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Copyright © 1996-2005 jsd

*   Introduction

This is a book about how to fly airplanes. As the subtitle suggests, the main topics are

Several of the ideas in this book will seem new to most pilots. The ideas are actually quite old and straightforward, but they have been not been covered by traditional pilot training. Like so many basic truths, they will seem obvious in retrospect.

For example, consider the question: “How does the altitude respond if you pull back on the yoke?” The key idea is there are two responses: pulling back causes a short-term response and a long-term response. It is quite easy and quite useful to recognize the difference between the two.

Similarly, there is an important distinction between flight at cruising speed and flight at approach speed: procedures which are appropriate in one regime are inconvenient — or downright lethal — in the other regime. This book will tell you how to do things right at high speeds, low speeds, and everywhere in between.

As a third example, consider the “pitch trim” wheel. What does it really do? Some pilots use it (as the name might suggest) to trim for a definite pitch attitude (which is a really bad idea). Other pilots use it to trim for a definite rate of climb (which is perhaps an even worse idea). Good pilots trim for a definite airspeed, or, better yet, a definite angle of attack.

The best pilots all seem to know these things implicitly. The purpose of this book is to make these things explicit — to give them names and to draw pictures of them.

Some people may still be wondering: is it really necessary to learn new procedures, perceptions, and principles? After all, there are 700,000 pilots out there, most of whom seem to get by OK. The answer is simple: 2000 of those pilots had accidents last year. Many of those accidents would not have occurred if people had been taught the ideas put forward in this book.

*   Readership, Topics, and Goals

This book is intended to appeal to pilots and everyone else who is interested in how airplanes behave. The idea is to concentrate on ideas that are useful in the cockpit, and to explain them as clearly as possible.

In addition to describing how the airplane behaves, this book describes in some detail why the airplane behaves that way. This may not be strictly necessary, but it is often very helpful, because: (1) Knowing why gives you more confidence that you are doing the right thing. (2) Knowing why helps you know what to expect in unusual situations. (3) Explanations that make sense are easier to remember than explanations that don’t make sense. Human beings hate being told to do something without any explanation. If they are not told the true explanations, they will make up their own pseudo-explanations. All too often these pseudo-explanations cover only the everyday situations; they go haywire when applied to unusual situations, let alone emergencies.

Here are just a few of the topics to be covered:

This book is about piloting, not about engineering or aerodynamics. If you want to build airplanes, go read an aerodynamics book. If you want to fly airplanes, read this book.

Actually, there are two kinds of aerodynamics books on the market:

  1. “Aerodynamics for engineers” — The good news is that these books are typically quite detailed and reliable. The bad news is that even the simplest ideas are expressed in mathematical terms; you will need years and years of study in order to understand what is being said. The other bad news is that even if you can follow the math, it won’t do you any good during flight. I don’t do calculations in the cockpit, and you shouldn’t either.
  2. “Aerodynamics for pilots” — Many of these books are bad news all around. They don’t really tell you how to build an airplane, and they don’t really tell you how to fly an airplane, either. They might tell you that angle of attack is important, but they don’t tell you how to perceive angle of attack during flight, or how to control it. What’s worse, many of the ideas in these books are just plain wrong.

    For example, nearly all of the “aerodynamics for pilots” books say a wing produces lift because it is curved on top and flat on the bottom. Alas, this isn’t correct; it isn’t even a useful approximation. We all know that airplanes can fly just fine upside down, which indicates that the difference in shape between top and bottom can’t be all that crucial. Besides, some aircraft use symmetric airfoils (where the top is a mirror image of the bottom) and they work just fine.

Again, the purpose of this book is to explain how to fly an airplane. It concentrates on ideas that are useful in the cockpit. It explains things at a nontechnical level that should be accessible to almost everybody. Most people (including me) find the picture of an airflow pattern a lot easier to grasp than the equation that describes the airflow.

*   How to Use this Book

I hope you will find these topics interesting... but this book is not just for entertainment: I find that the information presented here helps people fly the airplane better.

There is a saying that “practice makes perfect” – but that’s wrong. It’s wrong in at least two ways.

For starters, the truth is that practice makes permanent. If you’re practicing the wrong things, practice is worse than nothing. The key is to practice the right things. Learn the right procedures, then go practice them.

Secondly, practice without understanding may be useful preparation for routine situations, but nothing is ever entirely routine. Every airport is a little bit different, every airplane is a little bit different, and you can never be entirely sure what to expect from the wind, weather, controllers, or other airplanes. Therefore you have to understand what you’re doing, so you can improvise.

On the other side of the same coin, theoretical understanding without practice is not sufficient either. Although most of the time, things happen pretty slowly in the airplane, so you have time to think, there are a few situations where you have to get the timing right. There is no substitute for lots of practice, including recent practice, in these situations. This includes takeoffs, landings, and various foreseeable emergencies.

In critical situations where doing the right thing matters most, you will probably not have time to do any deep theoretical reasoning.

Furthermore, even in non-time-critical situations, there are some skills where you need the reliability that comes from habits based on disciplined practice. This includes scanning for conflicting traffic and scanning the instruments.

Figure 0.1: The Goals and Their Supports

Practice is not a substitute for understanding, nor vice versa. It’s like the lattice shown in figure 0.1. The first stage consists of theoretical and experimental information learned from those who have gone before. Theory and experiment are cross-linked. That is the basis for the second stage, consisting of your own understanding and your own practice, which again are mutually reinforced by cross-linking. That in turn is the basis for deeper understanding and more refined practice. The ultimate goal comprises proficient performance, good habits, and improvisational skills.

Therefore, please read the book — enjoy the book — and also fly with an instructor and practice until the proper procedures become second nature.

See also the terms of sale in the appendix.

*   Non-Goals

This book does not cover pilot/controller communications, or flight by reference to instruments. Those are topics for another book.

Also there exist many flying situations (e.g. mountain flying) that require specialized skills. These topics are not covered in conventional pilot training, and are not discussed here fully, if at all. You (the pilot) are entirely responsible for recognizing such situations, and for avoiding them unless/until you have the appropriate training and skill.

At the other extreme, this book does not provide ultra-elementary information such as the definition of “aileron”. Presumably you already know that, and/or you can easily and reliably find out on your own.

*   Acknowledgments

First of all, I should thank my instructors, my students, and my fellow pilots who have taught me and helped me over the years. This book is for you.

In particular, thanks to Michael Madigan who was the first person to demonstrate to me that wise and safety-conscious people could be found flying light aircraft.

Also thanks to Darren Pleasance, who was born with wings but is patient with people who weren’t.

Many thanks to the members of the Monmouth Area Flying Club, especially Frank Fine who has contributed so much to so many worthy causes.

Special thanks to Howard Page, who was instrumental in convincing me that I ought to get a flight instructor certificate, and in persuading me to rewrite this material to make it accessible to a wider audience.

Peter Bradshaw, Denis Caravella, Richard Collins, Mark Drela, Paul Fuoss, Bob Gardner, David Joseph, Scott Kirkpatrick, Paul Mennen, David Messner, Harry Moore, Bob Parks, Philippe Spalart, and George Strickland provided important encouragement and suggested improvements in the drafts of the book.

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Copyright © 1996-2005 jsd