Dangerous Ballet

by Richard Ong


The art of aerobatic flying is a dangerous mid-air dance between a pilot and his/her aircraft. It is a tightly coordinated air ballet that I learned to respect seven years ago when I suddenly blacked out high above the waters of the Niagara region.

“One, two, three, four and ROLL TO THE LEFT!”

I jerked the stick to the left, just as in the movies.

“Easy, there, Rich,” said Mike over the headset intercom. “The stick is very sensitive to the touch. The plane will turn and roll at about the same degree as you move the stick.”

At about the same time Mike had completed his sentence, I saw the sky dip down to my right and disappear beneath the plane. The patchwork green fields below bordered by Lake Ontario rose to my left and over my head. I strained my muscles momentarily to look up through the bubble canopy and wondered whether it was the plane or the world that turned upside down.

Before I could have my answer, all was right again with the world. From underneath the plane, the sky rose to the left and remained at a relatively stationary position overhead as I eased the stick back to its rest position.

“All right,” said Mike. “Let’s try that again, but gently this time, and to the right.”

I eased the stick slightly to the right and imagined the small, nimble plane respond to my coaxing by simultaneously raising her right wing aileron and lowering the other half on the left to generate a lift that spun the world around me in the opposite direction.

“Beautiful!” said Mike. “That’s the way to do it. How do you feel?”

“Great!” I replied. My heart was pounding in exhilaration. “This aircraft is remarkably smooth. I feel as if it’s an extension of my own body.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. As soon as I move the stick one way or the other, the plane moves almost instantaneously as if it knows what I am about to do!”

“Well, that’s the Extra 300L for you, Rich. It’s one of the best aerobatic and dogfighting planes around. It’s widely used by most training schools and adventure companies like us because of its agility and reliability. Now enough chit-chat and let’s see you do some basic banking turns.”

Extra300L cockpit
Once again, my flying mechanical partner and I danced a few steps in the air. I led by both nudging the stick to one side and applying pressure on one of the rudder pedals. The plane responded like a seasoned ballerina, twisting and turning on my silent command.

I wasn’t overly nervous about the flight. I knew that Mike could override my controls in the instructor’s seat behind me. The specially modified propeller-driven Extra 300L had a two-seat tandem arrangement. Mike sat in a slightly raised compartment for visibility. He piloted the take-off and most of the cruising speed maneuvers. My job as an adventure client was to sit back and enjoy the view, while occasionally being handed over the reins of the aerial ballerina from time to time at his own discretion.

“Are you ready for some fun?” I could almost sense the smile plastered on Mike’s face as he said the word, “fun.” My fingers twitched involuntarily and tightened the grip around the stick.

“Sure.”

“All right. Now remember what we told you during the briefing. In order to counter the effects of positive G’s, you need to press down and tense the muscles of your body and slowly exhale. This will prep you up and increase the blood flow to the brain. It will increase your tolerance against the effects of high-G pulls.”

What was a positive-G maneuver again? The pre-flight briefing seemed like a million years ago.

“Okay-doke,” was all I said. I figured that everything would come back to me when the time came to perform the trick.

“All right,” said Mike. “For this next item on our list, we’re going to do a dive for about three seconds, go belly up at one eighty degrees and then pull up on the stick from the inverted position till we complete the loop. That’s a small negative-G maneuver followed by a high positive-G. But first, let’s increase our altitude.”

Mike pulled the plane up to a ceiling of 3,000 feet and leveled the nose.

“Now pay attention, Rich. I’m going to do this simple maneuver twice before I release the control back to you.”

“Okay. Let’s do it,” I swallowed. My clenched knuckles were white against the black, threaded plastic grip of the control stick. I glanced at the mini-DVR camera to my right and almost laughed when I imagined watching the unedited video of my eyes twitching behind my glasses. I tried to stay focused by staring at the array of gauges and dials in front of me.

I had just finished locating the airspeed indicator, altimeter and RPM indicator when the plane did a roller-coaster dive through the clouds and left my stomach behind. Just when the rest of my internal organs had finally sorted themselves out, the ground replaced the clouds above my head and I heard Mike shout through the headset, “Now tense your muscles!”

The nose lifted in front of me and I suddenly felt my shoulders pressed hard against the seat as the plane rose like a rocket and punched through the same clouds we had dived through before.

At least I thought they were the same clouds but I was too wired up by the sudden rush to really care about this tiny bit of detail.

“Whoo!” I shouted. It was a fantastic ride.

Mike did the same maneuver a second time before leveling the nose back at 3,000 feet.

“Okay, now it’s your turn.”

“Great!” I pushed the stick down too fast.

“Take it easy,” said Mike though his voice sounded weak over the headset. The blood rushed up to my head against the negative-G force and I felt a mild tingling sensation on my legs as my blood pressure was reduced below the waist.

“Roll the plane at one eighty.” I did and the ground once again came up above me.

“Now pull up! Pull up!” I heard Mike bark over the headset amidst the dull thumping inside my head.

I yanked hard on the stick and the world suddenly turned dark around me. This foolhardy maneuver had caused me to experience what is sometimes called tunnel vision. A shroud suddenly enveloped my head from behind, cutting off both sight and sound. This experience was akin to driving a car in reverse at high speed from the mouth of a tunnel back into an abyss. I would later learn that I had actually blacked out for a fraction of a second when the blood drained away from my brain.

Almost as quickly as it vanished, the mouth of the tunnel suddenly reappeared at a distance in front of my eyes and grew in size at an alarming rate until the world exploded in living color all around me. The cacophony that assaulted my ears thankfully abated and I heard Mike’s voice in the background.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Wow. That was something. I messed up didn’t I? I also forgot to tense my muscles when I pulled the stick.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “Everyone does a boo-boo the first time around. I wouldn’t feel so bad. I took back the controls as soon as you fell silent and leveled off. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, thanks. Can we hang around here for bit so I can catch my breath?”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Mike. “Anytime you’re ready just let me know. Remember, this plane is your intimate dance partner. If you nudge, she’ll gently turn. But if you jerk her around, she’ll drag you clear across the sky.”

“Roger that,” I said.

I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled to keep my hands from shaking. I closed my eyes to steady my nerves and prepared myself to resume our dangerous ballet.


Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ong

Home Page