Question of the Month: What are some old tricks to teach new pilots?

Teaching old tricks to new pilots. I just love the play on words in this question.  Usually, the world struggles to teach new ideas to older people (e.g. the relevance of Instagram is…?), but here we are recognizing that perhaps some of the old ways might be useful to new pilots.  These “old ways” almost by definition refer to stick and rudder skills—those basic abilities that require a pilot to look outside and fly the plane, rather than centering converging arrows on a screen or congratulating ourselves on a perfect approach, with the autopilot coupled to a WAAS navigator. 

Don’t get me wrong, after 30-years designing high-tech electronic products, I love all the innovation and lifesaving features we have in today’s aviation, and I use them at the appropriate time.  I’d even admit to being an “early adopter” of many of the latest gadgets. On the other hand, I also think that sometimes the same technology can be a distraction and an impediment to the learning of basic flying skills. 

In preparation for this article, we, your loyal Club Connector team, pored over classics such as “Stick and Rudder” and “Fate is the Hunter” in order to winkle out some gems, but to be honest—at least for me—this proved to be a bit of a slog.  I really like Ernest Gann’s book and find myself being drawn back to it as a “good read”.  It contains some amazing stories and we definitely experience, through Gann’s pen, the unforgiving nature of aviation in the early days—when those early aviators actually invented (discovered) the tricks that we now call old.  Of course, if we choose not to benefit from the hard-earnt wisdom of others, then flying is today as unforgiving as it was back in the day, but at least we now have the opportunity to learn from others, if we decide to do so.

My latest (and only second—the first was some 20-years ago) read of “Stick and Rudder” really didn’t do much for me. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it left me highly disappointed.  I may get hate mail for this, but I think this book has had its day in the ether.  I found myself getting annoyed at the constant reference to the airplane (strictly, aeroplane) as being a “ship”.  Talking about elevators as “flippers” also didn’t do much for focusing on my main task—that of whittling-out nuggets of yester-knowledge.  Again don’t get me wrong—back in its day it must have been a swell disclosure of flying and aerodynamics, but…well, that was back in the day. Perhaps the author, Wolfgang Langewiesche, tried a bit too hard to make the mysteries of aviation accessible to more people by using a few too many analogies that now just don’t stand the test of time. There are indeed essential, highly practical and relevant characteristics of flying in this book and so perhaps it is time for someone to rewrite it for the pilot of today.  And, if you do, please don’t start sentences with “and”.  This has, thankfully, reverted back from being upbeat and cute, to just being lazy sentence structure. 

Anyway…moving right along, here is a baker’s dozen of hand-picked tricks that I was taught by much wiser flight instructors then me.  I’m sure you have your own to add to the list, so please send me an email with your favorites ([email protected]), and we’ll publish a bigger list sometime in 2021. 

  1. It’s all about the wings. Obvious, really, but I think we tend to forget that it is the wings that are doing the flying and we are along for the ride. This was really brought home to me recently as I re-read, as you do, the Weight-Shift Control Aircraft Flying Handbook. There, the carriage containing the pilot hangs below the wing who pushes and pulls to control…drum roll…airspeed.
  2. Angle of attack keeps us flying—or not. The notion of “stall speed” is misleading, especially as we generally forget to add the really important words “in level flight” when we talk about “stall speed in the landing configuration”. Ask yourself “why are we slowing the aeroplane to stall speed when in the landing configuration”? Shouldn’t we be descending when in the landing confirmation…?
    1. Airplanes have two forms of energy—potential and kinetic. Fast? Lots of KE. High? Lots of PE. Landing? Coordinated exchange of PE and KE. Level off before the flare? Bleed-off KE without increasing PE.
    2. If you want to experience this first-hand fly with an instructor, and warm-up with the usual power-off and/power-on stalls. Whadayado? Reduce kinetic energy by slowing down but maintain potential energy by pulling back to stay level, which increases angle of attack and gets you closer to the wing’s critical angle of attack. Enter a level turn and the stall horn blares as you load up the wing. Now fly a canyon turn (left as an exercise for the reader to research) and you’ll fly even slower and steeper without stalling. Magic? No—just unloading the wing, doing a 1-G turn descending turn. Stalling is all about AoA and not so much about speed.
    3. Okay – one exception. The one time you should be at the critical angle of attack and at a low speed is…?
      1. During the landing flare. So, by all means practice this (at altitude) and get the feel.
      2. Is there a better way? I think so...see landing, later.
  3. Why does the stall horn “honk” when climbing out in gusty conditions? Does the gust slow us down to “the stall speed”?
    1. No. The gust may have an instantaneous impact on airspeed, true, but the culprit is, once again, angle of attack.
  4. A good take away from Stick and Rudder is “beware the creeping hand”. The tendency to keeping pulling back on the controls in order to stretch the glide. The stick is an up/down control…right? Wrong!
  5. PUSH is better than PULL. Attend one of the upcoming Flying Cub Workshop to learn more about this, but pushing the throttle gives you thrust, and pushing the yoke reduces the angle of attack. Pushing both gives you airspeed, which is pretty important to get out of sticky situations. By the way, tail wheel pilots know full well that power is a flight control.
  6. Don’t wrestle the crocodile. In the immortal words of Elsa in the film Frozen, you just have to “Let it go” (“I am one with the wind and sky”). Most stable ‘planes (the majority) just want to fly, so let them. If you are wrestling the crocodile, it is because you are trying to force the aeroplane do something it doesn’t want to do! You don’t need a 12” knife in your boot to tame this crocodile, just relax control pressures and let it do its thing.
  7. When climbing and descending, recall your high school science class and think about inclined planes. The way up the plane is with enough energy to overcome gravity (yes—I know I’m mixing my physical units, but it is easier this way). It’s all about energy, gravity and friction. In other words, the power lever is not a speed control, it is an up and down control, and the stick is not a climb/descent control, it is a speed control.
  8. Landing. If you haven’t landed for a while (welcome back) or if you really want to improve your landing technique, practice low passes. Fly a normal pattern and a stabilized approach, but as you get into ground effect, increase power just enough to level off and maintain speed. Then fly over the runway at 5 feet, maintaining drift control with aileron and directional control with rudder (in order words, using a side slip as the wind dictates). When you are comfortable with 5 feet, try 2 feet. Then one foot. Then the next time, ease back on the power, prevent the nose from dropping and then…make a perfect landing, straight down the runway, on the centerline!
  9. A technique I use a lot when checking out pilots on a new-to-them aeroplane is the interplay between aileron and rudder. We all know that just banking (without rudder) induces adverse yaw, and that yawing (without aileron) induces a bank. For a particular aeroplane, how much rudder is needed to counter adverse yaw? The answer is, of course, just enough.
    1. At altitude and straight and level, head towards a prominent landmark about 20-30 miles away off the nose. A shiny silo or lake is a perfect choice. Do your clearing turns!
    2. Then, first roll left, then right, using aileron only. Try for around 10-15 degrees of bank in about 5 seconds, both ways, left and right. Watch (and learn) what happens to the noise. The nose veers off in the opposite direction of the bank. You have now experienced the adverse yaw of your airplane.
    3. Next, with the same landmark off the nose, feed-in left rudder and then right rudder. Feel the power of the rudder and the amount of yaw for given amounts of rudder pressure.
    4. Now…again aligned with the landmark, initiate a roll to the left, but feed-in enough left rudder to keep the nose nailed on the landmark. Immediately roll to the right, timing the amount of right rudder input to keep the nose noise nailed.
    5. Don’t be too embarrassed. This incredibly simple maneuver is also awfully humbling but keep at it. After a while you will be able to determine the timing and amount of rudder needed to keep the noise on the target and you’ll have unlocked the particular relationship between yaw and roll, for your aeroplane. Now put this to good use and practice forward and side slips. Learn to love them!
    6. By the way, some people call this “a Dutch roll” …it isn’t. A true Dutch roll also involves smooth altitude transitions throughout the maneuver. Equally fun, but different.
  10. Working with a fairly new student pilot (oops, we call them learner pilots now), I often get asked “How much rudder do I need to apply to keep my turns coordinated?” Oh, that it be that simple! The smart-assed CIF response is usually “just enough to keep the ball centered”. This is a misjustice to the art of coordinated turns. The amount to apply is that required to make it feel right, and you develop that feel by trying it. Remember wing rocks, above?
  11. Congratulations, a go around is much smarter than landing. Think about it. Actually, don’t think about it, just do it!
  12. Spin awareness training. Really, beyond the “you’ll be a better pilot” and “you will learn the edges of the performance of your aeroplane” and “you’ll be better able to recover from unusual attitudes” and “you’ll recognize an impending unusual attitude”…well…it is just plain fun! Do it—get with an experienced CFI and learn!
  13. I need one more to make up my baker’s dozen .As a member of a flying club you have access to different people with different levels of experience—some of it actually true! Take full advantage of this and learn. It is not always the obvious direction of a new pilot learning from an old pilot. If you truly want to know about how to use an EFB (e.g. Foreflight) ask the youngest member of your club—that young person grew-up using the technology.

Again, no hate mail please just because I’ve relegated my copy of “Stick and Rudder” to the dusty box in the basement.  Rest assured, I’ll never actually part with it.

As always, stay safe and fly lots!

Stephen Bateman
Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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