Safety First: Performing an Aerial Ballet
By Patricia Mattison
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News
Aerobatics comes naturally for most birds. Soaring and swooping effortlessly in the air, our avian friends delight in the freedom of unfettered airspace. With a few exceptions, a bird’s structure and natural ability allow it to perform aerobatic maneuvers as a normal part of life. Pilots, on the other hand, must acquire training to perform the same sort of maneuvers that their feathered friends perform naturally.
The best example of this is at air shows, where highly trained pilots fly intricate maneuvers with precision and ease. The seemingly effortless manner with which the pilots perform the maneuvers belie the discipline, training, and practice it takes to make the show a success. Despite the obvious beauty of the aerobatic maneuvers, a certain modicum of ever-present danger lurks in the background. Training and planning can reduce the accident potential to a minimum. If this potentiality could not be reduced to a tolerable level, there would probably not be air shows for us to enjoy.
Which brings me to the real topic of this article; some pilots after being exposed to the splendors of professional pilots performing graceful aerobatic maneuvers decide to attempt this for themselves. They take their aircraft – generally a small aircraft not engineered for aerobatic flight – out to some remote area and attempt to emulate the professional aerobatic pilots’ maneuvers. Granted, this is an infrequent occurrence, but it does happen.
Several years ago a complaint was made to our Flight Standards District Office that an airplane was doing loops, rolls, and other assorted maneuvers over a populated area. Activity such as this is not only foolhardy but against the federal aviation regulations. During the course of interviewing witnesses and passengers aboard the flight, we found that the pilot was a private pilot, and the aircraft was definitely not an aircraft to be used for performing aerobatics. Needless to say, the pilot disavowed any knowledge of the occurrence and went so far as to say that the town where the aerobatics had been seen was not even on the pilot’s route.
The pilot was found to be less than truthful and was given a violation for his actions. The aircraft had undergone stresses that were not in the design limitations and had to undergo a mandated inspection. Now the plot thickens.
About a year or so later that aircraft was sold, but not to some unsuspecting soul buying an airplane and not realizing the stresses the airframe had been through. It was purchased by one of the passengers on the flight that the FAA investigated for illegal aerobatic maneuvers. Even though the aircraft had undergone an inspection, there was always the possibility that stress fractures had gone undetected. The new owner of the aircraft was on a long cross-country flight when something happened that caused the accident. To this day, the reason that it happened has not been determined. You see, the aircraft apparently came apart in flight and sank in several hundred feet of water. All that was found of the airplane was a tip tank. Was the accident caused by stresses imposed a few years back? Could turbulence have caused additional undue stress on the airframe? Did the pilot lose control for some reason? Weather was good at the time, so that was not the problem. We can only speculate as to the factors that caused this tragic accident to occur.
The moral to this story: You need to get proper flight training in an aerobatic aircraft before experimenting with loops and rolls, etc. Also be sure that the aircraft is certificated for aerobatic use and that the appropriate inspections have been accomplished before flight.
I must say that I have never had as much fun in my life as when I took aerobatic flight lessons and found the pure thrill of flying an aircraft in an aerial ballet. There is nothing quite like it, and I would encourage pilots to explore this as an addition to their continuing education in flight. Safely learning the flight characteristics of an airplane and realizing your limitations as a pilot will make you a more competent pilot overall.
Patricia Mattison is the safety program manager at the Flight Standards District Office in Juneau, Alaska.