a single revolution may consume 250 feet of altitude and a bit more than two seconds of time. The Gila River Indian Reservation was 4,500 feet below me when I kicked the left rudder: 18 turns and 40 seconds will just about use it all.

"Two turns," says Matt. "Now recover." No need to insist: I pop the stick to neutral, make sure the throttle is closed and stomp the right rudder pedal. Yes! The desert slows -- slows -- stops. "Left rudder," Matt reminds me. Otherwise the Lakes might spin in the other direction.

All these motions are violent, which also goes against everything I've been taught. But the most counterintuitive command is the next one: "Stick forward." The Lakes is still stalled, and the only way to remedy that is to point the nose straight down, it seems to me. In truth, our dive angle is about 60 degrees.

The airspeed indicator winds up to 80 mph, 100 mph, 130 mph, at which point I honk back on the stick to Matt's urging: "Pull! Pull! Pull!" Centrifugal force rams me into my parachute pack and expels the air from my lungs. (After a few spins, I find that I can retain the air and lessen the strain by tightening the muscles in my throat.) "Three-point-two Gs," Matt announces cheerfully. "Your Piper Cub is good for three-point-two Gs."

With 3.2 gravities pulling at me, I briefly weigh 560 pounds. But in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were. The Arizona desert assumes ever more astonishing configurations below us. I spin to the right; I spin at full throttle; I transform the Lakes into a falling leaf. My most awful experience is the snap roll, which results from being too heavy on the controls while flying fast. The spin then takes place in horizontal mode, and I feel as if I'm riding a paper dart flung backwards.

My favorite is the Immelmann turn, named for a German ace who found he could turn the tables on a pursuer by nosing down to increase his speed, zooming up and over and rolling upright at the top of the loop. Achtung! The hunted becomes the hunter. I fancy that I'm rather good at this, but of course there's no enemy fighter in actual pursuit.

As for the Mueller-Beggs recovery, it's a drill for the pilot who knows only that the aircraft has become a falling, turning object. It could be spinning, or it could be in a death spiral, with the plane flying toward the ground in a wide, continuous, accelerating turn. How to decide? Just let go of everything and watch the airspeed indicator.

A steady needle means that the plane is stalled and you should recover from a spin. If your speed is increasing, you are in a descending spiral like the one that killed JFK Jr. in 1999, and you must level the wings and raise the nose, if you can. Of these possibilities, a spiral is less frightening (Mr. Kennedy probably didn't know he was flying into the water) but more deadly. In the 1920s, before blind-flying instruments were commonly installed, pilots would deliberately spin their aircraft if they were caught in clouds or haze, so as to avoid the death spiral. A spinning airplane descends at a steady rate, and probably you'll see the ground in time to recover.

Two weeks later, I'm again flying the Piper Cub over the pine woods of home, with only the occasional patch of snow. As a tribute to our belated spring, I climb to 4,500 feet and try a few spin recoveries, then treat myself to a loop, a roll and an Immelmann.

Just kidding. The Cub is 55 years old, its engine develops half the horsepower of the family sedan and it wasn't designed for aerobatics. But it's nice to know that I can accomplish those marvels if I have to.

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