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What are Aerobatics?

By Jessica Hobby
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word aerobatics refers to aircraft maneuvers done in an unusual attitude, or the position of the aircraft in relationship to the horizon. Pilots of all experience levels are taught aerobatics for safety, training, or demonstration. Student pilots may receive instruction in “unusual attitudes,” especially if they are learning to fly a tail-wheel aircraft, which tends to be very sensitive to movement.

Aerobatics are also taught to fighter pilots so they are able to gain a strategic advantage in aerial combat. Private pilots, career pilots and military pilots may choose to practice aerobatics for sport or compete in aerobatic competitions. There are also world wide groups that perform flight formation aerobatics at public air shows, such as the Blue Angels (United State Air Force), Roulettes (Royal Australian Air Force), and the Black Eagles (South Korea).

Aerobatics maneuvers are extremely dangerous and should be practiced for many hours with an instructor prior to execution. Basic maneuvers are performed on a transverse axis, a longitudinal axis and a vertical axis. More complex maneuvers are combinations of the basic ones and make for a much better show.

Maneuvers done on the transverse axis, also called pitch, take place on the axis that runs from the pilots left to right and parallel to the wings. Pitch is controlled by the elevators of a winged aircraft. An example of an aerobatics pitch maneuver is a loop. Maneuvers done on the longitudinal axis, also called roll or the bank angle, refer to the axis that runs between the nose and tail of an aircraft during straight and level flight. Roll is controlled by the ailerons of a winged aircraft. An example of an aerobatics roll maneuver happens to also be called a roll.

Maneuvers done along the vertical axis, called yaw, are the same motion of turning a car left or right. Yaw is controlled by rudders on an aircraft. No aerobatics movements consist of just yaw because it is deadly. This would be a flat spin, otherwise known as a graveyard spiral because the pilot and the plane usually don’t survive. The yaw axis is always controlled and balanced with pitch and roll. An inverted spin can be induced using rudders and the elevator, so the plane is facing the ground while spinning. This is a great maneuver for all pilots to know, so they understand how to get out of a spin, if they ever put themselves in one by accident.

Pilots perform incredible aerobatics stunt flying when they combine pitch, roll and yaw. A couple of examples are Cuban eights and hammerheads. One of the simplest and earliest aerobatics maneuvers learned by pilots is a Cuban eight. Cuban eights are formed by combining pitch and roll and flying a figure eight in the sky.

One of the more complicated movements is a Hammerhead. A Hammerhead is achieved by using pitch, roll and yaw. From a straight and level attitude, the pilot must pitch the airplane vertical. The pilot must hold flight at this spot and wait for the airspeed to reduce to almost zero. Next, the pilot gives full left rudder (yaw) and balances out the effect or gyroscopic forces and torque by using slight right aileron (roll). In less than five seconds the nose of the airplane will turn straight down. Recovery back to straight and level flight includes right rudder to stop yaw and letting the airspeed increase to pre-maneuver speed.

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