The student pilot was having a rough day at the controls, and it didn’t help that her flight instructor seemed to be sending mixed signals about how to fix it.
“Lose the death grip. Use a light touch,” the CFI had urged as the student pilot struggled to keep a steep turn from morphing into a climbing spiral.
So, what works, a firm tug or a fine touch on the controls?
The answer, of course, is it depends. There’s even a case in which the best thing to do is nothing at all.
In most cases, the answer lies somewhere between the “death grip” indicative of a pilot under stress and the cagy calmness of one who did a nice job of trimming the aircraft for straight-and-level flight and now sits, hands folded, admiring the handiwork. (Despite the aura of total relaxation, the pilot’s feet are active, applying gentle pressures to the rudder pedals to keep the airplane from yawing away from the desired heading.)
Pilots who have not yet acquired this knack wonder how anyone can fly hands-off for more than a short time; isn’t the occasional bump of turbulence likely to create an upset requiring intervention?
They soon learn that many upsets resolve themselves. Stability characteristics of the aircraft take care of that—something you can observe next time you fly: Induce a small motion around the pitch axis (lateral axis) and observe how the aircraft enters a series of diminishing oscillations, eventually returning to its trimmed condition.
Sure, maneuvers such as turns around a point or slow flight obviously require moderately aggressive manipulation of controls, and constant corrections. But the inputs can be gentle. If you don’t already have your instructor’s voice in your head, urging, “Small corrections!” this is when you are likely to hear it.
A smooth touch isn’t only a formula for designated-examiner-pleasing training maneuvers. It can be lifesaving when applied to emergency flight by reference to instruments, helping you maintain control and stave off spatial disorientation.
As for that exhortation to “pull, pull” to bring the aircraft into the proper attitude for landing, go ahead and pull, but smoothly, combining touch and timing to end your flight on the perfect note.