IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Making Good on a Deal

The IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open has wrapped up and I left the field this afternoon with the second place plaque for the Primary category.
I started today in second place, where I’ve been since the first flight. On the second flight, first and third places swapped places and the lead widened to about 15 points (not much). So first place was within striking distance.
I walked the ramp mumbling to myself and doing the acro dance for which aerobatic pilots are sometimes known. I set up the cockpit just the way I wanted it (kidney-relocating tight). Then I flew the last sortie and left everything I had in the box.
I scored about as well as I had in the prior flights (and so did the other competitors) and thus ended up second. But I had much better situational awareness and my peripheral comprehension was a load better. I didn’t do anything that would impress Mike Goulian, but I broke out of a plateau and began to better understand what I was doing up there.
There’s something about an epiphany that comes to you when you’re inverted on a 45-degree downline, timing the roll and pullout. Actually understanding what you’re seeing over the nose and reacting to it in a businesslike and competent manner. Not as precisely as I’d like to, mind you. But, hanging in the straps a couple of thousand feet above the judges, I realized that this is a doable thing. I could get good at this. It is within my ability. It’s not impossible. It’s a simple matter of hard work.
When a thing that previously existed only in a dreamstate as some abstract thing suddenly becomes sharply possible with only hard work between here and there, it’s an exceedingly rare and special thing. I got that this weekend.
I made a deal with myself not long ago. By going to Jackson and ramming the throttle forward in anger, I made good on that deal. Three flights. 18 minutes each from startup to shutdown. I flew aerobatics in anger.
I’m not Greg Koontz or Brett Hunter. I never will be. But now, when I stand there along the show line, I feel as though I have more right to be there. Because I took the next step beyond mere fanboy. Because I reached over the fence and tasted some small part of what happens in the box. And I’ll keep reaching in there for the electric stuff that happens there.
I made a deal with myself. This weekend, I made good on that deal. And it feels good.

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Flying Aerobatics in Anger

“Steve Tupper, the box is yours. Have a good flight.”

These words have now been uttered twice on a discreet frequency in the skies near Jackson, Michigan. Each time, they have caused the occupant of the front seat of a growling Pitts S-2B circling at 3,800 MSL to hunch down behind the windshield, swallow hard, and think thoughts to the effect of, “Your damned right it is! Watch this!”

I have now flown aerobatics in anger.

I have sucked, mind you. In fact, I have sucked mightily. But I have flown acro in (or near) a box with judges looking up and giving scores.

For those just joining the story in progress, I’m flying in the Primary (easiest) category at the IAC Michigan Aerobatic open at Jackson County Reynolds Field (KJXN). I’m flying a Pitts S-2B with Don Weaver in the trunk as safety pilot. Don is as talkative and helpful as ever through takeoff, climb, and orbit until I wave into the box. Then he falls silent and says and does nothing until I finish and wave back out (or make a genuine attempt to kill us or ask for his help).

Three competitors are flying primary here at Jackson. After two of the three times flying the Primary sequence, I’m in second place and only 15 points out of the lead. First place is within reach and I’m going to make a real run at it tomorrow.

I have scored very consistently the first two flights. Within a few hundredths of a percent the same. I have screwed up slightly different things each time. I felt a lot better about the second flight. And I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do on the third one.

The thing that is getting to me is the second maneuver. The spin. I haven’t gotten good entries into the spin on either of the two competition flights thus far. And that affects my setup for the remaining maneuvers. If I can nail the spin, that might be enough to pull this out.

In any case, it’s late. I need to hit the sack so I can fly my best tomorrow. More when I get back to the keyboard.

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: I SUCK!

The good news is that I’ve signed onto my very first FAA waiver. That’s the signature page right there. The FAA waiver allows a number of things, including the obvious items like being able to fly upside down in active Class D airspace. And some not-so-obvious things, such as being able to fly with less than the full fuel reserves (essential when you’re flying aerobatics and need the aircraft as light as possible – As long as you can glide to the runway when you’re done, you’re good to go).

The other good news is that the contest inspector teched out the aircraft, parachutes and pilots, so Don, I, the parachutes, and the Pitts are all good to go. Don and I flew back to Ray Community Airport (57D) in the Archer and then Don and I flew the Pitts back to Jackson (KJXN) to get teched out and to fly some practice sorties in the box. It was kind of nice to just fly the Pitts straight and level. In fact, I actually tracked the course pretty consistently from the front seat. There’s no GPS (or much of anything else) up there, so Don would call out the occasional heading correction and I’d pick a cloud or a lake or some other landmark and fly the course visually. I think that many pilots get goofed up by the instrument rating and forget how consistently one can fly by just picking landmarks and flying to them. I know that I’m one of those pilots.

We also got some formation in with the Archer during the first few minutes after departing Ray. Pierre shot some pictures of the Pitts from the Archer and I’m looking forward to seeing those.

Having declared good news, there’s bad news, too. I SUCK!

I flew the whole IAC 2011 primary with Don out above the farm fields this past Sunday and I was really happy with my performance. Don seemed to be happy with it, too. So I went into this practice session excited and optimistic.

That all evaporated as soon as I was about 500 feet up and climbing. I have studied the airport grounds using Google Maps and I know where the box is. Heck, I spent the morning out there staking out Tyvek to mark it. But everything went into a cocked hat when I got up there to fly the sequence. Box? What box? Where’s the damned box?

I had an awful time identifying where the box was. In my defense, the box is to the west of, and parallel to, Runway 6/24. It doesn’t line up with anything else. No roads, no section markers, no nothing. And it’s nearly impossible to see anything (much less the box markers) out of the front seat of a Pitts S-2B. But I ought to be able to get the general gist.

So, thus lacking situational awareness and really preoccupied with how disoriented I was, I flew for crap. I over-rotated on the spin and got disoriented on the pull-out. The Cuban was pinched at the top, I was shallow on the downline, and I didn’t hold it long enough. The loop was pinched at the top. My slow roll sucked as badly as it usually does. The second run through didn’t show much improvement. I got the spin stopped at the right point (even if I was cocked over with too much right rudder), but I forgot the aerobatic turn and even got turned around by 90 degrees, confused Runway 14/32 for Runway 6/24, and started heading out of the box to the east over the airport (a maneuver guaranteed to get the tower nervous, if not angry).

I knew that I’d probably have an outing like this the first time I tried to fly the sequence in a box. I knew that a certain amount of Sunday was dumb luck. But I didn’t expect to suck this badly. I absolutely stank up the joint.

But that is, in large part, why I’m here on Thursday and why I’m going to go practice a few times on Friday before competing Saturday and Sunday. I’m at least smart enough to know that I need to work on this stuff.

I have a lot to think about tonight and tomorrow morning. Really think about the box location. Really think about the maneuvers. Get a list of questions together for Don so that I can fully debrief the flight tomorrow morning.

And then get a little more comfortable in my office there in the front seat. When you boil my time down, I have something like 1.5 hours flying the Pitts aerobatically. And that’s in bits and pieces from five flights

And I suppose that I could add a couple of other items of good news. My takeoffs and landings are getting a lot better. Nowhere near perfect, mind you. But Don hasn’t had to intervene in five of my last six landings and I think I’m getting the feel of the airplane. I still have a way to go in getting my footwork right. I need to get the pitch attitude on takeoff more consistent. I need to round out a little more gracefully on the landings. But I’m getting it. I’ll probably move to the back seat after a the competition is over and I get in a few more flights. That’ll make things easier in terms of visibility.

And my acro tolerance is really improving. I had no nausea in the course of flying the sequence twice and doing some other maneuvering. That’s a real improvement. It’s hard to fly when you’re worried getting lunch all over what few instruments you have up there in the front seat. I’ve know for years that I can fly a fair amount of acro once I build up tolerance. And flying lots of short hops like this is a good way to build it. I have a weaker stomach than most people who fly acro. But I keep at it. I think that I get a certain amount of respect from people b ecause of that. I’m the dog who keeps chasing cars. Because, one day, I might catch one.

So tomorrow is another day and another series of sorties in the box. I have a LOT to work on. But I’ll keep at it. The goal for the competition is to complete the sequence with no safeties and no FAA violations. I have tomorrow to get to the point where I can do that. And I’m going to take that opportunity.

I have a deal to make good on, you see. And I intend to make good on that deal.

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Setting the Box Markers

I’m in Jackson for the IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open. Competition is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday and the aerobatic box is open for practice today and Friday. It’s being held at Jackson County Reynolds Field (KJXN).

That is, once the box gets marked.

I spent the morning driving around the airport and environs with the IAC crew setting up box markers. Basically, three-foot-wide rolls of Tyvek about 30 feet long. You stake out these sheets of Tyvek at the corners of the box, at the midpoints, and at the center.

The box is 3,000 feet by 3,000 feet and it goes 3,000 feet vertically from 1,500 AGL (about 2,500 MSL here) up to 4,500 AGL (5,500 MSL). The box sits to the west of the airport proper and it’s parallel with Runway 6/24. Because it’s aligned with a runway and not with any section lines or other intuitive landmarks, the box marking is particularly important here at Jackson.

Grab a couple of vehicles and a couple of airband radios, get clearance from the tower, and head out onto the airport nailing down Tyvek at all of the important points. We used GPS to precisely locate the points and then aligned them using a sighting device with a whiskey compass.

Not all of the places we needed to reach were accessible from the airport grounds themselves. At one point, we drove behind the local Sam’s Club and hopped the fence to lay out a marker in a little meadow just on the other side of the fence.

Although I’ve always known that something like this must necessarily precede an aerobatic contest or similar event, this is the first time that I’ve actually gone out and helped. A lot goes into the process.

Making Good on a Deal

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On Sunday, I went to the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival in the more traditional sense. I spent Friday and Saturday at Hangar 1 on the field, embedded with The Hoppers, a civilian L-39 jet team, setting up cameras, offloading video, and riding on a couple of hops in the back seat. Sunday was about hanging out with the crowd and touching base with that element of the airshow experience.

I got to see Kent Pietsch fly his Interstate Cadet from the other end of the show line. It’s closer to the staging areas for the show aircraft and it’s a different view. Kent has long captured my imagination in much the same way that Greg Koontz or John Mohr have. In the “It’s not how fast, it’s how slow” vein of classic barnstorming. Hammerheads peaking at 200 AGL. Doing a steep turn at treetop level around the TACAN station. Picking up Tom Green from the top of a camper. Really wonderful control with light wing loading and low horsepower.

Then the F-15E Strike Eagle Demo. Cash and BUDA wringing out the jet in one of the best-orchestrated and executed single ship demos I think I’ve ever seen. This was the second show at which I’ve seen them fly and second, third, and fourth time I’ve seen the 2011 demo. It just gets better every time.

About the time the Eagle landed, my iPhone buzzed. It was a text message from Don Weaver saying that Don had the Berz Flight Training Pitts at Pontiac. Don and some others were practicing for next weekend’s IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open and, if I could get there, there was a slot for me to fly.

I had enough content from the Battle Creek show. And I had even handed off in-cockpit video of the Hopper flights to the local TV station. Mission, for all practical purposes, accomplished.

I packed up, headed through the trampled grass, said goodbye to the Battle Creek media chair, and pulled out of the parking area.

The world has more than its share of aviation enthusiasts. I know. I’m one of them. And I’m as competent an enthusiast as you’ll ever meet. Climbing in, on, and around jets with hot seats. Setting cameras, knowing the angles. Troubleshooting technical issues. Being a very-low-maintenance rider who needs only the safety brief and is never a distraction in the back seat. Being a guy who has a better than average chance of being able to land the jet if the front-seater ever took a nap.

But, at the end of the day, I’m something of a poser. I post gorgeous shots of myself looking stern and competent in the back of the jet. I look good. But the fact of the matter is that my hands are in my lap or holding one or more cameras. I purposely crop the shots so almost every shot leaves the shot ambiguous as to whether I might be flying the jet.

I don’t have a problem with that. And I’ll keep doing it. No shame there. But, driving home in the car all alone with myself, it’s hard not to think about the disconnect between the guy in the pictures and who I actually am and what I actually do. It’s not guilt, exactly. But there’s a sense that I spend this time basking in the glow of others and then hope that some of that residual glow makes it into the podcast or the blog.

But this year is a little different. This is the year that I put my skills where my mouth is. On Thursday, I go to Jackson (KJXN). I’m not going to be there looking for a ride with another pilot. I’m going to Jackson to fly.

The IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open is slated for Saturday and Sunday. And there will be practice times on Thursday and Friday. One of the entrants is flying the Primary sequence in a Pitts S-2B. That guy is me.

The Primary is not complicated. You can fly it in a minute or so. 45-degree upline to level, one-turn spin, half-Cuban, loop, 180-degree aerobatic turn, and slow roll. It is by no means anything that would impress even the average airshow crowd. But I will fly it. In a box. With people watching. Some of whom will be judges.

Don and I launched in the Pitts at about 7:30. The sun was low in the sky. We turned west toward Ray Community Airport, where we’d be dropping off the aircraft after the flight. About two thirds of the way there, I cleared the area, then flew the sequence. Good spin! Stopped right where it was supposed to. Even better Cuban. The loop needed work. The aerobatic turn was pure joy, performed (as I like them) with more G than is strictly necessary. The slow roll was a train wreck (as usual). I went over the maneuvers that needed work until I was reasonably satisfied with that session. Then we proceeded to Ray and got some dinner with Rod Rakic before flying back to Pontiac in Don’s Archer.

I’ll probably have at least two more practice sessions before I fly for the judges. I’ll be ready. For now, it was a good flight and a great evening. And a step along a path that I’m only just beginning to tread.

I’m flying in the competition for a number of reasons. I’m flying for the challenge against objective measures that has drawn me to ratings and endorsements. I’m flying because it’s a perfect next step in my evolution as a pilot.

But no reason is as important as this: I’m flying because it’s no longer acceptable to be a poser. Because it is no longer enough to show up for a military media/fam flight with the manual memorized. Because it’s no longer enough to know the vocabulary and pass in conversation as one of the bros.

Because it is time to take the controls with my hands and feet and do this above a field surrounded by upturned faces.

This weekend, I go find out.

It’s just the IAC primary. No one that I admire in the airshow community will be especially impressed that I flew the Primary, even if I fly it well.

But the guy who drives back from airshows all alone in the car will want to know about it. He’ll care. And he’ll look me in the eye and know that I took up this challenge, even when I could have avoided it for any of hundreds of reasons.

That’s because I made a deal with him. If I firewall the throttle, rotate, climb, fly my ass off, and leave everything I have up there in the box, he’ll no longer have reason to think that it’s all a veneer. He’ll know that I reached up into the wind for the real thing and either caught it or tried as well as I’m capable.

There are worse deals one could make.

I’m not Kent Pietsch. I’m not Greg Koontz. I’m not Dawg, Puck, Mildred, Skids, GH, Cash, BUDA, Bloke, Slick, or Snort.

But on Sunday, I expect to be, if only in the most basic sense, a competition aerobatic pilot. And no longer a poser.

See you this weekend. I have a deal to make good on.