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Decision Training for Pilots -- Airspeed

The following is an airspeed maneuver example of how the real-world element can be a part of everyday flight training, with the goal being not only to train as a pilot but to train to become Pilot in Command.

The following is an airspeed maneuver example of how the real-world element can be a part of everyday flight training, with the goal being not only to train as a pilot but to train to become Pilot in Command. Note: This example is certainly not the only way to do it -- students and instructors are every bit as creative as I am and then some -- but let this example get you thinking...

When flying conventional airplanes in conventional flight we must maintain a forward speed that maintains airflow over the wings. After all, airplanes are not hot air balloons ... they cannot just hang in the air. But even in light airplanes speed changes are often necessary.

TASK: A pilot is approaching an airport. The airplane is 1,000 feet above the ground and in the airport's traffic pattern. The airplane must do two things in order to land. It must descend to the ground elevation and also reduce its speed so that the wings will stop flying at one-foot AGL (give or take).

CHALLENGE: How will the pilot get the airplane to both fly "downhill" and at the same time "slow down?" Usually when something moves "downhill" its speed increases, but if that happens in this case the airplane would not be able to land because it would arrive at the runway going to fast. What do you do?

VARIABLES: This question actually incorporates many maneuvers and decisions. How do the wings create lift? How will lowering the flaps affect the airplane? What controls the airplane's speed anyway: power or pitch? When should power be reduced and/or pitch increased?

In the past, the instructor would make the student perform a maneuver that did not seem related to any real-world situation. The CFI would call out instructions: "Give me 60-knots on this heading. Now keep 60 knots, but turn right to 090. OK, now hold 090 but descend to 3,000 feet." The airplane is changing speeds and changing altitudes but there is no apparent reason for doing this. I thought airplanes were supposed to go fast, so why are we deliberately flying them slow? A maneuver is being taught, but there is no reason to do it without including a situation where this maneuver might be necessary -- and therefore not much reason for the student to recall this experience in similar real-world situations. Maneuvering the airplane during slow flight is absolutely necessary in order to perform the most important slow maneuver of all: landing.

The Private Pilot Practical Test Standards requires "Maneuvering during Slow Flight." The objective of this maneuver is to determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to maneuvering during slow flight.
  2. Selects an entry altitude that will allow the task to be completed no lower than 1,500 feet AGL or the recommended altitude, whichever is higher.
  3. Stabilizes the airspeed at 1.2 Vs1, with a plus 10 and minus 5-knot tolerance.
  4. Accomplishes coordinated straight and level flight and level turns, at bank angles and in configurations, as specified by the examiner.
  5. Accomplishes coordinated climbs and descents, straight and turning at bank angles and in configurations, as specified by the examiner.
  6. Divides attention between airplane control and orientation.
  7. Maintains the specified altitude, with a plus or minus 100-foot tolerance. (Maintains) A plus or minus 10 degree heading tolerance and a plus 10 and minus 5-knot airspeed tolerance.
  8. Maintains the specified angle of bank, not to exceed 30-degrees in level flight +0/-10 degrees; maintains the specific angle of bank, not to exceed 20-degrees in climbing or descending flight, +0/-10-degrees; rolls out on the specified heading within plus or minus 10 degrees; and levels off from climbs and descents within plus or minus 100 feet.

You can see that the PTS is speaking only to the performance of a maneuver and no effort is given to fostering an understanding of when this situation might arise and what decisions might surround it. There are opportunities for a creative pilot examiner to include scenarios and decisions, but they are not required. There are opportunities for the creative student to imagine and think through the possibilities and decisions they may face, but they are rarely encouraged. It is better to find yourself in a bad situation that you've previously thought through, than in a bad situation with which you're unfamiliar.

BOTTOM LINE: This maneuver is very important for piloting skills and every pilot should be able to meet these standards -- but don't take the low road and learn the maneuver alone. When moments are most valuable, will your brain make the right connections -- will you recognize how the lessons of your training apply in the real world? Learn to make decisions.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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