By Robert Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the April 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
If you watch a really talented pilot at the controls of an airplane, they make it look so easy. Such a pilot isn’t fighting the controls, struggling with cockpit tasks, or making major corrections to control course or altitude. They make it look like there is nothing to it, like even a rookie could do it. In fact, that may just be the case. With a little coaching, even a relatively inexperienced pilot can more easily manage their aircraft and make flying smoother and safer.
I remember decades ago when I was working to earn my multiengine instructor certificate. I was flying in a Cessna 310 with my flying mentor and instructor, David Callender. The drill was steep turns, and try as I might, I could barely maintain altitude within plus or minus 200 feet, never mind meet any sort of practical test standards. And forget maintaining situational awareness. With all my focus on making corrections and watching the instruments run awry, I was slowly slipping behind the airplane, losing any semblance of in-flight situational awareness. Instead of being on my game, I was wrestling and fighting the controls, and it felt more like a rodeo or roller-coaster ride than anything else. Then he took the controls, and it was like magic. Almost instantaneously, the nose was slicing a consistent angle to the horizon, the altimeter and vertical speed indicator were frozen in place, and the airspeed was pegged. I felt like a rank beginner again. I clearly had a bit to learn about flying this airplane, and others as well, for that matter.
Among the lessons I learned working with Dave were some basics of simple aircraft control. As it turns out, the “magic” he employed was primarily a matter of knowing the airplane and applying a few principles that would make flying simpler and easier. Knowing what power and trim settings to use, how to properly configure the airplane, where to look, and what to look for were key parts of the puzzle.
Pick the right power settings. Setting the power is not something we should do by guess or in a random manner. Instead, we need to set the power along with pitch to get the desired performance. The one shortcut is that once we make the power adjustment, we can go ahead and make the trim adjustment — gradually, if one is needed. For example, if we want to establish a descent while maintaining a constant airspeed, no change to the elevator trim should be necessary. All we need to do is gently reduce the power from our cruise setting to a known descent setting — one that gives us our desired rate of descent, such as 500 fpm. On the other hand, if we want to slow down and add flaps at the same time while maintaining altitude, we will need to set the power accordingly and reset the trim.
Set trim and airspeed. The thing to remember here is to not fight the system — or the controls! We want to avoid situations where we need to hold back-pressure or forward-pressure on the yoke. As soon as we do so, we’ve set ourselves up for failure. All it takes is a few seconds of distraction for us to unconsciously relax that control pressure, and there goes our altitude, airspeed, or both. If we happen to be low and slow, such as maneuvering to or for a landing, such a mistake could be fatal. Any time we intend to change airspeed, we need to also change our elevator trim setting. That is what it is for. Slowing down from cruise speed to maneuvering speed means changing the trim along with the power setting. This is made easier when we know in advance the proper power setting and the amount of trim adjustment needed to hold the desired airspeed.
Establish standard configurations. Flying can be unduly complicated when we consider the infinite number of variables that can come into play. To keep aircraft management simple, we can narrow the parameters down to just a few simple and consistent configurations. By doing this, we limit the number of variables we’re dealing with and we only need to commit a few key combinations to memory that give us the desired performance. For a normal takeoff, we might use 0 or 10 degrees of flaps and climb at VX (best angle of climb speed) or VY (best rate of climb speed). We then use another configuration — and higher airspeed — for cruise climb to get better visibility and engine cooling. Then we need a third configuration (clean, and at higher airspeed still) for cruise. As noted, we only need a power reduction to set up a cruise descent and then a slower configuration (perhaps the same speed and flap setting as departure) when on an approach or in the traffic pattern. On final, we need our last configuration — full flaps, gear down, and ready for a go-around. All in all, that’s only a half-dozen different configurations and maybe only three different airspeeds. Using these standard configurations makes our flying much simpler and allows us to maintain better situational awareness during critical phases of flight.
Get the picture. Another lesson, which we should get early on in our training, is the use of visual cues and instrument indications to associate with various maneuvers. In addition to power and trim settings for a steep turn, for example, we need to know where the visual horizon will cut across our windscreen or instrument panel. On a day when we don’t have a good visual horizon (for example, a hazy day flying over the water or flat terrain) we need to know and use the instrument indications for our turn. If we set trim and power and establish the correct sight or instrument picture, the pieces will all come together. This reduces the guesswork and helps us maintain positive control in all types of conditions.
For final approach and landing, we can use the spot-landing technique, which entails maintaining our target touchdown point in a fixed position on the windscreen and controlling our glide path using minor changes to our power setting. Once we have the right sight picture, it’s easy to fly a stabilized approach right to the touchdown zone.
Take it easy. The final lesson is to avoid wild changes of any kind unless, of course, an emergency or hazard requires us to do so. Making large changes in power, pitch, or attitude will result in large changes in performance, often causing us to overshoot our target speed and altitude. Instead, make minor corrections and then wait a couple of seconds to see the effect. This is most likely what was giving me a hard time on those early flights in the C-310. By making small corrections, we are less likely to overshoot our target and our control will be much smoother.
With a little bit of coaching, I was finally able to fly the 310 and carve those steep turns without the rodeo ride effects — and I passed my checkride without a glitch. I couldn’t nail those steep turns quite like Dave did, but that would come with more time and more experience. What he taught me worked like magic, but the real trick was just using simple principles to manage all the variables that affect aircraft performance. The easier we make our flying, the easier it looks, the smoother it feels, and the more easily we can maintain our situational awareness.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.