“What flying teaches you is to replace fear with knowledge.”
Oliver Smithies, biochemist and pilot, co-developer of the knock-out mouse.
It’s enormously pleasing to uncover hidden connections between seemingly unrelated observations, or problems for that matter. In biological research, this allows one to see the larger picture, very much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Similarly, in aviation not one piece of skill and knowledge stands alone, but is interconnected in wondrous and complex ways, creating a tableau that becomes more and more vivid and beautiful as one continues to learn. The quest for knowledge through research and flying have this in common – the more one learns, the greater the magic and enchantment.
While barely scratching the surface of the enormously addictive activity that is flying aerobatics, it did give me a taste of precision flying that proved quite helpful for flying approaches successfully.
For one, using the whole flight envelope teaches the pilot sensitivity towards the plane’s limits. Stalls are perceived with all senses: there is the decreasing sound of the slip stream as the plane slows. The controls become light and reach less and less effectively into the diminuishing flow of air. The time to induce a spin by kicking the rudder has to be precisely timed. In the good-natured Decathlon, it is exactly the moment where the fabric at the wing root starts to flutter, indicating the beginning of the stall, when rudder forces are still quite effective. Nose-high, stall horn screaming, the plane dips one wing and rotates gracefully around it, surrendering to the effects of rudder-induced adverse yaw. Media luna in the sky, come dance with me.
A side effect of practising spins is that one becomes much more sensitive to airspeed and particularly, the decay of it. On the one hand, a really good thing in the traffic pattern. On the other, a difference in the sound of the slip stream serves as a reminder to look up from the approach plates and pull out of the developing dive before the wings depart from the fuselage. Ok. That might be a tad bit over-dramatic. Especially since one should never look at approach plates in one’s lap in the first place, but lift them up. Not just to continue to keep an eye on the instruments, but also because moving one’s head promotes spatial disorientation in the clouds. Isn’t it amazing? I’m secretely jealous of birds, but they can’t fly in IMC.
But there is more: the acuteness or presence of mind needed to time aerobatic maneouvres so they flow gracefully and precise is exactly the skill needed to fly an approach well. In my fevered aviation dreams I open my approach book and find that the procedure turn is drawn in Arresti notation.