Charlie's Story

Harvard - My Introduction to Aerobatics

by Charlie Marais
2014-10-13

  Aerobatics has always been a part of the SAAF pilot's training syllabus.  That was for the fixed wing guys.  The helicopter guys in my day all had to start with fixed wings and only after attaining your wings and accumulating at least 500 hours, could you apply to become one of the chopper boys.  Yes, no girls allowed; in fact there were no girls in uniform until much later, as this was the mid-seventies. 

 The first flying phase was done on Harvard T6G aircraft and the second on Impalas.  In between there was a six month officers forming course with the navy and army guys that we all had to complete in Saldanha. Needles to say, they did not like the pilots…even the pastor was anti-pilots. We were disciplined, but differently from the army guys, as we had personality and a sense of humour, which was not appreciated at the best of times.  I agree this sounds a bit harsh, but this was how we all perceived it in those years.

 Once you could fly, the aerobatic phase started.  Wingovers, loops, stall turns, barrel rolls, strait rolls and the figure eight were first mastered individually and then combined into a short sequence.  I loved every moment of it.  The Harvard did not have enough power, but more than enough for beginners.  With a little too much negative G, the engine would cut, and in our day a dead engine was seen as poor performance.  The trick was to do a spectacular show without having to close the throttle because of an engine surge or cut.

 After we were considered reasonably safe with aerobatics, the spinning phase started.  Before you were released from the circuit on your first solo to the general flying area, you had to perform a solo spin over Union Carriage, the train or locomotive builders in the town of Springs.

 The solo spin was the highlight, as after that your wings could be spread.  However, spinning on your own meant that if anything went wrong, you were on your own as the experience of the instructor was miles away watching you from the ATC tower.

 It was my turn to earn the right to spread my wings.  My instructor was in contact with me and when I said I was ready, he gave the clearance for the spin.  With the aircraft prepared for the spin, the throttle is closed completely. Then maintaining height as the speed bleeds off, high nose attitude, low speed and sloppy controls and before the buffet indication or the onset of the stall, the left rudder is pushed in completely and the control stick moved completely back into the stomach. 

 The entry is at around 40 knots and the Harvard would pitch up, yaw to the left and flip on its back.  The nose would swing through and the aircraft would now follow a vertical spiral descend.  The helical path then starts to stabilize as the pitching, rolling and yawing moments become calmer. The counting of the turns begin by picking a point on the horizon and as the nose pitches up and down, the rate of descent is outside the indication capability of the vertical speed indicator.  On judging the completion of the third turn, it is opposite rudder, a three second count and then the control stick moves progressively forward to reduce the pitch up moment.  The tell tale sign that the aircraft is recovering is observed as the spin rate increases and the next moment the spin stops completely.  At that moment the rudder is moved to the neutral position.  With a very low nose, the speed quickly increases.  Rolling the wings level to the nearest horizon, you then ease out of the dive to avoid a second stall.  Through the horizon the throttle is increased and the baby responds well with the distinctive radial engine roar.

 With the adrenaline pumping in my ears I managed to hear my instructor wishing me well with my first sortie in the General Flying Area; all by myself.

 With no GPS, they were not yet invented, the positioning and re-joining of the Dunnottar circuit was all done by flying via memorized points on the ground. 

 So I chose to stay relatively close to home at the Evander power station where a long straight road passes by. This road was perfect for the practicing of aerobatics.  I was going to do my first solo loop in a Harvard.

 First the HASELLL checks had to be done.  Height was sufficient; the aircraft configuration was mixture slightly richer at the altitude and pitch fully fine with flaps and undercarriage up. Safety and security to ensure no loose articles and engine temperatures and pressures were within limits. Lastly, I performed the lookout turn through 270 degrees, followed by a 90 degree wingover to align the aircraft with the road which was my reference line feature.  The nose was now in a steep dive to get the speed up to 175 knots and then around 4 'g' during the pitch up.  The 'g's are then reduced to around one at the top of the loop.  Prior to going upside down my head is flipped back to pick up the 2nd horizon.  Wings are checked level and then the loop continues downwards with mother earth rushing up toward me.

 That is what was supposed to happen…but not that day.  As I flipped my head back, I relaxed too much on the control stick which in turn brought the speed down to below basic stalling speed of around 67 knots.  I got a fright and pulled harder on the stick.  Not a smart move as the Harvard did what it then had to do; it stalled and flicked. 

 The adrenalin rush was nearly unbearable, but I decided then and there that I was not going to die.  I was sure this was an unintended spin entry, so I decided to put her properly into the spin.  I automatically went through the actions to enter the spin.  Throttle closed, left rudder in completely and the control stick in my stomach.   She settled quickly and I started the recovery.  I did not wait for three turns.  I was high, but not as high as was necessary for spinning, so the earth came rushing towards me and I patiently had to wait for the spin rate to increase before she would be recoverable.  It felt like an eternity, but then the spin increased. I neutralized the rudder and started pulling out of the dive exactly as I was taught.  As I pulled out of the spin I noticed that I was only 1000 feet above the ground.

 I have never recovered from any spin or aerobatic manoeuvre at such a low height. With my heart beating in my throat, I realized that I was lucky. 

 My legs were lame, my knees shaking and if anyone saw me, I would be washed (kicked off the course).  Needless to say, I lost all eagerness to practice anything for the rest of the period.  I flew straight and level and stayed close to the joining points as to get lost would be the final nail.

 Finally my hour was up and I returned to the airfield. I landed, performed a shutdown, did the after flight and went straight to the crew-room where I sulked for at least another hour.

 I told no one; that is until now.  They say that respect is hard earned and that day my attitude towards aerobatics changed.  I was going to pay much more attention as aerobatics still had an interesting future install for me.