After an enjoyable afternoon of piloting his Piper PA140 Cherokee, Trevor Skillen made his final approach to Vancouver’s Boundary Bay Airport. At an altitude of just 800 feet, the plane hit wind sheer without warning and suddenly plunged 100 feet. “It scared the hell out of me,” recalls the president and CEO of Metasoft Systems Inc., an information consulting and software development firm in Vancouver. “If you are used to planes rafting a certain way, to all of a sudden plunge like a stone out of the sky was totally disorienting. It took me another month to get back in the air.”
His flight instructor advised Skillen that aerobatic training would desensitize and prepare him for such unexpected incidents, but Skillen balked. “I said, ‘You must be crazy! I don’t want to do aerobatics.’ And he said, ‘These sorts of things are occasionally going to happen to you and you need not to have them totally fluster you’.”
So, Skillen signed up to learn basic aerobatic manoeuvres at the Victoria Flying Club; in a North American Harvard, an aerobatic trainer from World War II, he learned how to loop, spin and roll. “It’s complete freedom,” says Skillen. “Imagine, you can go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do.”
Performing aerobatic stunts is physically and mentally challenging, offering pilots the opportunity to expand their “flight envelope,” boost confidence and develop the skills necessary to deal with unexpected mishaps. Better yet: the action is heart-stopping. “Imagine riding the world’s most exhilarating roller coaster,” says Skillen. “That’s what aerobatics is like.”
Skillen, 51, who says he’s afraid of heights, started flying in 1993. He was looking at buying a small aviation software company and decided that if he was serious about the business, then he should learn to fly. The purchase never happened, but Skillen was hooked. He spent $10,000 and two years to get his pilot’s licence.
While dedicated aerobatics courses are available, Skillen opted to learn the basics from two of his regular flight instructors who are certified in aerobatics. It took him about 10 hours in the air to become comfortable enough to do the manoeuvres on his own.
During a typical aerobatic flight, Skillen runs through a sequence that includes flying loops, barrel rolls, hammerheads and Cuban eights. And he’ll typically experience g-forces between plus-three and minus-one. Caused by extreme changes in acceleration and direction, says Skillen, “a negative g is when your head feels like it’s going to burst, and a positive g is when you feel very heavy all of a sudden. It feels like everything is being pushed down.” About 30 minutes in the air is all you can take, he adds: “When you land, you’re completely drained.”
To pursue his passion, Skillen bought two planes, a two-seat Citabria and a bright yellow Stearman PT-27 military trainer, the iconic World War II biplane. The latter set Skillen back $100,000 and costs another $10,000 or so a year to keep in the air. “[Flying] is a bit of a luxury,” he says. “But it’s one of those luxuries that you’ll spend any money to do, no question — it does get in your blood.”
He describes the Stearman as a “big, loud, smelly, oil-spilling engine. “Before you fly, you check the gas and fill up the oil, and you emerge after a flight in this fine mist of oil and revel in the experience.” The biplane weighs in at 3,600 lbs., has a cruising speed of 125 mph and, unlike the Citabria, has an open cockpit — which makes a flight like riding a motorcycle in the sky.
Skillen’s aerobatic adventures have produced some terrifying moments. Once his plane fell over backward while coming out of a hammerhead. “I thought that was it,” he says. “At that point, you are a passenger in a falling object — as opposed to a pilot of a plane.”
Still, he maintains, the biggest dangers to a pilot aren’t daredevilish stunts, but complacency and stupidity. Once, when he was flying about 30 feet over a mountain ridge, a glider rose up 10 feet away. “It was my fault for not leaving myself enough visibility,” he says. “Your heart skips, and you realize that 10 feet to the left and it would have been all over.”