Tumbling with the Stars

Today’s airshow performers do it gyroscopically.

Head games: Fierce concentration is what keeps airshow pilot Greg Poe from knocking his noggin during a low inverted pass. With equal focus, Poe and other aerobatic pilots control their aircraft even during the most chaotic tumbles. (Courtesy Greg Poe Airshows)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

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.

Around the early 1990s, many aerobatic performers shifted from biplanes to monoplanes, and that migration set off another radical change. When aggressive flying led to cracks in wooden wings, the solution was to make wings of composites—carbon fiber layers over lightweight, honeycomb cores. “Once they switched to the composite material, assuming the wing is laid up properly, they were just almost indestructible wings,” Greg Poe says. “And so then, once you get to that point, then you become comfortable and it is now a matter of your imagination, how you can tweak a maneuver, how you present it to the crowd. Now the airplane is no longer the weak link.”
With airplanes they could trust, pilots flew as hard as they wanted, and creativity blossomed. Three-time national aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff, who flies a Cirrus-sponsored Extra 300S, points out that the inspiration for some of the new maneuvers came from unusual sources. “The knife-edge spin was a really interesting maneuver that came from the [radio control] modelers,” she says, “and Henry Haigh started doing it in competitions.”

Some aerobatic pilots found ways to manipulate their airplanes to mimic the true tumble, to fly them all the way through the gyroscopically assisted maneuver so they are in control, rather than just along for the ride. In his routine, Michael Goulian, the 1995 national aerobatic champ, does nine tumbles that are like perfectly choreographed dance steps, timed to a music soundtrack. “When I do a tumble,” he says, “the attitude and the direction of exit is absolutely predetermined every single time. In other words, I am doing the same tumble, with the same entry and the same exit, every time. It is a matter of spending hours and hours of learning how to do them.
“In a tumble you are always evaluating the attitude with which the plane is tumbling. Has it translated 90 degrees? How much energy is in the tumble? Am I going to do three rotations or four? In a tumble, you are thinking it through. You are not along for the ride. I will actually modulate the throttle and the rudder and the ailerons to fix a tumble that has gone bad…or to make it better, to make it flip one more time.”

I’ve watched him at shows: He pitches his Extra 300SHP forward at the top of a loop, yaws it sideways, and shows us the airplane tumbling from left to right while its nose peeks sideways at us. Then when it looks as if the airplane will rotate one more time, he stops mid-tumble, just because
he can.

Sean Tucker also taught himself to control the aircraft from the start of the tumble to the finish. “What I really focused on was how to fly the machine so I could do 9, 10, 11, 12 of them in a row across the sky,” he says. “It is not that difficult to do one of them, but to sustain one more than four or five times really takes finesse. It takes touch.”

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus