I Learned About Flying From That: Back to Basics
“You need more right rudder,” Bill Martin scolded as I sloppily put the Cessna 172 into a climbing right turn. My recollection of P-factor and torque effect, it seemed, had gone the way of the dodo bird.
“I guess I’m used to yaw dampers in the jets,” I mumbled. “It’s been 10 years since I’ve flown one of these.”
Bill flicked his headset’s microphone closer to his mouth. “Well, obviously. You’re all over the place.”
With that bit of chiding, memories from my flight-training days encircled me as if I had flown turns around a point yesterday. Bill was my first flight instructor — a successful middle-aged businessman who loved flying and pushing his students to their full potential. Shooting partial-panel NDB approaches (with procedure turns!) was normal during my instrument training, complemented by his index finger forcibly tapping the altimeter if I dared to break his stringent limits.
Yet there was a “method to the madness,” as Bill always said. Eventually, his fingerprints disappeared from the Cessna 172’s instruments and his terse commands from its intercom. Bill hadn’t cracked the altimeter’s glass or developed laryngitis — his lofty standards had become my own.
I was 16 when I first clambered into a cockpit with Bill. We were a bit of an odd couple, considering our age difference and places in life, but Bill’s pursuit of perfection resonated with me. As I progressed from C-172s to larger cockpits, and eventually to the Boeing 737 I currently fly, his standards stayed with me — a constant in a dynamic profession. Ultimately, our relationship came to represent one of aviation’s greatest gifts: a lifelong bond between student and instructor, a relationship where learning never stops.
Seventeen years after our first flight, the setting was perfect for a reunion as we trundled around the Florida sky. The C-172 was a late-1970s model configured almost identically to the aircraft from our past. Bill’s trusty instrument hood and vacuum instrument suction-cup covers were missing, thankfully, but the aircraft was remarkably similar. The musty odor somehow synonymous with training aircraft was even present, complete with the scent of the avgas that I clumsily spilled on my hand while straining the fuel tanks.
Bill mentioned he could’ve rented an aircraft with a glass cockpit complete with autopilot, but he thought flying an antiquated bird would be more fun. “No GPS, FMS or autopilot,” he said. “You’re going to have to hand-fly this thing, just like you used to do.” He paused, and I could’ve sworn I saw his index finger twitch. “And I don’t care how long it’s been since you’ve flown one of these.”
As I guided the Cessna through the morning air (I did eventually make coordinated turns, and Bill only sparingly tapped the altimeter), I couldn’t remember the last time I had hand-flown an aircraft during all phases of flight. Although I manually take off and land the 737, hand-flying entire climbs and approaches is rare and never occurs in cruise within RVSM airspace. My fingers are adept at interfacing with the flight management computer and the autopilot, but they spend considerably less time manipulating the Boeing’s prominent control yokes. Even when the autopilot is off, the flight directors usually remain on the primary flight display.
In comparison, the Cessna’s attitude indicator looked painfully inadequate, a tiny circle with faded blue, black and white that somehow had kept me right-side up not that long ago. I looked back outside, appreciating that I could simply point the riveted nose where the Everglades’ green met the blue sky.
“Automation is a great tool,” Bill said over the Lycoming’s drone. “But if it fails, you’d better be able to hand-fly the airplane, or at least be proficient with basic flying skills. If a pilot depends too much on an autopilot to keep him out of trouble and his hand-flying skills degrade because of that dependence, I don’t want to be riding in that airplane when something goes wrong.”
Bill’s comment highlighted the Shakespearean question “to be, or not to be” as it relates to piloting, particularly in the wake of the recent Air France Flight 447 accident report: To hand-fly, or not to hand-fly — how do pilots ensure that they do not become overreliant on automation to the point where they can’t safely fly the airplane if the technology fails?