A leitmotif of elementary flight training

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Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

A leitmotif or leitmotiv (/ˌlaɪtmoʊˈtiːf/) is a "short, constantly recurring musical phrase" associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

One of the fun parts of teaching the basics of aircraft control – I think of it as the alphabet of flying – is when a familiar idea pops up in an unexpected place.

Today I was teaching a promising new student their second lesson, and as is my custom we were discussing the basic recipes for entering and maintaining a steady climb, and at other times for maintaining level flight.

I have taught this lesson many many times, but the theme up which I had not before picked in such early context (second flight, remember?) was the contrast between using pitch to control altitude and using pitch to control airspeed. In a few lessons time, when preparing descents for landing, I would expect to find myself making the point that when flying quickly we use small pitch adjustments to change altitude. Want to gain or lose 20 or 50 feet in height? Nose up, or nose down, at your pleasure. But when flying slowly, we use pitch adjustments primarily to change airspeed, and make power (throttle) adjustments to control altitude loss or gain. This is something I explain a lot, and when a student groks it – I mean really groks it – their aircraft control leaps ahead. Sometimes it goes in early, and sometimes I’m still working on it with a student right up to the end of their training, but when the idea goes into their head and starts to come out in their flying, that’s great progress.

In today’s briefing I was drawn to this contrast at an earlier stage than usual. The very first lesson on climbs includes the instruction to apply full power with the nose held at the “right” pitch attitude, the “right” attitude being the one that gives a stable airspeed at 80 knots (in this airplane). Flying too slowly? Lower the nose. Too fast? Raise the nose. Seek to find and maintain the right horizon position that gives the airspeed you want.

The same lesson will at different times have the student pilot flying straight-and-level, in cruise flight, at say 100 knots. This time my instruction will be different: raise or lower the nose according to whether you want to gain or lose small amounts of altitude. Then seek to the find and maintain the horizon position that means you neither climb nor descend. Don’t worry about the small airspeed changes this will cause – focus on the connection between pitch and maintaining altitude.

I certainly see why this could be confusing. In the manner of Simplicio, the student could very reasonably ask just what to control with pitch: airspeed, or altitude, and could I please make up my mind, drop all this complexity, and choose one or the other? Regrettably, the truth is it’s sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and sometimes both (or neither), all depending on the manoeuvre being performed.

Now later on we can have a discussion (if the student is minded) and shed some technical sunlight on why this should be so. I do however think for the purposes of only the second lesson these are facts to take on trust.

My hope is that if I make this contrast more explicit this early then perhaps the aircraft intuition – the skill of becoming the airplane-whisperer – will arrive for this student a little earlier than it otherwise would. And that would be a win for me, and a win for them.


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