About five and a half years ago, shortly after getting my private pilot license, one of my sisters asked me, “If you got a Top Gun t-shirt, would you want it to say Goose or Maverick on it?”
I responded, “Maverick, of course. Goose died.” It’s still one of my favorite t-shirts and shows the years of wear with the screen print on it faded and cracking. I think it is only appropriate that I’m wearing it right now, sitting on the couch, as I write about finally flying inverted.
A good friend of mine has a Harmon Rocket. The Rocket is a modified Vans RV-4. The fuselage is stretched to hang a Lycoming IO-540 on the front producing 260 HP instead of the typical 150-160 HP in an RV-4. The wings are also clipped shorter 7 1/2″ per side, bringing the total wingspan down to 21′ 10″ in order to bring their strength up to aerobatic strength (6 G’s) at aerobatic weights.
He has offered to take me flying a number of times, but it just hasn’t worked out. Saturday morning we were each going to fly and meet up for breakfast, but despite a number of attempts to find friends that wanted to go, neither of us were successful. Everyone had commitments that couldn’t be changed. His wife suggested he just fly me in the rocket. So, I found myself driving to the airport Saturday morning, reflecting on the oddity of going to the airport but not to fly myself in my plane.
His Harmon Rocket is a thing of beauty. The builder was meticulous in every aspect of it. It is the first time I have been in a plane with tandem seating instead of side-by-side. He climbed in first and then I climbed into the back seat. Getting in feels more like you are putting the plane on than getting in and sitting down. I put the shoulder straps over my shoulders, connected the lap belt through them, and cinched everything down tight. We slid the canopy over to see if we needed to remove a seat cushion to keep my head from hitting. It looked good and we slid it back open until after the run-up.
The first thing I noticed once seated was how short the wings are compared to my Mooney. At 21′ 10″, the rocket’s wingspan is 13′ 2″ shorter than my Mooney, and looking out it appeared that there wasn’t much wing out there. Sitting behind him in a taildragger made it impossible to see anything in front of us on the ground while taxiing. I had a stick, rudder pedals, throttle and mixture controls, and could just see the backup attitude indicator over his shoulder which also had a speed tape on it.
With the run-up and pre-takeoff checklist complete he held his hands back over his shoulders and said “I’ll take the canopy.” I slid it forward to his hands and he closed it the rest of the way and locked it in place. We received our clearance to taxi and after a brief time waiting at the end of taxiway Alpha, the Tower cleared us to takeoff on 24.
He rolled us onto the runway, lined us up, pushed the throttle forward, and I had the wonderful sensation of getting pushed back in the seat which put an even bigger smile on my face than the one that was already there. I don’t know what our takeoff weight was, but with 44% more horsepower than my Mooney and probably 4-500 lbs less weight, the acceleration was awesome. In no time at all the tail was up and then we were off the ground. He pushed the nose over keeping us just above the runway. When the airspeed hit 125 mph, he pulled back on the stick, pushing me down into the seat and sending the vertical speed indicator to 3000 feet per minute.
We didn’t stay climbing very long, leveling off at 1,600′ to scoot under the LAX Bravo. Once level the speed quickly climbed to 196 mph (170 knots) at 60% power, great performance. We passed downtown LA, Dodger’s Stadium, the Hollywood Sign, the Getty, and over the hills to Thousand Oaks.
“Okay, your plane,” he said.
I made some lazy turns back and forth, just barely moving the stick with my fingers. It is very stable in pitch and roll, no drifting up or down or roll if you don’t give it any input. Slight pressure with a fingertip is enough to roll into a turn but relaxing pressure the stick comes right back to dead center.
“Roll one way and then snap the stick back the other way,” he said. I couldn’t see the smile, but I could hear it in his voice.
I rolled into an easy righthand bank and then quickly brought the stick back to the left. I’ll be honest, I didn’t take it to the stops, just part of the way, but it quickly snapped over into a left bank. It was effortless, and smooth. “Wow!” I exclaimed, he was just laughing.
We continued the flight on towards the aerobatic box about 11 miles east-northeast from the Santa Paula Airport. Upon arrival the real fun began. Yes, it is cheesy, but I said “Do some of that pilot stuff Mav!”
First up was a slow aileron roll. I turned on the video camera on my phone and recorded it, then turned the camera around for the second maneuver which was a fast aileron roll. I was amazed at the roll rate. It was about 3 seconds to complete the roll or about 120° per second.
I turned off the video to enjoy the view outside more.
“Are you feeling sick?” He asked.
“How about a hammerhead stall?”
He told me there would be some G’s as we pulled up so when he started the pull, I took a breath and started to exhale, then stopped it while tensing up my stomach muscles, releasing the tension and letting the exhale continue as the G pressure bled off. With the exception of the initial G force pushing me down into the seat it was a much more benign maneuver than I expected. The top of the stall everything just felt like it slowed down, and then the left wing dropped, the right wing came over the top, and we were heading toward the ground before pulling out level.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m still good.” I said, although I was wondering how much longer I would be able to say that.
He did a half Cuban eight and then a four point aileron roll, a snap roll to a 90° bank to the left, another 90° snap putting us upside down, another 90° snap standing us on the right wingtip, and a final 90° to straight and level flight.
Before he could ask I said, “Ok, that’s all I can do.” I was starting to feel a little queasiness in the pit of my stomach, and I knew it would only get worse.
“Let me show you one more thing, it’s how we do a turn for crop dusting, it’s really mellow.”
He demonstrated how they make their turns at the end of a run to go back the other direction for the next run. He was right, it was a nice easy maneuver.
I learned a few things during my first experience with acrobatic maneuvers. Upside down in a plane really doesn’t feel that much different than right side up, it just looks different. It doesn’t matter how much you want to keep doing maneuvers, when your body decides it’s done, you’re done. Pulling 3.5 G’s is a lot harder than I thought it would be, and apparently more than my neck muscles wanted as they were stiff and sore the rest of the day. Finally, IT IS SOOOOOOO FUN!!!!!!