Learning to fly a light aircraft is one of the most liberating things you can do. Amazingly, you will discover that you are able to control the plane even on your first flight. Of course, your instructor will do the take-off and landing and demonstrate each of the controls to you before handing over control. Thereafter, you can do as much or as little of the flying as you wish.
The first thing that you will notice almost as soon as the aeroplane gets airborne, is that there is no sensation of speed. This is because your eye is drawn to the horizon or skyline ahead of you and there is no passing ditch for reference.
The second thing is something that you won’t notice! You don’t notice your height! This is probably because you have no connection to the ground and your eye is drawn upwards to the horizon. The view is so spectacular that it is easy to forget where you are.
In terms of controlling the plane, you only need a light touch on the controls. The plane is designed to maintain level flight and even to regain it if disturbed by a gust. The sweaty grip on the controls is purely for the movies.
Next is your reference for controlling the plane. This is the skyline or horizon. Have a good look all around and of course, you will notice that the horizon forms a flat line, all the way around …. 360 degrees. As you gain height, all the small hills disappear and even mountains make little impression on the flat horizon. This is your reference for holding the aeroplane level. Bear in mind that unlike driving, it is not necessary to spend all your time looking straight ahead. There is no road to follow and no ditch to hit! You can look around and enjoy the view.
One of the major reasons why people fly light aeroplanes for fun is to experience freedom in three axes. On the ground, everything is very one dimensional and if you try to explore more, you may end up with bruises and broken bones! In the air, there is nothing to hit.
The first axis is called Pitch. This is where the nose of the aeroplane moves up and down in response to the pilot's fore and aft movement of the control column. This operates the ‘elevator’ control on the horizontal tail. Note that if you let go of the stick, the aeroplane will maintain level flight by itself. Your main reference for controlling pitch is the position of the natural horizon in relation to the nose of the aeroplane.
The second axis is called Roll. This is where the aeroplane banks left or right in response to the pilot’s movement of the control column left and right. This operates the ‘ailerons’ on the outer trailing edges of the wing. The aeroplane is banked in order to steer it rather like a motorbike. As this is how you steer the plane, it will not return to level flight by itself and the pilot has to deliberately move the stick to control the bank angle. Level wings to fly straight. Steady bank angle to make a turn. Your main reference for controlling bank is the position of each wing tip in relation to the horizon. It is best to look at the low wing tip rather than the high one as the horizon will be out of view for the high one. It is also obvious that this will require that you move your head around rather than look straight ahead as when driving.
The third axis is called Yaw. This is where the nose of the aeroplane swings left or right in response to the pilot’s feet pushing the rudder bar left or right. This operates the rudder on the vertical tail surface. This is usually the heaviest of the controls because it is working against the fixed vertical tail. This works like a weather vane, keeping the body of the aeroplane, known as the fuselage, aligned with the flight path. So you use your feet not to turn the plane but to keep the fuselage aligned with the flight path.
All the controls tend to self-centre due to the airflow.
So there you have it. Three axes to play with of which the most important is Bank for steering. Pitch and Yaw are stable and for the most part, you will just be damping out any gentle oscillations due to turbulence.
You will notice that so far I have not mentioned any instruments. That is because they are not necessary for the control of the aeroplane. They simply tell the pilot how the plane is performing in terms of airspeed, altitude or rate of climb or descent. In fact, there is little need to look anywhere other than outside for the attitude of the plane around its three axes and the view. Don’t forget that we are talking both landscape and cloudscape and of course looking out for other planes. There is no place quite like the cockpit of a light aeroplane on a sunny day!
So there is no big mystery about how a plane flies. In reality, it flies itself and the pilot simply steers it. After a while, you find that just like driving a car, you are not aware of the control inputs. It all becomes semiautomatic and you can concentrate on enjoying the view.
When it comes time to return for a landing, all that is necessary is to reduce the engine power. Thrust from the engine and propeller provides the acceleration down the runway to reach flying speed and provides the energy for cruising and climbing. Reduce the power and down she comes in a gentle glide. The driving force becomes gravity just like coasting down a hill in a car. When the runway comes into view, things will start to look familiar because the plane is flying at typical driving speeds and the ground is now clearly visible over the nose. Just as you seem to be about to arrive with a bump, on the end of the runway, your instructor will pitch the nose of the plane up so that it floats down the runway just inches above it. Then with the throttle closed, the plane will gently sink back to earth. The flight is over and I'll bet you can't wait to go again.Thirty minutes gone in a flash. Just as well that your instructor was taking a few ‘cockpit’ photos to record the event, while you were busy flying the plane.