Learning basic aerobatic techniques and maneuvers

The Maneuvers
About the Extra 300S
Rules to Live By
The Aerobatic Checklist
Aerobatic Hieroglyphs
The Aerobatic Box
The Loop
The Aileron Roll
The Hammerhead
The Cuban Eight
The Spin
The Split-S
The Immelmann

Related Links
Extra 300S Aircraft Information
Patty Wagstaff Airshows

Aerobatics require the full range of a pilot's skill and precision. Learning to fly aerobatics—with its range of airspeeds, unusual pitch attitudes, and varying G-forces—makes a great way to expand and practice your understanding of aerodynamics and aircraft control.

The Extra 300S pulling some Gs

The Maneuvers

The four basic aerobatic maneuvers include: the loop, aileron roll, Hammerhead, and Cuban Eight. You can also test your skill by trying the Immelmann, Split-S, and spins. The aerobatic procedures that follow assume you are flying the maneuverable Extra 300S.

About the Extra 300S

The Extra 300S, a single-seat, high-performance aerobatic aircraft manufactured in Dinkslaken, Germany, is one of several modern designs created by Walter Extra. The 300S features a welded tube fuselage covered with composite panels and an all-composite wing. The structure can withstand loads of 10G, and its large ailerons deliver a roll rate exceeding 400 degrees per second.

That exceptional performance makes the Extra one of the top aircraft on the airshow circuit and in major aerobatic competitions—and the choice of world-class aerobatic pilots like Patty Wagstaff. For more information, see the Extra 300 Aircraft Information article.

For a more dramatic performance, turn on the smoke! You can turn smoke on and off by pressing I.

Rules to Live By

Aerobatics aren't inherently dangerous, provided you follow some basic rules and procedures.

The Right Airplane

First, make sure your airplane is up to the task. Aircraft are certified in several categories. Normal or utility aircraft aren't designed for aerobatics. Aircraft like the Extra 300S, which is certified in the acrobatic category, include special features and reinforced structures to withstand the stresses of aerobatic flight.

Basic Rules

You can't perform aerobatics whenever and wherever you want. In the United States, FAR 91.303 lays out the basic rules. For example, aerobatics are prohibited over congested areas, over groups of people, near airports, and inside certain types of controlled airspace. You must also remain at least 1,500 feet (460 meters) above the ground and the visibility must be at least 3 miles (5 kilometers).

Airshows and aerobatic contests are conducted under the terms of special waivers issued by the FAA. Pilots who fly low-level aerobatics at those events must have special training to qualify for a low-level aerobatic waiver.

Pilots must also wear parachutes during aerobatics, except during certain types of flight training.

The Aerobatic Checklist

Before performing any aerobatic maneuver, make sure you run through the following checklist.

Before takeoff:

  • Check that your seat and harness are secure. Make sure your parachute has been inspected and packed within the last 120 days.
  • Make sure the cockpit is secure—you don't want loose objects flying around.

In the air:

  • Check fuel quantity and fuel tank selector.
  • Verify that engine instruments all read normal.
  • Check the mixture and propeller controls.
  • Make sure you're at least 3,000 feet (914 meters) above ground level.
  • Perform at least two clearing turns to make sure the area is clear of other aircraft.
  • Establish appropriate reference points and review the proper airspeeds and G readings for the upcoming maneuver.

Aerobatic Hieroglyphs

Aerobatic pilots use a special shorthand called Aresti notation to choreograph their competition routines and airshow programs. Pilots put a copy of their notes on the instrument panel like sheet music to help them remember each maneuver. Judges at competitions use a copy of the same notes to ensure that pilots fly every maneuver in the proper sequence.

Aresti Essentials

The Aresti scheme is based on a few simple symbols:

  • Each maneuver begins with a dot and ends with a vertical bar.
  • A line indicates the aircraft's flight path; a solid line indicates a positive G or "inside" maneuver; a dashed line represents a negative G or "outside" maneuver.
  • A curved arrow indicates a roll; a number beside an arrow indicates pauses in the roll.
  • The outline of an upright triangle indicates an inside or positive snap roll; a solid triangle represents an outside or negative snap roll.
  • A horizontal right triangle indicates a spin. An outlined triangle represents an upright spin; a solid triangle represents an inverted spin.

The Aerobatic Box

At aerobatic competitions, pilots fly their routines inside a "box" of airspace identified by markers on the ground.


The box is 3,300 feet (1,005 meters) long and 3,300 feet (1,005 meters) wide. The top is 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) above ground level. The bottom of the box depends on the type of competition.

For beginning Sportsman aerobatic pilots, the bottom of the box is set at 1,500 feet (457 meters). Intermediate pilots may fly as low as 1,200 feet (366 meters). The base for Advanced pilots is 800 feet (244 meters), and Unlimited pilots may fly as low as 300 feet (91 meters) from the ground.

During a competition, pilots must signal the judges when they enter and leave the box. They must remain in the box throughout their routines. Judges deduct penalty points for each excursion outside the box.

In Flight Simulator, aerobatic boxes are located in the following locations:

  • Just south of Reno/Stead Airport (4SD), Reno, Nevada.
  • West of Fond du Lac Airport (KFLD), Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
  • East of Ephrata Municipal Airport (KEPH), Ephrata, Washington.
  • Southwest of Marana Northwest Regional Airport (KAVQ), Marana, Arizona.

The Loop

The loop—a vertical circle in the sky—is a fundamental aerobatic maneuver, one of the first skills fledgling aerobatic pilots learn. Practicing loops helps you get accustomed to unusual pitch attitudes, rapidly changing airspeeds, and the effects of Gs on you and the airplane.

Many pilots think that to fly a loop you just get the airplane up to speed and pull back on the stick. That approach might make the airplane zoom through 360 degrees around the pitch axis, but it's not likely to result in a competition-quality loop. In fact, it will probably lead either to a high-speed stall at the start of the maneuver or an ungraceful fall out of the sky as the airplane runs out of speed halfway through the loop.

As with all aerobatic maneuvers, the keys to executing a perfect loop are proper setup and smooth execution.

To fly a loop

  1. Start a loop by lining up with a road. Set the power to establish about 140 knots in level flight. Start a steady, smooth pull on the stick. You're looking for a reading of about 4G on the G meter.
  2. As the nose starts up, look to the left. The wing should trace a circle on the horizon. Adjust the amount of back pressure you hold to keep the wing tip moving in that circle.
  3. As you approach an inverted attitude, look out the back so you can check the alignment of the wings with the horizon. If you have rudder pedals, use slight rudder pressure as necessary to keep the nose from wandering off the reference line.
  4. At the inverted position, ease off on the back pressure. If you hold full back pressure on the stick, your loop will be egg shaped—and you might induce a stall at the top.
  5. As you start down the back side of the loop, add back pressure. Check airspeed and power—you may need to reduce the throttle. Look over the nose to stay aligned with the reference line, but don't forget to glance to the left to make sure your wing tip is still tracing a perfect circle. Adjust back pressure as necessary.
  6. Maintain back pressure as the nose comes back to the horizon. You should pull about 4 Gs at the bottom of a normal loop.

common Errors

If you're having trouble flying nice round loops, here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Not applying enough back pressure at the beginning of the loop makes the airplane lose speed and fall out of the maneuver. Maintain a steady pull on the stick to keep the nose moving around the pitch axis.
  • Pulling too hard increases load factor and may cause the airplane to stall during the first half of the maneuver.
  • Holding too much back pressure at the top of the loop results in elliptical loops—or a stall at the top. Relax back pressure as you approach the inverted attitude.
  • Staring over the nose during the first part of a loop leaves you with nothing but blue sky to look at. Check your left wing tip during the maneuver. Look back over the tail as you pass through the vertical to make sure the wings stay level with the horizon.

The Aileron Roll

In an aileron roll, the airplane rotates 360 degrees around its longitudinal axis, with the nose tracing a tight circle around a point on the horizon.

In the Extra 300S, which has a roll rate of more than 400 degrees per second, an aileron roll happens quickly. But it's still a four-step maneuver.

To fly an aileron roll

  1. Pick a reference point on the horizon, such as a cloud or a road.
  2. From level flight with the power set to maintain 140 knots, add back pressure on the stick to bring the nose up smoothly to about 20 degrees above the horizon.
  3. Glance to the left to verify that you've set the correct pitch attitude.
  4. Hold back pressure on the stick, then move the stick quickly, but smoothly, all the way to one side. (It's generally easier to start with rolls to the left.)
  5. Hold the stick all the way over and look out over the nose as the airplane rolls.
    The nose should trace a tight circle around the reference point.
  6. As the wings approach level with the horizon, center the stick.

common Errors

The Extra 300S's brisk roll rate makes the aileron roll one of the easiest aerobatic maneuvers to fly. But if you have trouble flying smooth, polished rolls, keep the following common mistakes in mind:

  • Pulling the nose up too much or too little at the start of the maneuver leads to a sloppy roll. A pitch up of about 20 degrees makes the maneuver easier to manage.
  • Increasing back pressure after you establish the correct pitch attitude makes the nose wander off the reference point or brings the nose down too steeply as the airplane reaches the inverted position.
  • Failure to hold full aileron deflection during the maneuver. Make sure you hold the stick all the way over to the side until you're nearly upright.

The Hammerhead

A hammerhead, sometimes called a "hammerhead stall" or a "hammerhead turn," is a zero-airspeed turn. From vertical flight, the airplane pivots around a wing tip and then heads straight down. Airshow and competition pilots often use hammerheads to reverse direction and to convert altitude into airspeed for another maneuver.

Flying a perfect hammerhead requires full power, and a strong, but smooth pull to establish an exact vertical line. Good timing in the pivot is also essential.

The hammerhead requires you to use the rudder and aileron controls independently, so make sure you turn off Auto-rudder before flying a hammerhead.

To fly a hammerhead

  1. Line up with a road in level flight.
  2. Set full power to establish about 180 knots in level flight.
  3. Smoothly and quickly add back pressure to bring the nose up to the vertical.
    Pull hard enough to reach about 6 Gs on the G meter.
  4. As the nose comes up, look to the left to make sure you're exactly vertical.
    Airspeed drops rapidly, and you'll need to make small forward and back adjustments with the stick to hold the airplane vertical.
  5. As the airplane approaches zero airspeed, push full left rudder and move the stick to the right to add some right aileron as you pivot around the wing tip.
  6. As you start straight down, ease back on the power, neutralize the rudders, and pull smoothly to recover to level flight.

common Errors

If you find hammerheads leave you sliding backward or spinning earthward, review these common errors:

  • Starting at too slow an entry speed makes it hard to establish and hold a good vertical line. Make sure you begin a hammerhead with at least 180 knots showing on the airspeed indicator.
  • Failure to maintain an exact vertical line makes a good pivot impossible. You'll likely end up nosing over, flopping onto your back, or twisting off to the side. As you climb, keep an eye on the left wing tip and use forward and back pressure to keep the airplane headed straight up.
  • Using rudder alone to pivot usually makes the airplane roll at the top. Make sure you add a little opposite aileron as you push the rudder. You want the airplane to pivot, not tumble.
  • Poor timing on the pivot leads to all sorts of problems. If you wait too long, the airplane stops and can even slide backward—leading to a whip stall. Pivoting too soon doesn't cause much trouble—except with the judges. They want to see the airplane pivot around its wing tip.

The Cuban Eight

The Cuban Eight is one of the first combination maneuvers aerobatic pilots learn. A Cuban Eight is two three-quarter loops, with a descending half aileron roll on the back side of each loop. To an observer on the ground, the airplane traces a figure eight lying on its side.

If you can fly consistent, accurate loops and aileron rolls you'll have no trouble with the Cuban Eight. On the other hand, if you're a bit rusty on those maneuvers, take some time to review them before tackling the Cuban Eight. When you're ready, follow this basic procedure:

To fly a Cuban Eight

  1. Line up with a road.
  2. From level flight at about 140 knots, pull up as if starting a loop. You should pull about 4 Gs.
  3. Smoothly increase power in the climb so you reach full throttle as the nose arrives at the vertical.
  4. As you climb, look to the left to make sure the wing tip is drawing a circle on the horizon.
  5. As the nose drops toward the horizon, look back to check that your wings are level, and continue the loop.
  6. Look out at the left wing again.
  7. As the nose approaches 45-degrees below the horizon (inverted), add forward pressure on the stick to maintain that 45-degree angle.
    You may need to reduce power a bit to keep airspeed under control.
  8. Hold the 45-degree line for a moment and then move the stick left or right to roll upright.
  9. Look out the front to check alignment with the reference line.
  10. Glance at the left wing to make sure the nose stays at the 45-degree angle until you complete the roll.
    Apply smooth back pressure to bring the nose back up into a second loop and repeat the process to complete a full Cuban Eight.

common Errors

The most common mistakes in flying a Cuban Eight are the same errors pilots make during loops and aileron rolls. If you're having trouble during the looping or rolling phases, review the procedures for those maneuvers. The biggest problems specific to the Cuban Eight include:

  • Not holding enough forward pressure on the stick during the dive on the 45-degree line. This error causes the nose to drop toward the ground on the back side of each loop.
  • Staring over the nose during the entire maneuver leads to lopsided eights. Remember to check the wing tips and toward the tail to keep the airplane properly aligned throughout the maneuver.

The Spin

A spin is a prolonged stall in which the airplane corkscrews at a steep descent angle and low airspeed. The airplane's twisting motion looks like a series of rolls, but it's actually a yawing motion called autorotation.

To spin an airplane, the wing must first stall. The maneuver begins with a slightly exaggerated entry to a power-on (also known as "departure") stall.

Types of Spins

Spins come in two basic varieties. The unintentional (often fatal) spin at low altitude starts when a pilot tries to correct a sloppy turn toward the runway during the final leg of a landing pattern.

Competition and airshow pilots fly intentional spins, aerobatic maneuvers that require the pilot to enter cleanly and recover crisply after a specified number of turns and on a predetermined heading.

To fly a spin

  1. Line up with a reference point such as a road or intersection.
  2. Reduce power to establish level flight at about 90 knots.
  3. Add back pressure to pull the nose up smoothly to about 40 degrees.
    Glance at the left wing tip to establish the correct pitch attitude.
  4. While holding back pressure, close the throttle.
    You'll need to increase back pressure as the airplane decelerates.
    Glance to the left to maintain the correct pitch attitude.
  5. Just before the airplane stalls, smoothly pull the stick full back.
  6. Apply and hold full rudder in the direction you want to spin.
    The nose will fall toward the vertical as the spin starts.
  7. Hold the stick full back and maintain full rudder deflection. Look out over the nose and count the number of turns.
  8. To stop the spin, apply full rudder opposite the direction of rotation, and relax back pressure to break the stall.
  9. As soon as the rotation stops, neutralize the rudder.
    Ease back on the stick as airspeed builds, and add power as the nose comes up to the horizon.

common Errors

Spins often turn into steep, spiraling descents. To fly precise spins, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Applying less than full elevator and rudder pressure leads to a sloppy entry. The airplane noses over into a steep spiraling descent and airspeed builds rapidly. And remember: to spin, an airplane must be stalled.
  • Relaxing back pressure on the stick and/or rudder pressure quickly breaks the stall. Apply and hold full rudder and full back pressure during a spin. Relax control pressures only when you're ready to recover.
  • Forgetting to close the throttle leads to excessive airspeed and loss of altitude. When the airplane enters the spin, make sure you bring the throttle all the way back.
  • Holding rudder after the rotation stops can start a spin in the opposite direction. Apply rudder opposite the direction of rotation to stop the spin, then neutralize the rudder pedals.
  • Abrupt control movements can lead to secondary stalls. Recover from the maneuver promptly, but smoothly.

The Split-S

A Split-S is an old fighter-pilot's trick to reverse course and convert altitude into airspeed for a quick getaway. To a modern aerobatic pilot, the Split-S is a combination maneuver, a half aileron roll to inverted followed by a half loop.

Although the Split-S looks like a simple maneuver, it can bite the unwary pilot. Airspeed builds rapidly during the descending half loop, and sloppy roll technique can lead to a dangerous steep spiral. Before attempting a Split-S, it's best to review the loop and aileron roll.

When you're ready to try a Split-S, follow this basic procedure:

To fly a Split-S

  1. Line up with a road, and set the power to maintain level flight at about 90 knots.
  2. Start a half aileron roll and ease the throttle all the way back.
  3. Look over the nose to check wing level at the inverted position.
  4. Smoothly apply and hold back pressure to start the half loop.
    Maintain enough back pressure to keep the nose moving around the pitch axis and to keep airspeed from building too quickly.
  5. Recover to straight and level flight and set cruise power as the nose returns to the horizon.

common Errors

Sloppy roll and loop technique causes the most problems for pilots trying a Split-S. Review those maneuvers and keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Make sure you start from a safe altitude. Don't start a Split-S below 3000 feet (914 meters).
  • Airspeed builds quickly in the dive. Make sure you pull the nose on through to level flight, but don't pull so hard that you induce a stall.

The Immelmann

Legend has it that Max Immelmann, a German ace in World War I, devised this maneuver: a climbing half-loop, followed by a half aileron roll to level flight. Although it's doubtful Immelmann was the true inventor, this maneuver did prove an effective way to shake an attacker while gaining altitude and reversing direction.

Think of an Immelmann as a reverse Split-S, and you'll understand the basic principles behind this maneuver.

To Fly the Immelmann

  1. Line up with a road and set power to establish level flight at about 160 knots.
  2. Start a smooth pull-up, about 4G.
  3. Add full power as the nose reaches the vertical.
  4. Look to the side to check your flight path.
  5. Look toward the rear. As the horizon comes into view, move the stick to the side to start a roll.
  6. Hold back pressure until the nose reaches the horizon.
  7. Center the stick as you return to upright level flight.

common Errors

Remember to start an Immelmann at an airspeed of at least 150 knots. Don't pull up too slowly, and remember to add full power during the climb to avoid stalling at the top.