Aerobatics for the Rest of Us

As described by a World War II combat pilot, aerobatics hold a critical place in training.

Samuel Hynes flew Grumman TBM 'Avenger' torpedo bombers with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he became a literature professor, ultimately teaching at Princeton. At one point in the early 1950s, he lived upstairs from my parents in a small apartment in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. [My mother said he sort of hit on her one day; and when I met him a few years ago, he admitted that he probably had.] One of Hynes' books, Flights of Passage, deals with his experience learning to fly during the war -- and growing up in the process. It's more about that than his combat experience. Hynes earned the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross, but you'd hardly know it by his writing. He didn't consider himself a natural flier -- a distinction he reserved for others he knew. He allowed as how he was competent and skilled enough, but sets his experience apart from that of those he considered the best.

His description of aerobatics -- "acrobatics" in his vocabulary -- is as relevant to our flying personal aircraft in the 21st century as it was to his flying combat during World War II years. He wrote:

"Acrobatic flying is a useless skill in its particulars -- no combat pilot will ever need to loop or slow-roll -- but it is one that extends your control of the plane and yourself, and makes extreme actions in the sky comfortable. In acrobatics the sense of flying is extended to its extreme limit; flying a plane though a loop or a Cuban-eight is the farthest thing possible from simply driving it. When you reach the top of a loop, upside-down and engine at full throttle, and tilt your head back to pick up the horizon line behind you, you are as far outside instinctive human behavior as you can go -- hanging in space, the sky below you and the earth above, inscribing a circle on emptiness … . The more things you can make a plane do, the more you are flying it; though that's not quite right -- you don't make a plane roll, you coax it, ease it, fly with it through the whole maneuver. It becomes a natural series of muscular adjustments, like walking or running, but more conscious."

If you've never experienced aerobatics, consider spending a few hours taking your flying "as far outside instinctive human behavior as you can go." You might find, as Hynes did, that it makes your straight and level flying that much more instinctive and natural.