Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pilots Versus Aviators

Do you pressure the controls or move them?

Everyone reading these words has flown with a lot of other pilots. And without realizing it, every one of us mentally puts those pilots into one of two categories based on how they handle the airplane. When flying with one group of pilots, the airplane feels as if it's moving through molasses on rails: very smoothly with no extraneous motions. We label those pilots "aviators." The other group is doing something that gives us the subliminal feeling that the airplane is continually moving around as it searches for its comfort zone. We simply call those "pilots." The difference is that an aviator is the airplane, and they move as one, while the pilot is simply manipulating the proper controls at the appropriate time and sees the airplane as a machine that he forces to do his bidding.

Okay, so labels like "aviator" and "pilot" are a little arbitrary. Hopefully, however, they convey the not-so-subtle difference between someone who sees the airplane as a living, breathing entity rather than as an expensive pile of nuts and bolts formed into an exquisite shape. To a pilot who sees the airplane only as a machine and treats it as such, it will forever remain a machine. So, the magical bonding that eventually occurs when the man/machine interface fades will never take place. That pilot will never know the delicious feeling of "oneness" with the aircraft, where he can do no wrong because the airplane has become the extension of his own thoughts.

The pilots who maneuver an airplane with obvious smoothness, those we call "aviators," have discovered a basic truth shared by all who excel at making an airplane do their bidding: Whether consciously or not, they understand that you don't control an airplane by moving the controls. You control it by pressuring the controls, not by moving them. This is a simple concept that seldom occurs to many and, among other things, means the aviators in control don't recognize the concept of "increment." They don't think in terms of moving the controls a given amount—a lot or a little. In fact, they think of the control of an airplane in terms of flowing squeezes and caresses. They think in terms of making love to it, not bullying it into doing something it would rather not do. They seek to form a partnership with the airplane, where the two of them work together to accomplish a goal. Whether it's a flawless touchdown or a simple but smooth on-altitude turn, they do this by varying the pressure on the controls, not deliberately moving them.

On the surface, much of what we're talking about here borders on being intangible. Or at least it appears to be smoke and mirrors that try to describe a philosophy, not a specific skill set. That's right and that's wrong. It's right because the philosophy of forming a partnership with the airplane through pressure, versus movement, of the controls is strictly a mental concept that has to be understood intellectually before it can be put into action. It's a behavioral goal, and not something that you can hang numbers on and make concrete. But, there's actually a skill set involved that's born when we look at ourselves and analyze how we handle the controls. Are we pushing and pulling them in increments or pressuring them? And through that one observation we can create a mental awareness that tracks our hands' movements and alters those movements so that we're no longer stringing a bunch of increments together in a jerky fashion, but are smoothly increasing and decreasing pressure.

The problem with actually moving the controls, versus pressuring them, is that without realizing it, you're rotating the control yoke a given amount. Pick a number. Maybe you rotated it 10 degrees. Maybe three degrees. You don't know because there's no way of measuring it. Even more telling, there's know way of knowing exactly how much it should be rotated, pushed or pulled to make the airplane do what's appropriate to the situation at hand. While intuitively we do know how much bank angle we want, or how much the nose is going to have to come up to set a speed, what we don't know is exactly how much the controls have to be moved to accomplish that.

So, if we're flying by increments and not pressure, we move the controls and hope the amount we moved them is right. If it isn't right, which it almost never is, we look at the result and make another correction to get it right. However, when we make the correction, we do it by moving the controls an unknown increment, so the correction that's correcting the first correction isn't quite right, so we correct it again: We're always searching for perfection as we correct back and forth through it. We're not correcting towards it. We're sashaying around a given point, eventually latching onto it by the process of elimination.

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