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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Whether your aircraft has a side stick, center stick or yoke, one key to flying smoothly is to think in terms of applying pressure, not moving the controls.
This tells us exactly how we ought to be moving the airplane’s controls. Or not moving them, as the case may be. We don’t want to think of increments. We want to think of paper-thin shavings that, in the case of airplanes, aren’t a movement, but a pressure. In other words, we don’t want to think of controlling an airplane by moving the controls, but rather to think in terms of increasing or decreasing the pressure we have on the controls. We want to feel as if we’re doing nothing more than increasing the pressure at a rate appropriate to what we want to do with the airplane. Yes, the pressure does result in a movement of the controls, but that movement isn’t a predetermined increment. It’s the result of stacking up a bunch of paper-thin shavings, or pressures, that can be varied to work our way toward perfect.

The real benefit of visualizing aircraft control in this manner is the way in which we start and stop the aircraft’s movement: The controls come out of center in what amounts to a caress, a gentle squeeze. To an observer, for instance, there’s no discernable start and stop to a turn. The airplane just gradually flows into the turn and regains level flight as if by magic. The passengers feel no movement at all.

A byproduct of this kind of graduated treatment of the controls is that we’re far less likely to pass the position we want. And if there’s one guiding goal of aviation, it’s that we don’t want to be correcting our corrections: We don’t want to be constantly searching back and forth through perfect because we keep changing increments.

The ability to move the controls gently and precisely, however, has to be paired with one other detailed-oriented skill, and that’s the ability to actually see where we want to be and what needs correcting. Another aviation truism is that we can’t correct what we can’t see, which brings us back to the super-pilots of the air show world.

One of the skills shared by all super- craftsmen, whether working in wood or in three-dimensional motion, e.g., the John Bivins, the Patty Wagstaffs and the race-car drivers of the world, is the ability to see miniscule movement. Call it visual acuity, if you will, but it’s as if they’ve slowed everything down and, at the same time, magnified it in their minds so that, visually, they’re working at the pixel level. They’re seeing the tiniest of movements.

By comparison, you and I are working at a megapixel level. So, regardless of how much we train our hands, the real progress comes when we combine our ability to move our hands/feet in tiny, pressure-induced movements with our eye’s capability to see equally small movements of the airplane. This combination is what separates the super-aviators from the rest of us: They’re working at a level we can’t begin to see. In truth, they’re making as many mistakes as we are, but the mistakes are so tiny, and the pilot is making such miniscule control changes, that we simply can’t see them, so the airplane appears to be moving on a perfect line every time.

Can we become as good as the best pilots at seeing the invisible and correcting accordingly? The short answer is “no”; most of us can’t burn that much gas in practice and may not have the same amount of basic talent. But that’s not the entire story. Because we now know that the ability to see and the innate capacity to pressure the controls are among the things that make them so good, we can try to duplicate those traits. Just making that effort will turn us into better pilots.

In short, we can force ourselves to see the tiniest motion of the airplane and train our hands to pressure, not move, the controls. We may never become super-pilots, but we’ll climb well above average and become, if not super, at least excellent.


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