Anyone pondering flight training will without a doubt have several questions about just how airplanes fly. The miracle of flight is all the more mysterious for those who have never set foot in a general aviation (GA) airplane. If you’ve only seen light aircraft from afar, let me offer a little preview of the novelties you’ll encounter as a piston aircraft pilot.
DRIVING WITH YOUR FEET
Unlike your auto, where you steer with your hands and control the speed with your feet, taxiing an airplane requires just the opposite control inputs. Though operating a hand throttle probably won’t be a difficult adjustment for you, learning to steer with your feet will take a few lessons to get used to.
To complicate matters, the rudder pedals, which you’ll use to steer while on the ground, also contain the brakes. On top of that, the brakes (left and right) function independently of each other. To slow down without inducing a jerky turn, you’ll need to apply simultaneous pressure to both pedals. When not braking, it’s best to keep your heels on the floor and use your toes to steer the aircraft.
The control yoke (or in some planes, the sidestick) doesn’t contribute to steering while on the ground. This control is instead used to minimize the effects of strong winds during taxi. Many turbine aircraft incorporate a dedicated steering tiller for ground maneuvering, but you’ll probably never see one as a piston aircraft pilot.
THE MIXTURE CONTROL
Next to the throttle lever, you’ll notice a red knob or lever. This device, the mixture control, allows you to adjust the fuel flow delivered to the engine. Most piston airplanes don’t automatically adjust the amount of gas sent to the engine, so it is the pilot’s responsibility to regulate the flow of fuel. Some newer aircraft are now being manufactured with increased automation that handles fuel delivery, but the vast majority of general aviation’s training fleet still incorporate a manual mixture control.
When/why will you need to change the fuel flow? With increases in altitude, the corresponding decrease in air density means a reduced concentration of air molecules entering the engine. If left alone, the ratio of fuel to air would progressively increase with gains in altitude, unnecessarily wasting fuel. With the mixture knob, a piston aircraft pilot is able to maintain the proper fuel/air balance for any given altitude, thus improving engine efficiency.
USING A CHECKLIST
The first few times you fly, you might get the impression that the average piston aircraft pilot is incredibly forgetful. You’ll see your instructor constantly referring to a printed (or electronic) checklist and insisting you do the same. Every phase of flight has its own section of corresponding actions, from before you enter the plane until it’s safely secured on the ramp after the flight.
Is flying really that complicated? In a word, no. The key here is prevention. You’ve probably heard that aviation enjoys a fantastic safety record, and checklists deserve a lot of the credit for that. While many experienced pilots could probably perform most of the required steps from memory, aviators recognize that the human brain, miraculous wonder that it is, is fallible. Checklists, however, remain consistent 100% of the time. Rather than serving as an instruction manual, the checklist is really intended to function more as a backup to the pilot’s memory.
THE PREFLIGHT INSPECTION
Speaking of prevention,you’ll quickly get used to performing a walk-around inspection before every flight. While airframes and engines are astonishingly reliable, no component is guaranteed to perform flawlessly 100% of the time. Since no piston aircraft pilot has the luxury of being able to pull over to the side of the road, you want to uncover any possible maintenance issues while still on the ground. Besides being a proactive safety measure, the preflight inspection is great for increasing your knowledge of airplane systems.
Flight training is incredibly rewarding, and anyone interested in aviation will have a blast learning the many operating practices unique to flight. As you gain knowledge and experience, you’ll be exposed to many additional factors that make aviation a truly exceptional pursuit.