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Training and Safety Tip: Reflections on a roller coaster

Consider that a roller coaster gets its energy from being lifted to the top using mechanical energy. When it gets there, its speed is near zero, but it has maximum potential energy.

Photo by Chris Rose.

As the coaster starts down the other side of the slope, it converts the potential energy to kinetic energy—trading height for speed. As it proceeds up the next slope, it reverses the process, converting speed back to altitude.

What does a roller coaster have to do with aviation?

As a result of improper energy management, stall/spin accidents in traffic patterns continue to rank high among controlled flight into terrain crashes. We train to recover from inadvertent stalls at comfortable altitudes. Therefore, it’s a safe nonevent, because we have energy “in the bank” to trade for airspeed. While maneuvering at low altitude, the altitude/airspeed relationship becomes critical. When things go awry, instinctively applying back pressure to avoid terra firma is precisely the wrong control input at a critical time.

Wolfgang Langewiesche covered this subject eloquently in his 1944 book, Stick and Rudder. New pilots who grasp this concept early in their training will be better prepared to perform spot landings, emergency landings, and other maneuvers related to precise and safe aircraft control.

One of the frequently failed maneuvers on private and commercial checkrides is the short-field landing. Students who end up too high or too low on short final pitch the yoke exactly the opposite of what they should do: They pitch down, thereby increasing airspeed—almost guaranteeing an overshoot. What’s the remedy? Pitch for approach speed—jealously guard it—and bleed off energy by managing power, applying flaps, initiating a forward slip to increase drag, or any combination of the three.

What if, during power-off approaches, you’ve misjudged your altitude and distance, and the spot you’re focused on is farther away than you planned? There’s a remedy for that, too. Don’t pitch up to stretch your glide. You’ll increase lift, but the penalty will be an increase in induced drag, which will likely end in a land-short, or worse, situation. Instead, go against instinct and carefully lower the nose to trade altitude for airspeed. As the spot approaches, trade airspeed back for altitude for the touchdown.

Practice this procedure with a CFI guarding the controls in the right seat. Before you try it, consult your aircraft’s POH for specific numbers.

Allen Alwin

Allen Alwin is a certificated flight instructor-instruments with more than 2,300 hours of dual instruction given, and an FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award recipient.
Topics: Student, Takeoffs and Landings
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