Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Learning Finesse: Pitch vs Power

Today I leave you with a piece from the archives; an ah hah! moment for me as the relationship between pitch and power on landing really came clear (yes, I’m a slow learner). I wrote this in 2009 but rereading it brought it all back…

Flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

When I first started flying, I presumed that the phrase was referring to the take-off and landing. I hadn’t even begun to conceive of things going wrong in the air; flying from A to B was the easy bit. Getting into the air and getting back down, well, that was where I found my heart beginning to race.


Now that I am only flying intermittently, I’m very aware that my skill-set is diminishing when I don’t get up into the air regularly. The first sign that I’m falling out of date is the quality of my landings. A simple flight after weeks of sitting on the ground is much more stressful than it should be. Instead of instinctively knowing what’s next, I have to think hard and I fall behind the plane, desperately trying to keep up with everything that needs doing.

A major change that has helped me in the Saratoga is shifting from the traditional approach. Like most PPLs, I was taught to use attitude to control airspeed and power to control height. However, the inertia of the Saratoga and its tendency to sink like a stone at low speed, combined with my inability to nudge the power gently enough to keep my pitch steady, can make this difficult. A bad approach can feel like a ship in heavy weather as I adjust the power back and forth to try to keep my perspective of the runway correct.

North Weald

I flew with a commercial pilot last year and he mentioned that this was not the best system for fast planes. When flying a jet, he told me, pilots always used attitude for height and power to control airspeed.

This is referenced in one of my favourite books, Beyond the PPL

In days of yore, instructors always taught that on the approach you should control airspeed with pitch and maintain the correct glideslope with the throttle.

The technique taught was (and still is) a good device for getting students to co-ordinate properly their applications of pitch and throttle.


So the old-fashioned technique is not appropriate for a jet and its pilots are therefore taught to adjust speed with throttle and glideslope with pitch control. The need to co-ordinate pitch and throttle remains as before, but the cardinal requirement for the jet pilot is to monitor the speed on the approach to a degree which usually amazes piston pilots at first. You simply HAVE to nail that speed and catch any departure before it has a chance to develop into anything the least bit significant.

Once I started looking into methods for final approach, I found a lot of discussion about pitch and power. It seems clear that attitude for speed and power for height makes for one of the most practical demonstrations of secondary effects. It also works: I was very happy using pitch and power that way in the Cessna 172 that I trained in.

More power!

But the moment I shifted to using power for speed and pitch for height in the Saratoga, my landings improved. After two days of flying touch-and-go over various airfields, I felt confident in my ability to land this way: point the plane at the numbers and hold it there, use the throttle to adjust the speed. My adjustments remained minor and my approaches became smoother than they’d ever been before. My passengers were amazed at the difference.

However, I don’t think that it not simply a case of turning the controls around. The critical factor is that I began to control the plane using both systems. I finally grasped that it isn’t a question of using pitch or power but that they are completely interlinked. I’m sure this was stated a million times in the PPL but I only understood this as a theoretical concept. I didn’t really have an instinctive feel for the fact that you can’t change one without affecting the other.

I love long finals now simply because I can see how perfectly everything works together. I set up my approach and now I’m holding the pitch steady and watching my touchdown point and my airspeed. I can almost visualise a road leading down to the runway and just a tap on the controls to keep me travelling on it. I know the correct approach speed and holding to it has never felt so easy. My interaction with both the controls affecting both height and speed means that I avoid the abrupt power changes and my approaches no longer make people seasick.


When I completed my PPL, my instructor told me that my flying was perfectly competent but that I lacked finesse. It’s been a few years but I feel like I’m starting to understand what he meant and that just maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this flying thing. Now, if only I could learn to use a soft touch on the rudder and keep that damn ball in the centre, maybe he’d agree.

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