Clear Up Control Confusion; FREE Course!

It is embarrassing to realize that most pilots (and even a majority of CFIs) don’t know which flight control powers the basic turn. Through no fault of your own, you may be among this group. Spoiler alert; the ailerons and rudder are neutral in a stable, coordinated level turn.  We are all victims of the negative transfer from driving. As Rich Stowell testified to the NTSB, “The status quo in aviation education is unacceptable.”

The reality is surprisingly straightforward: airplanes are relegated to flight along straight lines and curves, and those paths are controlled primarily with the elevator. At the correlation level of learning, the myriad flight paths possible at a given angle of bank become readily apparent…

Even though pilots can cause rudimentary turns to happen under normal circumstances, it seems they have not been given the indepth education and experience to master turning flight.

Given the confusion of most pilots, it is no surprise that Loss of Control is the resulting causal factor for so many aviation fatalities. This “stubbornly recurrent safety challenge” demands the antidote of correct understanding, followed by diligent practice. Danger lurks not in what you don’t know, but in what we think you know that is mistaken.

Flying doesn’t happen to us; it happens because of us. We interact with the airplane via the flight controls, and the inputs we make have performance consequences. Absent a complete understanding of the consequences of our inputs, we will be unable to apply the controls correctly, or to see the connections between the myriad forms of turning flight.

SAFE founder, Rich Stowell will launch his (FREE) “Learn to Turn” course on Community Aviation next week on Sept 10th (generously sponsored by Avemco and Hartzell Propellers). Please read the preview available  HERE carefully and share these free materials when they become available next week. As Rich emphasizes in his course, reading is not enough. We need to apply and practice these suggestions in flight to be safer and defeat Loss of Control. Read it, practice it, and pursue excellence in your flying. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

15 thoughts on “Clear Up Control Confusion; FREE Course!”

  1. A turn is accelerated flight.

    Acceleration (Newton’s 2nd law) occurs when there is an applied force or an imbalance in the applied forces.

    There are only two sources of sustained force to effect acceleration: lift and thrust.

    Only lift operates normal to the direction of flight.

    Therefore lift is what makes an airplane change its direction of flight (turn).

    A turn is ANY change in direction of flight, not just a change in course. A loop is a turn.

    Increase or decrease in lift necessary to a change in direction of flight requires either a change in dynamic pressure (CAS) or a change in angle of attack.

    The elevator controls angle of attack.

    If you followed the above you then understand that the power lever (throttle for us piston guys) and the elevator are the primary controls to control a turn.

    The rudder and ailerons help serve to vector (change direction of) the lift and thrust forces.

    This is what I teach my primary students, my UPRT students, and my aerobatic students.

    1. So what is the terminology and phraseology you use for a student’s first lesson on landings – i.e. your initial basic explanation of what is done with the elevator to accomplish the round-out and landing.

      1. Hi Warren. Assuming you’ve had a chance to read through the Learn to Turn booklet and view the webinar recording, the language would be the same as for all turning flight. As explained on page 5-16, the round out is just another turn but in the vertical plane — albeit usually a much more subtle one than a lot of other turns. As such, the round out shares the same attributes as, for instance, a level turn. Its purpose is to transition from the stabilized final approach path (a straight, descending line), to the level/hold off a few inches above the runway (a straight, nearly level line).

        We use the elevator to manage the turn rate and radius of the round out. The decreasing speed during the round out increases the degree of difficulty in doing this (on top of all the other things that are happening at the same time). Properly done, the airplane ends up a few inches above the runway. Mismanaged, we smack the ground prematurely in a hard landing, or we end up leveling off too high above the runway, or ballooning up and away from the ground, or porpoising (a series of pilot-induced turns that usually does not end well).

        Have a look at the traffic pattern thought experiment on page 5-23, which might be a good exercise to do with your students to test their knowledge more deeply. Also, I would pose a similar question back to you: given the information in the booklet, what terminology/phraseology would you use to explain the round out process — terminology that connects the round out to other types of turning flight?

      2. I teach that pulling on the yoke at that point changes the flight path. It does so by increasing the AoA of the wing. I point out we want to make turn from the approach course (typically 3-5 degrees below the horizon) to parallel to the runway (round out). Pulling on the yoke to do that will increase the AoA causing a sudden increase in lift, causing the airplane to begin to turn (nose rises). As soon as the flight path is bent parallel to the runway, the round-out is complete. If the pilot doesn’t decrease the AoA slightly at that moment then the turn will continue, resulting in a ‘balloon’. Having excess airspeed and therefore excess available lift, increases the likelihood that will happen.

        Now, with no corresponding increase in thrust/power, or, actually, a decrease in thrust/power, the airplane will begin to decelerate due to drag. The steady decrease in airspeed requires a steady increase in AoA (increasing pull on the yoke) to keep the lift equal to the weight so the airplane doesn’t touch down. This then is the “flare”. Eventually this process results in the wing reaching critical AoA and the wing stalls, making the airplane touch down, nose-high. The airplane now transitions to the roll-out phase of the landing.

        Now we can get into the AoA of the airplane in its gear stance as it rolls out and talk about residual lift, if any, and how that affects braking effectiveness, and why it is so easy to skid the tires right after lowering the nose (tricycle gear).

        Understanding lift makes a huge difference in understanding how airplanes fly.

  2. Brian and Rich – thank you for your detailed responses. I haven’t finished the booklet (so I may have missed the answer to my question if it was there), but after reading Brian’s comments, and seeing on pg 5-16 that the round out was also called a vertical turn, I was interesting in understanding how you would explain the landing to a student. What I see now is that my description of the roundout and landing includes all of the points you both made as far as the performance we want from the airplane (transition to level/hold off, parallel to the runway, avoid ballooning, etc). What was getting to me was the terminology – specifically calling the leveloff a turn. I don’t think that works, and your responses to me prove that – i.e. you can’t explain a landing without using what I think is the proper term – leveloff.

    Your emphasis on pitch (elevator) controlling turns concerns me. That is a direct relationship to the base to final problem in my view. There needs to be more emphasis on awareness of the pitch position relative to the gap below the horizon on base and maintaining that gap into the turn to final and leave control of the rate of turn to coordinated aileron and rudder.

    1. Good morning Warren (and Rich, David, and all the other CFIs and aviation educators reading this).

      I think your concern about the emphasis on the elevator making the turn is really your concern about not stalling the airplane in a turn at low speed at an altitude that is too low to safely effect a recovery from an upset (stall upset in this case). That is a real and serious consideration. Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that it is lift that makes the aircraft change its direction of flight (turn) and our most rapid way to change the lift is to change the AoA. Changing the AoA is done with the elevator, hence, “The elevator makes the airplane turn.” Rich is 100% correct on that. *ALL* CFIs need to learn and teach this!

      Many of the things we [think we] know we have learned incorrectly. When I start out with my spin class or my Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) I hand out a quick quiz. I find it interesting that nearly everyone, including CFIs, get a zero on the quiz, i.e. they answer every question wrong. I also find it equally interesting that fighter and aerobatic pilots almost always get 100%. This tells me there is a serious gap in understanding that has to do with 3-dimensional maneuvering.

      Before identifying what I think causes “The Gap” let me present what I think are the two key questions that illuminate the problem.

      1. True or False: stall speed varies with bank angle?

      2. What makes an airplane stall?

      These two questions are closely related. The answer to the first question is ‘false’. There is no direct relationship between bank angle and stall speed. The relationship is an artificial one we create in our heads and I will address it further down this response. For now, let me point out that everyone who has been to an airshow has seen the proof of this answer. They have watched the aerobatic pilot roll their airplane through 360˚ of bank without the airplane stalling.

      The second question usually elicits a response about exceeding the critical AoA which, while true, is not the answer to the question. The answer is, “The pilot pulling on the stick or yoke is what makes the airplane stall.” This may seem trite or even a trick question/answer, but it is that simplicity, associated with not having that understanding burned into our neural pathways, that underlies the loss-of-control (LOC) problem. Now on to the ‘why’.

      I believe that the problem stems from our very evolution. We evolved moving around in two dimensions. Gravity held us to a flat surface. When we aren’t on a flat surface we have a tendency to fall and hurt ourselves so wanting to remain on that flat surface is reinforced. How does that affect our flying? When we move into the air WE REMAIN TWO DIMENSIONAL CREATURES and keep seeking that flat surface! Everything we do goes back to trying to remain in a level plane. We think that stall speed increases with bank angle because we try to maintain a level turn when, in fact, it is G-loading of the wing, i.e. demanding the wing produce more lift, that gets us into trouble. In the turn we pull back on the yoke, essentially asking the wing to produce more lift than it can at the airspeed at which we are currently flying. The end result is that we pull far enough to exceed the critical AoA and the wing obliges by stalling.

      Pilots who learn to change their frame of reference and truly maneuver in three dimensions, e.g. fighter pilots, aerobatic pilots, etc., understand this intrinsically. They begin to live with G-loading, AoA, lift, and energy state. It dominates their understanding of maneuvering flight. This is what we need to be teaching our primary students early on. The military understands this and primary students don’t get to go solo until after they have had UPRT and basic aerobatics. Unfortunately civil training never goes there. We now have CFIs and airline pilots who have no idea how their airplanes fly … or how to get them flying again after an upset. Sure, they know how to use the automation, to push all those buttons, and make the airplane follow a complex 2-dimensional path through the airspace system, but when called upon to deal with actually having to make the airplane work in a strange situation, fail miserably.

      There is more to be written here but this is supposed to be a reply to your comments, not an article in and of itself. I haven’t yet had a chance to read Rich’s booklet but I already know what I will find there. After talking with Rich in the SAFE booth at OSH, I know he and I are on the same wavelength when it come to turns, stalls, and maneuvering flight. We may use different words at times but we both know that all of this stems from the same physics of flight.

      Warren, if you would like to talk more about this or, better yet, experience it, I recommend you visit Rich or me. You can find me at or at I promise you that either of us can help you become a better, safer pilot and CFI.

      1. Brian – I think what you are saying is our stall training (which should include turning entries, all demonstrated stalls, and unusual attitudes) is so bad that many times the pilot doesn’t know when the airplane is nearing its limitations. I agree. But I still don’t agree with using the elevator as the PRIMARY control in a turn. THAT is what causes the problem. I’ve never had any problems with establishing ALL of my turns with aileron/rudder and that includes turnbacks.

    2. What I frequently see from new pilots-in-training – during the descending turns in the pattern – is the “bank add back pressure” turns which we carefully taught our students for straight and level turns. This habit pattern is inappropriately applied while descending in the pattern. Consequently, we discuss this thoroughly on the ground and I rehearse quite a few descending turns from altitude (descending toward the airport) to emphasize descending turns require “bank and release pressure” to maintain the airspeed (safe AOA) in the turns….


      1. I think what’s happening in that scenario (bank add back pressure) is that the instruction is not connecting to what is taught in steeps, and turns in slow flight. Steeps and slow flight include an objective of maintaining the airspeed while maneuvering the airplane. If that is carried correctly into the approaches, which have a similar objective, the pilot would add the back pressure to stay on glideslope while simultaneously nudging in more power to stay on speed.

      2. At the heart of this problem is a comprehensive understanding of “energy management.” This is in the ACS but not really covered in any of the FAA handbooks. We need a lot better (integrated) explanation for pilots in training. A useful article in the Focused Flight Review covers this well:

  3. Hi Warren. I’m glad we are all hitting the same points regarding the performance we desire from the airplane. The hangup seems to be the difference between calling the round out a “vertical turn” and a “leveloff.” Leveling off is the objective of the round out, where the airplane must be maneuvered from a descending flight path to an essentially level flight path. This begs the question, “what is the transitional maneuver that changes the flight path from one to the other?” And if that transition is not a straight line or a curve, then what is it? And if it is a curve, what must we do to make it curve?

    The round out does have rate and radius, the G-load — though barely greater than one — is not equal to one G, and the path follows the arc of a circle. Thus, it is a turn, albeit in the vertical plane. And as a turn managed with elevator, all of the other important parameters come into play: AOA (how close am I to critical AOA/stall?); airspeed (is the speed decaying too rapidly as a result of my pull?); G-load (am I pulling too hard, or just right given my energy state?).

    We need to emphasize elevator awareness more in training. My contention is that the lack of correlation-level awareness is a prime driver of loss of control. If pilots understood all that the elevator does, and all that we call on the elevator to do during critical flight ops, then why are stall/spins such a major factor in LOC-I? Consider these three related Qs and As in the booklet:

    Why is it important to know that the elevator is the turn control?

    Loss of control while maneuvering is the perennial top cause of fatal flying accidents. When asked, “What is the primary control surface you use when turning an airplane,” eighty-three percent of pilots did not recognize “elevator” as the correct answer. Alarmingly, one-in-four believed rudder turned the airplane.

    The FAA teaches instructors about the basic levels of learning. Regrettably, actual flight training too often remains stuck
    at the rote level as students are drilled on procedures designed to pass checkrides. True situational awareness, however, demands correlation-level knowledge of what our controls do. Deeper understanding of the performance consequences of our control inputs results in more precise flying and reveals the connections between seemingly unrelated maneuvers. It is also important to use correct terminology when describing those performance consequences. For example, the consequences of aileron inputs are roll, bank angle, and adverse yaw. With respect to yaw, the airplane is either coordinated (yaw cancelled), or uncoordinated (skidding or slipping). Elevator is the primary means of controlling:

    Angle of Attack: Are we stalled or unstalled; what is our margin to the wing’s critical
    angle of attack?

    Airspeed: Are we fast or slow; are we operating at an appropriate speed?

    G-load: Is our flight path straight or curving; what is our margin to aerodynamic and structural design limits?

    At the correlation level of learning, the outcome of a maneuver truly would never be in doubt. All pilots would know that rudder does not turn the airplane—it cancels yaw, allows them to slip, and skids them into a spin. Pilots would understand just how many variables they are juggling when manipulating the elevator, that “back pressure on the stick, tightness of turn, g load, nearness to the stall, are all really the same thing.” They also would realize that loss of control ending in a spin results from stalling and yawing, that a stall/spin does not happen to the pilot, but because of pilot inputs.

    Although pilots can perform rudimentary level turns to certification standards, too few are able to describe the mechanics of turning flight accurately. Thus, the Learn to Turn worldview is this:

    Airplanes follow one of two flight paths: either a straight line, or a curve;

    These flight paths can occur anywhere in space, i.e., in the horizontal, oblique, or vertical planes; and,

    These flight paths are controlled primarily with elevator inputs.

    Isn’t it dangerous to talk so much about the elevator?

    Statistics on fatal loss of control suggest we are not emphasizing the role of the elevator enough. The systemic failure of the training industry to ingrain in pilots what the controls actually do, especially when maneuvering, is the reason pilots unknowingly make the wrong inputs at critical times.

    But what happens if a pilot, rushing the final turn for whatever reason, doesn’t bank the airplane enough, over-rudders, then pulls back because the pilot remembers “elevator makes the turn tighter”?

    This is an inaccurate description of the classic skid-spin scenario, which goes something like this: The pilot overshoots the runway centerline while turning final. Feeling pressured, the pilot misapplies the rudder believing it will tighten the turn. Instead, the nose of the airplane slices through and below the horizon in yaw. The pilot reacts to this by pulling the elevator control aft, believing it will bring the nose back up.

    The consequence of the misapplied elevator is an increase in angle of attack, which presents as a decrease in speed and an increase in G-load. Should the speed and G-load trends converge on the airplane’s stall curve, an accelerated stall occurs in the presence of yaw. Though the pilot had intended a different outcome, the airplane departs toward a spin as commanded by the pilot.

    1. Spot on Rich. Excellent descriptions. A comment on the following:

      “This is an inaccurate description of the classic skid-spin scenario, which goes something like this: The pilot overshoots the runway centerline while turning final. Feeling pressured, the pilot misapplies the rudder believing it will tighten the turn. Instead, the nose of the airplane slices through and below the horizon in yaw. The pilot reacts to this by pulling the elevator control aft, believing it will bring the nose back up.”

      Low speed, more or less horizontal flight, step on the rudder, apply substantial back pressure on the stick … any aerobatic pilot will tell you, “Oh, that is just the entry into a snap roll.” That is precisely what this is — commanding the aircraft into a snap roll. Is it any wonder that the airplane does precisely what it was commanded to do? Now, when the pilot is presented with a windscreen full of dirt, the second flawed reflex comes into play: they pull. After all, being a 2-D, horizontally-oriented person, when one sees ground, pulling will bring the horizon back into view, right? So the real end result is a snap roll to inverted then pull the aircraft vertically into the ground, and all because the pilot has the wrong reflexes.

      Do we want to change the loss-of-control statistics? If so, we need to change pilot reflexes. It is one thing to talk about it like this. It is entirely different to go out and do it, then learn to do it right until it becomes unconscious competence.

    2. Agree on the correlation level problem. But still have a huge problem with you both saying the elevator is the primacy turning control. When someone is overshooting the runway, and remembers that oh yeah the elevator is the PRIMARY turning control, what do you think is going to happen?

      I haven’t seen anyone use the elevator as you describe in so long, I can’t see that as the most typical scenario. The pitch is never going to be up so high that the nose would be slicing through the horizon either. My most likely scenario is that the pilot first overshoots from lack of ground reference skills – no feel for tailwinds affecting groundspeed and the need to start the turn sooner. There’s also at play what the FAA used to have in the Airplane Flying Handbook and called ground shyness – the natural resistance to banking when close to the ground. Some instructors add to this problem by limiting the bank allowed base to final. The pilot then goes to the elevator (the PRIMARY turning control as you say) and pulls too much.

      1. Warren, you actually got me out of bed to answer. Yeah, I was just doing a quick pass on my phone before hitting the sack and read your comment. I had to respond.

        Yes, the elevator controls the turn. That is an absolute fact. It is written in stone in the laws of physics. You don’t “remember” that the elevator is the primary turning control; it just IS! OK, back to first principles.

        I am pretty sure I said this at the start of this thread but I am going to repeat it again because understanding it is so crucial to understanding what the airplane can and cannot do. The elevator controls angle of attack of the wing. Increasing AoA increases lift. Lift in excess of that required to maintain unaccelerated flight causes the airplane to accelerate in the direction of the lift vector. That makes the airplane turn in that direction. All the ailerons do is to change the direction of the lift vector. They do not make the airplane turn. If you don’t believe me, go do a ballistic roll. There the airplane rolls 360˚ without changing its direction of flight (other than to follow a ballistic arc, hence the name). So there is proof positive that the aileron does not make the airplane turn.

        Now the second part of this is dynamic pressure or what we call airspeed. (Dynamic pressure and CAS are directly related.) When you are overshooting and command the aircraft to tighten up the turn by changing the direction of the lift vector (banking the airplane) and then increasing the lift vector (pulling on the stick to increase AoA) you risk demanding more lift from the wing than it can give at the current airspeed. In that case, if you insist on still pulling harder, you will exceed the critical AoA and the airplane will stall.

        The key thing here is to know just how hard we can pull before the airplane stalls. At a normal approach speed of 1.3Vs0 you can pull 1.7G before the airplane will stall. That’s it. At 1.4Vs0 you can pull 2G. At 2Vs0 you can pull 4G, the latter being a bad idea in a standard category aircraft with a 3.7G limit but quite useful in a utility or aerobatic category aircraft.

        So, yes, it is possible to overshoot and then ask the airplane to do something it cannot do. The aircraft then does exactly what has been commanded: it exceeds the critical angle of attack and stalls. Fixing that is simple: teach your student not to do that! Explain that, if you pull too hard the airplane is going to stall. Do this in a turn at altitude. This is the accelerated stall series, something that should be demonstrated to and then practiced by the primary student until the understanding of the relationship between airspeed, G-loading, and stall is burned into their neural pathways never to be forgotten.

        I fly and I teach aerobatics. When I am out practicing about the only time my eyes are inside the cockpit is to determine if I have the correct altitude and entry speed for the pull needed to initiate the planned maneuver. What surprises me is that much of the time if I happen to glance inside, I see the stall warning light on. Apparently I intuitively know how much I can pull based on how the airplane sounds and feels in the maneuver. (I suspect this is unconscious airspeed awareness.) That relationship between airspeed, stall, and G-load is now a matter of unconscious competence for me. I stall the airplane when I want to stall it (spin, snap roll) and not when I don’t.

        Warren, it sounds to me like you need to spend some time experimenting with airspeed, pull, and G-loading (at altitude, of course). Once you have the awareness, teach that to your students.

        OK, enough of that. I really do need to get some sleep. I bid everyone a good evening and best wishes for good week.

  4. David – to your Sept 14 2021 11:19am comment – there was no ‘reply’ button.

    One of my favorite training exercises to develop pitch and power coordination is climbs, descents, and leveloffs at a specified airspeed. It can be done at any airspeed but normally I do it at minimum controllable airspeed, and at the airspeed required for the checkride, just above the stall warning horn. Amazingly the Airplane Flying Handbook recommends these maneuvers and the ACS indicates they can be requested by the examiner. But how often is either ever done – my guess is really close to zero.

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