Non-pilots often ask us what the hardest part of flying is. I think most pilots reply that it is landing. But I believe airspeed control and management is the most difficult and also the most fundamental piloting skill.
Airspeed affects everything we do when flying. For example, landing is a challenging maneuver. But it is also a phase of flight that demands the most precise airspeed management.
Takeoffs—unless there are strong winds—are pretty straightforward piloting tasks, but without good airspeed control you won’t maximize climb performance to build the safety of altitude as quickly as possible.
Even in cruise, which is the lowest pilot workload period, flying the desired airspeed is crucial to achieve the expected range and fuel efficiency, not to mention protecting the airframe integrity when you encounter turbulence.
Airspeed management is so important, and also challenging to master, that many instructors have tried to break the task down into component parts to help explain it. The most common simplification of airspeed control is that the elevator controls airspeed and power controls altitude.
There is some truth in that saying, but there are so many exceptions to such a “rule” that I find it to be essentially useless. For example, in a turn you need up elevator to maintain altitude and need to add some power to maintain airspeed.
Of course the ultimate example of the inadequacy of the elevator airspeed/power altitude old saw is on takeoff. If you buy into that saying just sit on the runway and wiggle the elevator until you reach flying speed and then add power to climb. I know, you may find that unfair criticism of what many instructors believe is a useful teaching aid, but it does make my point about how complicated a job airspeed management really is.
If you want to get a convincing glimpse of how hard it is to control airspeed with great precision fly an airplane with a sophisticated autothrottle system. During an approach, particularly if it’s even a little turbulent, the autothrottle with be making almost continuous small adjustments in power. No human pilot would fly that way because our tolerance on airspeed control isn’t as tight as a well done autothrottle system.
An autothrottle tracks changes in airspeed, of course, but the most sophisticated systems also track changes in the angle of attack (alpha). A trend toward faster or slower in airspeed obviously signals the autothrottle to change power. But a change in alpha can give an earlier signal that a change in power is needed. In a way, the autothrottle is using the old elevator controls airspeed saying because when alpha goes up or down it will take more or less power to maintain desired airspeed.
Since almost none of us are flying our own airplanes with an autothrottle all of those minute calculations must be done continuously in our heads. Every change in the alpha, or configuration, or change in the atmosphere in terms of wind and turbulence, demands flight control and power adjustments to stay on target airspeed. It isn’t just power, or elevator. We need all controls available to stay on airspeed.That’s hard to do.
The good news is that we don’t need to fly with the tight tolerance of a good autothrottle system to be safe and precise in our maneuvers. But the closer we maintain desired airspeed the more predictable the outcome of any maneuver, particularly when flying close to the ground for takeoff and landing.
So, if anybody wants to know the most fundamental skill that must be mastered to be a good pilot tell them it’s airspeed management. If you can do that, the rest of a pilot’s job is really pretty easy.