I is for Immelmann

Black, red, orange and yellow Christen Eagle II airplane

Most of you all know that I’m a recreational pilot and worked in the general aviation industry for about a dozen years. I’m betting most of you don’t know, however, that I learned how to fly airplanes because I wanted to fly in aerobatic contests.

What’s an aerobatic contest? It’s a contest in which pilots fly a sequence of acrobatic maneuvers for judges and are scored on how perfectly they execute each maneuver. There are  are categories of competition from Primary to Unlimited. The difficulty and number of maneuvers increases as you go up in category level. For more information about aerobatics and aerobatic contests, visit the International Aerobatic Club website at www.iac.org.

In the ten years I flew competition, I mostly flew a Super Decathlon that I shared with Owen and a dozen other pilots. Then Owen and I bought a Christen Eagle II and I flew that in competition for a year.

I flew in Primary and Sportsman. The primary category consisted of flying a loop, spin and a roll and some steep turns. Then I flew the Sportsman sequence in practice and competition for a couple of years. Sportsman build on the Primary category with the addition of other maneuvers like Hammerheads, Reverse Half and Half Cubans, Humpty-Bumps and, one of my favorites, the Immelmann Turn.

The Immelmann (or Immelman) Turn is, in short, a half loop up with a half roll at the top.

The half loop starts with the plane traveling across the sky in level flight. Then, the pilot pulls on the stick to make the airplane go up into a loop. At the top of the loop the plane is upside down and you just keep pulling back on the stick to complete the loop and  come out in level flight again. In an Immelmann, instead of making a full loop, the pilot stops the loop at the top and rolls the plane a half roll to upright flight again.

The Immelmann is oft attributed to the first German Ace of World War I, Max Immelmann. I’ve always understood that he developed the maneuver to quickly gain altitude and to outwit enemy pilots. It’s true that the Immelmann is a popular maneuver in combat – but it’s unlikely that Max Immelmann is the man who first flew the Immelmann Turn as we know it today (check out this Wiki entry on Max Immelmann for more information).

I spent many, many hours training to fly and then many more hours learning how to do aerobatic maneuvers like the Immelmann Turn. Some of the best hours I ever spent in the air were with my favorite flight instructor, Rich Stowell. Rich makes a living teaching people how to safely recover from “unusual attitudes” and he makes sure his students are having a great time in the process. Rich has done over 33,000 spins – I’m estimating that he’s done at least 30 with me, maybe more. I always felt safe doing acro with Rich, and, because of the training I had with him, felt safe when I flew Immelmanns and other acro maneuvers on my own.

Just for fun, here’s a short video clip of Rich and one of his students doing a short aerobatic sequence. This flight isn’t from an aerobatic contest, it’s a training flight similar to many of the training flights I had with Rich. The Immelmann turn is the third maneuver the student does in this video clip. Doesn’t it look like fun?!

I haven’t flown aerobatics since we sold our Christen Eagle II almost seven years ago. I usually don’t think I miss flying upside down, but watching the video of Rich flying with his student makes me miss my aerobatic flying days. I watch the video and I can imagine myself right back in the pilot’s seat, stick in hand, with Rich (or Rich’s voice when he wasn’t in the airplane with me) right behind me taking me through my maneuvers. I’m one lucky person to have flown aerobatics as much as I did!

Happy Flying!

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