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Stick and Rudder Skills: Pitch Plus Power Equals Performance

by Eileen Bjorkman

in Aviation Blog, Flying Tips


Do you have a bad attitude? I’m not asking about the FAA’s five hazardous attitudes; I’m interested in your airplane’s attitude.

Attitude Flying

Early airplanes had few instruments, so how did those early pilots fly? They looked out the window and flew by judging their attitude with respect to the horizon and adjusting their throttle to achieve the performance they wanted.

Attitude flying is the method used to maneuver and maintain control of the airplane, regardless of whether you use the outside horizon or airplane instruments. The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook recommends teaching basic flight maneuvers using a method that integrates outside visual references with cockpit instruments.

The integrated method can lead to more precise aircraft control, but it also can lead to over-fixation on instruments at the expense of understanding what the airplane is really doing.

Pitch + Power = Performance

Although attitude flying includes pitch control, bank control, power control, and trim, this article describes the basics using pitch and power.

As a demonstration of this principle, think about what happens to your airplane when you make a change from straight-and-level flight at 2,300 rpm, 110 knots, and 4,500 feet.

If you add a little power, but don’t adjust your pitch attitude, the airplane will start to climb due to the excess thrust above that needed to maintain level flight at 4,500. In that case original pitch + added power = climb.

If you add a little power, but lower your pitch attitude to maintain 4,500 feet, the airplane will start to accelerate. In that case, new pitch + added power = higher speed.

In both cases, the performance of the airplane changed because we changed one or both parts of the pitch-power equation.

During straight-and-level flight, the aircraft will fly at a specific airspeed and altitude based on a particular power setting. Adjusting the power then results in different airspeeds to maintain straight-and-level flight at that altitude; generally, the more power, the faster the airspeed will be. However, during slow flight on the “backside of the power curve,” more power is needed to overcome additional induced drag (a discussion for another blog topic).

Practicing the Theory

The best way to practice your attitude flying skills is to take some training in an old aircraft with no gyro instruments or to cover up those instruments in a newer airplane. If your attitude flying skills are a bit rusty, it’s best to do this with an instructor or another pilot.

After climbing to a safe altitude and doing clearing turns, adjust your power and trim your aircraft for cruise. Cover up any gyro instruments, look out the windscreen, and notice how the nose of the airplane looks with respect to the horizon. That is your attitude. Add 100 rpm, lower the nose, and re-trim for level flight. Note the airspeed and new pitch attitude – the nose should be somewhat lower with respect to the horizon. Repeat with another extra 100 rpm and note the airspeed.

You can also go the other direction and slow the aircraft from cruise. In this case, you will have to raise the nose to maintain level flight, and at some point you will have to add power as you get slower – you are now flying “the backside of the power curve.”

Now practice all maneuvers without using the gyro instruments – climbs, descents, turns, and even stalls. You should also minimize the amount of time you look at your airspeed indicator or altimeter – just use them for an occasional reference. Cover them up if they’re distracting you. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you become proficient at maintaining your desired performance by paying more attention to your attitude and less to your instruments.

Before I allow any student to solo, I always make them fly at least one traffic pattern with all instruments covered up, including the airspeed indicator and altimeter. This assures me that they understand attitude flying and are not just relying on their instruments. Although most students are initially apprehensive about this, I find nearly all of them fly better traffic patterns when they aren’t distracted by the instruments.

Eileen Bjorkman is a Certified Flight Instructor and freelance writer.

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