Special Feature

Good times roll…

Thinking about adding an Aerobatics Rating to your PPL? Here’s one pilot’s experience with Ultimate High…

It was, according to my instructor, more of a ‘toilet roll’ than a barrel. Day five of my aerobatics rating and I’d swapped from not rolling promptly enough on aileron rolls to rolling too soon and fast on barrel rolls.

I laughed. I’d have laughed at anything by now. My brain had never been so tired. During the day, at the airfield and in the sky was one thing – interest and adrenaline and frantically clutched concentration just about doing their job – but in the evenings I was a dazed wreck, casting about for easy calories and as much sleep as I could get.

But right now we were rolling about the sky, above scattered summer clouds, green coast and blue sea – and I was having a blast.

There’d been a fair amount of laughing throughout. In fact I’d say an ability to laugh at your mistakes is pretty much an essential element for the course.

“That was quite a tidy loop.” I smiled happily then hesitated, hearing the amusement behind the words.  “I was meant to fly a half Cuban. Not another loop.”

Three times we did that one. Three. The idea was a loop, then a half Cuban, then an aileron roll as a little mini sequence. Would my brain remember it? It would not.

That we’d got here at all almost came as a surprise. At the end of the second day, and four flights into the course, I was feeling really, properly rough and having any number of intestinal doubts about whether or not this had been a good idea.

My hand was actually on ‘The Bag’ by the time we returned that day and it was hard to entirely believe the reassurances that my tolerance would improve. To be upside down a few days later with capacity to remark on the fact I’d forgotten to roll the right way up early enough and what I was now doing instead, would have seemed inconceivable.

“The consistency of instruction was amazingly good, and the course pace well thought out”

Which way’s up? Ah, the sky’s over there...

The course, as delivered by Ultimate High at Goodwood in their T67M Slingsby Firefly, is a five-day course encompassing five hours of aerobatics, equating to about eight hours of total flying time. Coupled with this is a similar amount of groundschool which covers a solid recap of the principles of flight we all did back in the PPL syllabus, as well as briefings for the manoeuvres themselves, safety aspects and human performance material.

It’s fair to say that it’s a lot!

Typical pattern of days was briefings in the morning, then fly, debrief, rest/eat/hydrate, brief for the afternoon, fly again, debrief and discuss the student notes.

Flying being flying this was occasionally rearranged at short notice by the unholy GA trinity of weather/serviceability/availability – we lost the very first flying morning to a waterlogged runway and there was some instructor availability rejigging later in the week. In all cases the handover between instructors was so seamless that none of that mattered in practice. The consistency of instruction was amazingly good and the course pace was well thought out from before we even started.

A pre-course pilot profile was requested, including a number of things which really made you think.

“What do you want to get out of the course?” was the gist of one. “What are your flying strengths and weaknesses?” another. When do we ever normally ask ourselves that or do anything about it?

With the runway dried we got airborne for the first flight. This felt a bit like a really robust revalidation flight. Lots of revision and improvement of basics, steep turns and stalling. Also a chance to find out exactly how disciplined one’s HASELL checks and lookout really are. (Answer: almost certainly ‘not enough’. Mine needed continual development throughout the week.)

New material included the wingover as a lookout tool as well as a way of positioning and managing energy. They’re also nice to fly, as far as I was concerned. There’s something just simply enjoyable about sweeping up and over with the whole world spread out down below the wing. 

I was less enthused about the max rate turns – a steep turn, pulling all the way to the onset of the pre-stall buffet. It took me any number of goes to get the hang of them. The idea is that once you know the attitude for them that you can go straight into them in case of needing a rapid change of direction – collision avoidance, for example. But the rapid onset of the G and the repeated direction changes were starting to really threaten my nice boiled egg breakfast by the time we finished!

Trips two and three built on this initial work and added unusual attitude and upset recoveries which left 

me rather wishing they’d been taught this way in the PPL syllabus to begin with. Pretty much every variant you can get yourself into was ruthlessly simplified to ‘push-roll-power’ and then ‘stabilise’. 

Push – because no matter what’s going on you can’t do much about anything if your angle of attack is too high and you stall it.

Roll to level – neither can you do anything about anything if you yoink the wings off with asymmetrical load when it comes time to level off.

Power – think about what you need to do with it based on the speed you now find yourself at.

Stabilise – sort yourself out from a position of at least not making things worse.

These were quite satisfying and oddly reassuring which I’m sure was the point. Even the one we did next, the hair-raisingly named ‘ballistic recovery’. This is for when you lose it in the vertical and just have to hang on with hands and feet, tight enough to stop the control surfaces slapping about while you wait to fall back into a position where you can do something about it…

“T here’s something just simply enjoyable about sweeping up and over with the whole world spread out down below the wing”

We also did incipient spins which had an enormously high startle factor, enough to make me literally lose my grip on the controls and fail to react at all on my first go. After another demonstration, a second attempt was better but my stomach was doing somersaults somewhere in our wake by now. 

ual full spins until a little later in the course than planned to give me a fighting chance to build up some tolerance. In the end I found it slightly less rabbit-in-headlights freeze-inducing than the incipient spin. I would not want to do it by accident but the aircraft recovered well and predictably as long as you could hang onto concentration to go through the recovery actions, even if you were doing so through gritted teeth!

In the meantime, to resettle my internal gyros, we had a nice cruise up and down the coastline for 10 minutes. One of the best bits of pre-course advice I got from numerous people was to be honest rather brave about such things! In any case, the queasiness passed enough on this occasion to start on aileron rolls and loops, which by this time felt like a calmer prospect altogether.

We’d spent quite a bit of time in the briefings focusing on specifically where to look during each stage and the importance of picking outside references to use, but it still took time before I had the mental space to actively look for them. That came in slowly as the week went on.

The pace and order of the exercises was well thought out to facilitate this. Aileron rolls (mostly roll inputs), loops (mostly pitch inputs) came before things like barrel rolls, which required both, and definitely before slow rolls, which required input in all three axes. Likewise it was only as I started to be able to complete manoeuvres with some measure of spare brainpower remaining did the instructors add the requirement to include a scan of the altitude and airspeed as we exited. The idea being to make sure at each stage whether or not we were in a position to launch straight into another manoeuvre.

For the more complex figures, the progression often included a sharing of the controls with the instructor managing the stick, for example, while you managed the rudder, then swapping, then bringing the different elements together. We did stall turns that way and we initially started slow rolls from halfway round, at the inverted point.

For these I found myself armchair flying at lunchtime. Sitting on the picnic table, eyes half shut and fixed upon the little wooden model in one hand, imaginary stick in the other, hands and feet and head all wagging as I tried to implant the sequence of control inputs and visual references into my brain. I sat in the aeroplane waggling the stick at random then trying to get it straight back to the centralised position. Scrambling around for whatever muscle memory I could acquire in these spare moments on the ground.

Because even with all the well-planned, graduated steps, it was a relentless progression. I never felt the least bit pushed in terms of my physical tolerance – everyone was very accommodating if pauses were needed on that front, but the steady increase in new material marched briskly on nonetheless. I wasn’t only physically tired at the end of each day, but mentally completely done for. I could be asked, ‘what do you want for dinner?’ and be unable to muster enough decision-making capacity for more than… ‘food’.

The pace was made sustainable only by the fact that the instructors were very clear on aims – geometrically perfect figures were not what was called for. Recognisable was adequate, and safe was what really mattered.

The mantra, which wasn’t written on the

whiteboard but was repeated aloud enough that it might as well have been, was: ‘Fly it to the limits, through the limits, recover with confidence’.

Being able to spot and recover when you’d messed up was as important as completing the manoeuvres successfully. Needless to say there were plenty of ‘naturally occurring’ upsets to recover from!

The cause of most of these when I was flying was generally too little control input rather than too much – too slow to pull up into the loop resulting in low speed at the top and a wobbly mush through the top or simply stalling it there, too slow to get full aileron in on the aileron roll. Being a weed, I needed both hands for this one, with the result that the nose had dropped too low by the time we came out.

It made me realise what a narrow range of control inputs and stick forces we generally fly around with, merrily in the middle of the aircraft’s envelope. Quite how much push was needed to maintain level inverted flight, or quite how soft and mushy the controls were as we gently buffeted our way through the top of the loop, was attention-getting and very alien at first. The temptation to slacken off during high stick forces, or ‘stir’ the stick around during low ones was initially hard to resist. Especially if you were concentrating on something else – in early loops even turning my head to find my next visual reference was enough to make me unconsciously stop pulling!

That final day and a little three-figure sequence was immensely good fun, even though it took me multiple attempts to join it all together. The first time spotting an aircraft out of the corner of my eye at the top of a loop made me knock it off, the second I belted out of the loop too low and close to our base height.

But there was something gleeful about the fact of joining it all up, flowing around the sky really truly in all three dimensions. It was not at all diminished by the fact I was only a single breath ahead of the aeroplane in furious concentration!

I’d recommend it to everyone. Even if you don’t do the whole lot – even if you just do the upsets and a few loops and rolls it’ll add something delightful to your flying and improve all sorts of other things. Lookout, decision making, accuracy, confidence.

My aim for the course as typed into the pre-course survey was to simply regain currency and confidence in a more entertaining way than just bimbling round the patch. In the end it was so delightfully, exhaustingly, wildly more than that!

Other PPL Skills

Night Rating 

One of the first extensions to the basic PPL that many pilots go for. The Night Rating course is five hours of night flying, including five solo take-offs and landings.

Instrument Rating

Two Instrument Ratings are available to UK pilots, the full IR and the IR(R). The latter is a restricted rating devised to help pilots get out of trouble, should they face IMC. The full IR for private pilots has seven subjects of Theoretical Knowledge, plus a minimum of 40 hours of IFR flying time.

Seaplane Rating

Flying a float or seaplane is huge fun and training can be in the UK (On Track Aviation goes to Scotland for flight training). There’s at least eight hours of flight training with an instructor, plus groundschool on seaplane operations leading to a Theoretical Knowledge written exam.


Not a rating but ‘Differences’ training is required. Typically there’s a couple of hours groundschool covering tailwheel operations, plus five hours of flight training. There’s no exam but your instructor has to be satisfied before signing your logbook.

Strip flying

Again, not a rating but a specialist instructor, such as an LAA Coach, will help you assess and fly safely in and out of short and ‘unimproved’ – i.e., grass, dirt, whatever – strips. There’s a very handy LAA Strip Flying Diploma – details here


Again, no formal rating or test but you’d be mad not to take some instruction from an appropriate instructor – and, again, it’s great fun and one of those skills which improves your overall flying. Typically, there’s some groundschool covering the essentials before flying.

Multi Engine Rating 

The Multi Engine Piston (MEP) Rating is required to act as Pilot in Command of a twin engine aircraft, and it’s a substantial training package of groundschool and flight training, plus a written exam and Skill Test.


All of these courses require instructors! A Flight Instructor (Aeroplane), for instance, can give ab initio instruction while a Class Rating Instructor (CRI) can only instruct those who already have a licence, for the purposes of issuing, revalidating or renewing of a rating.

Shades on! Leia and Ultimate High boss Mark ‘Greeners’ Greenfield at Goodwood

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