PLANES FLY LIKE... PLANES - 21 February
Blackfoot Albatross - Midway Atoll, North Pacific
I realized something incredibly basic 20 years ago when I was attending Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS). It was kind of a gigantic epiphany for me. When I look back, I think I should’ve known this before. I figured out: planes really fly just like each other. Once to you get past minor differences, planes take-off, cruise, and land mostly like each other regardless of the type. Aircraft pretty much fly the same.
Some of you are probably thinking I’m absolutely cracked to say this; regardless of the aircraft, whether Cessna or B-1, they all act the same. How I can say such a drastic thing? Well, from a certain perspective the following is always true: stick forward, houses bigger; stick backwards, houses smaller. It’s as simple as that.
In my experience, the basic action of flying is always the same. For take-off, you push up the throttles. At some point, you rotate the stick back with a certain “feel.” If that’s not enough, you pull a little more until the aircraft lifts off the ground. After you escape ground effect, you take care of the after take-off checks. While the particulars are a bit different for each type, the general process is consistent for all fixed winged aircraft: you rotate at a certain point, you pull the aircraft to a certain rotation picture, then you hold things until you’re safely away from the ground.
After you’ve flown about 10 different types of aircraft you realize the mechanics are not very different from one aircraft to the next. The desired “feelings” aren’t too different. The physical motions are relatively common. It’s consistent among all the different types of aircraft. You might wonder, “How can this be?”
Aircraft are designed with a relatively common characteristic: they are based on their predecessors. If you look at the design of aircraft over the years, improvements were mostly incremental. What you can see are evolutionary changes from one version to the next. When a design team finds relative goodness in a design philosophy, they tend to stay with what works. Revolutionary advances are not the norm in aviation. As a result, aircraft tend to act very similarly to each other.
That’s why between the C-12 and T-38, control movement during take-off is about the same. Even though one is a supersonic trainer that lifts off at 160 KIAS, and the other is a mini cargo plane taking off at 120 KIAS, they’re interestingly similar. There’s only so much movement a body can do in a cockpit. Within these limitations, designers only have so much to work with.
It’s a common technique to teach flying the T-38 with the pilot’s feet on the floor in the landing phase. The issue is the T-38’s rudder with the gear down is extremely effective. If you used a wing-low landing technique, it’s entirely possible to roll the aircraft upside down with minimal rudder use--i.e., bad common student mistake. As a result, the approved landing technique is to land in a full crab with no cross controls. Since rudder isn’t needed to land, instructors teach their students to leave their feet on the floor to avoid the risk of them accidentally applying rudder at an inopportune time. But, you don’t have to. The T-38 lands wonderfully with a little cross control in a crosswind. With a little judicious use of rudder and aileron, you can avoid the crab landing issues by simply flying the aircraft. The key word is “judicious.” Once you get that perspective--you’re flying the aircraft versus just doing “procedure”--you can safely do a wing-low landing technique in the T-38, just like a Cessna. The mechanics are essentially the same; rudder to point the nose down the runway, aileron to stop the drift--easy-peasy.
Why is this important? When teaching with this knowledge you can avoid having students memorize power settings and aircraft parameters. Instead of getting wrapped up in the nuanced differences of an aircraft’s physical uniqueness, and the cockpit environment where blind procedure seems to prevail, use a teaching philosophy that improves a pilot’s cross-check. Simply use the controls at hand to make the aircraft perform the way it’s supposed to. Sure, there are nuances to learn when mastering the characteristics of a new aircraft. That goes without saying. But, I think you can get there faster if you bring forth basic piloting skills to make the new aircraft perform as it needs without having to inundate your brain with tons of memorized numbers and techniques. After all: planes really fly just like each other.
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