The four fundamental flight maneuvers, straight-and-level flight, turns, climbs, and descents, are the building blocks for all flying tasks.
In the Beginning ...
As noted earlier, it is imperative for new pilots to understand and execute the four fundamental flight maneuvers. Primary training sets the tone for how well successive flight training and future aviation endeavors will go. If these critical skills are not taught properly in the first 10 to 20 hours of instruction, it is possible pilots may never fully master them.
Experienced pilots have a different issue. Some veteran pilots mistakenly liken flying an airplane to riding a bike. Consequently, they give short shrift to the notion of practicing these basic skills, an omission that can allow shortcuts, sloppy habits, or a period of inactivity to bite them in the you-know-what. Those “permanently ingrained” skills are actually quite perishable. NTSB aviation accident reports are replete with instances where incorrect control inputs, or a failure to recognize an airspeed reduction or an encroaching stall had deadly results.
The common denominator here for all pilots — novice to expert — is practice, practice, and more practice.
Feel the Power
In my early flight training days, my instructor would routinely admonish my death-grip on the controls and rap my hands with a sectional chart. “No ‘white-knuckling,’” he would say. Even though it robbed me of the ability to more accurately “feel” the airplane — not to mention the sheer physical exhaustion it caused — this habit was hard to break. Using fingertip control and mastering the trim made all the difference in the world.
In addition to feeling the flight controls, pilots can gather important sensory perception clues from hearing and sensing aircraft reactions during flight (e.g., the varying sound of wind against the windshield, engine sounds in different attitude configurations, or the G-force loading sensed during turns or climbs.) Being aware of these seat-of-your-pants flying sensations is an important element of understanding and interpreting what is actually happening during various conditions of flight.
The use of visual cue techniques is another important part of early training. When combined with snap-shot reference to cockpit instruments, this type of integrated instruction can be very effective in helping pilots maintain desired attitudes and aircraft control. There are several tips and tricks that can help pilots to master this technique — many of which offer the ability to have some fun at the same time.
One such tip is from FAA Aviation Safety Inspector and National FAASTeam member Fred Kaiser. Kaiser has his beginning flight students visualize key reference points before ever leaving the ground. “I taxi the aircraft to a location where I can put it on the centerline of a long, straight taxiway. Students can see the centerline and get a good view of the horizon,” he explains. “After shutting down, I place a piece of masking tape down the cowling that lines up with the taxiway centerline from the pilot’s perspective in the left seat.” Kaiser also marks the spot on the tape where the horizon crosses through the windshield just above the tape.
This exercise gives the pilot a solid reference for where the center of the airplane is, and a reference to where the horizon should be in straight-and-level flight. Though designed for a beginner, this technique could also aid an experienced pilot’s transition to a new type of aircraft.
On the Straight and Level
Nose reference for straight-and-level flight.
The first of the four fundamental flight maneuvers, straight-and-level flight, is a condition in which you are essentially preventing the other three basics (turns, climbs, and descents) from happening. It requires you to detect deviations in direction and altitude as soon as they occur and apply flight control corrections precisely, smoothly, and accurately. This further reinforces the benefit of a light touch, with just enough of an input to correct the deviation, and not overcontrol the aircraft. With proper trim and smooth air, control inputs may not even be necessary. The altimeter and attitude indicator can help with maintaining a straight-and-level condition, but your primary source should be the natural horizon in relation to a reference point on the nose of the aircraft, as well as off each wingtip. This last bit is an important point, since a common error is to try holding the aircraft straight and level by using the nose alone as a reference. This practice can result in dragging one wing low while using rudder pressure to compensate. Scanning both wingtip reference points also has the benefit of helping you scan for traffic, terrain, weather, and improving your overall situational awareness.
To Everything — Turn, Turn, Turn
An illustration of the vector-based lift forces in a turn.
I recall learning the definition of a turn as one of those memorable “say what?” moments in my fledgling flying days. “Horizontal component of lift overcoming centrifugal force” seemed like a mouthful for a 16-year-old to recite, let alone comprehend. Some good ground instruction, along with a few crude drawings quickly cleared up my understanding of the vector-based lift forces and how the four primary controls (ailerons, elevator, rudder, and throttle) all play a role in executing a coordinated turn. Ailerons bank the wings and determine the rate of turn; the elevator increases the vertical component of lift needed to maintain level flight; the rudder coordinates the turn by counteracting adverse yaw; and the throttle provides thrust which may be used for airspeed to tighten the turn. Integrating these inputs is important because uncoordinated turns can lead to loss of control incidents, especially during low altitude maneuvers. Good turn coordination also goes back to being able to “feel” the airplane, and recognize slips and skids without having to rely on instruments.
As with other maneuvers, always make turns with smooth, precise, and accurate flight control inputs along with outside visual reference points when able. Depending on the bank angle, the degree and type of control input will vary. Shallow turns require a bit more aileron input during the turn to overcome the aircraft’s natural stability, whereas with steep turns, the tendency of the aircraft to overbank must be countered with aileron input opposite the turn.
What Goes Up ...
I’m sure the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch goes by a different set of rules when blazing through the skies, but for us pilots, the ability to climb is limited by the thrust available. It is therefore important to know the appropriate power settings and pitch attitudes that will give you the climb performance you need.