The three keys to flying safely

This story has its roots in many conversations between my father, Leighton Collins, and his great friend Wolfgang Langewiesche. Both had been there and done that with the quite basic airplanes spawned by The Great Depression. Both flew 36 or 40 hp E-2 Cubs and/or Aeronca C-3s over much of the country. And both sought answers to the questions about how to best teach basic pilots flying these basic airplanes how to survive.

Flying an E-2 Cub will teach you a lot about flying.

Wolfgang wrote a book about it. Stick and Rudder was first published over 70 years ago, in 1944, and it was, is, and will probably always be the best-selling aviation book on the shelf. I know first-hand about the best-seller part because my father wrote a chapter in the book and I still get eight-percent of the royalties on Stick and Rudder. It is more than a little humbling for me to note that this small share generates almost as much revenue as the total royalties on the twelve books that I have written since 1977.

As successful as that book was, Wolfgang and my father still talked a lot about something that would explore the things that a pilot really needs to know to stay alive. How many things might that be? I heard every number up to and including 100. They have both Gone West but they were thinking about this to the end.

I was part of the conversation in later years and with the thought that I would try deal with before my Gone West time comes, I’ll make the effort here, in Air Facts. That is where they started on it in 1938.

In talking with other pilots about this, some have suggested that the FAA knowledge test is a place where vital knowledge should be ensured. That is not being done. The FAA test efforts seem aimed at things like regulations and performance charts and science with very little about the art of flying. In one sample test I examined, there was one superficial question on angle of attack.

FAA-approved CFI revalidation programs don’t address this either. They seem to be more of an effort on the part of educators to convince you that they are smart and you are dumb and here’s the mnemonic to prove it.

I think the question is primarily related to things that pilots desperately need to know but that are not adequately taught in today’s formulaic training schemes. I came up with short lists and long lists but in the end I think there are three primary things to address. They are:

  • Flight path visualization
  • Angle of attack
  • The ever-present big picture

Flight path visualization

Glass cockpits show a flight path vector in the middle of the display — can you visualize it without such technology?

I have flown with a lot of pilots and have worked hard to help them develop the ability to visualize the flight path of the airplane. Unfortunately we can’t all afford the head-up display or synthetic vision system that includes a display of the flight path vector, but I’ll always remember the first time I flew one of these. Being able to see where the airplane was going seemed like magic. Just put the little symbol on the touchdown zone of the runway and keep it there and you will fly to the touchdown zone of the runway. Most of the computer programs, such as X-Plane, have this if you want to give it a try.

I was vaguely aware of how this worked when an article came in at the old Air Facts on the subject of precise approaches and landings. The author was Captain Gordon Graham, USMC, who was at the time an instructor at Pensacola teaching pilots how to best hook up with the number three wire on an aircraft carrier. That does define precision landings.

Gordon’s explanation of how to do it was based mainly on visual cues from the ultimate head-up display, the great outdoors. He led the reader through the visual cues found on downwind, the constant turn around to line up on final, and down final. (I didn’t leave out base leg. The Navy doesn’t fly a base as such.)

When I talked on the phone with Gordon about this as we were preparing to publish his article, “Landing as a Science” in the February, 1966 Air Facts, he must have gotten a sense that I didn’t quite get it. He told me to let him know the next time we were in my wife’s home town of Headland, Alabama, and he would come demonstrate.

I clearly remember the sound of the Navy T-28’s 1,425 hp Wright engine ticking over in the background when Gordon called on the pay phone from the strip at Headland and told me to get my butt out there and he would show me what he was talking about.

He showed me that and a lot of other things about the Navy T-28. That was one robust and spirited airplane. I had previously flown an 800 hp USAF T-28 and, as an old-friend airplane modifier once said to me, “horsepower makes all the difference in the world.”

If the touchdown point is moving lower in the windshield, you are overshooting.

The key to the Gordon story was in developing the ability to see the flight path vector without instrumentation. In simple terms, the point toward which the airplane is flying remains stationary. On final, if the touchdown zone is moving lower in the windshield, you are overshooting. If it is moving higher in the windshield, you are undershooting. If it is remaining in the same place in the windshield, things are fine so long as the airspeed is good and the path steep enough to clear obstacles. No pilot who has broken an airplane in an under- or overshoot accident paid heed to that.

When I would stress the importance of this, I would ask pilots to use 500 feet above the ground on final as a place to make a decision on the approach. If, when there, the view out front and the numbers on the panel aren’t right, it is time to go around and start all over. Most go-arounds that result in crashes start much later than that.

One place I found flight path visualization of great value was on night approaches to runways without visual approach slope guidance. There I would get established with the touchdown zone remaining stationary and the airspeed on a correct value and then consult the vertical speed. If it showed less than a 600 fpm rate of descent, I would judge the approach as being too shallow and take the steps to steepen it. Fortunately, most runways have come to have visual approach slope guidance.


The current attention to angle of attack is interesting to me because I had a Safe Flight angle of attack indicator in my Piper Pacer 60 years ago and my father wrote an article extolling the value of angle of attack instrumentation in Air Facts 50 years ago. To listen to some folks today, you would think that they just discovered this.

Does it have to be so complicated?

I want to point to something that I think explains why angle of attack instrumentation has remained so dormant for light airplanes for so long. You can find it right here on the screens of this journal.

We posted “Airspeed vs. angle of attack — what pilots don’t understand” by Chuck Moore a short while back. It is a good basic primer on the subject and prompted some heated comment. All this made a relatively simple subject seem horribly complicated. It is easy to see how a “normal” pilot could read the comments and decide that his trusty airspeed indicator is all he wants or needs.

Back, for the moment, to the May, 1965 article my father wrote on the subject. We will post the article in its entirety for those who wish to delve deeply into the subject. If you read it, do consider that the author started flying before airspeed indicators were installed in airplanes. Given that, to survive a pilot had to understand what was going on with the wings in every phase of flight.

I want to offer two quotes from the article:

Even without a proper formal knowledge of angle of attack.. anyone, then or now, who flies an airplane long without wrinkling it most certainly has at least a subconscious understanding of it.


The people who get deeply into the angle of attack realm are purists and they are impelled by intense missionary zeal. They can save your soul and want terribly to do so. And in the trying they literally scare the pants off of you.

The latter comment was, among other things, in reference to the methods used to demonstrate the value of angle of attack instrumentation while flying near the edge of the envelope.

If you’re pulling back in a turn, you’re loading the wing.

All this aside, understanding angle of attack is extremely important. Low speed loss of control accidents, of which there are a lot, are matters of the pilot not properly managing angle of attack. To address this, the FAA has long required stall warning systems in airplanes that don’t give good aerodynamic warning of a stall. What either method does is tell the pilot that the angle of attack is getting too close to the stalling angle, which is 16 to 18 degrees on most airplanes. All that is required to move the angle in a safer direction is to unload the wing by lowering the nose of the airplane.

Much is made of the value of angle of attack instrumentation in adjusting speeds for weights below the maximum for the airplane. Guess what? You can do this with your brain, too. Some airplane manuals give speeds adjusted for weight but if you don’t have that information then any performance speed decreases by half the percentage the weight is below the maximum. If, for example, the weight is ten percent below the maximum, decrease all the performance speeds, from the stall on up, by five percent.

There are rules of thumb, too. Hopefully all pilots know that when you load the wing, as in pulling gs, the angle of attack increases. The most common way we load the wing is in steep turns. The rule of thumb to never bank more steeply than thirty degrees in low level maneuvering provides some angle of attack protection.

When the subject of angle of attack comes up, know two things. First, there’s nothing new here. The Wrights used a piece of string to show the wind relative to their airfoil. And, two, you had best have a good understanding of angle of attack if you are going to fly safely and well. Whether you want to get AOA information from an instrument or from your brain is up to you.

The elusive BIG PICTURE

This is often referred to as situational awareness. All it involves is knowledge of where you are, what is going on now, and what happens next, and next, and next, and on and on until the airplane is parked.

Where are you now, what is the airplane doing, what are you doing, and what comes next?

When I let relatively new instrument pilots fly my airplane I would often ask them what they were thinking about. The answer was, too many times, “I don’t know.” The correct answer might have covered where they are, what the airplane is doing, what they are doing, and what comes next.

Another question I liked to ask when it seemed like the airplane was ahead of them on an arrival was how many flying miles they had to go until touchdown. That one could really get blank stares but it is important if you are to make the peanut butter and jelly come out even. It never works if there is a lot of altitude and speed and not much distance to fly.

It is often stated that a pilot has to stay ahead of the airplane. That is just part of the big picture and means only that the pilot has to be thinking ahead all the way to touchdown.

Because I am a weather geek, I like to relate this to the relationship between the airplane and the weather. There is no way to know exactly what the weather is going to be from minute to minute. What you see is what you get. But the pilot who doesn’t make the effort to project his thinking into and through those clouds that are up ahead doesn’t really have a chance should something bad be lurking.

It is often said that accidents are usually the result of a series of bad moves. That might be true but it is also usually true that there is a time when the series can be broken and the deal salvaged without damage.

I will use an example of bad behavior to illustrate this. This is all hypothetical because you just know that I never did such, even when young and foolish.

This can happen in any airplane when the pilot is overcome by the desire to “show” the airplane to people on the ground. I sense that there are fewer instances of low flying, “buzz jobs,” now than there used to be but they still lead to some accidents.

Properly done buzz jobs can be safe enough but when a pilot’s mind moves from thinking about flying to thinking about the quality of the buzz job, that means trouble. Most accidents during buzz jobs do not occur on the first pass; they come as the pilot attempts to improve on the buzz job. Never buzz, it is illegal and dangerous, but if you do it, do it right the first time and go away.

Having command of the big picture includes knowing when to quit. When the weather is low pilots often crash while attempting one or more approaches after the first one doesn’t work. That has proven to be lethal. There are only a few things in flying where you can use the old cut-and-try method, but if the big picture is well in mind, that should never be necessary.

If you think the list should be longer, please be our guest and comment on this. I’ll stop at three and wonder what my father and Wolfgang would have thought of this effort.

Originally published at on April 24, 2015.

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