Recreational Aerobatics

By Gordon Penner, FAA Gold Seal CFI, Former 2-Time Master CFI-Aerobatic

Aerobatics is not stunt flying. It is precision flying. And yes, Dorothy, there is such a thing as gentle aerobatics.

The International Aerobatic Club (IAC) is not a competition-only organization. Only about 10 percent of the members compete and, in the end, competition is not what aerobatics is about. Competition is just one avenue of expression. Aerobatics is about the pure freedom of flight in all forms.

Aerobatics is about safety and recovery training. Aerobatics is about being able to confidently and safely fly in all corners of the aircraft envelope. Aerobatics is about the sheer joy that this kind of flying brings. Aerobatics is about how this kind of training brings a pilot’s confidence level up and their fear level down. All of these things enhance flight safety, as well as being a heck of a lot of fun. One does not need to compete to feel these effects, or to gain these benefits.

We will break down the extent of the aerobatic spectrum, and show where easy, gentle, recreational aerobatics reside in that spectrum. We will also discuss performing aerobatics in experimental aircraft that have aerobatic capability as a side dish, not as the main course.

Aerobatics is also about stretching and discovering oneself. Since aerobatics is both a technical skill and an art form, both the analytical and intuitive sides of the brain are used.

Learning aerobatics is not easy, but it is a lot easier than most people think. An average solo student can learn all of the basic maneuvers. What’s more, the pilots learn about themselves, learn to change how they see the world, and learn how they learn. The pilots of the famed French Connection team were fond of saying that if a pilot went into aerobatic training and all they learned were the maneuvers, they got gyped. The mind expanding and freeing effects were what they strived for in their students.

The aerobatic spectrum is broken down as follows:

  • Safety Training/Emergency Maneuver Training (EMT)
    • Understanding how the flight controls really work
    • Stall and Spin Safety
    • Upset Recovery Training
    • Flight with jammed or broken flight controls
    • Emergency landings
  • Recreational Aerobatics
    • Limited Maneuvers – Gently done. Limited by Aircraft Capability
    • Aerobatics in non-inverted fuel & oil system aircraft
  • Competition Aerobatics – Like Olympic Gymnastics
    • Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced, and Unlimited Categories
    • Flown in front of judges against a maneuver standard
  • Airshow Aerobatics
    • Hard charging, with smoke, and close to the ground

The pilot can choose their level of participation in aerobatics based on the above list, depending on their needs. If one wants to go on to Competition or Airshow aerobatics they must still pass through the Safety Training and Recreational aerobatic stages.

It is our fervent wish that every pilot in this country go through Safety or Emergency Maneuver Training at least. Think of how many lives that would save. I personally have brought an aircraft in with a jammed elevator using the techniques taught in the Emergency Maneuver Training course. The training works.

The first required maneuver for those viewing this page is to go to YouTube and watch the BBC video of the great Bob Hoover as he pours a glass of iced tea while rolling an airplane upside down. The video shows how a maneuver can be done so gently and smoothly that the iced tea went into the glass normally, and stayed in the glass all the way around.

Bob never put more than 2 G’s of load on the aircraft and never got the airplane down to zero G. Not only that, notice the white ball hanging by a string underneath the pedestal that the glass sits in. The ball hardly moved left or right, showing that Bob kept the aircraft coordinated all the way around the roll.

That kind of a roll, done smoothly at 1 G or zero G, is easy to learn, is easy on the aircraft and the pilot, and is one of the first thing taught in most courses around the country. Don’t try to teach yourself, however. The maneuver is quite easy if you know what you are doing, but if mishandled the recovery could possibly exceed the limits of the aircraft. Make sure you get good training from a reputable instructor in the right kind of equipment. The IAC has a list of aerobatic schools around the country.

There are many experimental aircraft that can do some aerobatic maneuvers quite well, even though they were not designed primarily as aerobatic aircraft. Aerobatics in these aircraft, like the RV series for example, can be a pure joy. Many are designed to be very efficient on very little horsepower, and as a result they have very low drag. The problem can possibly come when trying to train in them.

Since these aircraft are usually so slick and gain speed so fast we usually recommend that people get their initial training in a forgiving high-drag, airplane, such as a Decathlon or Citabria, first. Then, get airplane-specific training after that.

The basic 10 hour courses taught throughout this country will equip you quite nicely to compete in Sportsman, if you ever chose to. There is also a social aspect to regional contests that many people like. More importantly, if you never compete, you would still know that you are already flying at that level.

There you have it. One never needs to compete. Aerobatic training can be acquired just for striving for personal excellence. A few fliers can get together, talking about and critiquing whatever personal aspect of aerobatics or safety training they are working on. Flying with like-minded pilots is a joy all its own, and the camaraderie seems to inspire pilots to be better than they would otherwise.

That, to me, is Recreational Aerobatics.