Michigan Aerobatic Open 2012 – Day -3

A down day to get some work done for clients, do laundry, and snag a little sleep, and it’s back to it.

On Sunday, I left the Battle Creek airshow shortly after finishing my narration gig for the Tuskegee Airmen glider demo team.  I picked up Don Weaver in Jackson and drove him to Ray and loaded up a care package for the Pitts.  Don then flew the Pitts to Jackson and I headed home, where such laundry, work, and other more mundane activities ensued.

Fast forward to this morning, when I awoke at the Pi Pi Pi House (which is what we’ve dubbed this dorm at Spring Arbor University where many of us are staying).  Off to Jackson County Reynolds Field, where the Pitts awaited.

I signed on to my second FAA waiver.  As you’ll recall, the waiver is necessary to cover things like aerobatic maneuvering, fuel requirements, altitudes, and other matters.  It essentially allows us to do stuff in Class D airspace that not even a retiring Lt Col on a fini flight would consider.

I realized that I couldn’t find my acro shoes.  They’re actually just wrestling shoes and there isn’t anything special about them other than the fact that they’re narrower than my usual tennies and are less likely to snag when I move my feet up or down on the rudder pedals to use the brakes.  I can feel the pedals a little better and wrap my toes around the turface features of the pedals, too, so that’s a plus.  I had to hit Dunham’s to buy another pair, but was rewarded with a pair that fits even better than my old pair.

The flying was reasonably good.  A couple of half-hour flights.  The idea is to get my tummy settled down.  As many of you know, I don’t really have the stomach for acro.  I’m the dog who continues to chase cars even though I have little business doing so.

The first flight was all positive G with little or no roll.  I can pull G all day long.  It’s roll that messes with my head.  So we flew loops and half Cubans for awhile.  I’d been having issues with getting all wing-low on the float in the loop maneuvers anyway, mostly because I’m pulling the stick back and to the right.  I’m now pulling straight back and that’s really helping.  It’s always easier when you’re not trying to correct in the float when you see the horizon appear and start creeping down the glass all cock-eyed.

On the second flight, it was all about the reverse half Cubans.  (Pull up to a 45, roll inverted, stick it there for a few potatoes, then pull over the last 5/8 of a loop.  I had never flown a reverse half Cuban before, but managed to pull them off.  The issue was figuring out what the float is supposed to look like and how long to hold it.  I also needed a sight picture.  I tried looking left to the sight gage, but, if you’re a guy who doesn’t like roll, you should not be rapidly turning your head left and back while inverted.  It turns out that, if you can find a cloud as a reference, that’s best.  If you can’t, you can try to use the horizon low and outside as a gage, assuming that your roll to inverted was true.

Toward the end of that flight, I had Don demonstrate a humpty-bump (the fifth maneuver in the 2012 sportsman).  That’s a pull to the vertical with a half loop at the top.  Very short upline (unlike the hammer) because you need the energy to get you up into the float for the half loop.  We got a little slow up there, but made it over.  I’m going to pull after only three potatoes or so in the upline.

Tomorrow, we hit the hammerhead hard.  That’s the newest maneuver and the one I’m most concerned about getting right.  If I can nail the hammer and the spin, I think that everything else will fall into place.  (We’ll see how that process works out for me . . .)

Off to bed.  Three flights to get in tomorrow!


Acro Camp Sneak Peek 04: With Friends Like These . . . – Video Episode Show Notes

Despite the aggressive schedule around here (glider training, trying to find a new acro ride, doing really cool legal work for the best clients on the planet, etc.), I managed to get some time this weekend to do some editing on the movie.  The result is this sneak peek, “With friends like these . . .”

The campers at both of the Acro Camp shoots were very collaborative and supportive of each other.  But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t at least a little laughter with (okay, at) each other when stuff went wrong.  And stuff is bound to go wrong when you’re learning to fly an aircraft whose center of gravity is behind the mains.

In the course of logging all of the footage, I’ve noted when both IPs were in aircraft and noted opportunities to synchronize the conversation across both cockpits.  Usually based on ATC calls or radio communication between the aircraft.  This was one such pair of sequences.  I loved the big bounce on Jim’s wheel landing and I loved the reaction that it got from Barry and Lynda.  I lined them up this evening and voila!  Tailwheel magic!

I’m actively working on putting together more time to get the film edited.  It hasn’t been easy, but I’m making some real progress.  Watch this space and the new Acro Camp web page (in development) for more news and updates!

A Pilot FAQ for Journalists – First Installment: Stalls

A few weeks ago, I posted in a few social media outlets that we in the aviation community do a lot of complaining about how badly the non-aviation media screws up aviation coverage but we really don’t do much to fix it.  We really ought to put together a FAQ or a wiki for the relatively few mainstream journalists who care enough to read up and get it right.

I got a lot of good feedback.  Enough that I think it’s a viable idea.  I haven’t decided yet whether to make it a FAQ or a wiki or something else.  But I figured that I’d put together an initial entry on a topic that most non-aviation journalists seem to get wrong as an example of what I’m thinking about doing.

If you’re interested in assisting, please crop me a comment on this entry.  And, if you have suggestions about this particular entry or about means to make the FAQ/wiki/whatever work, let me know those, too.

So here goes . . .

What’s a “stall?”  And why does it have nothing to do with the aircraft’s engine?

The general public understands that, when a car’s engine stops running in an unplanned sort of way, that engine has “stalled.” But “stall” means something completely different in the context of aviation.

A stall in an airplane usually has nothing to do with the engine. Sure, an airplane’s engine can “stall,” but aviators usually use some other word, such as “quit” or “stop.”

Let’s talk about how an airplane stalls. Airfoils develop lift by moving through the air. Airfoils include the wings on airplanes, the rotor blades on helicopters, and lots of other things. The control surfaces on airplanes and even the propeller blades themselves are also airfoils. Heck, a barn door can be an airfoil under the right circumstances.

We’re going to talk about some specific kinds of airfoils, namely the wings on airplanes. Generally, the aircraft engine rotates the propeller, pushing or pulling the airplane through the air and creating airflow over the wings. The wings develop lift when they interrupt the air, sending some over the top and some over the bottom. The air over the wings develops something called “laminar flow,” which is a fancy way of saying that the air on both the top and the bottom of the wing moves quickly and uniformly in the area very close to the wing.

The angle of a wing as it meets the airflow is called the “angle of attack.” When you tip a wing up into the airflow – when you increase the angle of attack – more air hits the bottom of the wing and there’s a greater pressure differential. Low angles of attack are good for cruising and that’s what you see when you see an airplane overhead that’s pretty much level and is on its way somewhere. High angles of attack are good for climbing. You can see an airplane with its wings at a high angle of attack every time you go to the airport and see them taking off.

With us so far?  Good!

Imagine what would happen if you increased the angle of attack a lot. Thirty or forty degrees or something like that. At some point for every wing, the airflow is simply smacking the bottom of the wing and not enough air goes over the top of the wing to keep that laminar flow. Eddies and turbulence build up on the top of the wing and the laminar flow just dissolves.

At that point, the wing won’t fly anymore. It’s not developing lift. That angle of attack for any given wing is the “critical angle of attack.” When a wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, the wing is “stalled.” When aviators talk about an airplane being stalled, they mean that the airplane’s wings have exceeded the critical angle of attack and that the wings aren’t developing lift like they otherwise might. What does that look like? The airplane’s nose is usually very high and its forward speed is very low.

Technically speaking, stalls are entirely dependent on the angle of attack of the wing.  But airspeed (the speed of the airplane through the air) is a pretty good proxy for that angle of attack.  The slower the airplane is moving through the air, the less air is moving over the wing to create lift.  And the greater the necessary angle of attack if the airplane is to keep flying at the same altitude.  So sometimes pilots talk about stalls in terms of airspeed, specifically “stall speed,” below which the airplane will stall.  The slower the airspeed, the more likely it is that an airplane will stall.

Stalls can be bad if they occur when the pilot isn’t expecting it, so student pilots and experienced pilots alike practice stalling their aircraft so that they know how to recover from stalls. The private pilot practical test standards require that an applicant for a private pilot’s certificate for airplanes be able to stall an airplane – and recover – with a lot of power or with little or no power, and in turns either with or without power at bank angles of up to 20 degrees.

Stalls are bad at low altitude, such as when you’re taking off or landing. It generally takes some altitude in order to recover from a stall – about 100 feet in many aircraft in the case of a power-off stall. That’s altitude you might not have.

Stalls can also lead to other bad things. One of them is a spin. A spin happens when the airplane is stalled and “uncoordinated.” An airplane is uncoordinated with the tail is not where it’s supposed to be – when the pilot doesn’t use the rudder to keep the stalled airplane from rolling in the direction of the wing that is the most stalled. Too much rudder produces a “skid” and too little rudder produced s “slip.”

If you stall and you’re sufficiently uncoordinated, one wing or the other will drop and the airplane will start falling in a lazy spiral. The spiral will be in the direction of the wing that is the most stalled. The other wing, the one that’s less stalled, will be flying just enough to keep the rotation going. It’s called “autorotation.” Being in a spin is very unpleasant if you’re not use to it. There’s a lot of green in the windshield and the airplane is turning at an increasing rate..

Stall and spin recovery isn’t particularly difficult. The pilot pushes on the yoke or stick to decrease the angle of attack and get laminar airflow over the wings.  That’s usually enough to recover from a stall that hasn’t developed into a spin.  If the aircraft has begun to spin, the pilot must usually use the rudder to stop the autorotation as well.

Aerobatic pilots go up and have fun with stalls and spins.  You might have seen aerobatic pilots at airshows performing maneuvers called “snap rolls,” “falling leaves,” “avalanches,” and other maneuvers with equally exciting names.  These maneuvers have stalls and spins as essential elements.  They look dramatic from the ground and they’re fun to do in the airplane once you’re received enough training and as long as you perform them at altitudes high enough to recover if you goof it up.

The way stalls get into the news – and the way most members of the media get the terminology wrong – is when a stall results in an accident that gets reported. As you can imagine, an accident could easily occur if you stalled an aircraft so close to the ground that you didn’t have enough altitude to recover. That’s doubly true for spins, because spins usually take something like a thousand feet in which to recover.

If a stall or spin results in an accident, it’s most often in the traffic pattern of an airport.  In the pattern, aircraft are moving more slowly and are turning and otherwise maneuvering to take off from, or to land on, a runway.  The most common stall or spin accident in the pattern is a spin on the turn from the base leg to the final leg.  That’s a 90-degree turn that begins when the pilot is flying perpendicular to the end of the runway and the pilot turns to point the airplane at the runway in order to land.  Sometimes wind or distractions cause the pilot to be further away form the final approach course than the pilot planned to be, so the pilot banks further than the pilot should or tries to increase turn rate using too much rudder (a “skid”).   If the pilot allows the airplane to get too slow at this point and the airplane stalls, the uncoordinated state of the airplane can lead to a spin at low altitude.

The aviation community knows a lot about stalls and spins in the pattern.  We pay a lot of attention to the accident reports so that we can learn from them.  Flight instructors work hard with student pilots so that they know how important airspeed and coordination are in the pattern.

Journalists sometimes report on an accident saying that the engine “stalled” when, in fact, the airplane was stalled all right (its wings had exceeded the critical angle of attack), but the engine was just fine when the airplane interfaced with the planet. The actual event that the reporter misreported was probably an aerodynamic stall and/or spin in the pattern or on takeoff or landing. Reporters who get this wrong do aviation a disservice because each time they do it, they cause a few hundred more non-pilots to believe that general aviation aircraft are mechanically unreliable. When it was actually pilot error of some kind.

So, if you’re a member of the media and someone tells you before you go on the air that an aviation accident involved a stall, inquire further and find out whether it was an aerodynamic stall. If your source is a pilot or an aviation official, chances are good that he or she won’t use the word “stall” unless it was an aerodynamic stall. If the engine quit, they’ll usually say that the engine quit. And if you ask them to clarify, you’ll be an instant Einsetin to them because you’ll have clued them in that you recognize the difference.

If you’re a pilot or aviation official with the solemn job of briefing reporters on an accident or incident involving an aerodynamic stall, please take the time to explain what an aerodynamic stall is and point out that it has little or nothing to do with the engine.

And if you’re a member of the non-flying public, recognize what aerodynamic stalls are – that they generally have nothing to do with a powerplant or any other function of an aircraft. And that pilots train long and hard to avoid situations in which stalls occur, recognize their onset, and be always ready to recover from the rare unexpected aerodynamic stall.

Aerodynamic stalls are very rare in everyday flight operations. Unless you’re a pilot who’s training or performing aerobatics, the odds are very small that you’re ever experience one – even if you fly commercially every day of the week and on weekends, too, your whole life. They just don’t happen much.

Stalls are a natural result of the behaviors of airfoils under certain extreme conditions. Aerobatic pilots put them to use in graceful and energetic performances around the world at airshows and other events. Student pilots train to recognize them and recover from them so that they can fly safely for decades to come.

Running Away to Join the Circus – TICO Day 2

It should come as no surprise to you that it’s late and I really don’t have enough time to do a blog post.  I’m encrusted with SPF 30 sunblock, smoke oil, sand, dirt, and various hydrocarbons.  I have step times and radio frequencies written with a Sharpie on my hand and arm.  I smell funky.  But all of the foregoing are entirely consistent with having run away to join the circus.  And that I have truly done this weekend.

I’m working as crew with pilot Mark Sorenson pyro guy James Hammond of Tiger Airshows and The Ringmasters.  As many of you know, these guys put three devices out at show center that create huge back smoke rings that Mark then flies his Yak 55M though.  I spent parts of the show out at show center with James, helping to set up the smoke ring generators and shooting such video and stills as I could while the pyro was going off. [Read more...]

Red Tails Disappoints

As a new-media and social-media guy, you build audience by getting excited about your subject matter and getting the audience excited, too. But you build credibility when you point out the ugly among the good. I really wish that this post wasn’t going to have to be about credibility. Or about ugly. But it is.

I just got home from seeing Red Tails. I had heard that the film had received less than stellar reviews, but I made it a point to avoid others’ opinions and go see the film for myself.

I’m so disappointed. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Here’s what I saw. [Read more...]