Learning to fly an airplane

I’ve been taking flying lessons, and wanted to share some of what I’ve learned.

Driving a car

When I first learned to drive my father explained three major phases of operating a car:

  1. Control: acceleration, turns, etc
  2. Spatial Awareness: what cars are around me, road signs, what speed i should be going at
  3. Navigation: the higher level of: where to turn, what lane to be in, GPS directions, etc

I like this, it resonates as a sort of hierarchy of awareness and automaticity (word?). As I get practice with one level it becomes more automatic and requires less of my ‘main’ concentration, and the next level up becomes more available to hold in headspace.

Flying a plane

I see flying as mirroring this pattern:

  1. Control: Stick & Rudder, throttle, level flight, turning without skidding or slipping. Takeoff and landing.
  2. Spatial Awareness: Air traffic, talking over the radio with other airplanes or the tower, knowledge of surrounding airspace
  3. Navigation: GPS and VOR navigation, talking to approach control, ‘flight following’, and more.
  4. (bonus round) Pilot In Command ability


Driving has 2 major control inputs for 2d movement (though if we’re being real about it, it’s more like 1.5d. an example of a truly 2d drive is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holonomic_(robotics)):

  1. Left and right pedals for braking and acceleration respectively
  2. Left and right rotations of the sterring wheel to turn left and right

Flying is like this, except has 3 control axes + 1 throttle = 4 major control dimensions:

  1. Throttle (controlled by a rod kinda thing which pushes in or out of the dashboard, in my right hand)
  2. Ailerons L/R (rotating the yoke (with your left hand primarily))
  3. Elevator U/D (pulling/pushing on the yoke)
  4. Rudder L/R (pedals)

A lot more than driving! These dimensions do collapse down a bit as you learn to fly:

Control Group 1

Aileron is the ’tilt’ control of the aircraft, and a tilted airplane will turn. The rudder plays catch-up to the ailerons (sublimating these two into a 1d control with 2 manually coordinated inputs). In other words, when I turn the yoke i accompany this with coordinated pressure on the rudder pedals. For (much much) more on what this means in flight: http://www.boldmethod.com/learn-to-fly/aerodynamics/slip-skid-stall/

Control Group 2

Throttle and elevator don’t quite collapse down, but become intertwined as 2 control inputs for 2 dimensions. Airspeed, angle of attack (the angle at which the wings intersect the relative airflow), and climbing/descending are all related together here.

Additionally, these 2 control groups are tied together: tilting the plane to turn shifts the aircraft’s vertical component of lift horizontally (this is why the plane turns, it’s the wings are generating lift “upwards”, but you’ve made up be sideways) — but this horizontal shift reduces the vertical component of lift! So turns must be accompanied by pulling up on the elevators, and/or increasing power while you pull up, all to maintain a turn with a given altitude and airspeed.

Aside: I wonder if this description is helpful to the reader… I’m having quite a good time writing it. 🙂 

All this is category (1) of driving: controlling the damn thing. Landings here are the trickiest part and require the most intuition about how the plane’s behaving. Maneuvers include ‘steep turns’ (180° turn @ 60° bank angle), S turns (2 perfect semicircles, taking wind into account), stalls, and so on).


Situational awareness (2) involves airspace management: there are restricted airspace ‘shelves’ at certain altitudes, required radio communication with towers when you get in their airspace, communication with other pilots in the air as well as at un-controlled airports… A big killer of private pilots is CFIT: Controlled Flight Into Terrain. A poor seemingly joke of a term for flying into the side of a mountain, or into the ground because you weren’t aware of where you are and what’s around you.


And (3) is navigation: via GPS, radio beacons, or compass.


My experience learning to fly has showed me a 4th category which isn’t properly taught to most drivers (or at least is quickly forgotten by most drivers), which I call my Pilot in Command ability. In the end, the pilot of the aircraft makes the final call, no matter what traffic controllers or restrictions say. I’m the one responsible for not getting myself (and once i get my license, my passengers) killed.

There’s a degree of judgement and awareness that I’ve experienced getting better at but am not fully sure how to describe. This last factor is the most important, and I see it as separating those who can follow directions from those who can call themself a pilot.


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