The positive side of negative Gs
Citabria is “airbatic” spelled backward.
Just in case you wondered.
And “airbatic,” of course, is shorthand for aerobatic, the process of repositioning your stomach to a corner of your visceral cavity where it does not belong while plunging through the sky.
Travis Morton explains this just before he banks his Bellanca Citabria 7ECA sharply over on one wing to demonstrate the controls. Travis is sitting behind me, generously surrendering the catbird seat so that I can see more clearly while the horizon disappears as I lose all sense of where we are and where we’re headed when we fly a 360-degree loop.
He hasn’t yet explained that I’ll be flying the plane when this happens.
The Citabria was the first American airplane purposely designed for aerobatic flight. It can sustain 5 Gs of positive gravity and 2 Gs of negative gravity.
This is not to suggest there is good gravity and bad gravity—although that may be an appropriate subject for philosophical discussion if we make it safely back to the ground. Positive gravity is the force exerted on the airframe when the plane is accelerating straight toward the ground. The wings are not supposed to fall off a Citabria until you pass 5 Gs. Negative gravity is the force trying to flatten your stomach against your heart when the plane is clawing its way straight up toward the international space station. In short, it’s the force of deceleration.
When you execute a loop, you experience an intimate amount of both.
I have known Travis Morton less than an hour and, to be honest, I can only assume he knows what he’s doing. But people I know sing his praises, he’s a licensed flight instructor and owner of his own flight school.
On the other hand, he’s only 24. What’s a 24-year-old doing with a flight school? And how much can you know about flying upside down when you’re that young?
It turns out, a lot.
If Travis Morton is young, he’s also driven, focused and remarkably mature for a guy who bailed out of three high schools because none of them met his needs. What needs?
“Young people want mastery, purpose and autonomy,” he says. “Most high schools don’t offer any of that.”
Whatever early purpose Travis may have had in life, flying wasn’t part of it. “I used to be a scaredy-cat,” he confesses. “I wouldn’t go high on a swing, I hated roller coasters.”
What changed his inner apprehension into an appetite for adventure was participating in the Challenge Sonoma Adventure Ropes Course, an aerial experience that provides a reassuring tether while you’re completing a traverse of the redwood canopy far above the ground.
The ropes course, with which he stayed involved for several years, turned Travis in a new direction, inspired him—among other things—to ride the Medussa Roller Coaster at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, and freed him to fall in love with flying. The first taste came when he was 12 and took a plane ride with the Young Eagles, a group of aspiring, future pilots. He was instantly hooked and now is mentoring Young Eagles himself.
It’s a measure of Morton’s passion for flight that he not only learned how to do it, but in rapid succession earned a private pilot’s license, a commercial, multi-engine license, an instrument rating, tail-wheel and high performance ratings, a flight instructor’s license and certification as an aerobatic flight instructor. He opened the flying school when he was all of 22.
Morton had two airplanes before he owned a car and had to ride his bicycle to the airport to teach people how to fly.
I’m not a serious student, I’m just a compulsive adrenaline addict here to pull some Gs. But that doesn’t change the program. Morton sits me down in the
office and asks for everything in my pockets. “We don’t want loose stuff floating around in the cockpit,” he explains.
Then he runs me through the basic aerobatic drill before taking me down to the tarmac where the Citabria awaits.
The drill includes putting on a parachute, climbing into the cockpit and learning how to both fasten and then release the five-point seat harness without unbuckling the parachute. Best not to leap out of a falling plane while leaving the chute behind. I also learn where to pull the hinge pin that releases the door so I can stick a foot out on the tiny external step prior to flinging myself into space because the Citabria’s engine has inexplicably failed or one of the wings has fallen off.
I remind myself, “Don’t pull the door hinge pin unless we’re like, really in trouble.”
And now Travis is sitting behind me explaining how to read the instruments, increase the throttle, keep my feet off the rudder pedals and how to pull back the spindly control stick rising up from the floor until the nose of the Citabria is no longer pointing at the horizon and I’m feeling a flood of those negative Gs.
I’ve been through this maneuver several times before, mostly in Stearman biplanes, but in the past I’ve never had the stick in my hand. To my surprise, the Citabria climbs gently, almost peacefully, through the arc of the loop and just as it slips over the top, and we’re upside down, I get a brief sensation of weightlessness and a spontaneous whoop erupts from my throat.
Morton’s voice chuckles over the radio into the headset over my ears. “Just about everyone does that.”
We come around and level off and then the teacher takes over, throwing a short program of rolls, stalls, a hammerhead (during which the Citabria climbs steadily upward until it almost stalls and then cartwheels over backward) and then topping it all off with what you might call a “lazy leaf” spin, as the Citabria drifts down in a slow death spiral that, without the right corrections from Travis, would merge us with the velvety looking vineyard below.
You don’t have to do big Gs and a death spiral to enjoy a flight with Travis Morton. Straightforward sightseeing trips over Wine Country and the coast are an integral part of his business, as is aircraft rental in case you’ve already got a license.
But if you don’t, but really want to fly yourself, Travis puts on his Carneros Aviation hat, and rolls out the three-stage program that can have you fully licensed in as little as four months. He’s got three seasoned instructors on staff and he tries to make it fun.
“As soon as possible, I like to say, ‘It’s you’re airplane—do it.’ This isn’t the military, there isn’t a golden ring at the end. If it stops being fun, they stop coming back.”
On the other hand, if you just want to roll around in the sky, pull your own loop or cruise the coast, Travis Morton will soon be offering recreational options. If you’re in the Citabria, look for the red pin that secures the cockpit door. And leave it alone.
Carneros Aviation, 707.939.8333,
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA