Nearing his GFPT, Justin Grey takes a sidestep and spends a whirlwind afternoon getting introduced to basic aerobatics and emergency handling procedures and finding out why Red Baron Flight Training is a flying school with a difference.
While it’s a noted fact that some pilots are, for whatever reason, simply turned off or uninterested in aerobatic flying, I’ve always viewed it as being the pinnacle of skilled flight and something I’d love to get my head around, if my stomach would allow it.
I’ve considered an aerobatic endorsement a likely option to pursue upon completion off my PPL, but given the nature of the task and my progress to date, I hadn’t realistically considered aerobatic flight within reach at the moment.
Nevertheless, at Bankstown Airport-based Red Baron Flight Training pre-GFPT aerobatic training is a very real prospect, and within half an hour of taking off on my maiden Red Baron flight, instructor Matt Morton has me manoeuvering our Alpha 160A through aileron rolls and loop the loops. Who would’ve thought?
The Red Baron way Red Baron Flight Training started life in 1983 as Sydney Aerobatic School, founded by former RAAF fighter pilot and flight instructor, Wing Commander Noel Kruse. Today it is run by Joel Haski, a nationally recognised aerobatic competitor who himself learnt to fly back in the day at Sydney Aerobatic School under the watchful eye of Kruse.
Red Baron’s core ethos is to provide pilot training beyond the minimum requirements of CASA to instil in students, through high-performance training, the confidence and competence necessary to become safer pilots. Haski likens Red Baron’s training methods to a defensive driving course, and some of their training techniques are taken directly from the RAAF pilot training syllabus.
To that end, take, for example, Red Baron’s GFPT course. On top of the standard teachings, Red Baron’s GPFT syllabus includes the likes of aileron rolls, loop the loops, g-stalling, wing overs, unusual attitude/mishandling training, and spinning. Passing the GFPT at Red Baron means competence is reached in all of these areas – sure, it’ll take you longer and cost you more, but that’s the price you pay. And Red Baron don’t skimp on the particulars – they’ve even got small video cameras set up in the cockpits of their aircraft that record footage that can be used for video debriefings.
Matt even tells of a Red Baron student who enrolled in the GFPT course purely so he could compete in aerobatic competitions – he had to have an instructor with him when he flew to aerobatic comps as he hadn’t done navs and had no intention of gaining his PPL.
Heading out After 30 minutes in the briefing room with Matt, we amble out to our aircraft for the day – a blazingly red Alpha 160A basic aerobatic trainer registered VH-ZXY. I flew this same type recently when I participated in the Royal Victorian Aero Club’s Dawn Patrol, so felt comfortable from the get-go.
Matt’s plan for today is to give me an overview of some of the things that Red Baron’s GFPT course covers that a student pilot at most other flying schools wouldn’t get to experience so early on in the piece.
We pull the already pre-flighted ZXY out of the hangar into the glistening sun of an unusually gorgeous Sydney afternoon, jump in and buckle up our five-point harnesses and head off for Bankstown’s Runway 11L.
Before rolling out from the run-up bay to the holding point Matt shows me a little Red Baron trick that simply yet effectively helps the ab initio pilot fly at the correct attitude. There’s a series of 10 black pen markings drawn on the canopy at equal spacing to each other directly in front of the left-hand seat. Ensuring my seat is in a comfortable position, Matt asks me which of the pen dots aligns with a specific hangar roof off on the far side of the airfield. I point to about the fifth dot in the series and Matt hands me a red marker and asks me to put a red dot next to that mark as he explains that putting that red dot on the horizon will accurately give me the attitude for straight and level flight. And as I soon find out, this series of dots aids with accurately setting the various other attitudes we rely on.
As we reach the training area we move straight into stall recovery techniques. Matt gets me to demonstrate how I’ve been taught to recover from a stall. I pull the throttle back to idle and gradually raise the Alpha 160A’s nose, feel the wind buffet as it swirls over the wings, wait for the stall warning to bleet and then kick into action. I push the stick forward to drop the nose in quick fashion, push the plunger-style throttle all the way to full power and smoothly raise the nose as the airspeed increases.
“Well done,” Matt congratulates, “you’ve recovered from the stall with a height loss of less than 150 feet, which is the standard expected of CPL pilots. But, now let me show you how to recover from a full stall with a loss of only 20 feet.”
Given all I’ve been taught to date, I’m all but flabberghasted at Matt’s suggestion that stall recovery with a height loss of a mere 20 feet is “dead easy”. Nonetheless, he takes control of the aircraft and immediately demonstrates just that. As he does so, he explains that the critical angle of attack for the wing of our Alpha 160A is 16 degrees, meaning that even if you only lower the angle of attack of the wing by 0.5 degrees the aircraft is unstalled. Obviously that’s an extreme example and not the kind of thin margin you want to rely on if you suffer a stall close to the ground, but in theory it’s very much the case.
Matt advises that the best technique to recover from a stall is to lower the critical angle of attack by around four degrees. As I set the aircraft up for another stall and get the stall warning, I gently lower the nose until the wing begins to unstall itself. Matt tells me to remember that stick position in relation to where it lines up with my legs on either side of the stick. Then, with two fingers I gently pull aft and push forward on the control stick to make the aircraft enter and then quickly recover from the stall.
I do this four times before finally applying full power and making a shallow climb out of the stall, at the end of which I’ve made four full stall recoveries with a total height loss of a little under 150 feet. Suffice to say, I immediately felt a lot less fearful of stalls.
Entering aerobatics Now comes the fun stuff as Matt introduces me to aileron rolls and loop the loops – very basic aerobatic manoeuvres no doubt and child’s play for anyone with any aerobatic experience, but still incredibly thrilling given I’ve yet to even sit my GFPT.
We climb to 4500ft and after a thorough demonstration of the technique Matt hands the aircraft over to me to do an aileron roll. “Don’t be scared, be positive on the controls,” he advises.
While heeding his pertinent advice, I still need a bit of coercion before finally starting the manoeuvre. With full power and Matt calmly talking me through it, I take a deep breath, apply considerable back pressure on the stick and the aircraft pitches steeply skyward.
When the soles of my feet are on the horizon, I move the stick back to the central position and momentarily hold it there (Matt says this is called ‘check’) and then move it to the full left position so it’s hard up against my left thigh and hold it there. Without fuss, the aircraft smoothly rolls its way through a full 360 degrees, and as we reach the upright position once more I roll out to straight and level, lower the nose and climb out as the airspeed settles.
To say this is an adrenalin rush the likes of which I’ve never experienced before is well beyond an understatement. And despite my apprehensions there really isn’t much to it. We complete another aileron roll before moving on to loops.
Last year, when I was taking my very first few steps as an aviator, every time I came home from a flying lesson my former, smart alec flatmate would ask me if I did any loop-the-loops. Of course, I always replied with an equally smart alec response, but much to my amazement I was now about to do loop-the-loops for real.
With sufficient feet below us and with full power, under Matt’s watchful eye I push the control stick fully forward to put the aircraft into a steep dive to build up airspeed. As the needle on the ASI zips past the 135 knots mark I pull back hard on the stick to the fully aft position and hold it there as we go the full way through the loop. On a side note, it’s something of a change to see the scattered grassy paddocks strewn below Bankstown’s training area from the inverted position.
As we reach the top of the loop I’m feeling the full force of four Gs on my facial muscles – it’s a good thing that little video camera situated on the centre of the control panel and peering right at my hopelessly contorted facial expression isn’t switched on. As the view over the cowling is once more filled with the hard stuff as we reach the end of the loop, I let the stick move back to the neutral position and gradually climb out.
I’ve barely had time to get over it before Matt asks me to do another loop-the-loop. We go through the manoeuvre once, but this time, as we complete the loop, without warning Matt gets me to continue straight into an aileron roll. I’m feeling the pulsing adrenalin obliterate any fear left lingering in the back of my mind and as we complete the loop I maintain full back pressure on the stick until my feet are on the horizon once more, check, then move straight into an aileron roll in one smooth transition.
By the end of this back to back manoeuvre I’m sweating profusely and my heart rate is off the charts, but Matt nonetheless seems impressed. And, even more importantly, I’m impressed – or more so shocked – at what I’ve just managed.
Hold on to your guts After five or so minutes of placid straight and level flight to calm myself, we climb up to 7000ft and Matt demonstrates how to recover from a spin. I’ve yet to actually climb up to this altitude in a light aircraft before and the immediately noticeable drop in temperature in the cockpit soothingly halts my rapid rate of perspiration.
I’ve not yet been taught stall recovery techniques, so I’m all eyes and ears as Matt puts our Alpha on the verge of a stall then kicks in the right rudder to get the aircraft spinning. If you’re like myself and haven’t experienced a full spin before, it’s rather surreal - the prop has stopped and everything outside the cockpit is buzzing by at a wicked rate. In the unlikely event that I somehow ended up in a spin when flying solo – even though I’m told Pipers and Cessnas all but recover from spins with very little control input from the pilot – I dare say the sight of everything spinning by at a clip outside the cockpit might have me hitting the panic button.
But as Matt demonstrates what all more experienced know all too well, the spin recovery technique is simple – provided you don’t have a brain lapse and start fiddling with the ailerons. After nine autorotations and with his hands well off the control stick, Matt simply kicks in opposite rudder (in this case right) and in no time the aircraft is back to normal flight.
However, I’m not entirely back to ‘normal’ myself. Despite not eating a bite or drinking anything other than water since the previous night, nine autorotations is about all I can handle at the moment without embarassingly making a mess of the cockpit and myself. With a sheepish look on my face and feeling like I’m deep in the throws of the hangover from hell, as Matt asks me if I want to have a go at recovering from a spin I admit that I think I’ve done my dash for today.
This is unfortunate as, had I been able to stomach it, Matt had intended to show me various other aspects of the Red Baron GFPT course, including inverted flying and unusual attitude recovery. It’s important to note however, that, in most cases, pilots with sensitive stomachs are said to get accustomed to it after a three of four of these types of lessons and can gradually build up tolerance. And in any case, Red Baron carries vomit bags in their aircraft if the proverbial does happen hit the fan.
A better pilot for it If nothing else, my confidence and skills in basic aircraft handling have been emboldened by being exposed to Red Baron’s approach to ab initio training, even after only spending a mere 90 minutes in the air. And speaking to both Joel and Matt after our flight, this comes as no surprise as this is what Red Baron Flight Training is all about.
Even if aerobatics isn’t in the least bit your thing, dabbling into and learning things like unusual attitude recovery, emergency manoeuvre training, and accurate stall recovery techniques, to name a few, makes one a more competent – and therefore safer – pilot once one returns to more subdued flying.
Further information To learn more about the kind of pilot training Red Baron can offer you visit www.redbaron.com.au or call (02) 9791 0044. It’s important to note, that while Red Baron Flight Training is recognised nationally as a specialised aerobatics training centre, it also offers PPL and CPL courses (including theory) as per every other school.
Red Baron also offers both an Emergency Manoeuvre Training course and an Advanced Aircraft Control course – the latter of which is incorporated into the GFPT course – to pilots who already hold a GFPT or PPL, and Haski says these options have proven popular for pilots looking to refine their skills.