May 2009 Issue

Slow For Slow’s Sake

Flying on the back side of the power/drag curve is just another skill. To squeeze the most out of your airplane, knowing the theory helps.

If youíve heard this once, youíve heard it a hundred times: "Iím really behind the power curve today." Youíve heard it, but do you really know precisely what it means? Can you sketch the relevant graphs, fill in the data points, then relate it to the real, practical world of flying an airplane? Thereís good reason to be able to do this, for a fundamental understanding of the basic lift/drag curves that remorselessly govern aircraft performance relate to directly to refined stick and rudder skills. It may be enough to have a good seat-of-the-pants feel for what the airplane is doing, but itís far better to have both that and a lucid grasp of the physics. Where this applies most directly is in that great undersung skill we all had to learn to muddle through a private pilot checkride but havenít used since: precise control in slow flight. Slow flight is undersung because itís so rarely used where itís of most practical advantage: high performance short field landings and adjusting the interval in a crowded pattern. Next time you fly, try this experiment: Set up your best shot at a short field landing and see if you can match the POH numbers for touchdown and rollout. Or set yourself the goal of always making the first turnoff on every runway and see if you make it. Chances are, you wonít. Top performance in short-field work requires absolutely precise control of speed just above the stall. Most of us donít do this very well because it takes a lot of work and no small amount of nerve. With no compelling need to stuff the airplane into short runways, why bother? Who cares if you float 600 feet and make the third turnoff because you flew the approach 10 knots fast? Probably no one. On the other hand, that sort of laziness leads to skill atrophy and before you know it, youíve smoked off the end of a runway that wasnít really very short.

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