WANTED: Angle of Attack Managers

This is one in a series of posts by special guest authors about SAFE’s new CFI-PROficiency Initiative™ (aka SAFE CFI-PRO™). The goal of the initiative is to make good aviation educators great!

Aviators, airmen, aviatrices—a few of the other words used to describe pilots. Yet none of these words reflect what we really do. Ultimately, pilots are angle of attack managers. Let’s have another look at AOA.

As David St. George notes in “Invisible Angle of Attack,” AOA is the difference between where the airplane is pointing and where it is going. Wolfgang Langewiesche describes the importance of AOA thus:

“If you had only 2 hours in which to explain the airplane to a student pilot, [AOA] is what you would have to explain. It is almost literally all there is to flight. It explains all about the climb, the glide, and level flight; much about the turn; practically all about the ordinary stall, the power stall, the spin. It takes the puzzlement out of such maneuvers as the nose-high power approach; it is the story of the landing.”

AOA implies two things: wind and an object around which the wind is flowing. Most everyone has played with AOA before. Remember sticking your hand out of the car window when you were a kid? What happened when you tilted your hand into the oncoming wind? “It went up!” is the common response. Reflect more deeply on the experience, however, and you’ll notice that your hand actually moved upward and backward. If we want to get technical about it, we could call the “up” part Lift and the “back” part Drag.

We’ve all seen examples of unusual things being forced to fly, too. For example, tornado-strength winds can cause even the most reluctant Holstein to go airborne.

A high velocity jet of air precisely aimed at a Snap-on screwdriver can cause it to hover (courtesy of SAFE member Shane Vande Voort—please don’t try this at home!).

And though we might describe a wing as having a “top” and a “bottom,” Lift- and Drag-producing AOAs are possible on either side.

AOA is discussed primarily in the context of the airplane’s main wing. But at the correlation level of learning, we see the entire airplane as an assembly of wings all of which are subject to the principles of AOA. The propeller, for instance, is a rotating wing. Main and jury struts are often symmetrical wings streamlined to minimize drag. “Aileron” is French for “little wing.” And our primary flight controls are AOA controls. The elevator controls the AOA of the main wing (aka pitch control).

Ailerons control local AOAs (typically the outboard part of the wings, aka roll control).
Rudder controls the AOA of the fuselage (aka yaw control).

Our job as instructors is to teach our trainees how to manage these AOAs to achieve desired performance outcomes. Although AOA itself may be invisible, changes in AOA can be sensed and its trend interpreted. In the visual flight environment, this means coupling aeronautical knowledge with sight, sound, and feel to manage our controllable AOAs.

Before we climb into the airplane, for example, we know that the combination of a high power setting and a slow airspeed during the takeoff phase will yaw the airplane. But we want coordinated flight during this particular takeoff. That will require a certain amount of rudder to manage the AOA of the fuselage to cancel the yaw. What does yawed flight look like during takeoff? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? What does it look and feel like if we try to use aileron to correct for the yaw instead of rudder? All of these questions can be explored in the practice area without staring at the slip/skid ball. The lessons learned can be applied during subsequent takeoffs.

Whether it’s pitch, roll, or yaw, changes in AOA manifest as changes in one or more of the following: attitude, G-load, control pressure, control displacement, and often sound. In the case of elevator inputs, add airspeed to the list of cues.

For fun, test your understanding of AOA with the following thought experiments. Imagine you are at an airshow watching a competent aerobatic pilot fly a capable aerobatic airplane.

1. The airplane makes a knife-edge pass from your right to your left at precisely 90 degrees angle of bank.
a. Where is the nose of the airplane pointing relative to its flightpath, and how is the pilot making that happen?
b. What is the pilot doing with the elevator to make the airplane fly down the runway?
c. What is the AOA of the main wing?
d. What is the pilot feeling?

2. The airplane climbs along a perfect vertical line.
a. In order to remain on the upline before pivoting in a Hammerhead, what is the pilot doing with the elevator?
b. Ultimately, what is the AOA of the main wing during the upline?

Want to learn more ways to push learning to the correlation level? Attend SAFE’s inaugural CFI-PRO™ workshop in Frederick, MD on October 2–3, 2019!

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).

Start With Basic Honesty!

As a flight instructor have you been guilty of telling eager beginners that “learning to fly is easy”? Do you personally really believe that often used phrase? If you think back to *your* initial training don’t you remember those dark moments of discouragement and disappointment that are inevitably part of this process? Learning anything complex is not all sunshine and light. Struggle, disappointment and personal growth are all a necessary part of learning to fly. But if you were successful, at some point some caring person helped you through those  dark times of doubt – a mentor or hopefully a compassionate, honest aviation educator? We know from survey data that a caring and compassionate CFI is  the essential magic element responsible for success in flight training. In our enthusiasm to sell flying we might be doing damage by describing learning to fly as “easy.” I think we all would benefit more by being honest; the result would be a better completion rate and more happy pilots in training. This would help to insure the health of our aviation industry and give us many more lifetime clients.

In our eagerness to sell flying we have  failed our future pilots- it all starts with that initial interview. I personally believe this is a major reason we see the 80% rate during initial pilot training; we need to more accurately communicate the challenges and control the expectations here.  Present the honest story, with the future benefits.  Certainly “sell the sizzle” but do not diminish the challenges.

My personal formula for introducing the subject goes something like this; “Learning to fly is a great challenge and provides amazing adventure and fun. This process does require hard work, effort and your time and money. In addition to acquiring the obvious physical skills it also requires personal growth and assuming responsibility; it rewards a ‘take charge’ personality and some courage. Your investment of time, money and effort will be paid back a hundred fold if you stay the course and work through the process; being a pilot opens up so many worlds of fun and adventure. And the learning and discovery can be fun and rewarding; we’ll work through the difficulties together”

The professional aviation educator has to commit to being more than just a technician in this learning process. A great CFI is a coach, motivator and practical psychologist in addition to guiding the skills part (did you know you signed up for this?). If you are a pilot seeking a CFI look beyond the badges, patches and accolades. Look for a true committed professional, a warm-hearted “people person” who cares about your success and has a track record of happy pilots.

50KsoloEvery initial interview between potential pilot and educator is similar to an “engagement letter” that any lawyer would write.  This tool should be part of any professional relationship involving a lot of time and money (and its usually in writing). Unfortunately in flying, honesty is rare, we tend to sell sunshine and light and diminish the struggle. And if we present the FAA “40 hour myth” we are also lying. I have certainly finished some very talented students in 35 hours (141 school), but we all know that is not the “average” and not an expectation I would promote to the general public. Doubling the 40 is a more reasonable target (and I don’t embrace other FAA minimums – like VFR in “one mile clear of clouds” either). Someone for whom completion is not possible (or will take excessive time) should be informed early in training (and gently terminated if the project is not going to work). Again AOPA survey data reveals that the reason people drop out of flying is not the cost, it is the unrealistic expectations presented in the early interview and a lack of value. If you initially told them $12K to be a pilot and we are passing $18K and still in X-C you are going to have problems. This is no different than  remodeling contractor promising your new bathroom for $20K then proceeding to charge $35K (and its still not done).

The critical part in flight training that differs from other professional models is the level of personal commitment and caring required of the effective aviation educator. We are not just technicians who perform a sterile service or twist a few screws to create a performance. We need to be personally involved and coaching our pilots in training to get them through the goal posts. It requires caring and compassion and that is rare in our modern world of aviation instruction. I don’t think they teach empathy or compassion during initial training at our “puppy mill” CFI academies. This is acquired with life experience and comes with time. But it is the essential trait if you want to be a successful aviation educator; you have to care. This is the magic that makes flight training work. Fly safely out there (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 (like 1/3 off your annual ForeFlight subscription)! 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 specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).