Bang for the Buck

Five simple exercises to help keep your proficiency sharp without spending half the day and a few C bills doing it


If youre like most pilots, youve occasionally been amazed at the level of minutia involved with piloting airplanes. Indicated vs. calibrated airspeed, leaning to best economy vs. best power, slipping to a short-field landing vs. using flaps.

It seems like its human nature to take something simple and turn it into something complex. And flying has gotten complicated, so complicated, in fact, that some pilots give up entirely before they get themselves into trouble. Some dont give up soon enough. Some are able to stay on top of the demands only through nearly continuous training.

For many others, flying seems to be a constant battle among conflicting demands: maintaining proficiency, staying financially solvent and keeping the employer and family happy. For those pilots, the key to proficiency is to get the most bang for the buck out of practice flights and thereby leave time and money for more practical flights.

The question, then, becomes what to practice. Pilots who primarily fly VFR can easily create a simple menu of five maneuvers that will help bring order to the chaos. They can easily be done alone. They can be added to routine flights without adding much to the Hobbs. You can also create a dedicated flight that incorporates all five and, depending on your local airspace, fly it in less than an hour.

While these maneuvers alone will not make you an excellent pilot, they do much to establish your domination of the airplane in its critical flight regimes. They also provide some measure of proficiency when the going gets rough. We even list them in the order they can be flown – traffic and airspace permitting – to minimize the amount of time you spend practicing.

The chandelle is a good place to start because its about as close to a Walter Mitty vision as you can get in a normal category piston airplane. Its fun.

This is one maneuver that doesnt have much practical application in and of itself, but it does provide some important lessons about aircraft aerodynamics as well as helps the pilot develop a feel for how pitch and roll are controlled independently of each other.

The chandelle comes in two parts. The airplane is rolled into a bank of about 30 degrees and held there while pitch is gradually increased. At 90 degrees of turn, the pitch attitude is held and the bank rolled out at a uniform rate. The goal is to end up near stalling speed with wings level after 180 degrees of turn.

The first half of the maneuver is fun, but its real purpose is to set up the second part.

The second half of the chandelle provides an interesting illustration of how airspeed and climb are connected. Because the pitch attitude is held constant and the airplane is slowing, the flight path begins to curve. This maneuver should illustrate how pitch attitude and angle of attack are different and why it is that angle of attack determines performance.

The roll part of the maneuver also has some lessons in store. Determining how fast to roll out to complete the maneuver properly requires you to take into consideration the fact that rate of turn depends on both bank angle and airspeed. With airspeed and bank angle both decreasing, the complicated relationship is illustrated quite clearly.

The chandelles real value, however, is that it forces you to divide your attention among many factors. You must keep the proper procedure in mind, maintain awareness of where you are in the maneuver, look outside for both traffic and situational awareness, keep the turn coordinated, and monitor airspeed and bank angle trends.

60-degree Steep Bank Turn
Many experienced instructors say a steep bank turn is all they need to tell whether the pilot is on top of the airplane. They force you to divide attention between the view outside the window and the panel. They require proper rudder use. They also demonstrate a familiarity with the airplanes handling characteristics by requiring a smooth roll in and a roll-out on the proper heading.

Upping the ante to 60 degrees amplifies the skills necessary to make this maneuver work. You have to be confident and assertive. You have to demonstrate in a practical fashion that you can apply the theoretical knowledge you have about how bank angle affects wing loading, how wing loading affects the attitude required to hold altitude.

Steep turns help connect you to the airplane. Try them at a variety of airspeeds and youll detect differences in the turn radius. Try them at slower airspeeds and youll feel more comfortable with pattern work because youll have a better sense of how much margin you have above the stall.

That means youll be more likely to be comfortable making slightly steeper coordinated banks when you need to tighten the base-to-final turn, for example, rather than entering uncoordinated flight and running the risk of a spin.

The primary caution you need to observe when practicing this maneuver is to keep your eyes outside the cockpit and watch for traffic. There is a tendency to either fixate on the horizon off the nose of the airplane or focus on the attitude indicator to hold the bank. Keeping your eyes moving turns this into an exercise that involves you from your toes to the seat of your pants to your head, rather than just making a rote control application.

Even if youre not instrument rated, its not a bad idea to be able to fly an ILS under instrument conditions. Sure, it gives you something of an out if you get trapped above a cloud layer, but it does more than that.

The rigid lateral requirements of staying on the ILS course require you to exercise precise lateral control, which is always helpful. By adjusting heading with rudders, you wake up your feet. The combination of poor heading control and weak rudder skills shares part of the blame for a host of problems, including base-to-final overshoots and crosswind landing accidents.

The vertical component of the ILS helps refine energy management. It teaches flying approaches by the numbers and helps you figure out how the numbers change with the headwind involved.

If youre not instrument-rated, fly the ILS in visual conditions a few times to get a feel for it before heading up with an instrument instructor to fly it for real. Try to do it on a day when youll be in actual instrument conditions for at least part of the approach.

When youre practicing it by yourself, file and fly in the clouds if youre rated. If not, stick with VFR conditions even if you have to break off part of the approach. Do not get suckered into the clouds if youre not on an IFR clearance, even if youre on the approach and the approach controller knows youre there.

The one downside to flying an ILS in visual conditions is that the typical glideslope is shallower than the typical visual approach. Therefore, the two visual pictures do conflict with each other to some extent. Still, its a worthwhile trade for the other benefits afforded by practicing the approach.

Getting proficient on an ILS will not give you all of the skills you need to fly instruments, of course, but it does provide benefits for everyday flying as well as a chance at salvaging an inadvertent VFR-into-IMC experience. As an added benefit, it provides non-instrument pilots some exposure to the world of clearances and approach fixes so perhaps they will better understand the position reports given by pilots shooting approaches – real or practice – at uncontrolled fields.

The go-around is perhaps the great forgotten maneuver of flight training. You seldom actually need it, but when you do you need it badly. Like any maneuver, one that is seldom practiced quickly atrophies and is then forgotten.

The accident record involving go-arounds points to three potential pitfalls.

First, the pilot does not correct for the left turn that accompanies the increase in power. Close to the ground, that sometimes means contact with trees or poles near the runway. In extreme circumstances, it can mean dragging a wing tip or striking a runway light.

Second, improperly handling the power, flaps, landing gear and pitch sequence can dilute performance to the point that obstacles at the departure end of the runway come into play when they really shouldnt. That means trees, sure, but it sometimes even means fences.

But perhaps most important is the ability to judge the quality of the final approach and the willingness to do something about it other than trying to play a bad hand. Pilots seem intent on landing unless something forces them not to. Instead, prudence may dictate that you plan to go around unless circumstances permit you to land.

While the distinction is subtle and difficult to maintain on every flight, it bears consideration. It also becomes a more critical practice item if you fly multiple types of airplanes because the flight characteristics in transitioning from the glide to the climb can be quite different.

In fact, there were 234 go-around accidents in 1997 through 2001, according to the Air Safety Foundation, which nearly equals the number of accidents caused by weather encounters and falls just short of the number caused by fuel mismanagement.

The major danger associated with go-arounds is that pilots take them for granted. And because most pilots dont practice go-arounds, the proper procedures go out the window when its time to make one.

For example, the go-around for an airplane might be: power, pitch, one notch of flaps out, gear up when climb begins, clear obstacle, remaining flaps up slowly. But in the heat of an unexpected go-around, the pilot may leave full flaps out too long, preventing the airplane from climbing well because of high drag. The pilot may retract full flaps when partial flaps would have helped clear the obstacle. They may retract the gear when the airplane is still descending.

Go-arounds are also model-specific to some extent. Some airplanes experience extra drag while the gear is in transit, for example, so its best to leave the gear down if obstacle clearance is required.

Power-off 180-degree Landing
The beauty of the power-off 180-degree accuracy landing is that it combines the skills required for routine landings with skills that come in handy during real power-off emergencies, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

Runway accidents account for the majority of accidents in light airplanes, and a big factor in making them happen boils down to poor energy control. Trading airspeed and altitude for distance certainly deserves to be a time-honored tradition, but many pilots do it poorly.

Most keep in some power even when theyre high and fast, virtually guaranteeing a poor arrival. Others cant judge the flare point and land five feet off the runway.

In the power-off accuracy landing, you chop power abeam the numbers on downwind. Designate your intended landing spot and touch the ground not before that spot nor more than 200 feet down the runway from that spot. Sounds easy. It isnt, particularly if the wind is gusty.

By removing the engine from the equation, this exercise accomplishes a couple of things. It teaches the ability to judge the glide, which is useful in a normal landing as well as a real engine-out. It reduces the size of the traffic pattern, which some pilots fly with ridiculous proportions. It also gives pilots practice in turns at best glide speed, which enhances traffic pattern control during normal operations. Finally, it helps break the tendency some pilots show of flying the pattern hot, because they need to trade airspeed for glide distance.

For best results, try this maneuver at a runway shorter and narrower than youd normally use. The visual illusions seem to be magnified by the inability to use power to recover.

You dont need to make every landing a power-off accuracy approach, and at many airports its impractical to use them routinely because of traffic. In addition, passengers generally feel a bit more comfortable if the engine is making a little noise on short final rather than giving a huge sigh on downwind.

But after learning to manage the airplanes energy, youll probably find youll be using less power on the approach and using less runway without giving up any of the grease you value in your landings. In fact, they may be smoother than ever.

Note that only one of these maneuvers, the go-around, comes from the private certificate test standards. While freshly minted private pilots can fly safely, the notion that the private certificate is a license to learn is valid to some extent. To maximize safety, its important to hold yourself to a higher standard.

One of the maneuvers comes from the instrument rating. At this point, the ILS is the single best way to get on the ground in inclement weather. Its also fairly easy to cope with mentally, especially with vectors to final and other help ATC will give you in a real emergency.

The other three maneuvers are from the commercial certificate, which demands superior stick and rudder skills. They help develop a command over the machine, enable you to extract maximum performance when you need it and fluidity when the flight is routine.

And after all, isnt that what practice is all about?

Also With This Article
Click here to view “A Short Flight to Mastering the Airplane.”
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”


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