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Training and Safety Tip: Two fingers and a thumb

Keep it loose

“That’s all you need to fly a plane, two fingers and a thumb.” The private pilot student looked at his instructor in total disbelief—the white knuckles on the hand that was crushing the control yoke spoke volumes in addition to his facial expression.

Pilots can make yoke inputs with less than all 10 fingers, despite the instincts of a nervous student pilot. Photo by Mike Fizer.

“Let me demonstrate,” the instructor said as he initiated positive exchange of the controls.

“How did you do that?” the student asked.

“Simple. Did you see me adjust the trim wheel slightly after I took the controls from you? First, I felt how the airplane was responding to my inputs, then I adjusted trim to remove the pressures so the only things touching the yoke are the pads of my index and middle finger and my thumb,” the CFI explained.

“Let me try!”

As the student and instructor exchanged the controls again, a wingtip caught the edge of some rising air and the airplane temporarily rolled slightly in the opposite direction. The student’s hand tightened again on the yoke and the instructor murmured, “Fingertips, only fingertips.” A wry smile and laugh acknowledged that suggestion, along with a very visible return to a lighter touch on the controls. At the next bump the airplane didn’t move quite so much when it returned to a normal attitude because the student hadn’t overcontrolled. The student’s smile broadened and the rest of the flight was flown in much the same way, even when it came to the landing. “Fingertips only, even in the flare,” the instructor reminded on short final.

The student learned two important lessons: maintaining a firm but light touch on the controls, and trimming the airplane to remove excess control pressures to maintain the desired flight attitude.

With a light touch you can feel how the airplane is responding and respond in kind as necessary. By trimming off the pressures needed to hold the nose at the desired attitude and airspeed, you can maintain that light touch. It takes a little bit of practice—just remember to make small changes and do not chase the attitude with large variations of the trim wheel.

If you’re having trouble keeping the whole of your hand off the yoke, you can always try the old CFI trick of weaving a pencil between your fingers and then hold the yoke. When you tighten your grip, you’ll feel an immediate reminder to keep it loose!

AOPA Air Safety Institute staff

AOPA Air Safety Institute Staff members share a deep passion for aviation safety. As compassionate pilots, we bring together safety research, analysis, and knowledge in creative ways to share aviation safety education with you—with the ultimate goal of one day having zero fatal accidents in GA.
Topics: Training and Safety, Flight Instructor, Student
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