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Flying By FeelFlying By Feel

Using The Cheapest Instrument In The Cockpit

What we're talking about is usually called "seat-of-the-pants" flying, which is a term every pilot has heard. Unfortunately, not one out of 100 pilots knows what it actually means, and not one out of 1,000 can do it or practices it. And aviation shows it.

When it comes to basic, down-and-dirty, stick-and-rudder aviating, a lot of older instructors feel as though aviation is on a long, slow downhill slide. They (read that as "we") bemoan the fact that pilots can recite the GPS operator's handbook forward and backward but can't control their pitch attitude, hence the airspeed wanders. We-I mean they-get tired of continually having to point out that it's not necessary to hold rudder while in a level turn and that the rudder must be used every time an aileron is displaced. There's a general depressed feeling among certain types of instructors because it doesn't seem as if they are getting the messages across.

One of the most critical messages, which either isn't being transmitted or which is going over students' heads, has to do with developing a "feel" for the airplane. Granted, what we're talking about here is, to a certain extent, pretty subtle stuff. But not all of it. Some of it is so grossly obvious that once it's been pointed out, it's hard to miss.

The concept of developing a feel for the airplane is often lost on student or other pilots because they think the "feel" we're talking about is the interface between the control yoke or rudders and their hands and feet. They think we're talking about the pressures their toes and fingertips are sensing. That's part of it, but only a small part. When we're talking about "feel" we're talking about an innate feeling of oneness with the airplane. A feeling within the central core of your body that tells you subliminally what the airplane is doing.

Yeah, this kind of talk probably makes you think it's necessary to have incense burners in the cockpit and chant "oooohhhmmmm" on short final. However, we're not talking about some sort of semi-levitated mind-meld in which we connect with the spirit of the machine. Hey, folks, I'm from Nebraska and don't know Zen from spaghetti. Nope, what we're talking about here is very, very tangible and real, but it translates into something that is close to being transcendental in its effect.

The areas where you contact the airplane with your fingers and feet tell you how much pressure you're applying. The airplane feeds back its own pressures, which tell you how hard you're pushing/pulling and, therefore, what kind of reaction to expect from the input. Those pressures are how you control the airplane; they don't necessarily let you feel the airplane. Being sensitive to physical feelings that occur at the pilot/airplane control system interface is important. But that's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is the feeling that comes from within as the result of every force acting on the airplane being transmitted to the pilot through the seat cushion.

This is a vague concept to grasp, but there's a perfect example in your stereo system. When you are standing in the middle of your sound-deadened, hyper-acoustic den and have the speakers in all four corners perfectly balanced, the sound has no source. Think about it. It is as if the sound is just there and its focal point is somewhere inside your head.

That is the exact feeling your body gives you when you are flying by the seat of your pants. Everything the airplane is doing is focused on your body in the form of subtle sensations brought about mostly by centrifugal and centripetal forces. If the airplane is perfectly balanced, the ball is centered and the airplane is going neither up nor down, nor turning, nor accelerating, nor decelerating, your body won't feel a thing. That's because it takes positive or negative acceleration in some direction to upset the equilibrium and generate a sensation. When forces go out of balance, inertia wants to move your body. It also wants to move the soft gushy stuff inside your body. If the airplane is turning left with the ball to the inside of the turn, you'll feel yourself sliding to the inside of the turn along with the ball. The gushy stuff inside you moves first. Then you feel it in your butt.

Listen to your body, grasshopper. It is telling you when things aren't right, if you'll just pay attention. Forget about the gushy stuff, as those sensations are really subtle, and think about the interface between your fanny and the upholstery. The tiny changes in pressure at that point act in three dimensions and, if you're sensitive to them, you'll feel them.

Of course, there are important exceptions to this. You don't want to listen to your body when you lose outside references, such as in instrument weather conditions, on hazy days, or even when you look down to study a chart. At times such as these your body may deceive you, leading to spatial disorientation or vertigo. If you listen to your body, you may quickly find yourself in a graveyard spiral. Any time your senses are compromised, such as by weather conditions that obscure the horizon, you need to listen to your instruments. In fact, any time that your body and your instruments send you conflicting signals, it's time to get on the gauges and stay there.

Assuming that you are flying in conditions where you can trust your body, the next trick is developing a system for identifying the sensations. We're going to do that with some butt-training exercises. These apply to almost any airplane but work better in some than others. If you don't feel what we're talking about in your bird, don't despair. The feelings are there, it's just that initially they are more difficult to detect.

Sit in the cockpit and notice how it feels right at the edge of your backside where the upholstery comes up around your thigh. There is a slight edge right there caused by the depression that your weight makes. Right on the edge of that depression is where you'll first feel a pressure change. Focus your thoughts right there.

Start by going for the macro view and trying to identify the big movements that are connected with the most common problems with basic piloting skills. We're going to do this in a maximum power, best-angle climb. OK, now we're adding power and bringing the nose up. As the speed stabilizes, start checking the skid ball. Regardless of where it is at that moment, take your feet off the rudders and watch the ball. It will be out to the right. Let it sit there for a second and stabilize. It may take some aileron to keep the wings level, which just helps with the demonstration.

Now, switch your mind's eye to what you're feeling in your butt. Gradually push the ball back into the center with the right rudder. As the ball slides back to the center, try to identify what's going on at the butt-upholstery interface. Now, ease off the rudder and let the ball slide back out again. Now push it back in.

While you're feeling the seat cushion pressure change, try to focus higher up in your body to see what is going on there, too. Hopefully, you'll sense when the ball is coming back to center the same way you sensed when the speakers were in balance in your den: The forces were initially off-center, outside your body and pushing on you, but as they were forced back into balance with the right rudder, their focal point moved back inside your body and essentially disappeared.

To make the system really work requires a safety pilot because we're going to ask you to close your eyes. With your safety pilot keeping an eye on things, close your eyes and repeat the rudder exercise. Try to identify when you've pushed too hard and the ball goes the other way, reversing the pressure on your backside. Purposely slide the airplane back and forth with the rudder and, with your eyes still closed, look for the feeling. Periodically, when you think you have it centered, open your eyes and check.

Now, center the ball with your feet and see what happens and what you feel when moving the ailerons independently. People forget that dragging the opposite aileron pushes the ball out of center, requiring the pilot to neutralize the aileron or to apply rudder in that direction to offset the adverse yaw. You'll be amazed how recognizable the feelings are once you look for them.

Now do the same thing in level flight, but this time mix and match with the ailerons and rudder. First, look over the nose and roll into a 30-degree bank turn without using ailerons. Notice that the nose slides to the outside of the turn, hesitates, and then begrudgingly decides to go into the turn. Then watch the ball and do the same thing. Rolling left without rudder, as the aileron goes in, the nose will move right and the ball will go left. As the bank is established and the nose decides to join the turn and the ailerons are neutralized, the ball goes back to center.

Next do the same thing while concentrating on your butt. If you turn without using the appropriate rudder, notice how it feels as if you are sliding to the inside of the turn for an instant.

Notice that the direction you feel you are sliding is the rudder you need to depress to center the forces. Sliding left, left rudder, and vice versa. Alternately, however, remember that you may be causing the feeling by inadvertently dragging an aileron, which is very common. Holding ailerons to the outside of the turn slides your backside to the outside. If you want an easy-to-remember way to make seat-of-the pants flying work, try this: If your backside is pushed out, kick yourself in the fanny to get it back in the middle.

Now, develop the same sensitivity when setting up a glide. Depending on the airplane, when you reduce power, the P-factor may or may not be pronounced enough to cause a major visible move of the nose to the right. Your butt, however, will feel it. As the power comes out, you'll feel pressure building against the left side of your thigh, and unless you correct it with left rudder, that pressure will stay there.

We're not doing this for comfort; we're doing this because an airplane is happiest when you feel nothing in your butt. When that's what you're feeling, the airplane is flying straight and true and is aerodynamically efficient. When the airplane is pushing one way or the other on you, indicating it isn't straight, it is generating much more drag than necessary. In the case of an approach, that means more altitude than necessary is being lost simply because you aren't listening to the seat of your pants. In a climb, those feelings are telling you the airplane is burning up horsepower overcoming unnecessary drag, so it isn't climbing as well as it should.

The seat of your pants, however, is not limited strictly to identifying needed rudder and aileron inputs. It reacts to elevator-or vertical-inputs too, but, in those cases, its indicators aren't as clearly felt. Before any instrument tells you you've just caught an upper while on final, your body is talking to you about it. Same thing with a downer. Your body senses those changes, and, if you're listening to it, you'll be amazed how far ahead of the airplane you'll put yourself. You can give yourself sensitivity training in the vertical plane the same way you did in the horizontal plane. Just ease the nose up or down and see what you feel. It's not as pronounced as in the other axis, but it's definitely there.

OK, by now some of you have dozed off or turned the page. For those who are still with me: Do yourself a favor and try some of the tricks I outlined. Then, when you're flying, be aware that your fanny is trying to say something to you. All I'm trying to do here is promote communication between butt and brain. When the two really start talking is when you'll really start aviating.

Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.

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