All of us have things in our lives that make us uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of terrorizing us. As kids, it’s what’s hiding under the bed. As adults, it may be spiders, high places or the IRS. Pilots have their own special bogeymen, some of which we know as stalls, crosswinds, stall/spins and engine failures.
It should be pointed out that the above AREN’T irrational fears because they’re very real threats. However, they’re threats that respond quite well to training. We’ll have to live with those bogeymen for our entire av career but with the appropriate training, we’ll at least know how to keep them hidden under the bed. We’ll deal with them, not fear them.
Training is the key to almost everything in aviation, including chasing the bogeyman away. The wonderful thing about training is that it generally only takes a few hours of focused instruction to build our skills and confidence to the point that we accept our fears as minor inconveniences, not obstacles.
Note: We said “focused” instruction. Before we get in the airplane, we’ll single out one area that needs improvement and work on that area only. One hour, one subject, one skill. That way, our brain is totally focused.
While we’re hammering away on a given skill, e.g. avoiding stall/spin accidents, we’ll find that some of the work we’re doing feels suspiciously like basic flight instruction of the old “keep the ball in the center, control your nose attitude” variety. This is because the basics as they apply to normal flight also apply directly to the sometimes extreme situations we’re working on here. So, in the following paragraphs we’ll develop anti-bogeyman training scenarios but at the same time, we’re going to weave the basics into the narrative because they apply and can never be stressed enough.
Of all the fears built into flying, losing power is probably the one that tops the list. And well it should. It’s the one threat that depends on more luck and preparation than pure skill. However, being able to fly with the ball centered and the appropriate airspeed means you’ll have a more efficient glide, which gives more time to sort things out.
It’s likely that the instructor will point out that engine failures are sometimes our own fault. Common pilot lapses often back us into a corner, like taking off on an empty tank, forgetting to change tanks, not recognizing carburetor-icing conditions, etc. The instructor will be constantly quizzing us about such items. At the same time, he’ll be hammering us on our engine-out priorities: First, fly the airplane (nose down to maintain speed), boost pump on, change tanks, select the landing spot.
Every flight is made up of different regimes, and the training should include developing procedures that address the different needs of each: During takeoff roll, right after liftoff, during climbout, enroute and during approach. The actual steps in preparation are:
• Develop a plan of action for every part of the flight profile. Constantly ask yourself, “What will I do if the engine quits here? Where would I put it?”
• Mentally review each of those plans of action before shoving the throttle forward. On each takeoff, assume the engine is going to quit, so you’re not caught flat-footed and we know where we’re going to put the airplane and how we’re going to get it there.
• During each flight, make sure the instructor unexpectedly closes the throttle at different places in the pattern on each takeoff or landing.
• While at cruising altitude, let the instructor kill the power, forcing us to go through the choreography necessary to set up a more or less standard approach to what looks like an appropriate place to land. The ability to plan ahead and set up a proper approach from altitude can’t be developed intellectually. We need to practice gliding down from altitude while figuring out how many and what kinds of turns are required to put us in a standard downwind position to our proposed landing spot.
• When making normal landings, practice power-off approaches from downwind so that we know how far the airplane will glide. This way, we develop the visual references we’ll require in a lost-engine situation. If we habitually fly power-on approaches, and we then lose the engine, we’ll be on a test flight because we don’t really know the airplane’s gliding characteristics.
Even though it continually haunts us, the ever present stall/spin accident isn’t something to be feared. It’s something to be prevented. And no accident is more preventable.
To stall/spin an airplane, two major mistakes must be made at the same time. First, the nose is allowed to come up far enough that the airplane stalls. This is pretty basic, but depending on the airplane and the flap configuration, the nose may not even be above the horizon. Our instructor is going to work us hard to recognize what the windshield is telling us in terms of airspeed trends.
The second mistake is that the ball is driven off-center by the inappropriate use of rudder and aileron. Both mistakes fall under the heading of sloppy flying, but put together at the wrong time, they can be lethal. So we train, and then we practice, to eliminate those bad habits.
The normal way a stall/spin accident happens is as follows: The pilot overshoots final and tightens the bank to turn back. Realizing the bank is becoming much higher than normal, he applies outside (opposite) aileron to keep it from increasing. He then applies rudder into the turn to keep it turning. Both actions drive the ball far to the outside. The nose is allowed to drift up, the speed bleed-off accentuated by the increased drag coming from the severe yaw condition. The airplane stalls and rolls to the inside of the turn (toward the down rudder) and tries to enter a spin.
The procedures that will help prevent the above include:
• NEVER try to correct overshooting the centerline. If we consistently go around because we’ve cut through the centerline, we’ll eliminate the root cause of stall/spin accidents.
• Keep track of the nose attitude in the windshield and cross-check your airspeed often.
• Feel yaw trying to move our butts across the seat, indicating that the ball is well off-center. Cross-check the ball and fly coordinated.
• Learn to fly the windshield, be aware of the feeling of yaw in our butt and practice a consistent airspeed crosscheck, and we’ll never stall/spin an airplane.
Think back to your first stall: We heard the engine come to what sounds like a complete stop, then the airplane waffles around and regardless of what we do, the nose falls. We’re out of control and we don’t like it a single bit. We’re not supposed to like it. But we’re supposed to recognize and control it. And that takes practice.
Our specialized flight instruction should include at least 1½ hours investigating the low end of the speed envelope, while developing a feeling for all the different stall scenarios. We all saw them when students, but few of us have practiced them since. Not good! We need to know how the windshield looks, when a full-flap stall happens with the nose nearly level (none of us is likely to accidentally pull the nose as high as we saw during student practice). We want to know how it feels and what it sounds like. And we want to do it in turns. And with power on in slow-speed turns.
Next, we should do some slow flight, both clean and dirty, right at stall speed, and fly the airplane in and out of stall buffet. We want to feel the airplane right at the edge of stall, so, if we’re flying a short-field approach, we know when we’re getting too slow without looking. Still, in the real world, we should be cross-checking the IAS, using it to fine-tune the nose attitude and watching for any slow-down trends.
Crosswinds are the most commonly encountered aviation bogeymen and, because they’re part of our daily life, they’re the ones we should work the hardest to get under control. Fortunately, although most wind-phobic pilots won’t believe this, crosswind skills are usually the most easily developed and can actually be fun.
The specialized training should include at least two hours, preferably more, during which we seek out increasingly nasty crosswinds and stride right into the teeth of the devil. This training will be the best proficiency investment you’ll ever make.
First, crosswind technique is in fact easy, but we often overthink it.
There are only two major things to remember, when setting up the touchdown in a crosswind:
Rule 1: Keep the nose straight with our feet regardless of what we’re doing with our hands.
Rule 2: Use our hands to cancel out any drift.
Don’t think in terms of cross-controlling. If, while applying aileron, it causes the nose to move, Rule 1 will take care of that. We may wind up cross-controlled. We may not. But don’t automatically assume we will. Light winds often don’t require opposite rudder. Don’t complicate it. Just look over the nose and apply Rule 1 and 2 together.
Inasmuch as gusts are the actual culprit in crosswinds, while training, we’ll seek out winds with healthy gust spreads and learn how to immediately deal with the differences they represent. This is a skill that can only be learned by doing, so the more time we spend ricocheting off the runway with an instructor, the better we’ll get and the more confident we’ll become.
Bogeyman, Be Gone
Just as the sun drives vampires back into their lairs, training does the same thing to our hidden fears. The bogeyman is a coward at heart and the instant we face him, he’ll magically disappear.