A week after my lesson in the Redbird with Zubair, I was once again in the Cirrus Aviation lobby with logbook in hand. It was time for the main event: an aerobatics lesson in the Super Decathlon with Michael Christmann. He was right on time.
We shook hands and sat down for a quick pre-flight chat. Michael was aware that I hadn’t flown in years, but it didn’t seem to phase him. He’d apparently flown with other pilots who’d gotten out of the flying habit for a while, and he assured me it would be fine. That was good enough for me, and we walked out to the Super Decathlon after discussing the day’s lesson plan.
After a quick preflight that included installing the GoPro camera inside the cockpit and strapping me into my parachute, Michael hopped into the front seat, fired up the bright green Super D (aka “The Frog”), and we were off and airborne in just a few minutes.
He gave me the controls shortly after takeoff, and directed me out to the east practice area while he handled air traffic control. Once at altitude, he began the lesson by getting me acquainted with the airplane. My first task was Dutch Rolls, a simple maneuver where the pilot adds opposite aileron and rudder so that the airplane banks, but doesn’t roll into the turn. Mine weren’t perfect, but they improved as I got the feel of the Frog, and that was the whole point.
From there we moved on to Chandelles and Lazy Eights; maneuvers I remember from my commercial pilot training which teach the pilot to smoothly fly the airplane while bank angle, airspeed, and angle of attack are all constantly changing. Again, mine weren’t precise or pretty, but they were getting steadily better and were a heck of a lot of fun.
Finally, it was time to try some aerobatics. Michael announced that we were going to do an aileron roll, and he patiently explained what he was doing as the Super D easily and gently rolled inverted and right side up again. “Did you like that?” Michael asked.
I had a grin plastered on my face. “Yeah, it was good!” I said. In fact, I was starting to wonder why pilots ever bother with flying straight and level.
Michael took hold of the grab handles in front of him. “Okay, you have control. You try one.”
I took the stick and put my feet on the rudder pedals as he talked me through the maneuver. I couldn’t really see the instruments from the backseat, but that was Michael’s concern, leaving me with the simple task of flying the plane and following instructions. I dropped the nose to pick up airspeed, pulled up into a climb attitude, neutralized the stick, and then briskly moved it all the way to the left as we rolled inverted and back to blue-side-up again.
“Perfect,” Michael said, though he confessed a moment later that he had “helped” me a little bit.
I immediately realized that I’d forgotten to add rudder in the last ninety degrees of the roll. Rats! “You did, I could tell!” I replied a little sheepishly.
Michael laughed good-naturedly and said, “The next one is all yours”. I repeated the maneuver, this time remembering the rudder, and completed the roll with the hearty approval of my instructor. Score! I’d originally started flying at twenty years old with the dream of becoming a fighter pilot. This had to be the next best thing.
Loops were up next. Michael demonstrated the first one, explaining his control inputs as we pulled up and went inverted, the bright Florida sun tracking across the top of the canopy, then dove towards earth, finally ending up wings level again.
Once again, Michael took hold of the grab bars and gave me the airplane. “Okay, just give it a try.”
I followed Michael’s cool and easy instruction, and pulled back on the stick until earth and sky swapped places. For a moment I was hanging in the straps as the airspeed dropped precipitously with the Super D inverted, and then we came down the other side of the loop, rapidly picked up speed, and pulled back up to straight and level flight. These were even more fun than the aileron rolls.
We did one more, but the road I was supposed to use for reference crazily snaked around in the windshield, revealing my sloppy rudder work. Michael piped up on the intercom, “She didn’t like that.” He was giving me a little friendly teasing, which meant that he was having fun, too.
“No, she didn’t!” I admitted. Michael laughed again, and then took us through a few more non-aerobatic maneuvers, a spin and some steep turns, before we started back to the airport. I handled the plane all the way back at a fast cruise with plenty of nose down trim, but he let me do one more aileron roll on the return, just for fun.
With the stiff crosswind and my lack of tailwheel experience, Michael wisely took control of the Super D right before landing, and taxied us back to Cirrus to put the Frog away for the night. I thanked him for the experience, got into my car for the fifty minute drive home, and reflected on the last two weeks.
After eighteen years out of the cockpit, both my Redbird and aerobatic experiences had given me renewed confidence. The Redbird provided a realistic refresher, complete with sights, movement, and control feel. After only an hour of instruction, I felt near ready to fly a Skyhawk again.
I’ll describe my response to the aerobatic lesson this way: Remember the feeling you had after your first solo, like you could accomplish anything? Flying those loops and rolls myself, taking the airplane through extreme attitudes pilots typically try to avoid, gave me that same feeling. It was also amazing fun.
So, what can we learn from all this? Bottom line is that Redbird and aerobatics lessons can each be immensely valuable to even current and experienced pilots.
The Redbird allows you to do realistic flight training on a “pause and play” basis. Even the best of us have things we need to work on, whether it’s crosswind landings, emergency procedures, instrument approaches, or just learning to be more precise in basic air work. Imagine creating the wind and weather conditions you need for any scenario, at virtually any airport or location. Now throw in the most harrowing emergency situations in complete safety, with the capability to pause at any point to dissect the situation for maximum learning. That’s Redbird training.
As for aerobatics, every pilot ought to take a lesson with an experienced aerobatic instructor. Contemporary flight training curriculums place an appropriate premium on safety. But an often unintended consequence is discomfort with unusual attitudes, and in our effort to quickly do something, we can do the wrong thing and turn an uncomfortable situation into a truly dangerous one.
Professional aerobatics instruction goes a long way toward resolving our discomfort with unusual attitudes. When you’ve looped and rolled and spun, handling the controls yourself, apprehension gives way to confidence as you quickly become comfortable with any flight attitude, knowing what you need to do to get yourself back to wings level again.
And you’ll find no better aerobatics instructor than Michael Christmann. He’s as easy going and unflappable as you’d expect a former fighter pilot to be, but he also has a knack for making you feel at ease so that you can fully enjoy the experience.
As for me, the experience has re-awakened my love for flight. My focus is still on Jordan & Cross, my digital marketing and communications company. But one eye is now back on the sky, thinking about getting current and maybe even doing some instructing again. I might even strap on a parachute and try more aerobatic training, or get my glider or seaplane ratings. The sky’s the limit now.