Straighten Up and Fly Right

   In 1943, Nat “King” Cole wrote and recorded “Straighten Up and Fly Right”.  It’s a goofy set of words about a buzzard taking a monkey for a ride in the air.  But the title applies to us when we fly.  If we’re not “straight”, i.e., wings level, we won’t hold headings at all.  So, take the pledge: “On my honor, I will LOOK at the Attitude Indicator and include it in my constant scan while checking up on all the other dials!”

    I watched two pilots flying in simulated instrument conditions recently.  One is instrument rated, and the other an instrument student.  The rated pilot is a little rusty from lack of recent experience, while the instrument student has just passed the written exam and is thinking constantly about instrument flying.  In slightly turbulent conditions, the pilot who watched the heading indicator or the altimeter or the airspeed or the navigation information was continually off heading and gaining or losing altitude.  The pilot who spent more time with eyes on the attitude instrument was in control of the situation all the time. 

    The A.I. is our friend.  There’s a reason that the backup panel for the glass-cockpit aircraft which are more common every day has three instruments: Airspeed, Altitude, and Attitude.  With an operating Attitude Indicator, the pilot can fly the airplane.  We quickly learn that for a given airspeed, a certain bank angle will result in a certain turn rate.  Given that, we can just use the AI to set up a standard-rate turn.  We know that at any normal cruise airspeed, pitching up will cause a climb and a lowered airspeed, and pitching down will result in the opposites.  So, we use the AI to hold and control altitude. 

    What causes all those excursions from heading and altitude?  Just about any time you observe it, it will appear that the pilot is not using the AI as the controlling tool that it is.  When I’m teaching, I can sneak a peek at the angle of the pilot’s head, and just about know what he or she is looking at.  And when the pilot is off heading and getting worse, I know I’ll observe that the eyes were watching some other part of the panel than the AI.

    How about partial panel?  Knowing your airplane’s power settings for certain performance is key.  If your “cheat sheet” says 17 inches of manifold pressure gives level flight at 100 knots with the gear up, you can select 17 inches of M.P., adjust the nose to hold 100 knots, and the aircraft will be just about in level flight.  If that’s the setting for “approach cruise” and you are arriving at the glide slope on an ILS or WAAS GPS approach, you will probably know to drop the gear when the slope indicator centers, and make any other needed power adjustment, and then fly right down the slope at the desired airspeed without the attitude indicator.  But this works best when you have watched it happen many times with the AI functioning.  The same thing applies to holding heading: when the AI is gone, keep it flying straight with the turn coordinator.  “Needle, ball, and airspeed” was good enough for Lindbergh when he flew the Atlantic, so you can make an ILS happen with the vacuum instruments failed.

    The other key to all these cases is practice.  When we don’t fly often, we get rusty.  When we don’t practice partial panel, we forget the drill.  When we don’t use the attitude indicator and compare how it looks to how the plane is performing when we’re in visual conditions, we are prone to forget about the vital relationships between the instruments, our inputs, and the control of the aircraft. 

    Use the AI.  And then use it some more.  It’s the most immediate information system we have on the aircraft.  Everything else lags a little or a lot in telling us what’s happening now with our aircraft.