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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some things never change

Some things never change: Cleveland sports fans will be calling for the Browns to fire their coach if he hasn't won the Super Bowl by the fourth game of the season (and they'll want a new QB before training camp is even over), flying will always be the best and safest thing I do all day, and all airplanes fly on the same basic principles. These basic principles haven't changed since the Wright Brothers started suing anyone who used them—physics is still physics. In one of my random strolls through YouTube, I came across this WWII naval aviation training video, and it is still one of the best video explanations I've ever come across of how to learn to fly an airplane, just as Stick & Rudder (the book this blog was named after) is still the best book ever written about the same thing.

Although the whole video is an hour long (and the whole thing is worth watching), take just a little time out of your day and watch at least the first 10-15 minutes. Whether you haven't started flight lessons yet or are already a licensed pilot, I guarantee you'll find it is time well spent:

When I train a brand-new student, our first flight lesson is a little different than most instructors'. I don't just shoot straight into climbs, turns, descents, and the other standard syllabus items. While I plan to devote an entire post to what to expect during a good first flight lesson Real Soon Now, I'll give a quick overview of how I approach learning to fly.

A first lesson with me is 1.2-1.5 hours of making friends with the airplane: learning that it's not trying to kill you, it's just trying to do whatever the last thing you told it to do. I'll climb to a safe altitude, trim the plane out for straight and level, then lean back and fold my arms across my chest and let it fly for a minute or two. Then I'll pull back on the stick gently, let it bleed off 15-20 knots of airspeed, and release the stick to demonstrate how the plane is going to try to return to the same airspeed it was trimmed for. This also gives the new pilot a chance to hear the airflow pick up over the cabin and the prop pick up speed as the nose pitches down, and the airflow/prop sound decrease as it pitches back up as the plane oscillates while it hunts for where it was before. That's exactly what the Navy used to train their pilots to do. Although admittedly it was easier back when the wind would whistle through the wires connecting the wings and there were no noise-cancelling headsets, the same basic principle still applies just as much today as it did then.

I'll then demonstrate how the plane only cares where its nose is pointed and how much air is flowing over the wings by turning myself so I face pointing toward the right window, with my back facing the instrument panel so it's totally obvious I absolutely cannot see the instruments at all. I'll ask them to tell me what our altitude and heading is, then I make a 360° turn, rolling out on the same heading at the same altitude. Although most new pilots find that "trick" amazing, I don't do this to show off: I do it to show that I can still see whether the nose is pitching up or down through my peripheral vision, and if grampa's barn was off my right wing when I started, if I put it back on the same place off the wing when I roll out then that means I pointed the nose at whatever it was pointed at when I started. Those two things (where the nose is pointed relative to up/down and left/right) make up 80% of what flying a plane is all about; the rest is just refinement.

After some demonstration of how the rudder makes the nose "slide" back and forth, what a coordinated turn looks and feels like, how "stick goes back, airspeed goes down; stick goes forward, airspeed goes up", and how to trim off control pressures works, I'll point the plane at a landmark about 10 miles away. I then either cover the instruments or dim down the panel to black if it's a glass-panel airplane, then tell them to keep the nose pointed where it's at and at the same distance relative to the horizon. After those 10 miles are up, I give them back the instruments/panel, and we're almost always within 100 feet of altitude or so. This is what basic flying is all about: paying attention to the aircraft. Although I developed this method of introduction to flight on my own, it's nice to see the Navy agreed with me almost 30 years before I was born. Some things never change.

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