Feel your butt. Center the ball. Control torque, precession and P-factor. Check the nose attitude. Watch the runway numbers for movement. Get it down in the first 800 feet. Nail that airspeed. Stop holding outside aileron in the turns. Kill the drift. Put it on the mains and hold the nose off. Understand what the rudder is actually doing. Be smooth. Be precise. Be proud.” The foregoing, if said in one long sentence with no breath taken, summarizes several of the basic concepts of aviating. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But how many of the points does the average pilot execute properly? Half of them? A third?
Hang around any airport and you can hear raspy old voices decrying the downfall of piloting skill. It should be pointed out, however, that there have always been voices in the background saying, “Modern pilots don’t fly worth a damn. They’re all weak on the basics.” For all we know, Wilbur and Orville Wright were constantly bickering about which one was flying the airplane right.
It’s tempting to say that the “right” way to fly is open to “definition by opinion,” when that isn’t the case at all. If you look at the lesson plans for the first 10 hours at almost any flight school, you’ll find every point in the first paragraph above is covered. No one says you shouldn’t coordinate and keep the ball centered. No one says you should ignore the nose attitude. Everyone agrees that landing in the first 600 to 800 feet is a good thing. All of the basics are covered in the first 10 hours. Unfortunately, that’s often the last time they’re mentioned.
The problem isn’t that the basics aren’t being taught; the problem is that they aren’t consistently emphasized throughout the entire instructional program and they definitely aren’t being remembered after earning the private-pilot license. By the time a pilot goes for his check ride, the basics inherent in the first 10 hours of instruction have been overshadowed by FARs, navigation and tons of other items that are sure to bust you on a check ride if you don’t get them right. As long as the candidate isn’t dangerous and is somewhere in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, it’s seldom that someone busts a check ride because of weak basics. That’s because the basics are not only subtle, but they’re also not very high on a check-ride pilot’s “bust ’em” list.
If a pilot isn’t likely to fail a check ride because of something like the ball not always being in the middle, why should anyone even worry about such subtleties? What’s in it for us to worry about stuff that has no immediate payoff?
What’s in it for us? That seems to be a universal question throughout society. We’re into immediate gratification—we want it now. We want it obvious, tasty and exciting. Apply that to aviation and it’s hard to get a pilot to worry more about keeping the ball in the center, for example, than how to operate the latest whiz-bang piece of avionics. It’s hard to get them to worry about landing an airplane right where they want it, preferably in the first 600 to 800 feet, when there’s another 3,000 feet in front of them. If the payoff isn’t obvious, it’s difficult to work up the energy to hone the skill past the point that it makes the pilot safe. If we’re safe, what else matters?
Safe? Now, there’s a concept that needs to be examined because, believe it or not, this is something that’s open to definition. It’s open to definition because it has to be judged against the operational environment in which the pilot wants to be safe. It’s easy, for instance, for a pilot who flies on nothing but sunny days and into nothing but 3,500-foot runways to be extremely safe in those situations but be wildly dangerous on a 2,000-foot runway. If the pilot is used to landing on the first third of the usual runway, or approximately 1,200 feet, that will put him or her past the midway mark on the 2,000-foot runway, unless he or she is able to make the first third of that runway, too, which isn’t likely.
Habitual patterns are hard to break, and for pilots to land at the 600-foot point, versus the 1,200-foot mark, they’d have to be in total control of both the airplane and their thought processes, which often isn’t the case. In this situation, when we say “Be in total control of the airplane,” we’re referring to the ability to visualize the touchdown point, control the speed and glideslope exactly and break out of the habitual approach mode to put the airplane down much shorter. To do this requires understanding the airplane and making it do exactly what you want it to do, with no approximations. However, we’re all creatures of habit and, if that habit includes approximate downwinds, approach speeds and touchdown points, a shorter runway will cut down the margins, and the outer edges of our approximations may put us into dangerous waters. The same methods that work and are judged as adequate and safe on the larger runways are unsafe on shorter ones.
Basics are called exactly that because they’re the components from which everything else is built. They’re the foundation that holds the building up, and they apply in all situations, regardless of how far those situations may be outside our normal operational parameters. Being comfortable with the basics means a pilot can use them to extrapolate from what he or she knows to what he or she doesn’t know. A new situation simply requires combining the basics in different ways to attain the goal dictated by a new situation.
Where this kind of ability is seen most clearly is on final to a relatively short runway (2,000 feet) in a particularly nasty crosswind. Most airplanes of the C-172 or Warrior category have very little adverse yaw in normal flight conditions. In addition, they’re speed-stable; trim them to a given nose attitude or speed, and they’ll sit there. So, flying final is normally a matter of lining it up and remembering to flare before hitting the ground. Shorten the runway just a little, however (2,000 feet isn’t really short, but it looks short to a long-runway pilot), and now a lot of the basic parameters become critical. Not only does the speed need to be stable and correct, but the glideslope must terminate shorter on the runway, so a modicum of glideslope control that didn’t exist before must be exercised.
When fighting a turbulent, gusty crosswind, the adverse yaw that’s normally nearly invisible during approach suddenly rears its ugly head. To fight the turbulence and gusts, the ailerons are racked back and forth, sometimes lock to lock, and all of a sudden, the nose doesn’t want to stay where it’s supposed to be. Large, quick deflections of the controls make adverse yaw a factor and now, to hold centerline with any degree of certainty, the feet become a major part of the control equation. If rudder coordination is part of your normal habit pattern, then it’s no big deal. If you’re used to letting the airplane take care of itself in that regard, you’ll suddenly find yourself uncomfortably busy as the nose thrashes back and forth.
Once trimmed in a normal, calm air approach, the pitch attitude seldom changes. This is definitely not the case in our imaginary turbulent approach to a moderately short runway. Here, the gusts are doing their best to slam the nose up and down, and the airspeed follows suit. To control the airplane means controlling the nose attitude, which is nothing more than visualizing where the nose is supposed to be below the horizon and holding it there. But if you’re used to looking over the nose, without really seeing its relationship to the horizon, then it’s going to move quite a bit before you see it and correct it. Also, the airspeed indicator will be practically useless because gusts and shears can cause all sorts of indicated airspeed excursions. If you’re in the habit of chasing the airspeed, you’d be well-advised to find a larger airport in which to land so you don’t hurt yourself as you jockey the nose up and down.
If you look at nothing more than the foregoing three points—visualize and control the touchdown point, coordinate with the rudders to keep the ball in the center (unless in a controlled sideslip in a crosswind) and hold the nose in a given attitude that results in the right approach speed—it’s obvious that in some conditions, the pilot will have his or her hands full. If, however, coordination, attitude control and flight-path control are part of the pilot’s everyday way of flying, then nature can’t throw anything he or she can’t handle.
The real payoff to knowing and being able to apply the basics in all areas of aviation is that you can have plenty of things go wrong and still be flying safe. And that’s what it’s all about.