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Aerobatics--Good, Clean Fun!

By Carlton W. Austin

Acronyms are big in aviation. Always have been, always will be. That's because they're useful. Who hasn't chanted the mantra of GUMP, CIGAR or SPIT a thousand times? They're short, easy to remember and pack a great deal of critical flight information. Those who use them regularly probably can't even guess at the number of times these little ditties have saved their backsides, or at least prevented a great deal of embarrassment.

So when I started teaching aerobatics, the first thing I thought to do was make up an acronym that would encapsulate the goals of my training syllabus. It would be, I hoped, something my students could take with them, something that would come quickly to mind in the trenches.

What I came up with was SOAP, hence the "clean" in the title. It seemed to work out well for me and my students. Here's the translation. See what you think.

S stands for SMOOTHNESS. While we all strive to make our control movements--and the consequent aircraft movements--ATP smooth, it is sometimes difficult for new aerobatics students, who are at best a little apprehensive about this new realm of flight. Many grasp the stick with bulldog determination and think that "quick and hard" is the order of the day--if they're to save themselves from the airplane.

Of course, when flying above maneuvering speed, which is the case with most aerobatic maneuvers, it is more important than ever to handle the plane with, shall we say, a kind, if firm, hand, at least until you've made the plane's acquaintance. So I tell my students to make all control movements as smoothly as possible. This includes movements of the throttle: Don't cob it, meaning don't jam it forward or rip it back. It is not a good practice. Not only might you break something, but airplanes, like the horse whisperer said of horses, don't need to be beaten into submission; they react much better to gentle persuasion.

O. Remember your first day at college? Or at your last new job? You probably spent a day or more in "orientation." This was necessary for you to get to know your way around. The same is true for aerobatics, and not just to know your way "around" loops. So "O" is for ORIENTATION. Without it, flight around all three axes to any desired degree of precision is just not possible. You've got to know your way around--continuously.

Each maneuver has its own set of landmarks--visual cues--that must be remembered and applied without fail if you're to maintain orientation and fly the figures right. Thus, for example, when flying any maneuver into the vertical, whether it's a loop, a vertical roll or a hammerhead, as soon as the nose departs the horizon, attention must be diverted to one or the other wingtip in order to judge the plane's vertical progress. Then, in the case of a loop, as the plane's wingtip--in addition to kinesthetic sense--indicates the plane has gone past vertical, the pilot's gaze must transition out the top of the canopy to pick up the ascending horizon.

Yes, orientation is essential if you are to succesfully navigate the variegated figures-in-the-sky that Count Aresti compiled in his "aerocryptographic system." (There are actually five basic aerobatic maneuvers: loop, slow roll, snap roll, hammerhead turn and spin. All other maneuvers are just combinations of these. Aresti developed this graphic system as a mnemonic for his own use. You can see all the currently used maneuvers and their associated Aresti symbol in the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Aerobatic Catalogue, available through the International Aerobatics Club, a division of the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA.)

A for attitude? No, though attitude always counts, whether you're talking airplanes or pilots. A is for AIRSPEED control. Another must have, must do. This is especially important not only for safety but for training efficiency. One must start each attempt at a maneuver from the exact same airspeed; otherwise, the control feel, the speed at which things happen and the visual picture will all be different, making any needed adjustments--and learning--all the more difficult.

Of course, there is also the issue of overspeeding the plane, but that is a much more obvious consideration, and one of more concern to the instructor than the student. (If you want a great story about what happens when the instructor gets too complacent because the student has been doing "everything right," read Duane Cole's excellent Conquest of Lines and Symmetry. Therein, he tells the story of how he was teaching inverted flight in a Citabria over Pyramid Lake, near Reno, Nevada, when he started to daydream about trout fishing with his daughter Karen. Before he knew it, the Citabria was breaking speed records, as he had to ease the plane out of a screaming split-s.)

One more point about airspeed needs to be emphasized for students: every maneuver can be done at a range of entry airspeeds. When your student decides to compete, as perhaps one in ten will, or if your student just wants to put several figures together in a sequence for fun, they will be faced with the same urgent need as the fighter pilot who's engaged in a dog-fight: to "manage energy." All this means, actually, is that you must exchange altitude for airspeed, given that most general aviation aerobatic airplanes don't have a better than one-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio, like an Eagle or a Hornet. When you run out of the juice, you've got put the nose down to get it back, at least if you want to stay in the box.

In doing a sequence, it may mean that you come off the top of an Immelmann with barely enough energy for the half slow roll on top. You may have practiced it at a much higher speed than what now presents itself. Be prepared!  Practice each maneuver at many speeds to see the difference in control feel and extent of control inputs that are required at differing speeds of entry. In general, slower speed means much greater control movements. But watch out for that stall! With practice you’ll learn to feel the turbulence nibble at the wing as the laminar flow starts to break down and the smooth flow begins to separate from the airfoil.

P. For PRESENCE-OF-MIND. Now this could just as easily have been situational awareness, but that wouldn't have clicked with my acronym. It simply means keep your wits about you. Don't let a sudden upset of the status quo send your brain on an errand. Most importantly, when there's any digression from normal flight, stop for a  second or two to figure out what the plane is doing before responding with what may be an inappropriate--and dangerous--reaction.

Such is the case when novices are first introduced to the unusual attitude of being inverted. Even when warned of the impending situation, the instinct of nearly everyone is to pull back on the stick, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. In fact, the best course of action, initially, to any kind of upset is to neutralize the controls. This alone will often stop what the airplane was beginning to do. It only takes a second or three to determine what the proper response should be, presuming you've had the necessary training. But to make any old control movement out of desperation is just plain bad strategy, one that will frequently lead to even more trouble. So stop--neutralize--look, listen, and then react.

So there it is: Sierra, Oscar, Alpha, and Pappa--SOAP. An acronym for good, clean--and safe--aerobatic fun. Oh, by the way. Don't forget to wash your hands before you eat that hundred-dollar hamburger! Back to Top.

P.S. If you have a question about aerobatics or aerobatic training, please Click Here.

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