Managing Energy & Flight Path!

The FAA recently updated their advisory circular for professional pilots: “Flightpath Management.” Though directed at professional flight crews, this document provides essential ideas for every pilot. This guide recommends examining every flight through the lens of total energy and flight path management in both manual and automated flight modes: “planning, execution, and assurance of the guidance and control of aircraft trajectory and energy.

Automation dependency and energy management have been emphasized as a concern for larger aircraft for years. But increasingly this is also a GA concern with even the most basic LSAs coming equipped with sophisticated (and sometimes “creative”) avionics systems. The commonly heard “what’s it doing now?” is the first indication of danger. Fight path awareness and metacognitive skills are essential to ensure positive control and undistracted awareness of every phase of flight; even in smaller airframes.

This Advisory Circular grew out of the larger/earlier Operational Flight Path Study. Sophisticated automation/navigation systems are in almost every aircraft now, stealing attention and driving the future flightpath. And ironically, the demands on the pilot and/or flight crew have actually increased with automation!

the role and requirements for pilot knowledge and skills has not diminished as a result of automated systems or modern flight deck design, but has actually increased to include being a manager of systems as well as maintaining all their basic knowledge and skills.

Failures for which there are no crew procedures or checklists may be becoming more prevalent. This may be partly because avionics systems are now increasingly integrated and complex as opposed to the federated systems used in the past.

The critical element in managing flight path and energy is understanding the timeline; projecting the aircraft’s flight path and energy state into the future. None of this planning makes sense unless the pilot understands and adjusts the aircraft trend vectors into “future flight path and energy state.” Many new avionics systems assist here by supplying “trend vectors.” This tool is depicting the basic pilot aptitude that must be built and internalized early in flight training.

Every savvy CFI knows before entering the downwind for landing whether their clueless new VFR learner will be “high/low or fast/slow.” This aptitude must be internalized by every new pilot. Understanding and manipulating the future flight path and energy state is vital to the success (and safety) of each flight. This “energy profile” is also distinctly different for different airframes (compare a DA-40 in glide to a Cherokee Six).

This AC and the underlying study also address the training provider, emphasizing the importance of qualified educators providing creative challenges for pilots. Falling back onto the same stale and predictable flight maneuvers for training and review is unacceptable. How many flight reviews have you had that just reviewed the same hackneyed “3S” (steep, slow, stall)  you did in private-level training? Does your CFI know your avionics thoroughly?  Does your CFI provide useful and creative challenges both for manual skills and automation? In the manual flying arena, the SAFE Extended Envelope Training provides an excellent syllabus for beneficial future dual instruction with a savvy CFI.

Flight instructor training, experience, and line-operation familiarity may not be sufficient to effectively train flight crews for successful flight path management. This will be especially important for future operations…Operators should consider that many exercises required to be hand flown are well-known and repetitive and may not measure the true underlying skill level outside of those specific exercises (e.g., single-engine, hand-flown approaches).

Another vital skill mentioned in the AC that is the “reasonableness check.” When any maneuver is undertaken either manually or especially with automation, a pilot should pause a moment and ask “does this really make sense?” With an autopilot, assuring the correct mode for both lateral and vertical path is critical (“score board” on pfd). Always ask: “What am I asking the aircraft to do here?” Metacognitive skills  have been repeatedly emphasized in the SAFE blog, and need to be examined for both manual and automated operations. Don’t let the “magic” operate unmonitored! This awareness requires achieving an “outside perspective” of your actions and the total flight path and energy state.Safety requires verifying that each selected action or input makes sense from this larger perspective. This skill has been described throughout aviation history as an “angel on my  shoulder,” “gut feeling” or “view from the balcony.” Metacognition is the heart of maintaining situational awareness. A loss of situational awareness almost always immediately precedes every accident. Fly safely out there (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

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

20 thoughts on “Managing Energy & Flight Path!”

  1. ” The critical element in managing flight path and energy is understanding the timeline; projecting the aircraft’s flight path and energy state into the future.” This is so true. As the Airplane Flying Handbook has always recommended, the pilot should develop the ability to estimate the trajectory of the airplane’s line of flight from as far out as possible. I.e. on a straight-in at a towered airport, the glideslope is intercepted at about 2 miles. From there you want the airplane flying directly to the aiming point. At first it seems impossible to identify the aiming point (the point that doesn’t move) from that distance, but with proper instruction, it only takes a few approaches to get it. It’s easily identified on base also, just at an angle.

    Why is this such a problem? It may be caused in part by initial pitch and power settings being made to pre-determined levels. If the pilot relies on that technique to keep the airplane on flight path, then he may not have developed this important but simple skill to visualize the trajectory and respond as needed with timely pitch and/or power adjustments. Possibly this was a factor in the accident that occurred at Santa Catalina Island, CA on April 17, 2016. The airplane crashed short of and below the runway.

    1. “Fly by predetermined (assigned) pitch/power settings (and no other)” is at the heart of this problem. Add to that very limited time/money (minimum time programs). Many new pilots never had an opportunity to experiment (also “new/scared CFI” problem).

      I have been doing more flight tests at “flight academies” and this obvious lack of the ability to judge a flight path is increasingly distressing. On the “180 commercial,” if there is any wind or I insist on a different airfield, we are sunk…applicants have no awareness or correlative ability to adjust this maneuver based on changing conditions (they are watching rote numbers on the G-1000). And this is a very scary *flight training* trend🤣🤮

  2. Understanding the flow of energy is a challenge for a lot of people. One thing that is eminently clear is that most pilots are completely unable to determine the energy state of their airplane. Being able to visualize energy state from 10 miles out is equally difficult.

    A way to understand this is to pick a point from say 5 miles out, pull the power, and then manage energy so as to arrive at the runway touch-down zone at the correct energy state that a normal landing is possible. This problem is so well known that the military uses the concept of “high key” and “low key” to help their pilots arrive at the runway with the correct energy state to land out of a power off approach.

    Speed, thrust, altitude, and drag determine the energy state of the airplane. It is all there, but boy is it difficult to perceive until you play around with it to make understanding intrinsic. Oh, and you will NEVER develop that understanding by flying a “stabilized” powered final from 5 miles out.

    1. Your last point is a good one Brian. Many pilots from accelerated training programs have only experienced “standard power settings and situations” and do not get enough variability in their training to get good at managing energy (why power off 180 is so difficult for most commercial applicants?) Most flight test applicants cannot successfully glide to a landing with a simulated power failure directly over an airfield (never trained in proper technique or developed an “energy sense” for their aircraft)

      I teach a lot of dead stick approaches from every part of the pattern. I also teach “accelerated approaches” (faster than ordinary approaches necessary for piston planes working in busy B/C airspace). Different airframes have *very* different energy characteristics (e.g. DA-40 vs Cherokee SIx in glide 🤣)

      1. Having flown a Searman, I can only imagine your Tiger Moth glides like an anvil?

  3. Heh, yeah. If you want to push that dichotomy even farther, I recently had the opportunity to test-fly the Pipestrel Velus Electro. With a 14:1 L/D the Velus Electro begins to approach the performance of a glider … except it has no drag-increasing devices other than flaps, which don’t do nearly enough. The Tiger Moth is polar opposite and glides very nicely … like a lawn dart. In the Velus Electro you cannot carry even 1KT over approach speed or you will float all the way off the end of the runway. Conversely, with the Tiger Moth, if you are fast it bleeds kinetic nergy so quickly that you can fix the problem almost instantly by increasing angle-of-attack slightly, making airspeed/energy control almost trivial … if you recognize how fast you are converting potential energy to kinetic energy. There’s nothing in the bank.

    So your point about the DA-40 vs. Cherokee Six is well taken. 180º power-off spot landings in the Cherokee Six can be a challenge. Using prop, flaps, and speed to control glide gives the pilot a lot more latitude than one might think. I just finished a primary student who bought and brought a Cherokee Six to the party and we had a lot of fun figuring out the power-off 180º in the Cherokee Six.

  4. Hi David – I have always had a thought about the glass panel trend indicators you mentioned in your article. Analog round-dial flight instruments have built in trend information which we subconsciously access with just a quick glance at the panel. The position of the respective needle tells us our altitude, airspeed, heading, and vertical speed. A needle in motion tells us much more based on which way it is moving, how fast it is moving, and how fast the movement is accelerating or decelerating. I imagine when glass panels were first being developed; engineers wondering why test pilots struggled to fly with digital representation of flight parameters. Then the answer; no easily accessible trend information is transmitted by digits. Thus the inclusion of analog trend displays to back up digital information became the standard. At least this is my imagined idea of how glass displays were developed.

    Full disclosure – I fly the first jet certified with completely glass instrumentation. Just a thought that with every technological advance we may lose something.

    I’m glad to see that SAFE is championing the correct concept of aircraft control; something along the lines of Attitude and Energy enforce Trajectory and Velocity.

    All the best
    Charles McD

    1. Rate data is extremely important. It takes a long time to drill into my instrument students that when flying an approach, especially ILS, that the direction and rate of needle movement is far more important than the position of the needle. Once you understand that, partial-panel (no heading data) becomes almost trivial.

      1. As usual we are on the same wavelength with this issue Brian. If you master the trend, partial panel is no problem. My mantra for partial panel is change/*wait* then analyze/optimize. Most pilots are wiggling everything and get no useful feedback to analyze/control.

      2. I see that problem consistently in comments on many articles. Pilots will use the VSI (which has no position information and delayed needle movement) instead of the GS needle (position information and rate of closure/divergence all in real time) for glideslope control and corrections.

    2. Thanks Charlie. Straight digital diplays were a failure for transmitting flight information to the human brain. We still equate “glass panels” with “digital information” displays. Modern glass panels have many “moving needles” (analog) to fix the initial problems with “number displays” (interpretation time). I remember my initial confusion with glass panels until I internalized those clever trend indicators and found the moving (analog) needles. The bigger problem with glass is the single point of failure.

      A huge advantage of newer presentations is multiple presentations of “needle and number.” The new challenge is complexity and clutter – how much to show. (Notice the increasing declutter options). Modern glass displays present trend pictorially/immediately whereas old round gauges require time and “analysis of movement” to determine trend. Similarly, AOA is presented visually (and helpful if used wisely). AOA is invisible from a snapshot of an aircraft in flight (or a quick view out the window). You need a timeline (OR video) to determine trend (or AOA) in an analog fashion (though yoke position is valid). Hopefully we are wide awake and sensing all this kinaesthetically (more inputs)?

      The human/machine interface is a continuing challenge. Maybe we all need those Elbit eyeball presentations Apache helicopter pilots use to feed data directly into our neural processors?

      1. Many years ago I started working with Jef Raskin on the development of a new display system for flight data. Jef was the master of computer user interfaces, having designed the user interface for the Apple Macintosh. Jef was an avid RC pilot interested in flight instrumentation for FPV. (It was decades ago and VERY early on in FPV.) The other two of us were computer hackers and CFIIs. We started down the road to produce something that had position, rate, and acceleration data presented in a very decluttered manner. Unfortunately Jef passed away before we got the first prototype working. We got discouraged and drifted away from the project.

    1. Thanks Rod, you have certainly identified that the “emperor” has forgotten to dress appropriately for this event! Everyone should read this wonderful analysis of the FAA’s changing pitch/power polarity!

      1. Greetings Dave:

        You’re a good man for letting me post another side to the FAA’s Energy Management story. Then again, you and SAFE have always encouraged sharing different ideas. So nice.
        Rod Machado

    2. I don’t agree with your pitch and power comments, but agree completely on the new Energy Management chapter. It is totally impractical information for basic training and needs to be deleted or moved to somewhere else Simple guidelines of what the elevator and throttle each control need to be returned to the chapter on approaches and landings. Fortunately, that chapter wasn’t completely compromised. For one example, near the end of the chapter, the discussion on how to correct for a Low Final Approach is still phrased in a clear, simple, and logical manner (and in one paragraph).

      It wouldn’t hurt to also clarify the section on the Region of Reversed Command in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. It is widely misinterpreted. There are no civilian airplanes that have enough thrust to oppose weight, yet many pilots will tell you they control altitude with power. What that means is when conditions become hazardous, the pilot may find out the hard way that power alone doesn’t do what they were told it would do. I flew with someone who tried to correct altitude back up to the VASI by increasing power, and the only thing that happened was a 10kt acceleration while continuing on a straight line short of the aiming point staying red over red.

  5. I have never understood the difficulty in understanding energy state. As for the question, “Which statement is correct: ‘power controls airspeed’ or ‘power controls altitude’,” the answer is really simple, “Yes.”

    If AoA is held constant excess power is translated into climb, i.e. potential energy. The slight increase in speed as power is added becomes an increase in lift, which initiates acceleration upward until all the forces are back in equilibrium. It is even instructive to note that the units of horsepower are actually the same units as rate of climb and the weight (mass) of the aircraft. Look ma! Power controls altitude!

    If AoA is constantly adjusted to maintain constant lift regardless of airspeed, excess power is turned into kinetic energy (speed) until energy lost to drag equals energy added by the engine. Look ma! Power controls airspeed!

    The fun really begins when we start trading one of the other in order to make the airplane maneuver.

    Isn’t flying just about the funnest thing ever?

    1. That’s the way the airplane works under those controlled conditions. Fortunately, though, a good instructor will show how simple it is to control the airplane in all phases of flight to make flight training a wonderful experience.

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