Budd Davisson

Plane and Pilot

As long as there have been pilots, there have been instructors, cum writers, who have been eager to develop cure-all lists of the magic ingredients required to become an ace aviator. And this is another of those lists. What’s so special about this one? There isn’t anything here that hasn’t been included on many of the self-improvement lists, which have gone before. And that’s exactly what makes this one special, if not different.

The basic fact that so many of these “make yourself a better pilot” tips have been trotted out in front of generation after generation of pilots says that instructors are finding many of the same problems are passed down through those generations. What was true thirty years ago is still true today. Therefore, the concept behind this list is simple: if you follow all, or most of it, your skill will improve dramatically. It’s no more complicated than that and it never has been.

Yes, there are lots of other tips that could have been included, but these will do for a starter:

Pay attention to what your butt is telling you
If you had to select just one skill area to improve, it would have to be coordination. Just knowing when and how to use your feet in keeping the ball centered would put you in the top few percent of pilots who “feel” what the airplane is telling them through the seat of their pants. Keeping the ball centered results in an airplane that is more efficient and flies a given line much more precisely. If you can’t feel it through your posterior, at least pay some attention to the skid ball. A little time spent keeping the ball centered will pay big rewards.

The nose is talking too. Understand what it is showing you.
Nose attitude is the primary instrument for airspeed control in light aircraft. The go-fast gage just repeats what the nose told you a few seconds earlier. The nose also tells you what the airplane is about to do next. If you are always aware of what the nose is doing and can control it in all situations, you’ll never get in trouble plus you’ll always have the right airspeed nailed.

Understand the airplane’s aerodynamics
Most pilots have a basic knowledge of why an airplane flies, but few have spent the small amount of time necessary to truly understand the nuances that tie so many aerodynamic factors together into that fantastic thing we call flight. It’s not necessary you become an aero engineer. Just having a handle on the effects of angle of attack as well as the ramifications of the way control surfaces change the camber of the wing and tail, would put you much more in touch with the machine.

For accurate landings fixate on the runway numbers in the windshield
The runway numbers talk to you all the way down final, but, as you get just a little closer, they literally start screaming at you. They are constantly telling you where the airplane is going to touchdown on the runway. If the numbers are visually moving towards you (down the windshield), you are going to go over them. If they are moving away from you (up the windshield), you’ll be short. The goal is to keep the numbers stationary in the windshield or drifting down slightly. If you keep the numbers stationary, you won’t actually hit them, which isn’t the goal anyway, but you’ll come over them at a reasonable height and your flair will carry you no more than 500-700 feet past them (if you’re on speed). The goal here is to know where the airplane is going to touch down and control that touchdown point, rather than just accepting what happens.

Be precise
Precision in flying spells the difference between flying an airplane in a specific manner and flying it in an approximate way. We want the airplane to go exactly where we want it to go and the only way we can do that is by striving for exactitude in our airspeed, altitudes and positions. If the glide speed in the POH, for instance, is 85 mph, that doesn’t mean 83 mph or 88 mph. An altitude is supposed to be a given number, not within a hundred-foot range. Okay, so none of us is ever exactly on the number, whatever it represents, but, if we don’t try for “exact” we’re always going to get “approximate” and that’s not the way an airplane is supposed to be flown. This is a basic attitude that permeates everything you do in aviation and the pay-off for trying to be exact is enormous.

Be smooth, make love to the airplane
Airplanes really react to pilots who caress them rather than poke at them in an irritating fashion. Okay, so maybe “react” is too strong of a word, but an airplane that is being guided in a smooth fashion is an airplane that is far less likely to find itself in the wrong place. The very act of being smooth means that all changes of attitude, power and configurations are made via a whole bunch of tiny nudges which are knitted together into a big change rather than being one big change done all at one time. If you are gently nudging the airplane into position, the chances of over-shooting that position drop to almost zero and you’ll have an airplane that seems to magically always be where its supposed to be in the configuration it is supposed to have.

Understand what “plan ahead” actually means for each flight situation
If a student hears the phrase “plan ahead” once, he or she hears it a thousand times. Unfortunately, once the license is issued, there isn’t anyone left to repeat that all-important phrase. So, we should be mentally saying it to ourselves. We should also realize that it means different things at different times. It’s obvious that planning is necessary for fuel stops. Maybe it’s not so obvious that on downwind you need to look ahead and plan where you’re going to put base leg and where the flaps will come out. At the same time, you need to be assessing the effects of the wind and how you’re going to modify the various parts of the approach. The same thing is true in all other phases of fight; you need to have your head well out in front of the airplane at all times.

If flying less than 35 hours a year, make each flight a learning experience
It’s a given that every flight of your aviation career should be an attempt to make it better than the last one. However, if you aren’t flying regularly, it’s necessary that each flight include factors that will help you maintain your proficiency. Even if you’re just going over for a hamburger, plan the flight to include a couple of different types of landings (short field, soft field), make at least one landing a touch and go so you can get more landings in the hour. Even if it’s just a short fight to a local field, check your takeoff time and work out an ETA in your head. Do as much as you can on each flight to stretch your limits and maintain your proficiency. Don’t just go out there and drone around learning nothing.

Make your landings more accurate
Make it a personal goal that you will always try to touch down in the first 600-800 feet of a runway, regardless of how long it is. The goal is to be comfortable landing on a 2,000-foot runway. If the average light airplane touches down short of 800 feet, it will need little or no braking to stop in what’s left of 2,000 feet. We’re not looking for carrier landings that hit the numbers every time. Just come over the numbers at a reasonable height and on-speed and 2,000 feet (the shortest length commonly seen) will be a no-brainer.

Read Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langwieche at least twice
Langwieche’s classic flight training book is a half-century-old and, as such, it is sometimes quaint in its verbiage and terms, but it is dead-on in its approach to basic aviating. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know how to actually fly an airplane, as opposed to driving it.

Take at least an hour of dual once a year
Everyone, regardless of how much they fly, gets sloppy or develops bad habits. That’s the theory behind the BFR , airline flight checks and other recurrent check programs. But, two years is a long time. Why not go out with an instructor once a year, because it’s an “unofficial” flight there will be no pressure to “pass.” Focus on pattern work, since flying the pattern takes every aspect of your flying skills, except navigation, and bundles them together.

Say RPM, altitude, attitude, pattern to yourself every thirty seconds
This is an old instructor’s mantra that is to be repeated constantly through out any flight as a form of mental scanning. RPM means check the power. Altitude is obvious. Attitude, where is the nose and what is it telling you? Pattern, what is your ground track and how does it relate to where you really want to go? Keep saying it and it’ll develop a continuing scan that keeps the airplane exactly where you want it.

Land on strange airports just for practice
If you fly a minimum amount a year and stay in the local area, it’s easy to become “airport-specific.” You’re so used to your own airport that new ones feel strange. The way to handle that is to actively seek out new airports. Maybe make it a goal to land on every airport in your county, state or local area. The more strange airports you have under your belt, the more it expands your overall skill and adaptability. And, of course, you’re going to touchdown in the first 600-800 feet, right?

Put yourself in “airplane mode” before leaving home
Don’t jump into your car, scream out to the airport and strap into the airplane without giving the flight some forethought. If necessary, after parking at the airport, sit in the car for a minute or two and try to push everything out of your mind but airplanes. Then, after you’ve strapped in, do the same thing again and make sure you are focused on flying and aren’t letting life’s distractions pull your brain in other directions. If, at that point, you can’t focus, get out of the airplane and come back to fly on another day. If your head isn’t into the game, don’t walk onto the field.

Take three hours of aerobatic instruction
You don’t have to plan on challenging Patty Wagstaff, but aerobatic training will make you a better, more confident, safer and more aware pilot. No, it won’t help you, if that 747 flips you on your back, but having the training means you’ll correct before the 747 gets you in that position. Besides, it’s an enormous amount of fun and it may open up a whole new arena to you.

Challenge the nastiest crosswind you can find with an instructor
Crosswinds are everyone’s big buggaboo. So, look the demon right in the face and go out with an instructor to fly in winds that are right on the edge of the airplane’s envelope. You’ll be amazed what you find.

Visualize all flight paths

In the pattern and on cross-country be aware of your ground track and constantly visualize the path you want the airplane to fly. Then, make it fly that exact path.

Get a tailwheel endorsement
Like aerobatics, this isn’t a real necessity, but you won’t believe much it improves your flying skills. It also opens the door to flying some really neat airplanes, both old and new. And, again, it’s lots of fun.

Get an instrument ticket
Even if you never plan on using it, getting an instrument ticket teaches you precision and gives you a better understanding of the entire airway system. However, if you do get the ticket, either use it a lot or don’t use it at all. It’s not the kind of skill that you ignore for a year or two and then decide to use.

Make at least every third landing a touch and go.
There is no such thing as making too many landings. Landings teach you everything you need to know about flying an airplane. So, as often as possible, double up on your landings and make them a touch and go. It puts another five minutes in your log book and increases your proficiency another notch.

Be aware of holes in your knowledge
Periodically we all see something we don’t totally understand, whether it’s weather, technology, techniques or whatever. If you get that uneasy feeling that you don’t know the answer, look it up. Unanswered questions are the ones that can sometimes cause us heartburn.

Include a POH in the stack of bathroom literature
There are times in life when no one can reasonably expect you to be working or in a hurry. Take advantage of the moment. Carpe commodium.

Make one out of five landings a short or soft field
Although few folks actually have need of short or soft field techniques, just practicing them hones your landing skills in every way possible.

Land on runways much shorter than your norm
While 2,000 feet actually isn’t that short, to some folks it looks that way. So, get an instructor who is shortfield savvy and go land on the shortest runways you can find. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

Pick out geographic features and fly to them.
As Boy Scouts, we learned to navigate in the woods by taking sightings with the compass. This included picking out a tree or rock which lay on our compass heading and walking towards it where we took another sighting. We can fly airplanes the same way. Get it on course and look over the nose. Pick out something you know is where you want to go and go there. It’s not as sophisticated as keeping your nose stuck to the GPS, but you don’t have to worry about batteries dying either.

Is this a complete list? No way! It’s impossible to compile a list that covers each and every aspect of flying. But, this is a good place to start. Besides, by the time you’ve worked your way through all of these, you will have added a bunch of your own to the list. So, enjoy!