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Teaching (and Learning) Good Attitudes

by Al Schnur and Bill Belanger
Reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

Good communication between flight instructor and student pilot can either make flight instruction a joy or make it a chore. In particular, the instructor needs to tell or show the student not only the desired result, but also how to achieve that result using airplane attitude and power. We'll cover this in more detail shortly.

This article is intended for both flight instructors and students. We hope these two groups include all pilots because good pilots remain students throughout their flying careers. The instructor has a duty to teach in terms the student can readily understand and apply. If the student doesn't feel he or she is getting a clear explanation from the instructor, he or she should ask to have it explained another way. Our suggestions in this article are teaching techniques, which we have used successfully to improve instructor/student communications. As we explored flight instructor/student communication, we found that the techniques we recommend here also provide a more detailed methodology for integrated flight instruction than we have seen before.

For this discussion, we present things in somewhat of a reverse order, flight by reference to instruments first, then flight by references outside the cockpit. The reason we call this 'reverse order' follows from the path that many pilots take when they learn to fly with precision. During their initial training, they learn to fly at particular airspeeds within certain tolerances, at an altitude within tolerances, and at a heading within tolerances. Quite often the student is able to maintain the tolerances by the feel of the controls and by consulting the instruments quite frequently rather than by setting the appropriate pitch and bank attitudes and power.

Only when preparing for an instrument rating do many pilots learn about precise aircraft control by attitude and power, mainly because they have to do this in order to master instrument flight. The proper attitudes and power settings, taught from the beginning as with integrated flight instruction, greatly ease the learning process for the student and the teaching process for the instructor, in both primary and instrument instruction. Attitude flying is well covered in the Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3 1999) and in several other texts. Integrated flight instruction is briefly covered in the Aviation Instructor's Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9 1999). The teaching concepts we suggest here expand on the discussion in the instructor's handbook and can provide a framework for integrated flight instruction.

The 'control and performance' instrument interpretation is particularly relevant to integrated instruction. Under this interpretation, in instrument flight the attitude indicator and engine power gauge (tachometer or manifold pressure) are used to control the aircraft. The other instruments tell the pilot if the airplane is performing as desired. In flight with outside references, the real horizon replaces the attitude indicator. Otherwise, the function of the flight instruments is identical. This allows the instructor to teach the same aircraft control concepts for both visual and instrument flight. That old saying, 'attitude + power = performance' is still the best way to fly the airplane under both IMC and VMC.

In primary instruction, it's up to the flight instructor to tell the student, 'set this power and hold the horizon THERE' rather than simply giving the student a target airspeed or altitude. If the instructor doesn't do that, it's up to the student to ask, 'Where should I put the horizon?'

AN IMAGINARY SPOT ON THE WINDSCREEN

With references outside the cockpit, instead of an artificial horizon in the attitude indicator, we have a real horizon (or a vague hint of one if the visibility is poor.) Unfortunately, the aircraft manufacturers have not provided a nice little dot on the windscreen like the one on the attitude indicator, so we have to invent an imaginary dot of our own. We know the dot will be on the horizon during level cruise flight, so we can imagine a line across the windscreen at that location. For any individual pilot, the location of this line will be level with the pilot's eyes, so seat height is important.

We must now find the place on this line that is directly in front of the pilot. This is the reference, which allows us to set the aircraft attitude in both pitch and bank. We need to pick a reference directly in front of the pilot that is in line with where the aircraft is pointing. A common error with beginning pilots is to think that reference point should point toward the propeller spinner. This works only in airplanes, which are only one seat wide. On side-by-side airplanes it will be off to the side, about as far from the airplane's center as the middle of the pilot's seat. The easiest way to find this line is to observe where the airplane is going as you taxi straight along the taxiway centerline. Pick a point at the end of the taxiway and note where it falls on the top of the panel. A piece of tape on the top of the panel can mark this spot. (Renters should use removable tape.) The imaginary spot on the windscreen will be on the imaginary horizon line directly above the tape. Memorize this spot.

The tape on the panel can also be quite useful for landing, since many airplanes give the pilot little cue which way they are pointing, resulting in a tendency to land in a slight crab. On landing, if the tape is held at the direction toward the far end of the runway, the airplane will land aligned with the runway.

CLIMBS

To enter a climb from level flight, during flight by reference to instruments, the usual procedure is to pitch up to the proper attitude, allow the airspeed to decrease and then add power. The power setting is full power or whatever is recommended by the manufacturer for climbs. After establishing the approximate climb attitude, the pilot waits for the airspeed to stabilize. He or she then briefly checks the airspeed indicator. The airspeed indicator is used as a 'performance' instrument. If the airspeed is not at the desired speed, the pilot makes minor pitch changes to achieve Vy or some higher en route climb airspeed. Now it's time to trim off the control pressures. For a typical light single, a good first cut at the climb pitch attitude for Vy will be about 10 degrees nose up. For those older aircraft whose attitude indicators do not have degree markings on the face of the instrument, that is three bar-widths. This usually results in a climb at or very close to Vy.

Since the airplane doesn't know whether its in IMC or VMC, the same pitch attitude works when flying by outside references. The attitude will be the same as the one we just found in the paragraph above using the attitude indicator. Be sure to set the attitude indicator so the bar is centered in level flight first. After a stable climb at Vy is achieved, take a look out at the wing tips and the relative position of the horizon below the imaginary point on the windshield. That becomes the VFR attitude for climbing at best rate (Vy). With any luck, the horizon will still be visible in front of the airplane at this pitch angle. If it is not, you should be aware that, in addition to not seeing the horizon, you also cannot see other airplanes at your altitude. A change in seat height may be in order if it is practical. If necessary, the climb pitch attitude can be set by looking at the angle of the wing tips with respect to the horizon or by setting the horizon at a point along the side of the panel, but this is not as good as keeping it (and the traffic) in sight.

Climbs are often the first maneuver done by a student. Now consider how an instructor might tell a student to make the airplane climb. Since most primary training airplanes use full throttle for climb, the instructor will tell the student to hold the throttle all the way forward during the climb. This is not confusing and most students can do it quite well. The problem comes when the instructor tells the student to 'climb at Vy,' or at an airspeed that the instructor knows to be Vy. Figure 1 shows what the student is looking at under this guidance. His or her eyes are fixed on the airspeed indicator. What typically happens is pilot induced oscillations while the student bravely tries to follow the airspeed needle. Fortunately, the instructor is along as a safety pilot to look out for traffic.

A better thing to say might be to 'climb at ten degrees nose up' or some other pitch attitude the instructor knows will result in Vy. That pitch attitude is given in degrees. If the student looks around the panel, he or she will see that the attitude indicator has pitch marked in degrees, and so will pay attention to that instrument. Figure 2 shows what the student sees when trying to follow this guidance from the instructor. The student's head is still buried inside the cockpit, but at least the climb is stable.

If the instructor puts the airplane in a Vy climb configuration and tells the student to 'hold the horizon there,' the airplane will climb at the proper speed. This results in a stable climb and the student's eyes will be outside the cockpit where they belong. Figure 3 is what the student should see when the instructor uses this wording to tell the student how to climb. The instructor can relax a little (but not much.)

How about climbing at the best angle (Vx)? A first cut at this pitch attitude is similar to the attitude for Vy or maybe a little higher. For airplanes that use flaps for best angle, the pitch angle of Vx may be the same as or very close to that for Vy. This works out to be about three or four bar-widths on the older attitude indicators. This first cut pitch angle can then be fine-tuned to achieve Vx. Note that it's better to have a first cut at the pitch angle that gives an airspeed slightly above rather than below Vx, so ten degrees is a safe first cut in most light singles.

To find this pitch angle as a horizon reference, establish a stable Vx climb using the appropriate flap setting and look out the window. Notice the position of the horizon below the imaginary spot. Hold the horizon in this location, trim, and viola; you will be climbing at Vx. The power, of course, is per the manufacturer's recommendation. For a short field takeoff the flaps are set in advance, so all that is necessary at rotation speed is to bring the nose up to this attitude and hold it there until a stable climb is established, then briefly check the airspeed.

It's worth noting here that Vx and Vy both change slightly with density altitude and aircraft weight, and Vx is affected by wind. This is covered in some advanced flight manuals but is too detailed to present here. Most primary students use the settings for gross weight and are typically not taught about the changes in Vx and Vy with density altitude. So to teach a short field takeoff the instructor should tell the student (among other things) when to rotate, where to hold the horizon after rotation, and to check for Vx after a stable climb is established. The student's eyes should not be on the airspeed indicator when trying to clear an obstacle.

TURNS

To make a level turn on instruments, the turn is entered using the attitude indicator as the control instrument. The pitch attitude is held the same as for level flight as the turn is entered. This requires a little backpressure as the airplane banks. Using the attitude indicator, the little dot at the center is kept on the 'artificial horizon' line. A first cut of about 15 degrees of bank gives a standard rate turn in a typical light single, with greater bank required for faster airplanes. The exact bank required is a function of airspeed. Then the pilot adjusts the bank as needed to produce the desired rate of turn. The key to a level turn is to hold the dot on the horizon line.

We have already established an imaginary mark on the windscreen directly in front of the pilot's eyes. By rolling the airplane so the horizon stays on this spot, a level turn will result. The airplane will not climb or dive. This is exactly the same as rolling the airplane into a turn and using the attitude indicator keeping the dot on the artificial horizon. Be aware that the location of the imaginary spot on the windscreen will change if you change your seat height. You have to adjust the spot height the same as you need to adjust the horizon line on the attitude indicator, though the reason for needing the adjustment is different.

If the student is told by the instructor to make a turn with no loss or gain in altitude, he or she will look at the altimeter during the turn. There will usually be many changes in bank and pitch attitude as the student chases the altimeter needle. The instructor should be prepared to act as safety pilot during this maneuver.

A student should be taught turns by rolling the horizon about this imaginary point on the windscreen. The instructor should first demonstrate a turn and tell the student to rotate the horizon about the imaginary mark and then to hold the horizon THERE while in the turn. If this is done the student will establish the proper bank and pitch attitude for the level turn and may even watch for traffic during the turn. An occasional glance at the altimeter and vertical speed indicator as performance instruments will verify that the turn is level. Figure 4 shows the student's view of a left and a right turn superimposed on level flight attitude. This shows the rotation of the horizon about the imaginary point.

SLOW FLIGHT AND STALLS

As surprising as it may seem, the pitch attitude for Vy is also very close to the power-off stall attitude (flaps up, not climbing or descending) of many light singles. This depends mainly on the shape of the airfoil. A similar attitude, with a little power added, yields flight at minimum controllable airspeed. Since you already know where the horizon belongs for climb, you also have an approximate idea of the stall attitude in level flight. A descent changes the relative wind across the wing and a stall will happen at a lower pitch attitude, so the stall attitude is flatter. Use of flaps makes it flatter still. Stall attitude in a steep descent with full flaps can be close to or even below level.

This can serve as a warning attitude. If the nose is as high as needed for Vy and the airplane is not developing climb power, a stall will probably happen sometime soon. The nice thing about this is it gives you a warning long before the stall warning horn sounds. It's not exact, but it warns you of impending trouble. In a descent with full flaps, a slight nose down attitude needs to be maintained. A level attitude with decreasing airspeed and decreasing control 'stiffness' is a warning of an impending stall long before the stall horn sounds.

If the instructor shows the student the stall attitude and the feel of the airplane as stall is approached the student will be able to recover from incipient stalls, and will probably never reach this point unintentionally. If the instructor tells the student only about the stall airspeed, the student will tend to look at the airspeed indicator when he or she is approaching a stall. This is the last place a pilot should look when a stall is about to happen.

LANDINGS

The stall attitude for level flight is close to the landing attitude, though use of flaps will result in a stall at a somewhat lower pitch attitude. To make a good landing at minimum speed, the airplane is held a foot or so off the runway by gradually raising the nose until the stall attitude is reached. Maintaining this pitch attitude will require different elevator pressures than power-off stalls at altitude due to ground effect, and the stall will occur at a lower airspeed. Ground effect also makes the airplane feel nose heavy due to the increased lift experienced by the horizontal stabilizer. When the airplane stalls, it will drop gently onto the runway at minimum speed, and will not tend to become airborne again.

Being able to accomplish this depends on your knowing exactly how high the wheels are above the runway. Unfortunately, we are not always blessed with this information. Unusually wide runways give the illusion of being lower than you are while narrow runways give the illusion you're higher. If you fly many different aircraft, the differences in pilot position can easily be more than that foot of altitude you're supposed to maintain while the speed bleeds off. At night, your exact height above the runway is anybody's guess.

This requires another landing technique, somewhat like the 'glassy water landing' used in seaplanes. This technique can be used when there's any doubt about your exact height above the runway. The general idea is to fly low over the runway with power off or very low. Bring the nose up as the airspeed bleeds off. As soon you approach the landing attitude, lower the airplane onto the runway by holding the pitch attitude constant. The airplane will descend as it slows for a silky smooth touchdown.

The instructor should teach landing attitude, not landing airspeed. Approach airspeed is also important, and must be carefully controlled, usually by the use of power rather than pitch. After the round out, the pitch attitude is most important to teach. Nobody should be watching the airspeed indicator while landing an airplane.

SOFT FIELD TAKEOFF

Normal and short field takeoffs do not require pitch control during the ground roll unless you're flying an airplane with 'conventional' landing gear. With a tricycle gear airplane, all three wheels are on the runway, and the pitch attitude is set by the landing gear. Only the soft field takeoff requires the pilot to establish a pitch attitude during the ground roll. The reverse is true for a tail dragger, but here we'll talk only about tricycle gear airplanes.

The proper pitch attitude to hold during the ground run has not previously been defined to our knowledge. The following is a technique we have found to work in practice in many airplane types. Here's how it works. Consider that the stall angle of attack also happens to be at the maximum coefficient of lift for the airfoil. This means that for any given airspeed, this angle provides the most lift. And since maximum lift is what we want in order to get the weight off the mains on soft ground, this is somewhere near the appropriate nose-up angle for the ground run in a soft field takeoff. A pitch attitude with the nose any higher than this only adds a lot of drag and actually reduces the lift. Now let's decide on an exact pitch attitude.

To derive the best pitch attitude during the ground run, we can first bracket the range of possible attitudes. We already know the landing attitude, and we know it is also the power off stall attitude with full flaps. We previously found flaps up stall attitude, which is close to the climb attitude. With an intermediate flap setting typically used for soft field takeoff, the actual stall attitude will be somewhere in between. This sets a range of attitudes we can explore.

The flaps up stall attitude may be a little too high because it will be somewhat higher than the stall attitude with partial flaps. It will produce more drag and less lift, so a flatter pitch attitude is needed. In practice, the landing attitude is a good choice because it keeps the airfoil in its operating range, slightly below stall attitude with partial flaps. It's a little shallower than the actual power off stall attitude with partial flaps, but will keep the nose wheel off the ground and will not allow a stall to develop when the airplane leaves the ground under full power.

For a soft field takeoff, hold the landing pitch attitude during the ground run. Again, ground effect will make the airplane appear nose heavy and require varying rudder pressures as the airplane accelerates. Be prepared for the airplane to want to pitch up as the weight comes off the mains in a tricycle gear airplane. Leaving ground effect will also make the airplane want to pitch up, and this must be avoided by relaxing the backpressure as necessary. The important thing is to hold the pitch attitude constant using whatever control pressures are needed.

The next logical question is what pitch attitude to hold after the airplane breaks ground. We can bracket this attitude with two simple observations:

1. Don't hit the ground with the nose wheel, and

2. Don't stall the airplane.

The latter objective is usually achieved by climbing out at airspeed above Vx.

Before this writing, the pitch attitude for the ground roll was not specified and could be quite high. The technique therefore included a slight lowering of the nose after the airplane breaks ground. The big question was how far to lower the nose. This depends on how high it was held during the ground run. The airplane would then be flown close to the ground until Vx was reached and then the climb re-established. In order to do this, you would have to be looking at the airspeed indicator while flying less than ten feet above the ground. We don't see this as a terribly good thing to do, and even harder to teach a student to do. This has made many students avoid soft field takeoffs.

We have found the following technique works well. In most airplanes the pitch angle for the ground run (the full flaps landing attitude) is somewhat shallower than the pitch angle for Vx, and so will allow the airplane to accelerate to Vx before it climbs out of ground effect. In other words, it's not really necessary to lower the nose. All that is needed is to hold the landing pitch attitude during both the ground roll and the initial climb. This has resulted in a safe soft field takeoff in all the airplanes in our experience. It also does not require attention to the airspeed indicator when flying close to the ground, so we feel it is safer. Just remember, the airplane will try to pitch up when it breaks ground and also when it leaves ground effect, so some relaxation of the up elevator pressure (or even forward pressure) will be needed to hold the horizon in the right place.

Again, the instructor needs to teach the proper position of the horizon during the takeoff run and climb out. The student should be looking out at the world, not staring at the airspeed indicator during this critical phase of flight. We have found this technique to be easier to teach, generally safer, and our students lose their fear of soft field takeoffs.

LEVEL FLIGHT

Surprisingly, one of the more difficult flight attitudes to maintain is that of level flight. The reason being that the pilot must continuously correct for small dives, climbs, and banks. It actually is rather labor intensive. However, the trick is to know where the nose and the wing tips of the airplane belong with respect to the horizon. Again, we can make use of that imaginary spot on the windshield. By holding the horizon there, the airplane will not climb or dive. The pilot need only correct for the minor influences of rising and falling air currents. With a little practice it becomes second nature. Not banking the airplane results in not turning the airplane, a double negative we know, but that's how it works. As with instrument flight, if you don't want to turn, hold the wings level and use the rudder to make minor corrections.

If the instructor tells the student to maintain a particular altitude and heading in level flight, the student will look at the altimeter and heading indicator. If the instructor tells the student to hold the horizon THERE and make occasional altimeter checks, things will be a lot smoother and safer. A visual reference can also be selected for heading control. A good rule is to tell the student to check the altimeter about as often as he or she checks the speedometer while driving a car.

THE ONLY WAY TO GLIDE

When confronted with a power failure, real or simulated, the airplane should be flown to give the pilot the best chance of reaching an emergency landing area. This usually means flying at best glide speed, which gives the maximum glide range and puts as many landing spots as possible within reach. In most general aviation airplanes, best glide speed means flying the airplane close to the same pitch attitude as is used for level flight. Note that the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook tells you to establish 'best glide attitude.' It does not suggest staring at the airspeed indicator when the engine quits.

So if the engine quits, there is no immediate need to make any change to the pitch attitude to get best glide speed. Just hold the horizon on that imaginary spot and don't let the nose drop. As the glide speed is approached the best glide speed can be maintained by trimming the airplane close to this same level flight pitch attitude. This level attitude or one close to it will result in the best glide speed for the airplane for the weight configuration. Note that the best glide speed changes with aircraft weight, but the proper pitch attitude does not.

Since we know how to get to best glide speed using pitch attitude, there's no need to waste time staring at the airspeed indicator. Spend the time looking for a place to land. If you hold level pitch attitude as you look for a place to land and turn toward it, you will be close to best glide speed as you complete the turn toward the field. No need to even glance down at the airspeed indicator until you're headed toward a landing spot, then make small pitch adjustments as needed. Now's the time to try a restart if there's sufficient altitude (usually more than about a thousand feet.) The important thing is to maintain that best glide pitch attitude until you're over the landing site and prepared to descend to a landing.

If you wish to descend at minimum sink rate, which occurs at approximately 3/4 of the glide speed, merely raise the nose about three degrees (one bar width on the attitude indicator.) This speed will be useful prior to touch down because it gives the lowest forward and vertical speed.

The instructor should stress pitch as the way to control the airplane immediately after an engine failure. The airspeed indicator is only a performance instrument. It tells you if you selected the right pitch attitude. The student should not be told to establish best glide airspeed immediately after an engine failure'he or she will only fixate on the airspeed indicator and forget about everything else.

The most important thing to stress is that flying the airplane takes priority over everything else in an engine out emergency. Finding and reaching a landing spot should be done before spending a lot of effort getting the glide airspeed exactly right. Attitude control for best glide speed is all that's needed until the airplane is headed toward a landing spot.

IN CLOSING

The visual flight techniques we have described are identical to the control and performance concept for instrument flight. That concept was originally developed to make instrument flight more like flight with visual references, but works just as well the other way around. Integrated flight instruction has often been discussed, but the techniques for this instruction have never been well described. In this article, we've suggested how to use the 'control and performance' instrument interpretation in primary flight instruction. In the process, we've added takeoff and landings to the 'control and performance' concept.

You can fly an airplane with precision using visual references by simply choosing an imaginary point on the windshield and substituting the horizon for the attitude indicator. Instructors can better communicate with their students by taking advantage of this 'VFR attitude indicator' and teaching students to use it. The only equipment needed to do this is a short piece of tape to mark the top of the panel, costing maybe two cents. It's called 'how to improve your pilot skills for about two cents,' though somebody will undoubtedly invent a device to do the same thing for several hundred dollars. But hey, this is aviation!

Al Schur is the Aviation Safety Program Manager at the Farmingdale (NY) FSDO, an aeronautical engineer, and has 40 years (plus or minus) experience as a flight instructor. Bill Belanger is an Aviation Safety Counselor for the Philadelphia FSDO, a CFI, the Standards Evaluation Officer for the Delaware Wing CAP, an engineer (not aeronautical), and a retired EPA Radiation Health Physicist.

The recommendations contained in this article are the views of the authors and not FAA's