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.
The secret to a real aviator’s frighteningly smooth, seemingly always right-on-the-money flying style is that he never assumes he knows exactly how much control movement will accomplish what he wants the airplane to do. He has eliminated “increment” from his thought patterns and replaced it with “increased or decreased pressure.” It’s as if he’s a wood- worker trying to shape a piece of wood to a pencil line and, rather than simply taking a saw or chisel and removing the extra wood in one or two cuts, he uses sandpaper and on each pass moves a little closer to the line.
Although the woodworker doesn’t look at it this way, each pass of the sand paper actually is removing an increment of wood, but each increment is tiny, almost immeasurable. At the beginning, he may make his sanding passes in rapid succession, but the pressure is the same, so the amount removed is the same. As he gets closer to the line, the sanding block moves slower and more deliberately as he creeps up on the line: He’s closing in on “perfect” in a flowing series of microscopic cuts. At no time does he resort to a chisel or saw in an effort at cutting away more wood, more quickly. He ignores making a smaller number of bigger cuts in favor of a larger number of smaller, easier-to-control cuts. This process is directly analogous to the way we use pressure in controlling an airplane.
By approaching “perfect” through a series of small, ever-changing pressures, if a mistake is going to be made, you’ll see it before it’s made and can prevent it. However, if an increment is used, we stand a chance of making an increment too big and going past perfect, which requires another correction. This leads to one of the guiding rules of aviation: We don’t want to be continually correcting our corrections. We want to work toward “perfect,” not oscillate back and forth through it.
Let’s take a super-simple example: We’re approaching the airport and are going to make a simple turn onto downwind. We know exactly how far away from the runway we want to be, but we don’t know exactly how much bank angle it’s going take to put us exactly where we want to be. Rather than making a guess and cranking in some aileron and rolling into a bank in the hopes that we’ll roll-out in the right place, we pressure the ailerons and set up a small bank in the right direction. Obviously, it’s not enough to make the turn, but as the turn progresses and we get a better feeling of where we should be, we add some more pressure and steepen the bank. Then a little more. Visually, we’re fixated on the runway and the line on the ground where we want to put downwind. Our eyes track our progress towards that line and our hands increase pressure, increasing the bank just a little at a time as we creep into position.
If in performing that same maneuver, we just blindly roll into the bank, seeking some unknown increment and we find it’s too much, we have to try to roll out of some of the bank angle to put us on the correct line. We have to correct our correction, and it’s a fact that correcting into a bank—adding bank angle, not removing what we added earlier—is light years easier than progressively rolling out of an excessive bank angle when we see we’re going to be in the wrong place.
In another example, let’s say we’re on final and we’re trying to nail airspeed on a specific number (not a range, but an actual number). We know that in a given configuration, say power-off, half-flaps and too far out to begin the flair, there’s a single-nose attitude that will give us the speed we’re looking for. Say 85 mph.
However, in the process of us making our constant visual sweep across the windshield checking the nose attitude and back through the panel confirming the attitude with the IAS, we see that our speed is 90 mph. Our nose attitude is too low. However, we shouldn’t even think about using an increment to correct the airspeed because it’s impossible for us to know exactly how much the nose needs to come up to get rid of that unwanted five mph.
Yes, if we’ve been paying attention to our nose attitude all along and are “attitude flyers” rather than someone who keeps our head in the cockpit, we should be able to approximate the correct attitude without the aid of the airspeed. It won’t, however, be exact.
Monitoring the airspeed helps us fine-tune our nose attitude, so speed and attitude are both exactly right. In this case, we increase the back pressure on the stick/yoke, changing the nose attitude only slightly. Then we let everything stabilize for a second or two and recheck the airspeed. We know we’ve started a slow-down trend, but, until it stabilizes, we don’t know if we need more pressure or not. We repeat this process until the airspeed is exactly what we want it to be, then visually freeze the nose attitude where it is and continue the approach.
As we break the glide and begin to flair, the concept of pressure, not increment, comes into play again, only this time the problems with the increment concept become more apparent. If, as the airplane is pulled level to flair, the yoke/stick is simply pulled back an increment, there’s no way of knowing whether that increment will cause us to balloon or let the nose wheel dig a furrow in the runway. This is where being conscious of pressure really pays off.
During flare, our eyes are looking over and around the nose judging our progress against two factors, both of them visual, and the panel is no longer part of the equation. We know we want to be slightly nose high and we know we want to slowly progress down toward the runway. At the same time, we know there’s a complex relationship between a) airspeed, b) being able to pull the nose up to set up a good touchdown attitude and c) letting the airplane settle slowly onto the main gear (or all three in a taildragger). Pull a little too hard (an increment) before the airspeed has bled off, and we’re suddenly moving away from the runway. Don’t pull hard enough (too small of an increment), and we’re fighting to keep from wheel barrowing the nose gear on.
There’s a delicate ballet going on right at the intersection of the speed, the runway and the nose attitude and the pressure felt by the pilot’s hand is the conductor/choreographer of that particular dance. If he’s conscious of pressure, he and his dance partner, the airplane, will put on a sterling performance. If he’s not, some toes will be stepped on.
Can you fly safely without buying into this whole pressure thing? Of course, you can. And thousands of pilots do. The question is, however, do you really want to be just a pilot? Or do you aspire to have the gentle touch of an aviator? Silly question, right?