Monday, September 14, 2009

Lesson One

To begin, I must say thanks to so many of you who sent me personal notes of support and enthusiasm for my first aerobatics lesson. Your just being there helped me more than you’ll ever know, and seeing your emails was just terrific.

Best of all was a little note from Patty Wagstaff. For those of you who do NOT know aviation and aerobatics, Patty is pure Royalty in that arena, and has been forever, in my book, Queen of Aerobatics. (I read an interview where she once said that she was more comfortable in the air than on the ground!)

Patty, I don’t know if that’s really true, but I was so touched by your little note inquiring if I’d yet had my lesson, THANK YOU! And I decided to bring out my “Inner Patty Wagstaff” today. I told myself,

“I am fearless. I love the sky more than the ground. I make this airplane an extension of myself, right here and now. I don’t “just do it”, I am naturally good at it. This airplane loves to fly, loves to do aerobatics, and loves me too, just as I love it. This is going to be AWESOME!”

Here I am pretending to be Patty, but with Will's lovely Decathalon:

And, yes, okay, I had to dress the part too. Flightsuit, aerobatic shoes (yes the right ones are important…and yes, mine happen to have tiny sparkles on them) and everything.

Hey, I figured if I was going for it, I needed to go all the way! But look, Will's shoes are the same kind as mine...I'm not crazy for getting these...he just doesn't have the sparkles.

(Huge thanks to my patient husband, Kerry, who took all these pictures and dozens more, especially of my sparkly shoes...)

By the way, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better instructor! Will Allen was PERFECT for me. Being a musician himself, he knew how key my dance background was, so he let me make my dance analogies everywhere, just so I could “get it” in a way that worked for me. He gave me an extensive briefing before we even rolled the plane out of the hangar, showing me the different attitudes of the plane through the various maneuvers, and I followed his movements, using my dance training to help my body learn it quickly.

Here's Will explaining the movements of the airplane to me, and me following along with the control movements needed to make it happen that way. He's describing first a Roll, then a Hammerhead:

You see, in learning a new piece, dancers just follow the choreographers movements at first, just so their bodies will remember it. Next, they take it apart piece by piece so they understand it, and then they practice each piece so that they get all the fine details of it. Finally they set it to music, to bind the count and the movements together….and then they practice it all over and over and over and over until their minds let go of the technicalities and focus on the finer nuances of character and emotion, leaving the body to remember the rest.

I have a feeling that’s a very similar process to what aerobatic pilots do (Will, Patty, Steve, feel free to weigh in here) except maybe they don’t focus as much on the physical movements so quickly. Perhaps they think about it in aviation terms more….but I didn’t have that background, so I used what I had. And Will said that I caught on a little better than some of his pilot students, perhaps because I wasn’t thinking too much about it. I was just feeling the motion of it all.

But I'm getting ahead of's Will showing me the controls and what I'll be doing with them. I was ready to just jump in the airplane and go, but this turned out to be extremely valuable since I was going to be doing a LOT of important stuff with mixture, prop rpm, trim and more:

Me starting the Decathalon...woo-hoo, let's get flying!

So here’s what I did:

First of all I flew the plane to the aerobatics airspace, about 10 minutes away. (Did you catch that….I FLEW it there, not Will, ME!!! Me the Passenger was really thrilled, as you can tell, but Me the Pilot was like, “and you’re making this a big deal because….? Sister, the Decathalon is doing the work of flying, you’re just asking her to do stuff! Get over yourself!”)

I did some turns just to get the feel of the airplane and did lots of adjusting the controls from the front, which Will instructing behind me couldn’t reach. I climbed to gain altitude and dove a bit to lose it when I was too high.

And then he uttered those famous words, “Let’s begin with Level Flight.”

Once I got that down, he demonstrated the maneuvers we talked about in the hangar, and I followed lightly on the controls while he did them.

Then I did:

2 Aileron Rolls (all by myself, the second one without any coaching from him)—imagine the airplane rolling to one side, all the way through being upside down, to righting itself at the end. Let’s see if I remember: Gain airspeed, level it briskly, pull to 30 degrees up, take a breath, stick quickly/firmly over left and hold until you’re upright again and stick smoothly back to neutral…Ta-Da! Aileron Roll.

2 Loops (all by myself, and on the last one I caught my own wake turbulence…which is a good thing, meaning I was lined up with my previous starting point. It’s not really an accurate way of telling that you’ve done it right, says Will, but for us beginners, it’s something to brag about, so I’ll take it!)

1 Hammerhead (which he helped me through…man that’s more complicated than it looks!)—that’s pulling the airplane straight up until it can’t go up anymore, then kicking the rudder to turn it into a dive straight down, then pulling up smoothly to recover.

And then he did a 2-rotation spin at the end, just for fun.

Will said we pulled 4 G’s during our session. And oh, it was so lovely…..flying around with the little grey clouds scuttling by, which opened politely in time to create a little box in the sky for us to play in.

I flew back all the way to the airport, just following Will’s instructions until he took over and landed.

TA-DA! I did it!

And for the very first time in my life, I can really imagine me flying an airplane of my own. Going up by myself, and just deciding “a roll would feel really good right now”, and doing one….or two. And hey, a roll just isn’t a roll without a loop to pair it with (like a fine wine with a fine cheese, they just go together).

Will signed my log book, gave me a final hug, and was off to his next lesson.

And after being at 3000 feet and spinning and looping and rolling in the sky, I climbed in the car with Kerry for the average, earthbound, boring 2.5 hour drive home.

At least, that’s what we thought…

Until the collision.


  1. I am so happy that you shared that adventure with us. So happy to read about all the details of what that experience was like...because now I don't have to do it! Which makes me even more happier.

  2. Wow. Great description (and photos) of your learning experience. I particularly appreciated your metaphor of dance in the learning process and the movements of bodies as they learn.

    There's a fascinating field of study linking the mind to the body in the learning process that teachers are finally begining to appreciate and use in their classrooms. Bottom line: Movement is important to learning. Sit still and learn doesn't work.

    Cool post Kristelle.