August 13, 2013

Flight Basic Principles

This topic is a tough one to tackle, for a variety of reasons. First, I am not an aeronautical engineer, and second you don't want to read something written by one, even if I was! But it is important to understand that if you're going to be flying a plane, you have to understand some basic things about flight if you're going to be successful. It is not the same as driving a car! Chances are, if you have been fascinated by planes, and have been around them much, you have picked up this stuff, but just in case I'll touch on a couple of key concepts and then point you to a book that is great if you want more.

First, unlike driving a car there is the added dimension of "up and down" (altitude). It's not just turning a wheel to go left or right. Planes have what are called "control surfaces", meaning parts that move to control the direction of the aircraft. Ailerons are in the trailing edge of each wing and they affect the banking of a plane that primarily turns it. Then there is the vertical stabilizer, the portion of the tail that sticks straight up, and the trailing edge of that is the rudder. The rudder is a control surface that pivots the plane, or maybe better, slides it, left or right. The rudder works with the ailerons for a complete, balanced turn, or bank. And finally, also part of the tail is the horizontal stabilizer, the trailing edge of which is the elevator. The elevator, as the name implies, has a direct affect on pitching the plane upwards or downwards.

The thing that keeps a plane in the air is called "lift" and it is a function of airflow over and under the wings. The shape of the wings causes the airflow to pass under the wing faster than over the top, and thus creates a lifting of the plane. The faster the airflow, the more the lift. Here is an important principle that is hard to get at first. The thing which most affects the altitude of a plane, at least in the long run, is speed. Speed translates to the amount of lift. So as you are landing, for instance, you are controlling the elevator to keep the nose pointed in the upward attitude you desire, but the throttle is ultimately what determines your descent. You slowly decrease the throttle, holding the correct attitude with the elevator, and gently descend to the runway. Learning to control the throttle, and hence the altitude, as you land is a critical skill, and can be counterintuitive to new pilots.

Think of it this way. If all things are equal and you are flying straight and level, and you increase the throttle, you will continue to fly level, but your altitude will begin to increase, due to lift. The same is true in reverse as you decrease the throttle. Adjustments to the elevator have an immediate effect on this, as you can go into a dive or climb for the short term, but I'm trying to isolate a basic principle.

Now here's an even tougher concept....the elevator controls speed. You would think it is the throttle, and yes increasing the throttle does increase both speed and altitude, but increasing the elevator, and thus raising the nose of the plane increases what is called the "angle of attack". If you pull up on the elevator, and do nothing with the throttle, you will cause the nose to raise, and the aircraft will slow, and begin to descend. Raise the nose too much and you go into what is called a "stall", where the plane's wings are not level enough, and not getting enough airflow over them to create lift, and the plane drops down, nose first.

My final analogy that I hope illustrates this are fighter jets. I used to work across from Mira Mar Naval Air Station, and I would watch the F-14's do touch and go's all day. They flew very nose high (high angle of attack), with lots of  throttle. You could hear the pilots working the throttle constantly to keep enough altitude, while holding the nose as high as possible to keep it flying slow for a simulated carrier landing. It looked like they were "plowing" through the air, as opposed to graceful flight. They were right on the edge of stalling, but it kept their speed slow as they didn't have a lot of runway (on a carrier) to handle a long rollout.

So I told you this would get dry quickly!

Here's a book that was recommended to me that covers all of this, and interestingly was first copyrighted in 1944. It is called "Stick and Rudder", by Wolfgang Langeweische. It was recommended to me by my Navy pilot friend I mentioned in my first post as being the concepts used by them in their instruction. You can get it on Amazon for between $15-$20. It will go into great detail, but it does cover the basics and will make you a better pilot... probably with less crashes!

Next time I'll keep away from the technical stuff, I promise! I think I'll talk about my first purchase of a plane....