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Gene Gottschalk - Three Mistakes High
“My lifelong philosophy is that if I see something that looks like fun, I do it.” Aerobatic pilot and systems engineer Gene Gottschalk became interested in flying as he watched Tomcats fly over his head while working at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. “For $35.00, I took an introductory flight lesson and actually got to fly. It’s a blast.” After about 38 lessons and around 70 flights, he passed the flight certification test consisting of a written test, a flight test, and a medical examination and obtained a pilot’s license in 1990. “While taking the flight test, the FAA examiner was also conducting an oral examination about FAA regulations to intentionally distract me,” Gottschalk says. The next day, Gottschalk took his wife out for a ride. She was, he recalls, “cautiously biting her tongue.”

In 1994, his wife’s birthday present to him was an aerobatic flying lesson. Gottschalk is grateful that “the craziest thing either of us wants to do is supported by
Photo of Gene Gottschalk› Larger image
Gene Gottschalk getting ready to board his plane. Credit: G, Gottschalk
the other.” He describes aerobatic flying as “flying unusual attitudes, which means that the nose of the plane is at unusual angles relative to the ground.” He became more confident knowing that he could recover the plane from unusual attitudes. “In a typical lesson,” recalls Gottschalk, “the instructor makes you close your eyes. He then gets the plane out of control, asks you to open your eyes, and you have to figure out what was wrong and fix it.” He considers aerobatic flying more muscle memory than intuition because pilots don’t have enough time to be intuitive. By 1996, and after 15 lessons, he was checked out to be an aerobatic pilot; there is no certification, only a one-time endorsement.

The check out involved demonstrating thirteen mandatory aerobatic maneuvers, depicted in a graphical shorthand known as Aresti figures, all of which must be flown in a single sequence. These thirteen maneuvers consist of a loop, roll, two point roll, hammerhead turn, inverted straight and level, inverted climbing 270 degree turn, upright climbing 90 degree turn, one turn spin, ½ Cuban 8, Immelman turn, double snap roll, split S, and inverted Dutch rolls. “When I was flying the sequence, I strapped my clipboard with a chart of the Aresti figures, to my knee to remind me where I was in the sequence,” explains Gottschalk. In due time, Gottschalk flew competition aerobatics, but chose not to fly in actual competitions due to lack of time and money.

The Aresti figures which are thirteen mandatory aerobatic maneuvers necessary to complete in order to be checked out as an aerobatic pilot.› Larger image
The Aresti figures chart. Credit: G. Gottschalk
International Aerobatic Competition rules require that pilots fly within a one kilometer aerobatic box. Notes Gottschalk, “The curious thing about a one kilometer aerobatic box is that there is not enough room within the box to fly several maneuvers and then turn around. So you must execute vertical maneuvers to reverse direction within the box.” Gottschalk found the point rolls to be the hardest maneuvers. In a point roll, the 360 degree roll is divided by the number of points or rolls. A two point roll is 360 divided by two, or two, 180 degree rolls. “People commonly do up to eight point rolls. Any more and you lose track. Throughout the course of a point roll, all the controls are constantly changing. When you invert 90 degrees, top becomes bottom and bottom becomes top. So you control the plane by pushing the control stick where you normally would pull,” says Gottschalk.

One of Gottschalk’s favorite maneuvers is the accelerated spin, where you put the plane in a nose low vertical spin and one wing flies around the other. “All I could see was concentric rings of color,” he says. Another of his favorite maneuvers is the snap roll which is a horizontal spin taking ¾ of a second. “I did not get dizzy because I was always looking outside for visual references. Aerobatic planes are typically painted in bright colors to provide reference points which you line up relative to the horizon,” explains Gottschalk.

As a safety precaution, he always flew “three mistakes high,” or high enough to make three mistakes before hitting the ground. “I had a lot of fun and managed not to hit the ground,” says Gottschalk.
Eventually, Gottschalk and his wife, who was showing Siberian Huskies and racing motorcycles, wanted to spend more time together so they took up sailboat racing. “I’ve led a colorful life, but the neatest thing I ever did was come to work here.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.