Teaching Speed – The Basics

Yesterday, I wrote about the extremes – flying high or low, fast or slow.  I like the extremes and feel as if the heart of the envelope could be, well, somewhat boring from the standpoint of flying.  The main thing you are doing there is just going somewhere.  This is why you have to substitute the fun of flying for the excitement of navigation.  More on that in a later blog.

So, teaching speed.  If you are a young flight instructor, how do you help your students “get it?”  What are the important points they should know about aircraft velocity?  How does it relate to flying and aircraft loads and safety?

First, we have to use a little correlation.  Everyone who knows how to drive knows how to make a car go fast – you just mash on the gas pedal.  In the airplane, you do the same thing; the pilot simply opens the throttle all the way by pushing the power lever all the way forward.  On the highway, the car is going to go as fast as possible.  In Florida, or on the dry lakebeds out west, the car will reach a maximum speed.  On the level surface, you can only convert so much horsepower into speed.

In the airplane, the same thing happens.  When the pilot opens the throttle all the way, the airplane can only go so fast in level flight.  However, here is where the airplane pilot has the advantage over the automobile driver.  If the airplane pilot has altitude, he or she can put the nose down and go faster.  In other words, they can dive the airplane to gain more speed if needed.

The driver cannot pull that off in Florida or out on the lakebeds.  There are no hills, much less mountains.  In the mountains, though, the driver can go downhill and travel faster than the car is capable in level travel.

The opposite of this, of course, is going uphill.  This is not possible for the driver in Florida or on the lakebeds; again, there are no hills or mountains.  In the mountains, however, there is the condition of driving up climbing roads.  The driver will soon discover the car is not able to travel uphill as fast as it can on level ground.  The steeper the uphill slope, the more horsepower is required to climb, leaving less horsepower to convert to speed.  The exact same circumstance happens in the airplane.  Only it is a little “different” in the airplane than in the car. 

For the motorist trying to make it up a steep hill, the car will eventually run out of speed and stop.  It will sit there on the side of the mountain and the motorist will set the brake, maybe turn off the engine, and then look around to enjoy the scenery.

Unfortunately, the corollary scene in the airplane is a bit different.

When the airplane pilot gets the nose going up too steeply, the airplane, like the car, will stop traveling uphill.  Unlike the car, the airplane does not have a nice mountain road on which to sit on when it stops flying.  It falls out of the sky.  We airplane pilots call this a stall.  (For those reading who are not airplane pilots, stalls in aviation refer to the wing ceasing to fly, rather than the engine ceasing to run.)

Is a stall a big deal?  No, not really, as long as there is plenty of space between the airplane and the ground for the pilot to start the airplane flying once more.  To do this, it is simply a matter of lowering the nose and the airplane is flying again – right away!

Now, as a young flight instructor, here is the truly important part of your job.  You must first explain, and then show your students, stalls are not a big deal.  Many student pilots and younger inexperienced pilots fear stalls.  I was one of those.  I did not like stalls at all.  I had this fear of losing control of the airplane.

In truth, you never really lose control of the airplane.  Sitting in the cockpit with the stick or yoke held full aft, you regain aerodynamic control the moment you move the stick or yoke forward.  You are again in total control of the aircraft – you can choose when to fly and when to stall.  When to fly fast, when to fly slow.

As I said, total control.

Tomorrow’s blog will go more in depth into the technicalities.  See you then.


© 2010 J. Clark

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