Surprising Airplane Control Facts!

Presenting seminars at public events like Sun ‘N Fun is a fascinating opportunity to both meet people and also sample the aerodynamic understanding of our pilot (and CFI) population. Having been a DPE for many years, I often ask a lot of questions while presenting to get a sense of the understanding level of my audience. Reliably, 70% of pilots are usually confused about which control actually turns an airplane. Pilots (and CFIs) are unfamiliar with the actual aerodynamic forces at work on our wings during a basic coordinated turn. And no one seems to know that *every* aircraft has an AOA indicator installed – which every pilot controls. Let’s unpack a few of these ideas; because they are essential to the safety of every pilot and especially essential for every aviation educator to understand completely.

I usually ask audiences about the balance of lift on the wings of an airplane in a stable, level altitude turn:  In a level, coordinated 30-degree turn, is the lift equal on both wings?Please make YOUR choice at this point before going further.


Reliably, more than half of the pilots in every audience will say lift is unequal on the wings in a level coordinated turn. For an educator, this is the classic “learning opportunity” to present a startling follow-up question. If lift is unequal in a stable turn, wouldn’t your plane would still be rolling? Presented that way it seems to make sense to pilots; lift is equal on the wings. Inevitably, someone always posits that the outer wing has “more lift because it is traversing a longer arc” (over banking tendency). But obviously if this was true your plane would still be rolling. I think what confuses pilots is the asymmetric lift used to create the roll initially, and I think also (surprisingly) the flight attitude is still somewhat scary to many pilots since we all spend most of our time straight and level. The fact that 70% of pilots are confused is also an opportunity to improve the understanding of our flight training community (see SAFE CFI-PRO™) We have great tools for teaching this area of flight.

So simply prove this to yourself the next time you go flying. Roll into a 30 degree bank and add enough nose up trim (and a touch of power) to maintain a stable level altitude hands off. Fold your arms and smile; your plane will happily continue to fly in a hands-off stable turn until it runs out of fuel (assuming it is properly rigged). Every CFI needs to  demonstrate this stability and explain the underlying aerodynamics very early in pilot training. This is not an automobile or a boat and ignorance of essential aerodynamics is responsible for many LOC-I accidents.

The natural follow up question is of course, what will happen if we stall in a coordinated turn? This is a very powerful question for every aviation educator to ask (and demonstrate) as soon as a student is comfortable with straight-ahead stalls. Student pilots predictably grab the seat cushion and start to sweat when I first demonstrate a turning stall in an aircraft during training (despite a full ground briefing). >70% of pilots (and CFIs) predict a spin entry as the inevitable result of a turning stall. But if lift is equal on the wings (we are coordinated), a stall in a turn will very simply drop away from the lift vector. Try this with an experienced CFI and you will see that the stall break is even less pronounced than the straight-ahead stall. This is a way of expanding your flight envelope and proving to yourself how the basic aerodynamics of turning an airplane works. A turning stall is a very empowering maneuver for every pilot to experience. And the turning stall is an element in the private pilot ACS for this reason; it is an essential learning experience for safety and understanding.

And for that last mystery question; which control is active in a level turn? The ailerons are neutral in a 30 degree turn – take a look out at your ailerons while turning and try wiggling them. And the rudder is also neutral  – because all it does is “cancel the adverse yaw” as ailerons are added to roll the plane. The active control responsible for the turn is what you added with the trim; your elevator! And over 25% of pilots guess the rudder is turning the plane – and that would be a skid and responsible for pro-spin force – a dangerous assumption. The actual control responsible for turning in level flight is the elevator. A more complete explanation of  the aerodynamics of turning are on Rich Stowell’s “Learn To Turn” course on community aviation. The fact that pilots are confused here is one reason we are providing expanded education for CFIs during our  SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop. A YouTube of Rich Stowell at the NTSB is available here.

The (largely unknown) AOA indicator we all have in an upright airplane is how much chrome is showing on your yoke (how far back you have pulled the yoke or stick). This will reliably show your angle of attack and also is the first thing to reduce in an upset – unload! Next week we will talk about the fact that planes don’t really stall – but in fact pilots are responsible for stalling planes.  Stay tuned – and fly safely out there.


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Calibrating Confidence

More than 100 people die every day on the US roads in their automobiles.  An active co-conspirator in this carnage is the fact that 90% of drivers believe they are “better than average.” As a species humans are notoriously overconfident! And the Dunning-Kruger Effect (a well documented psychological phenomenon) shows that the least skilled are the most over-confident. Though this trait keeps us humans forging ahead and accomplishing amazing things but it sure leads to a lot of fatal accidents in mechanized devices. We need to recognize this hazard in flight training and manage it during every preflight assessment. I-M-S-A-F-E-(C)?

Overconfidence is not specifically recognized as a “hazardous attitude,” by the FAA but lies  somewhere between invulnerability and macho (and is also well represented in our pilot population).  Calibrating our confidence is critical in every pre-flight self-assessment. Pilots do some crazy things in planes and seem to just believe/hope it will work out – hope is never a good planning strategy!  Every aviation educator should be alert for overconfidence in their students, it is a sure killer and seems to be increasingly popular (or is that just YouTube making bad judgment manifest?) The well-documented Dunning-Kruger Effect states that “low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence.” We often need an independent analysis to reveal how risky we are being. When you read articles like the accident below,  consider how many endorsements a CFI has to put into this student’s logbook to make this flight remotely legal.

Calibrating confidence is of course a matter of achieving the healthy balance between hubris and doubt. Every pilot must maintain some level of assertiveness and bravery to fly appropriately “in command” because continuous doubt is equally dangerous to safety. Accepting peer review and maintaining objective standards help achieve the proper balance; staying humble and accepting curated advice is essential.

One of my mentors in aviation flew 125 combat missions over Vietnam. And though “you do not walk out to a $16M fighter with your tail between your legs”, his personal flight rules dictate that every mission needs to start by consciously encouraging some fear and doubt.  The “premeditation of evils” sharpens our situational awareness and maintains vigilance. At a minimum, every flight should at least begin in “code yellow.” This is, of course, easier when you are dodging SAMS but not too common in our daily “fun flying.” Complete a full briefing and add some “healthy doubt” to every flight.

Peter Garrison’s “Aftermath” column in Flying Magazine provides a shocking , over-the-top, tale of misplaced optimism. (App direct link HERE) This article starts almost predictably with the classic VFR pilot caught over a solid overcast; hoping to find a hole. However, deeper examination reveals the “pilot” (in a turbo Saratoga) was not even certificated as a pilot, but just a student with slightly over 2 hours of instruction logged. He just bought an airplane and started flying. The fatal result was pretty predictable and definitely preventable. In cases like this it seems incumbent upon the aviation educator to alert authorities before the inevitable occurs. Both of these pilots could be alive today if someone said something and stopped the process. (See Dr. Bill Rhodes on “Pilots Who Should Scare Us“)

Attitudes are notoriously difficult to shape as an educator. Running a busy flight training operation for 25 years, despite our best efforts, we had to “uninvite” a few people who just could not face the reality of managing risk and were a danger to themselves and the rest of the group. Rick Durden wrote a great article on this dilemma in flying clubs; painful but necessary.

Enjoy summer in California and visit SAFE at the AOPA Fly-In at Livermore today (or watch our FaceBook feed The STOL contest is at noon – we are at booth #52. Fly safely (and often)!


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Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

IFR into “Non-Controlled” Airspace!

Once upon a time, long ago, only an ILS got you to the ground in seriously crappy weather and the FAA protected that arrival from local “VFR” traffic with a 700agl echo transition airspace (and even a surface area echo). This assured some legal separation for IFR from VFR traffic. But now we fly LPV approaches into almost every small county field right down into the weeds and the FAA provides no airspace protection. You are IFR in the clouds down through the uncontrolled airspace into all kinds of local flight possibilities; potentially operating “one mile clear of clouds” with no radios!

Let’s review this quickly so we understand the problem clearly. When Orville and Wilbur were flying, everything was G airspace or “go for it”; no IFR, no serious restrictions. But as the instrument flight system was created, the 3 mile visibility minimum was created in controlled (IFR) airspace and the “buffer” of 2000 horizontal, 1000 above and 500 below was created to provide separation VFR/IFR. Visual separation was at least possible for faster moving IFR plane transitioning into visual at a smaller, non-tower; and remember no communications are required. These fields look like Watertown if an ILS is in place with weather protection to the surface. On the other side of the equation is the IFR approach plate which seemingly insures a safe descent from the clouds.

But with the advent of the many wonderful RNAV IFR letdowns into smaller county fields – right down to the ground – our current airspace now provides no separation for IFR operations from the local traffic potentially operating “one mile clear of clouds.” The even scarier issue is no requirement for communications at these non-tower fields. (And remember, I own a 1946 7AC Champ and love “low and slow”). Take a look at Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA) with only a 700agl Echo transition airspace. This field has an ILS approach that goes right down to 200agl in the clouds and records 172 operations a day at this busy reliever airport. You are “flying naked” into the “go for it” (G) airspace!  This is just crazy.

This all was all precipitated by the latest VFR sectional, where the 700 agl transition around my local airport mysteriously disappeared on the last issue of the VFR chart. With RNAV approaches down into the weeds, anyone could be flying up to 1200agl “one mile clear of clouds” (and don’t think this does not happen). The FAA needs to get serious about this IFR/VFR separation problem. We have fast movers shooting these approaches everyday and the potential for collisions is definitely an “accident waiting to happen”. Fly often (and safely).


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Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business). SAFE CFI-PRO™ is Oct 2&3 at AOPA in Frederick, MD. Sign-up for more information soon.

SAFE CFI-PRO™ Released @ SnF!

Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ initiative was well received by the press and industry on April 3rd at Sun ‘N Fun and we had an  amazing show here in Florida. See all the industry visitors to our booth on our SAFE Facebook. There are many livestream videos from our booth with manufacturers like Piper, Cirrus, Lightspeed, Bose, Appereo and industry partners like Patty Wagstaff and Richard McSpadden.

We announced the date for our initial CFI-PRO™ workshop on October 2nd and 3rd at AOPA in Frederick, MD. This ambitious program is the ultimate expression of our SAFE mission of elevating aviation educator excellence. The purpose of these workshops is to codify and transmit the knowledge and skills that make a CFI professional truly proficient – far beyond the perfunctory FAA initial training. We are addressing the “CFI Gap” between “good and Great!” The heart of this workshop is our “Envelope Expansion Maneuvers.” We will present these in detail and explain the aerodynamics behind them. We hope to also fly them at the workshop so we can ultimately transmit these to every pilot at every airport (though our  CFI-PRO™ cadre) and expand pilot’s abilities to reduce the incidence of Loss of Control accidents.

There are great learning opportunities at this two-day course for every CFI. For new CFIs we will provide the “missing manual” of skills and techniques to elevate each educator from “good to great” taking you far beyond the FAA minimum standards. For the more experienced CFI we will reveal new and modern concepts of scenario-based training and testing and also focus on client-centered instruction. Everyone will also love the networking opportunities with some of the best educators in the country. A passion for excellence is energizing and a shared mission for improvement is  contagious.

What we mean by “expanding the flight envelope” is getting away from just scenario-based training and exploring flight outside the standard 5% “comfort zone” where we all fly. By definition “scenarios” are pretty tame flying. Envelope expansion maneuvers are non-operational, skill-building techniques and focus on full control authority. As an example, take a normal steep turn at the commercial level and reverse the heading after 180 degrees of turn. After you gain proficiency with this, reverse after only 90 degrees of turn. These 60/90s have been a standard tool of senior CFIs to build proficiency for many years.

As another example, perform a standard power off turning stall and recover in the turn without adding power – just reduce the angle of attack; what a confidence booster for both CFI and pilots. A normal turning stall is a required maneuver on the Private Pilot ACS but seldom taught by CFIs or well known by most students sent to a private pilot test. How about a power off stall in a full slip…what will your plane do? If you don’t know you are a good candidate for SAFE CFI-PRO™. We will cover the aerodynamics of this situation and also teach the maneuver in flight. You will become a more proficient CFI-PRO™. As we travel this program, we will depend on our growing cadre of professionals to spread these SAFE Expanded Envelope Maneuvers to other CFIs and our general aviation pilot population. Moving every pilot out of their complacent “comfort zone” by refocusing on confident “yank and bank” maneuvering is the antidote for LOC-I.

More people die in every sector of aviation due to LOC-I than to any other cause. The NTSB has been excellent at keeping this fact in front of the public until we figure out how to change the way we train pilots.” Realistically, however, Brooks adds, “If we look at how we spend our training time versus the LOC problem, there’s a huge gap, yet we continue training pilots the way we always have.”

The secret of success for SAFE CFI-PRO™ is teaching a syllabus of maneuvers that can be flown in a any standard part 23 training aircraft (no parachutes or exotic aerobatic planes required). This program is scalable to every pilot at every airport in the hands of a skilled CFI-PRO™ and ends up being highly effective at building skills. Pursuing an Upset Prevention and Recovery Course as the next step would be a great addition. Find more information here and please enter your contacts to receive more details as they become available. Registration will be available in about a month; stand by for a great educational experience.

In the meantime, fly safely (and often) and keep in touch. Together we are going amazing places.


Apple or Android versions.

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).