Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Controlling Control Pressure


On becoming one of the “smooth ones”


controllingWe’ve all seen super-pilots, such as Patty Wagstaff and Sean Tucker, who seem so in control of their airplanes that they’re never where they’re not supposed to be. Their airplanes flow from one position to another in a seamless rendition of flight that we know, for a fact, we can’t come close to duplicating. Or can we?
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controllingWe’ve all seen super-pilots, such as Patty Wagstaff and Sean Tucker, who seem so in control of their airplanes that they’re never where they’re not supposed to be. Their airplanes flow from one position to another in a seamless rendition of flight that we know, for a fact, we can’t come close to duplicating. Or can we?

Look around: Don’t we all know local pilots who, although they aren’t flying upside down under a ribbon on their approaches, at least have that same flowing, effortless feel to their flying? When you’re in the cockpit with them, it seems as if the airplane is in a groove, and that groove always puts the airplane exactly in the right spot. Now, stand back and look at them, then look at the Wagstaffs and the Tuckers of the world. Isn’t there a commonality between them? Sure, the attitudes may not be as extreme, but the ability to control the details isn’t specific to super-pilots on the air show circuit. What exactly is it that they’re doing that makes them so smooth and always ahead of the airplane? If we can identify those little tricks, then can we train ourselves in that direction and narrow the skill gap that exists between us and them?

Unfortunately, something these pilots have in common is that if we were to ask, “What are you doing that makes you so smooth and able to precisely control the airplane?” they won’t be able to tell us, because they don’t know. It’s just something they do, so they can’t sit down and discuss it. And that’s just a little maddening to those of us hoping to come away with a crumb of knowledge that will make us better pilots.

Those factors of flight that make a pilot so much smoother and more precise than the majority of aviators have fascinated some of us for years. No, we haven’t come up with any exact answers, but we do have our theories. And, if you’ll allow us—more properly, me—to run off in tangential directions, then I’ll point out where those theories came from.

I had the rare experience of being good friends with one of the premier gun makers of our times, John Bivins. Among his many talents, he specialized in creating Pennsylvania/Kentucky long rifles—those gorgeous and thoroughly American flintlock artifacts of the late 1700s that invariably had rococo carvings of leaves, vines, etc. standing proud on their curly maple stocks.

controllingAt one point, Bivins invited me down to spend a long weekend with him learning the fine art of carving. The four days I spent with him have paid off in so many ways, but, by far, the most important one (when it comes to aviation) was when I noticed that no matter how much wood he had to remove—even a huge amount like a half inch—his hypersharp chisels never removed more than a paper-thin shaving of wood at a time. The only thing that changed was the rate at which his chisels moved. At first, the chisel would be moving like a beaver, but, as he got closer and closer to the final surface he was seeking, the movements would slow down until they were painstakingly slow.

The net effect of this kind of wood removal was that, because he was always removing the same amount of wood, the only variable was the rate. He had taken the incremental decision as to how much wood to remove out of the equation and, in so doing, guaranteed that, as he came closer to the desired surface, he was much less likely to bridge “perfect” by accidentally using an increment that was too much. By taking away a paper-thin shaving at a time, he was always moving toward “perfect” and not likely to go through it.




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