When I get into a plane to perform a flight test and I look at the applicant in the other seat, I sometimes see their sightline is significantly lower than mine. From this simple cue, I am almost sure of two things immediately. First, they were not blessed with an experienced flight instructor and second, they are probably still struggling to achieve a consistent, confident landing. They basically can’t see enough to fly well. A “perfect picture” leads to accurate and confident aircraft control. If you can’t see, it is pretty tough to fly and land. All this could have been prevented by getting the pilot initially “fitted” correctly to the airplane, eliminating a huge amount of frustration and wasted money training. This might seem like a “little problem” but in fact the effects are HUGE – like hand mike to headsets – it effects everything!
The Air Force faced an overwhelming exposure to exactly this issue in the 1940s and fixed it with extensive human engineering studies and cockpit modifications. Unfortunately, awareness (and equipment) have lagged way behind in GA flying.
“In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes… After multiple inquiries ended with no answers, officials turned their attention to the design of the cockpit itself…the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot.
[After testing] 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fit within the average range. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one…Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared.”
So the US Air Force spent a huge amount of research and design money to fix the “pilot fitting” problem but through this investment, solved their aircraft control problem. They designed seats to be finely adjustable in every direction. Modern jets also have a parallax sight device to precisely locate the pilot laterally and vertically perfectly in the cockpit. The Air Force realized proper visual cues and cockpit fit are the basis for all aircraft control. It is essential for every pilot you fly with to know what their proper position in the plane should look and feel like (and later also how all the controls and power applications change this outside picture – future blog).
Experienced instructors usually detect any “fitting problems” immediately, and quite frankly sometimes this makes us seem like magicians. I have had airplane *owners* come to me intensely frustrated that their landings are inconsistent or borderline scary. They are usually embarrassed and in the quiet “confessional” mode. Remarkably, we can often fix their landings in a lesson or two by just adjusting their seat and their view picture (just like the Air Force) Aircraft seating is *that* important. These poor pilots never were taught what cues the *must* see to control their aircraft.
So step one for every new pilot “meeting” a new airplane is “fitting.” You should ensure they know what they should be seeing since they have no idea what is correct. Start with the seat all the way up and lower it gradually so they have a view over the glare shield. Ideally, they should see some of the cowling for pitch reference. Secondarily, make sure they can move the rudders to their stops and still have some flexion in their knees. Otherwise, they are stretching to use the rudders and using the hip muscles rather than the finer control of the calf muscles (also painful and tiring). Sometimes the seats don’t adjust enough and you need cushions. I recommend your pilot buy their own so their fit is exactly the same every time.
This simple, but critical, seating guidance makes all the difference for faster, consistent student progress. Some additional human factors advice for “fitting” a pilot to the controls should also be considered. Have your pilot move all the controls and demonstrate the use of fine muscle usage (wrist and fingers) for operating the controls. Gross motor control from the large muscles of the hip and shoulder makes pilots fly like gorillas (no PC police please). Demonstrate the trim (a mystery to every new pilot) and emphasize avoiding excessive control pressures with proper trim. How many times do we see even experienced pilots “fighting” with the plane instead of operating it smoothly and instinctively (see this earlier blog). For the throttle in a Cessna, using the palm of the hand, calibrated with the index finger, allows precise power application. Again, pilots operating from the shoulder fly poorly with coarse motor control.
One last tip on the fitting and introduction to the cockpit. This is a great opportunity (without the pressure of an engine running) to practice with all the switches – especially getting the feel for how the mag switch works. This will help with their next challenge of performing a run-up. How many times have you had a student turn off *both* mags creating that dreaded backfire? This can be eliminated with some simple “switch practice” while sitting calm and quiet (master off). With no psychological pressure of a running engine (noise and confusion) learning the movement of the key is much easier. It is also a great time to teach thoroughly the danger of a hot mag. Solve these simple problems and save hours of frustration by getting your student correctly situated and comfortable in their new “office.” Fly safely out there (and often).
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