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My first acro

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Well-Known Member
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Jun 12, 2007
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Seattle, WA
This is a message I posted in my journal, after smutny took me up based on messages posted here on the Biplane Forum:

<a name="2007-08-27-1">My First Biplane (Ride)</a>

I got a message on the Forum today,
and it was John (a local pilot I've been chatting with about going up
in his Christen Eagle II). He was confirming that we were still on for
our flight today.


Hmm, I thought to myself. I thought that was in a
Indeed, we'd crossed our dates up, and I'd scheduled for
September 27th; he, for August 27th. No matter, I didn't have any firm
plans for the evening, so I headed down through nasty commute-time
traffic and met him at the Renton airport.

John is a genial guy, and I enjoyed talking with him. We discussed
his plane, its history, the 10-way partnership which owns it, and its
recent work -- they re-covered the wings. The plane was built in 1981
by a group of 10 people, and many of their changes were integrated into
later kits. Apparently a lot of them were Boeing engineers.

He asked whether I wanted to just go up and cruise around, or do
acrobatics. I thought for a second and said, "Acrobatics." I pretty
much figured acrobatics weren't my cup of tea, but I wanted to find out
for sure. We talked about what we'd do in the air: a 2-point roll, a
loop, and a reverse cuban eight. He explained how the parachute worked,
and how to fasten the straps.

Pre-flight discussion and check done, he rolled the plane out of
the hangar. We climbed in, and he got me strapped into the plane: a
belt over each shoulder, one to each side, lap-belt style, and one
between the legs. Then, there was the redundant lap-belt, an extra
safety measure instituted after one aerobatic competitor died from an
unfastened strap.

He fired up the engine, and we taxied out. He positioned the plane
on the runway. I saw the throttle lever move itself forward (the
cockpits are positioned tandem, or front-and-back, rather than
side-to-side), and I was pressed back into the seat, the engine
throbbing loudly in my head. The 200 HP motor pulled the plane
aggressively forward. It should, that's 2x the power and 90% of the
weight of the 152 I've flown most recently.

The plane fairly bounded into the air, sprung up from a dip in the
runway. We climbed quickly. I have no idea how quickly, as
there was no vertical speed indicator, but it was fast. Clear of the
airport, he gave me control of the airplane. The ride immediately went
from smooth to bobbling and wonky. I overcontrolled, and basically
ignored the rudder pedals. I felt like I was falling sideways out of
the plane on alternating sides. I commented over the intercom that I
wasn't yet a stick and rudder pilot, and John laughed drily.

He took the plane back, and cleared the area by doing a few turns.
The nose of the plane is prominent, and blocks a good portion of the
view. After the turns, and a few calls on the radio, he set us up for
our first maneuver: a 2-point roll. This is a roll where you roll over
to inverted, hold it, and then roll back to upright. He asked if I was
ready, and I gave the thumbs up.

Suddenly, the plane twitched to the left, the world went
upside-down, and I was hanging from the harness, the earth trying to
yank me out of the plane. It twitched again, and the world was right
side up again. John asked how I was doing, and I said I was fine. I
was fine, but I can't say I was having a fun time.

Next was a loop. He reminded me of the magic word: "hook!" The
idea is you say this word, which tightens up the diaphragm, and at the
same time, tense up your legs and everything else. This keeps your
blood from dropping precipitously out of your head during positive-G
maneuvers. It's kind of a cheap version of the fancy high-G suits worn
by fighter pilots.

He dove to pick up some speed, and pulled up. I said "hook!" and
tensed up. My cheeks sagged and my head felt precariously heavy. The
sky filled my view, and then we were at the top, and I sagged onto the
straps once more, feeling like I was one thread away from falling out
of the plane. We continued back out to level.

I asked how much altitude the loop had taken, and John said we'd
entered at 3500 feet, peaked at 4100, and come out at 3600. That's
pretty cool, and doubtless one of the joys of a powerful, light plane.

Our final maneuver was a reverse cuban eight, which is (as I
understood it), a climb, with a roll to inverted, and then a loop back
out to upright. Which is to say, roll over so gravity tugged hard at
my harness, then remember to "hook!" and tense up as gravity pulled my
face down into a parody of an 80 year old man.

We were done with the aerobatics, and my stomach caught up with me.
I started sweating in a delayed stress reaction from the wildly
variable forces which had been acting on me. John asked what I
thought, and I gave him my assessment as far as I could make it at that
point: "I don't think I like aerobatics much."

We headed back to the airport, flying under the Seattle Class B
airspace. The landing was quite smooth, and I was interested to note
that John touched the tailwheel down just before the mains. We rolled
out and taxied back to the hangar.

We talked for perhaps half an hour after the flight, sipping water
from a tiny refrigerator which seemed to be stocked for the purpose of
cooling anti-nausea water. It did help. I wasn't exactly nauseated,
but I wasn't really steady either. That was easily the most
thrown-around I've been in a very long time. In fact, even now, hours
after the flight, my stomach still feels a bit odd. John explained
that for his first few aerobatic lessons he had to sit in the car for
20 minutes after the lesson before he felt up to driving home.

We parted company, and I rode home, thinking distressed thoughts
about the folly of building a biplane. The time we spent in the air
was essentially unlike what I'd been expecting, which bugged me. The
problem is, I'd imagined aerobatics as basically feeling like sitting
in a straight-and-level plane but with the horizon doing crazy things
around me. I'd been intellectually aware that it must involve high
G-forces, but the reality of it never really sank in until I was
feeling my face sag as I tensed my body to keep the blood up in my

Similarly, despite all the pictures I'd seen, and the planes I saw
at Arlington, the actual experience of sitting in a biplane was very
claustrophobic and cramped. It wasn't uncomfortable for the time we
were up, but it was obvious that flying to Portland would be pretty
much out of the question from a comfort standpoint. The sound and
vibration would team up with the one-and-only position you could sit
in, and really make a long flight miserable. An open cockpit (the
Eagle is fully enclosed) would make it even worse, from the standpoint
of comfort.

The actual feeling of flying the plane, for the 4 minutes I did it,
was depressing, more than anything else. I had no sense of how to get
the plane to do what I wanted, with the result that we bobbled around
the sky more like someone playing a video game than an experienced
pilot guiding an airplane. I couldn't feel the rudder pedals, so the
only way I knew I'd pressed on one was when I felt like I was being
tipped sideways out of the cockpit. Flying with coordination was out
of the question, I was just trying to keep it aimed in the right
general direction.

From talking with John afterwards, this is pretty much how all
first-time pilots treat the plane. I'm not alone. Even so, I prefer
to think I fly pretty smoothly (which I do, in the big, dull Cessnas --
they don't give you the control response to make mistakes); it was
a blow to my sensitive little ego to fly John's plane so poorly.

To be fair, the Christen Eagle is a very sensitive, sporty plane.
It's not quite up to the level of a hot competitive aerobatic
showstopper, but it's close, perhaps 80% up the scale from what I
understand. The Acro Sport II, which is my theoretical choice, is not
so far up, perhaps 60% or 70% (with the Cessnas coming in around 30-40%).

This is part of the problem: the Eagle is so vastly outside my
experience that I don't really have a place to put it. It's just
somewhere out there, well beyond what I'm comfortable with. Of course,
if I only do what's comfortable in life, it's not going to be very
interesting. I do need to push myself beyond my comfort zone once in a

As I told John after our flight, I now need to separate the
"biplane" from the "aerobatics." More importantly, I need to see if I
can get up in an Acro Sport II. I guessed, and confirmed, that
aerobatics weren't for me. Now I need to see if biplanes are for me,
without aerobatics getting in the way.

Beej asked me to post this here to see what discussion would develop out of it. Well, what are you waiting for? Discuss!


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