Survival at the Edge

Theres a fine line between the extreme and the reckless. Heres how one pro manages


A lot of people who attend airshows think of the performers as death- defying daredevils. It may come as a surprise (although I hope not), that its just not so.

As they race along in brightly painted aircraft, it may seem like theyre mixing aerial ballet with kamikaze maneuvers, but performers know the risks – and know how to minimize them. Airshow flying might be our livelihoods, but its not worth our lives to take what may be inherently risky flying and make it idiotically dangerous.

First off, its important to note that regulations dont create safe pilots. For example, I dont think spin training should be required of all pilots, but I think anyone whos serious about being a safe pilot should seek out some kind of exposure to spins. I think its good that there are relatively few regulations for people to become pilots, and then its up to the person to be as safe as possible.

I approach my flying the same way. Airshow pilots are required to complete an aerobatic competency evaluation before doing their routines at low altitude in front of a crowd, but anyone whos broken a sweat during a BFR knows it takes more than a one-time test to ensure that flying is as safe as it can be.

Mental Fitness
Flying begins with preparation. The value of visualization and mental preparation became very apparent to me when I was flying in aerobatic competitions, where anything other than absolute precision meant you could pack your bags and go home. I developed habits then that I still use.

About an hour before each performance, I start compartmentalizing my thoughts and mentally focusing on the upcoming task. I call this putting myself into my personal box.

I close my eyes and visualize my routine. Youll see other performers do this, too. They stand in some open area and twist, turn and swoop through each move in the order theyre planning to do it. The pilots look like dancers or goofballs, hard to say which, but it works.

Then I watch other pilots fly their routines. Watching their smoke helps me see the winds and allows me to plan in advance any changes Ill make to my routine due to gusts or strong crosswinds.

I have often found that my flight is only as good as my mental preparation of it. By visualizing the exact routine, the way the winds will affect it and the effect of density altitude, I feel I have already flown the flight by the time I get up in the air. This was especially evident in competition. It is important to note that except for training accidents, there has never been a fatal accident at an IAC sanctioned contest. They must be doing something right.

I think this kind of preparation is useful for all pilots. If youre know before you take off that youre going to shoot an instrument approach to an unfamiliar airport, for example, sit down with the approach plate and fly it mentally while youre on the ground. Or fly it on your computer on some of the excellent software available.

Think it out so there wont be any surprises once you have to do it for real. I know I always want to stay ahead of the airplane, show it who is boss, rather than trying to play catch-up in less-than-ideal conditions.

Pick a spot thats free of distractions, brief the approach, close your eyes and put yourself mentally on the approach course. Think about the power settings and heading changes that youll need to keep on the published course. Dont forget the missed approach, either, since many of the accidents that happen in IMC are due to the pilot getting distracted while close to the ground.

Even low-time pilots can help themselves with visualization. Thinking about flying good traffic patterns while youre on the ground will help you fly them when youre aloft. Consider the downwind portion of the pattern. How strong is the wind? Where will you need to turn base? If there is a crosswind, how will that affect your pattern?

Personal Limits
No matter how much you practice, however, there are going to be days when you arent at your best. When youre having one of those days and youre under pressure to fly, make sure you take your condition into account.

Ive been flying long enough that I know my limitations. I agree to fly in worse conditions now than I would have 10 years ago, because as a performer, I know the show must go on.

Because I have sponsors and people pay to see me fly, I put myself under tremendous pressure not to disappoint anyone. Ive often found myself flying airshows in conditions I wouldnt practice in. Ive flown airshows with 40 knot winds. Sometimes it just happens. The interesting thing is that maybe Ill practice if the wind is 20 knots, but at 30 knots Ill keep the airplane in the hangar.

Something similar happens to most pilots at some time or other during cross country flight or in instrument conditions. Unforecast weather or unexpected IFR routings or approaches can throw off your preparation. I believe that how well you deal with these occurrences has a lot to do with self-confidence in the airplane, good training and mental preparation. Even if you just take a few seconds to talk yourself through it, and tell yourself you can do it, it will be helpful.

To cope with the pressure to perform in sometimes marginal weather, the professional airshow pilot must have a low show and a high show. When conditions are right with good visibility and good ceilings, well fly the high show, which includes all the maneuvers in our repertoire – torque rolls, lomcevaks, tumbling cartwheels.

When the ceiling is low, perhaps as low as 1,000 agl, and/or the visibility is down, the low show must be flown. That is when we eliminate any maneuvers that take room vertically, and often eliminate the rolls and snap rolls on the vertical down lines.

When conditions are not so good, I dont worry as much about dazzling everyone. I switch to a safe but lower show. I try to tell myself that, even though I cant fly all of my favorite maneuvers during a low show, everyone else that day is facing the same conditions. It doesnt have to be a contest of egos because we are usually all faced with the same limitations.

I think its very important to differentiate between pushing the edge, knowing where the edge is, as an airshow pilot, and being reckless. The edge is something that changes every day and if youre not sure where it is, then dont push it. Thats recklessness and there is a difference.

Just about any pilot can put that kind of attitude to work. If youre not sure how much fuel is in the tanks, stop and check or put more in. If flying an approach to minimums bothers you, practice until you feel better about it. If the crosswind or runway length is too close to your limits or those of your plane, take a hard look at what youre about to attempt.

Setting personal limits is a vague concept. They change all the time, depending on your experience level or even whether you had a good nights sleep last night.

In order to keep mine as high as possible, I try to eliminate stress wherever I can. I also try to get other people to remove distractions. If Im in doubt about whether I should do something, thats usually a sign that I shouldnt.

There are many factors that affect personal limitations – lack of sleep, illness, perhaps receiving bad news that day. Its almost like a point system – you start out (hopefully) with 100 then you have to start clicking off all the points that work against you each and every day, to determine your personal limitations. If in doubt as to how sharp you are feeling, dont push it. It is as simple as that.

Everybody has good days and bad days flying. Dont let your ego get you in over your head. Your personal limits should kick in before you feel that nagging discomfort bubbling up from the back of your brain.

The Soul of the Machine
Knowing that the airplane is perfect is also an important consideration. I spare no expense on maintenance. If you cant afford to maintain your airplane in a safe condition, then youre in the wrong game. If you rent airplanes or are part of a club, check out the maintenance practices of the operator instead of taking the FBOs word that the things are mechanically sound.

But, no matter how expertly maintained and tuned your airplane is, dont expect more out of your equipment than it can give. Know whats going on with your airplane. Know how its systems work and how malfunctions will show up on the instruments or performance.

When preparing the Extra for airshows, we use a 3-page checklist that is extremely comprehensive, because were going to be asking a lot from the airplane. Everything must be perfect. Maybe if were ferrying it back home theres room for a judgment call on whether a minor defect is a fly or no-fly item, but in that case we wont be asking the airplane to fly at its limits, either. And even then we have little tolerance for squawks – maybe a slightly loose exhaust stack, tires that need changing or a loose piece of fiberglass on the cowl.

In any kind of flying – whether its airshows, cross-country, or recreational – things will come up. You cant practice everything, nor can you prevent every problem from occurring. Thats where judgment comes in.

Visualizing what youre about to do helps cope with changes from the routine because you can spot them easier. It also gives you a sense of familiarity that helps reduce stress and allows you to focus on whats important – ie flying the airplane, and to do your best.

Preparation is what allows me to cut a ribbon while flying inverted at 200 knots close to the ground. While youre flying may not be as extreme, the right preparation can give you just as much confidence in your ability as I have in mine.

-by Patty Wagstaff

Patty Wagstaff, three-time National Aerobatics Champion, could probably fly her Extra through your living room if she wanted to. Inverted.


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