Bring Your ‘A’ Game
Fly the Airplane, First and Always
By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine (retired)
(Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared in the Mar/Apr 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.)
To adapt the standard airline announcement, “in the unlikely event” that you, the right-seat occupant in a general aviation (GA) airplane, are required to take over for an incapacitated pilot, your first thoughts (and, likely, your first words) might not be suitable for this publication. But somewhere in that thought-bubble cloud of words is a very important and very urgent thought: WHAT ON EARTH DO I DO NOW?!
Flying the airplane is about bringing your “A game.” To aviate means using the flight controls and instruments to direct the airplane’s attitude, airspeed, and altitude.
There will be several tasks ahead of you, but let’s focus here on the most important job — staying alive.
Early in training, pilots are taught to fly the airplane first, last, and always. This idea is formalized in the “aviate-navigate-communicate” mantra presented during the very first flight lesson, if not before.
In a “well, DUH” sort of way, it intuitively makes sense that a pilot’s top priority, both in normal operations and in not-so-normal times, is to fly the airplane before tending to any other task. However, those of us whose four-part Myers-Briggs Type Indicator includes an “S” for sensor (versus an “N” for intuitive) have a strong need to know what that means in very practical and very specific terms.
I eventually came to understand that it’s about bringing your “A game.” To aviate — to fly the airplane — means using the flight controls and flight instruments to direct and control the airplane’s attitude, airspeed, and altitude. So let’s get straight on the As.
The term attitude refers to the aircraft’s orientation with respect to the horizon — is the nose up or down, or tilted left or right?
In flight under visual flight rules (VFR), weather conditions are good enough for the pilot to see and use the natural horizon as a reference point for what pilots call the four fundamentals: straight and level flight, climbs, turns, and descents.
To learn what the right attitude looks like for various phases of flight, look outside. Pay close attention to how the airplane’s nose and wingtips look relative to the horizon in each of the four fundamental maneuvers. Take a mental snapshot and, for later study, a snapshot on your smartphone (in airplane mode).
If the weather is not good enough to see outside, the flight occurs in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), using instrument flight rules (IFR). In this case, the pilot uses an instrument called the attitude indicator, or “artificial horizon,” to establish and maintain the right attitude for the phase of flight.
It takes specific training and lots of practice for a pilot to be proficient in IFR flying. Chances are good that a non-pilot flying companion will never need to take over the flying at all — much less in IMC. If you want to “get the picture,” though, first master outside references for attitude flying, and then start comparing them to how they are depicted on the attitude indicator.
Before we talk about airspeed, I need to briefly introduce another “A” term: aerodynamics. Aerodynamics deals with the motion of air, which is a gas, and the forces that act on solid objects, like airplanes, that move through it. To put it (very) simply, an airplane flies because air moving over the wings generates a force called lift.
Airspeed is the measure of how fast that air is moving. An airplane needs a certain minimum airspeed to take off and fly. You might hear pilots talk about “true” airspeed and “calibrated” airspeed, but the one that matters for this discussion is “indicated” airspeed (IAS), as shown on the airspeed indicator (ASI).
The values for the necessary IAS differ from one airplane to another. A flying companion can certainly memorize numerical airspeed values for the various phases of flight, but it’s a lot easier to use the color coding on the ASI.
As with attitude flying, start paying attention to the placement of the ASI pointer during various phases of flight. Generally, pilots use an airspeed in the white arc for takeoff/climb and descent/landing. An airspeed in the green arc is used for normal cruise flying. Yellow is for smooth air only, and the red line is the “never exceed” speed. Don’t go there!
In airplanes with “glass cockpit” (i.e., video screen) instruments, the ASI is located on the left side of the screen and is displayed as a moving “tape.” As the aircraft increases in speed, the larger numbers descend from the top of the tape.
As with airspeed, aviation uses several kinds of altitude. Most people think first about height above ground level (AGL). AGL is important, but the altimeter displays the altitude that really counts for flying: height above mean sea level (MSL).
The grid on aeronautical charts shows the MSL value for the minimum safe altitude (MSA) in each square, or block of airspace. In the unlikely event that a flying companion needs to take over from an incapacitated pilot, the trick is to use the altimeter to verify that you are at or above the MSA for the airspace you occupy. So, part of your “A game” is knowing how to read the altimeter.
In airplanes with “glass cockpits,” the altimeter is displayed on a moving tape similar to the airspeed indicator, but on the right side of the screen. As the altitude increases, the larger numbers descend from the top, with the current altitude being displayed in the black box in the center of the display tape. In older airplanes with “round dial” instruments, you might first think the altimeter is a distorted clock from a Salvador Dali painting. You will see numbers from 0–9, and three pointers that indicate height in hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands. It takes a bit of practice to learn to read this kind of altimeter quickly and accurately, but your pilot can help — and there are lots of YouTube videos that show it in action.
Getting Straight on the A’s
You need not be a pilot to benefit from the resources that the FAA and the aviation training community have on these topics, so check them out. Aim to get straight on these three important “A’s” so your “A game” will be ready if ever you need to fly the airplane.
Susan K. Parson was editor of FAA Safety Briefing magazine until she retired from the FAA in January 2023.