Tumbling with the Stars
Today’s airshow performers do it gyroscopically.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
Courtesy Greg Poe Airshows
(Page 2 of 3)
“The thing I learned about tumbling maneuvers is that nobody is very good at telling you how to do it. You’ve got to kind of figure it out on your own.”
Debby Rihn-Harvey, the current national aerobatic champion, says that when airshow fans ask about tumbles, pilots are cautious about what they share, because tumbles are potentially dangerous. “Every airplane is going to be a little bit different,” she says.
Rihn-Harvey flies a CAP 232 she calls the Hurricane II. Her show routine includes about six types of tumbles that she flies with competition-style precision and a touch of Texas yeehaw. When she’s not flying shows, Rihn-Harvey is an airline pilot and has her own flight school: H&R Aviation, in La Porte, Texas; if a stranger walks up and says, “How do you do that?” she says, “Come see me.”
With all their difficulties and dangers, tumbles progressed slowly at first. In 1983, French pilot Claude Roux discovered a forward somersault he called the ruade. Two years later, Ray Williams added a flourish to the hammerhead—an airshow staple in which the pilot zooms vertically until he’s almost out of airspeed, then kicks the airplane into a cartwheel. When Williams realized his Pitts S-2S could be coaxed into doing not just one but two pivots at the top of the hammerhead, he christened the new maneuver “whifferdill.” In 1988, world aerobatic champion Henry Haigh brought us the knife-edge spin (see illustration, p. 45).
Other people were experimenting too, but the main reason gyroscopic maneuvers developed slowly and sporadically was that they broke airplanes. Their snapping entries produced sudden, jolting side loads on the airframe, the engine mounts, the tail sections, and especially the engine crankshafts. The metal propeller blades actually helped tumble the airplanes, but their weight also strained crankshafts and broke more than a few.
These dangers made most of us limit ourselves to one lomcevak per airshow; however, nothing slowed down future superstars Sean Tucker and Wayne Handley. On his way to discovering new ways to tumble airplanes, Tucker lost a propeller and broke nine crankshafts.
From 1984 through 1986, while both made a living as cropdusters, Tucker and Handley pursued their passion for tumbling maneuvers: practicing, critiquing, and egging each other on to try new things. “Wayne is an incredible innovator and thinker, a student of it,” Tucker says. “But I clearly hold the record for broken crankshafts.”
Airshow legend Gene Soucy recalls seeing the two fly for the first time, at Salinas, California. “I just stood there with my mouth open,” he says. “They were flying the little Pitts, just like I had flown for 15 years, and were doing things I had never imagined. Here I was three-time national champion and my buddies were world team members. Even Leo [Loudenslager] was flying his ultimate airplane, and all we ever did was that one lomcevak. But all of a sudden you see these guys doing it on vertical lines, and doing the shoulder roll, like Sean’s Centrifuge, eight different ways, eight different new maneuvers in that one show I watched that day. I just didn’t believe it. Wayne Handley and Sean created that whole thing.”
Tucker and Handley could not have maintained this quest had builders and manufacturers not significantly changed the designs of propellers, engines, and airframes. A lightweight, composite, three-blade propeller and a solid crankshaft flange ended Tucker’s train of crankshaft mishaps.