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Out of Controlled Flight
or why won't this airplane fly normally
I squeeze the stick’s pistol grip back into my lap, pulling the plane’s nose up hard. I’m nervous. I’ve never tried an inverted spin, and I’m not particularly sure I want to. But this is the last requirement before I’m qualified in the T-2 Buckeye. As the nose climbs, I rehearse what I’m about to do: pull 3 G’s – three times the normal pull of gravity – until the nose points straight up, hold it there like a top until the airspeed bleeds to zero, and finally, once we’re falling backwards, push the airplane into an inverted spin. The full left stick will flip the airplane upside down, and the opposite rudder will pull the nose into a spin. Then I just have to ride it until we’re ready to recover. If I do this right, the plane will be all mine, and it’s been years since I’ve flown solo.
But that excitement is for later. I’ve got 10,000 feet to go – about 45 seconds out of control.
The weight of my ass against the seat tells me I’m approaching 3 G’s and I glance at the gauge. The needle is pointing right at the three. Perfect. I ease the pressure on the stick so I don’t pull too hard, then pull again to catch it. As it climbs, the nose of the airplane drifts sideways, so I press it back to vertical with the rudder pedals. Keep it tracking straight. I steal a look left and right and I smile as the wingtips pierce the horizon evenly; I’m level. As the airplane points straight up, I stop looking out and begin to scan my instruments. Attitude gyro, airspeed, turn and slip indicator. Those three gauges are all I need. The attitude gyro shows a full circle, I’m vertical, and I start playing with the stick to keep it there. It’s like balancing a broom upside down in your palm.
Now the only thing to do is wait. My heartbeat increases, rhythmically racing to get this over with. 100 knots airspeed. 80 knots. 50. Then nothing. I’m weightless and falling backward, down to the earth I can’t see. It’s time to dance.
I stomp the right rudder pedal against the floor and push with both hands against the stick, slamming it into the left side of the cockpit. Every muscle strains to hold the controls. One second – nothing happens. Two seconds – still nothing. Is this normal? Then violently, like a beast unleashed, the T-2 flips. Her nose tumbles end over end and the entire airplane spins backwards. The centrifugal force pulls everything towards my head and out. 53 years of dust, some long forgotten pens, and my five liters of blood all race to escape the plane.
My instructor, Charlie, had briefed me on this moment only an hour ago. He said it would feel like hanging upside down while a magnet tried to pull my head off my body. He said I’d want to do anything to escape the pressure this first time, and warned me not to let go. But he hadn’t warned me that it would feel so lopsided, like a drunk trying to sit down on a spinning seat. He must have forgotten that part, but I guess it’s normal as he calls from the back seat, “There you go Slurpee. Nice job.”
And so we start to spin. The nose flops left. So does my head. The wings pull us to the right. My stomach follows the wings. Now the nose switches. My eyeballs hurt. We arc down like a line on an etch-a-sketch. My gut rises – or does it fall – to meet my brain. The earth becomes a blur. Brown. Green. Blue. Brown again. Just as my lunch threatens to come up – or is it down – we finally find a steady spin. Not that it is much relief. My head feels like it’s being pulled off my neck. I want out of this. “Uhhhh….Charlie….uuggghhh…how much lo-”
Immediately, instinctually, I reverse the flight controls. I push the stick to the front right corner of its throw while I step on the left rudder. That should stop the rotation, while the forward stick should let the airplane build up airspeed – energy I’ll need to fly away. I push, and I step, and I wait. Charlie is telling me from the back seat to press harder. I feel him pressing on the controls with me. But we’re still spinning. Still out of control.
I hear him tell me to try again, his voice not yet panicked but starting to rise. I let the stick go quickly, and slam it into the corner again even quicker. But still we’re spinning, as if the Korean War era plane is ignoring me in her old age. Charlie tries to tell me what to do, but before he can say anything I tell him to shut up. I don’t need his help, I need to think. The stick and rudder aren’t obstructed. The speed brake is in. Engines are at idle. Wingtip tanks are empty. There’s no reason we shouldn’t recover. I’m passing 13,000 feet with maybe a minute to figure it out.
In a desperate attempt to try anything, I cycle the stick like I’m stirring a pot. As I do, the nose starts to follow, telling me I have some control. That’s a good sign, I think. Smoothly this time I place the stick into the recovery positions. As the control reaches the edge of its throw, the T-2 flips right side up, the nose points down, and we start flying again as if nothing happened. We accelerate to 180 knots and I pull up, bringing us to level flight.
“That was weird. What happened Slurpee?” Charlie asks. I tell him I have no idea. I’ve never seen an airplane not respond, and he’s only flown this plane a few more hours than me. Plus, he is an airline pilot, not an aerobatics expert. Neither of us know what to make of it. We take turns making sure the airplane is flying normally, steady at 12,000 feet. The plane does everything we ask, and for a moment we’re both silent.
As we catch our breath, I start to remember that this is still my checkride. In order to pass, I need to do two inverted spins. That was one. I think Charlie realizes the same as he starts to tell me that we don’t have to finish the flight if I don’t want to. But, he says, as test pilots we need to understand the airplane. If we can’t tell maintenance what just happened, someone else will have to come find out. And neither of us knows what to tell maintenance. I want to go home. The memory of what just happened makes me sick. But I also want to pass this flight, to finish this and never do another inverted spin again. And hell, I made it out of that one. So when he asks me what I want to do, I hear my voice tell him I’ll fly it again.
I maneuver the airplane to 20,000 feet and 250 knots and I tell myself this one will be quick. We’ll test the maneuver and recover right away. I pull the throttles to idle, pitch the airplane up, and prepare for my second inverted spin. As I ease the controls into place, tenderly this time, the plane again pitches down and starts her dervish whirl. One spin. Two. That’s enough for me, and I swiftly move the controls to recover. I kick the left rudder, push the stick right and forward, and hold my breath as my head throbs. She immediately responds by flipping right side up and nose down, laughing at me for suspecting anything else might happen. And I start to breathe again.
I’m grateful that it’s over, and I’m ready to return to base. I tell myself I’ll never tempt fate like that again.
When we’re safely back on the ground, Charlie and I debrief the flight. Everything had been smooth except that first inverted spin. I hold my breath wondering if he will pass me on my checkride. His big smile puts me at ease. “You did great,” he says. “You were so good I’m going to make you our Out Of Controlled Flight Instructor. There’s no one better to teach the next guys how to spin. You’re on the schedule for tomorrow – solo. Congrats.”