The Hardest Part of Flying

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.

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15 Responses to The Hardest Part of Flying

  1. Donald Kaye says:

    There is no better example of the need for precise airspeed control in a certified single engine piston airplane than the Mooney. This sleek airplane demands it. Being off even a couple of knots on approach speed makes a huge difference in landing distance. I do think, however, that there is a universal method of pitch/power control that works in all phases of normal flight, including turns and behind the power curve. This was ingrained into me by my mentor instructor, who also was an aeronautical engineer, and I have been teaching it to my students for the nearly 20 years I have been flight instructing. It says that pitch controls either speed or rate of climb or descent, whichever is most important at any phase of flight, and the throttle controls the other; the rationale being that pitch is immediate while power is not due to the linkage chain necessary after its application. I recognize that the controls are used simultaneously, but the mental process of thinking of pitch as primary and throttle as secondary makes precise aircraft control easy. So in a turn, for example, if altitude is chosen to be most important, pitch to maintain altitude and simultaneously smoothly add power to maintain speed. As another example, if you are behind the power curve, airspeed is most important (since you’re near the stall), so pitch for airspeed and power for altitude. And as a final example, on final, speed is most important, so pitch is used for speed control and power controls your descent rate.

  2. Cary Alburn says:

    Absolutely agree that airspeed control is difficult to master–but it will be mastered a whole lot quicker when pilots learn to trim adequately. I can’t believe how many student pilots have said to me, in person and on forums, that they don’t need to trim because the trainer’s pitch forces are so light, or that they don’t have time to trim because they’re too busy doing something else–like trying to maintain their approach speed–or some other nonsense! I have repeated over and over what was said to me during a phase check as I was training some 40+ years ago, when I expressed something similar, “If you don’t trim, you will never become a pilot–you’ll always be no more than an interested passenger.”


  3. Kayak Jack says:

    A balance of BOTH pitch and power control airspeed. We’re not flying gliders, so if a maneuver requires more power, it has to come from existing momentum, gravity, and/or engine.

  4. Uhh…That’s the way my instructor described landings. He taught me that landings were the combination of every aspect of aircraft control and that the perfect landing meant that you were doing everything right.

    Gordon Baxter wrote about that, too, in his column “Jest one more hour-solo” when he confessed about his medical problems and his decision to stop flying solo. He wrote about going out and shooting touch and goes in the J3 with the window open and how when you got it all right, pitch, speed, everything just exactly right, that fat tire would touch the grass and just start rolling, there wouldn’t be an ounce of lift left in that fat wing.

    And with your head out the window like that, you can smell the tires crush the clover.

  5. melvin Freedman says:

    Hey, I learned to fly in Las Vegas at LAS. Wouldn’t change that trng fr anything. Hot and windy. Had lots of rnwy and a 150 that did what I wanted it to do. My flying career (hobby) rather was spent in those conditions. It really gives you confidence. I have to admitt thou, it took me 15hrs to master it, but once I did, you couldn’t keep me on the ground.

  6. Roger Halstead says:

    Once a student learn that pitch, power, attitude, and airspeed are all interconnected the rest comes with practice and with smaller planes should become almost intuitive.

    About 5 to 10 hours in a slippery, high performance, complex, retract would really improve their airspeed control in fixed gear.

    I let a lot of pilots who were planning on transitioning to high performance fly the Deb which had quite a few mods.

    Almost invariably after I’d turn the controls over to them, we’d be in a PIO of about 2Gs out of the bottom and zero over the top within less than a minute. Once I could get them to put a spot on the horizon in the windshield and keep it there, and quit watching the VSI, then we’d work on power and airspeed.

    A slippery airplane really emphasizes keeping airspeed and altitude compared to a 172 or Cherokee.

  7. DEL says:

    I post this only to be notified by email when some new comment comes up. Couldn’t find another way. Sorry for any inconvenience.

  8. Thomas Boyle says:

    Roger Halstead, did the “quite a few mods” result in the cg moving aft? I’ve flown a Debonair quite a bit, and the airplane should trim nicely. PIOs of +/- 1G sound like an airplane with a cg problem…

    • Roger Halstead says:

      No. It was strictly the pilots. The “PIOs” were simply the pilots trying to fly using the VSI which is a trend instrument rather than looking at the horizon. They were far enough behind the airplane that their control inputs were almost 180 out of phase. One even told me, “I know what to do, but when I do it just makes it worse”. Of course the answer to “what I do just makes it worse” is “Then, don’t do it!”

      They are flying VFR, and still have to be told to look at the horizon “Outside”. They haven’t developed the skill to fly by instruments and need to learn, “eyes outside”. The real horizon is the best AI they have.

      All I had to do was get them to look outside, tell them where to put the horizon in the windshield, and keep it there while checking the altimeter . If they were losing altitude, then lower the horizon or if gaining altitude, raise the horizon.

      Many pilots of relatively docile aircraft like the 172, or Cherokee families get into the habit of watching the VSI which does work, but not in responsive aircraft. Bonanzas, Moonies, and other high performance aircraft respond much more quickly to control inputs while the indication on the VSI lags too much to use as a primary instrument. Hence using it results in a PIO.

      It’s a bad habit that is easy to get into and surprising how many do it and is one of the best reasons for recurrency training I can think of.

      I can easily put the plane in a relatively strong PIO and still keep the VSI centered. It just takes the right timing of the elevator inputs.

  9. Larry N. says:

    I certainly believe what Roger H. said, since I’ve seen that too many times over the years, “that” being licensed pilots with abysmal skills, and especially when going into unfamiliar aircraft. Time and again many of these folks (and some other with reasonable skills) wondered how I could tell there was a wing low or they needed more right rudder when I was looking out the side, perhaps back at 4 o’clock or 8′oclock; of course it’s just knowing how to judge attitude and feel slips or skids.

    As to Mac’s contention that airspeed control is the most critical skill: certainly it is A critical skill, but so are rudder usage, flaring, and several other things, unless you’re including a lot of things into airspeed control that are usually thought of in a different way. To me, it is basic stick and rudder skills (which includes airspeed/altitude control, slip/skid control, keeping your eyes mostly outside (when in VMC, of course), and much else, a lot of which I’ve seen lacking in pilots looking for BFR (I know, I know) or checkouts over the years.

    And I’d say that lack of ability to fly in true slow flight (and especially MCA flight) hurts a lot of folks, too — it’s one of the first things I always checked on a BFR or checkout flight, because it let me know how to judge the rest of the flight. Certainly airspeed control is part of good slow flight, but there’s lots more, such as rudder use and bank angle control, needing to coordinate all four controls smoothly (power is the fourth, for those who don’t recognize it).

    • Roger Halstead says:

      Ah, Yes. Slow flight. I had forgotten that, but flying the Deb in real slow flight, not he way they teach it now really brought out the deficiencies.

      According to Ball’s book on Bonanzas about half of the first year’s production didn’t have any washout in the wings so when it stalled the whole wing stalled. You weren’t left with part of it still wanting to fly. When that thing stalled in slow flight it wanted to drop the left wing and roll over into a spin. It definitely was not spin resistant.

      But gingerly working your way along on the edge of a stall and still making turns took some practice and usually ended up showing how good you were at unusual attitude recovery. If it dropped a wing and you tried to raise it with an aileron it would just accelerate the roll rate. Yet with practice you could hold it nose high and wings level while “dancing on the rudder pedals” in a stall. You just had to learn to keep those ailerons neutral.

      That was one of the things the Air Safety Foundation, Bonanza specific pilot training did. You should have heard the response/complaints when the instructor told them we were going to do stalls while the instructor blocked the yoke so they couldn’t use the ailerons. I have to admit I started laughing. The instructor then asked if any one knew why as he pointed at me and said “Except you”.

      If you try to raise the wing going down with an aileron it just increases the angle of attack on an already stalled wing with predictable results. If it hasn’t gone too far you can stop and raise it with the rudder.

      Accelerated stalls from steep turns is also an exercise in airspeed control and coordination. Again I prefer them from the way I was taught, 60 degrees and just above a stall. (Warning Do not try these with out instruction in the specific airplane you’ll be doing them in because you are likely to end up in a spin) If you are coordinated it’s like a bump and the turn just gets wider. Just a slight slip or skid though can take the boredom out of a BFR. It will either roll top wing to the outside, or bottom wing under. Prompt recovery is easy. Delayed can be interesting, but I’d suggest an aerobatic rated plane for those. <:-))

      So at times I think coordination is as important as air speed.

  10. Larry N. says:

    I’ve learned to dislike the “dancing on the rudder pedals” phrase, mostly because I’ve seen too many folks take the phrase literally, thus doing unnecessary “dancing” on the pedals instead of using them as needed (that is, learning to actually see minute deviations from straight) which, admittedly, looks to the uninitiated kind of like “dancing” on some aircraft, especially under gusty conditions.

    • Larry N. says:

      Oops — I forgot to address some other comments, especially about slow flight in Bonanzas. Your comments apply, to some degree at least, to most aircraft, although they’re not all as touchy as some Bonanza models.

      On the other hand, many older aircraft designs, especially those without washout in the airfoil and/or without differential aileron travel (Cubs, for example), can very quickly catch the unwary, since you’ve not only got the change in angle of attack by the downgoing aileron, but you also have a larger drag change causing adverse yaw to be a lot stronger. Granted that the angle of attach change also changes drag, but there’s more parasite there, too.

    • You ever put a Bo in a stall and hold it there? If you have then you would be aquainted with “that dancing on the rudder pedals for real” <:-)) it is like walking on a loose tight rope, or standing an a large inflated exercise ball. You can not put in a little pressure and hold it there. It isn't a stable flight regeime. To keep the nose up, it doesn't want to stay there. stop it from going left and it'll roll right, stop the right roll and it'll roll left. Sure, you can let the stall break and it'll just drop the left wing and you get to practice your spin recovery techniques. When I was getting checked out in the Deb to make the insurance company happy, the first time we did a full stall she rolled inverted faster than you'd expect a ton and a half to go. The instructor had never done aerobatics and would not do any more full stalls, just imminent stalls. When we went inverted, I just rolled it on through to upright again.

      As to the speed management, I think that is the wrong approach. It's "Energy management"! You master energy management and speed managent just naturally follows. Yoy can exchange speed for altitude. You can use a slipping turn to lose both altitude and airspeed. Need to lose airspeed quickly as in when ATC wants you to keep the speed up as long as practible? S-turns will fill the bill. Cross controlled S-turns work even better…If you know how to do them without rolling or stalling into a spin..

      Think landing at Oshkosh where they tell you when to put the gear down, when to turn base and final, and where to set the plane down. If you can manage the energy, you can turn where they want and touch down tifht on the designated mark. It's no place for pilots who always fly the pattern the sanme. IE, stabilized patterns. You can get rid of altitude and excess speed as long as it's a reasonable amount, but spot landings from anywhere in the pattern is all about energy management.

      Energy is the key and all else follows.

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