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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Forbes Article on How Learning to Fly Teaches You More Than Just How to Fly an Airplane

There is a good editorial in Forbes about how learning to fly doesn't just teach you to fly, it teaches you a number of useful skills, foremost being tenacity and how to overcome being overwhelmed in order to master a difficult task. Since it is from a source outside of the typical aviation media, it's not a "Rah! Rah! Planes are great!" type of article, and it has no vested interest in getting you to take flight lessons. This lets its message speak for itself.

In it, he refers to how initial awkwardness and difficulty can overwhelm the enthusiasm felt at the beginning and cause people who aren't willing to persevere to fall by the wayside. What separates those who learn to fly from those who stay rooted to the ground is the same thing that separates those who succeed in any endeavor from those who fail: having the courage to face temporary (and the word "temporary" is very important here!) plateaus and setbacks with the grit necessary to blast through them and reach their higher goal of permanent success. This lesson dovetails nicely with an earlier post of mine about the secret of the legendary Bob Hoover's success.

The typical pattern of flight training does inevitably (and, unfortunately, probably unavoidably) set up a big hurdle only after one has spent the time, money, and effort to make it half-a-dozen lessons through. The first several flights only concentrate on a particular set of maneuvers, each of which is important but not overwhelmingly difficult, so it's rather rare for a learning pilot to get stuck right off the bat. However, once those are done, it's time for pattern work to get ready to solo, and at this point the difficulty shoots up way out of proportion to anything encountered so far.

This isn't anything we flight instructors do on purpose! If we could avoid it, we definitely would, because this not coincidentally is where a lot of people "run out of money" or "run out of time" or "run out of X" in their training, and is the reason that for every person that has soloed, there are several times that many whose logbooks suddenly end after a dozen hours or so without ever having had the unique and unforgettable experience of their first solo.

Incidentally, there isn't nearly the huge gap between those who have soloed and those who got their license. There are two reasons for this. First, after you've soloed, the hardest work is behind, so a large percentage of those who solo do go on to get that prized pilot certificate. The second reason is the main thrust of the Forbes article: those who found the intestinal fortitude to get through the occasional off days and bad days to the first solo on the other side have separated themselves as individuals who are willing to do what it takes to succeed.

Please do not try to invert the takeaway I'm giving here into some sort of elitist "only cool people can be pilots" message. In fact, my point is the very opposite: it's not that you can only join the little aviators club if you're good enough--it's that the process of learning to fly makes you better in many ways, and it makes you better equipped to handle getting through the tough spots that any worthwhile thing you'd want to do in life inevitably comes with.

So if you're at the pre-solo stage, take this as encouragement. (This also applies if you're early on in training for an instrument rating, which is probably the next most baffling time in a pilot's life.) You may have thought you were just getting this whole flying thing down and now someone comes and pulls the rug out from under you! Take heart: every single one of us who has become a pilot has had the same sort of "will I ever figure out how to land this thing right?" moment. Anyone who tells you they didn't is lying. When we're doing the pre-flight briefing for the first pattern lesson with a student of mine, I always warn them that a moment like that will come, because they're going to spend the next several hours finding 50 different ways NOT to land an airplane, but you'll forget all about them the FIRST time you grease one on all by yourself!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Altitude and Airspeed: Money in the bank

I often describe the relationship between airspeed and altitude as like having a checking account: if you have extra cash, you can deposit it in your account; if you need cash, you can write a check. In the video below, I demonstrate an extreme version of this:

In this case, let's say that altitude is the bank account and airspeed is cash. I start off with a lot of money in my altitude account, but no cash. Immediately, I make a large withdrawal from the account to spend on a large purchase of airspeed. I then spend this money on getting me to my destination, which is the patch of trees on the beach. Just to show I'm not getting any funds from outside, I cut the mixture to kill the engine just as I'm coming up to the cliff.

The outside view also demonstrates something about precision landings: when you're trying to hit an exact spot, you can't worry too much about trying to make a greaser. Just plunk it down where you want it. If you had enough energy to make it a beautifully smooth landing, then you probably had too much energy. I plan to devote another post and another video to this topic in the near future.

The cockpit view lets you see how you hit the spot you're aiming for. Watch the patch of trees and note how they stay roughly stationary. (I'm actually aiming for a spot just before them, since I know I'll have to flare and roll out, but that's close enough to the trees to be good enough.) The goal is to get them to neither go up or down in the windscreen, but just get bigger and bigger. If they start going up, I'm getting a little low, so I trade some airspeed for altitude. If they start going down, I'm getting a little high, so I convert some altitude into airspeed. The goal is to run out of airspeed and altitude right on my selected mark.

Below is a sequence of images with the tree highlighted with a red rectangle to make it easier to visualize this concept. I put a blue line below the rectangle so you can also see how I'm trying to keep the point at the same distance above my sighting point.

Touchdown spot