A collection of great dance songs
THIS POST is a bunch of philosophical points about how to fly better. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope to see you next year.
Less is more
When I was at school my maths class was made to take the entry test for the International Maths Olympiad – a math competition for schoolchildren. This test consisted of 25 multiple choice questions in increasing order of difficulty: You started with the easy ones and worked on until you ran out of time. The marking scheme went like this: everyone started with 25 points, then you got three more for a right answer but one point was subtracted for each wrong answer. The teacher put a question paper on each desk, and on top of one paper at an empty desk he put his water bottle that he used for wiping clean his OHP acetate roll (this was the 80’s, remember).
“Squeezybottle gets 25 marks,” he told the class. “and anyone who scores less than Squeezybottle is in detention“.
So it is with flying an airplane, mostly. Unlike a helicopter, an airplane will carry on on it’s own without much pilot intervention for much of the time. It’s certainly easy for a pilot to make things go very much worse than the airplane would achieve hands-off. So when you fly, try very hard not make things worse than they would be if you had never touched the controls in the first place. Try very hard not to score less than Squeezybottle, lest you end up in detention.
The airplane knows better than you do
I learned to do wheel landings in a Luscombe 8, a little taildragger from the 1930’s which has a reputation for being a bit twitchy on the ground. If you don’t know, wheel landings are when you touch down with the tailwheel still up in the air, roll along on the main gear for a bit and let the tail come down subsequently. It’s very common for the novice to bounce and then get into a pilot-induced oscillation up and down and up and down and up and down until a really hard ground contact occurs and something terrible and structural breaks on the airplane. Combine this with the tendency for taildraggers to try rapidly to swap ends if you’re not exactly straight at touchdown, and it can make the first few attempts at a wheel landing a little tricky.
The owner of the plane in use was in the left seat, and he showed me that on the ground the airplane itself was actually quite stable: at 1800rpm it would drive itself smoothly down the runway with the tail happily in the air, hands off the stick and feet off the pedals. “Look,” he told me, “the airplane knows better than you do. If you get into trouble controlling the landing the first thing to remember is that it’s your inputs that are causing the problem, it’s not the plane. Once you understand that, you’ll be able to work with the plane instead of fighting it.”
That was actually really great advice, and my landings got a lot better after that.
Rid yourself of fast hands
Working on my instructor rating, my then instructor said to me, at the end of a flight, that I flew quite well but my problem was that my hands were too fast in the pilot seat – they were moving too quickly trying to do something. I think he’d just watched me exit the runway and try to raise the flaps, tune the radio, set the transponder to standby, open the cowl flaps and lean the mixture, probably all at the same time.
He was right. Since then I’ve gotten a lot smoother, and by getting smoother, more effective. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” as another instructor told me. Fast hands are the ones that raise the gear prematurely, or feather the wrong engine. There are very few bad situations in flying that can’t be made a whole lot worse by rushing. So when you fly, keep an eye out for fast hands, and if they’re yours, force yourself to slow down. You’ll find it soon makes you think ahead of the airplane more, which means you’ll get things done better and safer.
If you get in trouble, close the throttle
If you get into difficulty with aircraft control (think about stalls with the power on) then the recovery gets a lot easier if you close the throttle and make the plane into a glider first. You’re better off without all that asymmetric airflow over the rudder, all that asymmetric thrust from the propeller, and those gyroscopic effects of a fast spinning prop and crank as you work the rudder and elevator. Reducing power removes this whole panoply of difficult-to-predict effects, turning your four-force system (Lift, Drag, Thrust and Weight) into a much simpler one with only three forces.
Accidental spin? Close the throttle. Departure stall? Close the throttle. It even works if you’re going too fast: spiral dive? Close the throttle.
Probably the only time you don’t want to close the throttle is if you’re slow and very close to the ground. But you’re much too smart to be both low and slow unless you’re about to touch down on a runway – in which case you should do guess what? … close the throttle.
The three most dangerous words in aviation
Without a doubt, the three most dangerous words in aviation are “here, watch this.”
Philip Larkin famously wrote that sex was invented in 1963, and likewise I’m fairly sure that small airplane accidents didn’t happen before the rise of the handheld video camera, the smartphone, and YouTube. For goodness sakes, if you’re going to show off something to someone, or (worse) get them to record it, make absolutely sure you’re competent to achieve it, that you’ve practiced whatever it is many times in advance, and that you’re able to avoid being distracted by the presence of the camera. That way you minimize the chance that the video needs to be played as evidence in front of the ensuing enquiry. The rule about formation flight between airplanes is that it has to be arranged between the pilots before they takeoff. I think that should apply to video recordings too: don’t extemporize in front of the lens.
On a side note, be aware that Transport Canada Safety Inspectors watch YouTube too.
On a second side note, if you’re wondering what the most dangerous thing in aviation is, the answer is a pilot with a wrench. Phnar, phnar.
The flight’s not over until the last piece of airplane stops moving
Being an instructor means carrying out the landing after a flight lesson whenever the crosswinds are too gusty or strong for the student to manage. So as an instructor you get to perform in more than your fair share of tricky winds. It turns out that touching down nicely and on the centreline in these circumstances is not actually very hard. The challenge is to keep the airplane on the centreline as it slows all the way down to walking-pace.
I don’t think a lot of students understand this because no sooner has the plane touched down then over the intercom comes a stream of questions and thoughts that they’ve been saving since we turned final. But this is the bit of the flight that is the hardest and that needs the most concentration and the most focus. Eyes do not leave the centreline – the direction I want the plane to move – for any reason, at this stage, and my brain is working 100% to get my hands and feet to make that happen. Throw in a complex taxi instruction from ATC as well, and your pilot is actually quite busy. Many flights have a great landing then terminate in disaster as the aircraft departs the runway in an uncontrolled manner because the pilot dropped their guard after touchdown. Please don’t let that be you. Be a pilot, and stay a pilot until the last piece has stopped moving.
That’s it for philosophy tonight. Happy New Year to everyone.