One of the first things a student pilot needs to learn is the task of merely flying straight and level. Sounds simple enough, right? It is, to a degree. Still, there are elements of performing the maneuver (can straight and level be considered a maneuver?) every pilot should learn.
Breaking the maneuver down to the simplest elements is the first thing a flight instructor should accomplish. Then the CFI should present the information to the student so that he or she can understand the basics of flying the airplane in a straight line at a level altitude.
A flight instructor should first address the issue of the student’s individual sitting height in the airplane. Every student is going to have a different visual aspect once seated in the airplane. What this means is that while the student is sitting in the pilot’s seat, he or she is going to have a particular “sight picture” while looking over the nose of the airplane. In other words, a short student might have very little clearance between the top of the cowling and the horizon while a tall student might look out the front and have an apparent four of five inches or more.
This apparent “sight picture” is important for the student to be able to keep the airplane from climbing or descending while flying straight ahead. With any given power setting, the airplane will maintain altitude at a specific airspeed. For example, with 2400 rpm set in a Cessna 150, the airplane may be capable of 98 knots indicated airspeed. If the pilot pitches up too high, the airplane will slow down and climb. Pitched too low, the airplane will descend and speed up.
If the pilot reduces power, in order to maintain altitude, the student pilot will have to pitch the nose up only slightly. Similarly, if the pilot pushes the throttle all the way forward, he or she must decrease the nose attitude to maintain the same altitude. This, of course, directly relates to the idea of the angle-of-attack (AoA) on the airplane. The slower a pilot flies, the higher AoA is required to produce the same amount of lift.
A student pilot could think of it in this simplified mathematical fashion: if the weight of the airplane is 2000 pounds, the lift must equal the same. If the airplane is flying slowly and speed can only deliver 200 pounds of lift, the pilot has to increase AoA must to deliver the remaining 1800 pounds. Conversely, if the airplane is flying very fast with speed supplying 1600 pounds of force, the pilot can decrease AoA for the other 400 pounds.
With regard to the direction of flight, flight instructors should avoid the temptation to say, “Hold your heading steady.” Most students have little concept of exactly what is a heading.
It is easier to explain that as long as the wings are level, the airplane will traverse a straight line. It is even better to look out the front of the airplane and say, “See that lake over there? Fly directly to it.”
It will take little time for the student to master the maneuver of straight and level. From there, he or she can go on to learn about the other three areas of the four fundamentals, which include climbs, descents, and turns.
© 2011 J. Clark