Airmanship and the Fundamentals of Flight

By Scott Spangler on December 29th, 2014

Sporty’s debut of its Cessna 172LITE Project has rightfully attracted the attention of a cannonball launched from the high dive at the deep end of the aviation pool. While most are paying attention to the splash made by the airplane’s rental affordability, what seemed most important to me were the words of general aviation’s patron saint, Hal Shevers, who said that the airplane will better enable new pilots to “learn fundamental airmanship.” There’s no denying that modern avionics technology can overwhelm new pilots, but for those born after the baby boom it also is a seductive distraction that contributes to an incomplete aviation education. Learning which button to push and what knob to turn is easier to learn—and teach—than the knowledge, awareness, and coordination that embody this thing called airmanship. In removing these distractions, the 172LITE is the perfect airmanship classroom…with the right teacher of flight. Like most professional pilots, flight instructors grew up with avionics technology and are addicted to it. They are not immune to the atrophy of airmanship abilities the FAA outlined in its cockpit automation report. Like all teachers regardless the subject, they teach what they know best. When it comes to stick and rudder education, once the student has a safe grasp of the four fundamentals, climbs, turns, straight-and-level, and descents—they move on to the the next subject in the curriculum. Plainly put, regardless the flying classroom, to teach airmanship teachers must first embody it. In Chapter 1, “Introduction to Flight Training,” the Airplane Flying Handbook defines airmanship as: “A sound acquaintance with the principles of flight. The ability to operate an airplane with competence and precision both on the ground and in the air, and the exercise of sound judgment that results in optimal operational safety and efficiency.” Airmanship is the result of complete and constant awareness combined with the integrated application of the pilot’s knowledge and senses—eyes, ears, hands, feet, and seat of the pants—to operate the aircraft with tolerances of plus or minus nothing. Striving for zero tolerances has been the lasting gift of my first flight instructor. Yes, he explained to me in so many words, “the FAA Practical Test Standards give you plus or minus 100 feet, but if you strive for plus or minus nothing that gives you a larger cushion when you don’t achieve your goal, and one day that cushion might save your life.” Perhaps more importantly, he showed me how airmanship could make flying more enjoyable and rewarding by devising ways to challenge my skills. One of my favorites involved Lazy-8, a simulated engine failure to full-flap landing at a safe hard-deck altitude into the prevailing wind over a suitable field on the ground below, and recovering from that landing with full-flap slow flight, without busting my hard deck altitude in either direction. So I would not know where my engine would “fail” during my Lazy-8s, I’d set an arbitrary time on my countdown timer. I didn’t make it every time, but I had a lot of fun trying. And words inadequately describe the satisfaction I felt when meeting my self-imposed challenge of smooth, coordinated flight, on speed and on target, with tolerances of plus or minus nothing. Oddly enough, my usual rental mount was a Cessna 172 whose panel didn’t look that much different from the pictured above, in Sporty’s Cessna 172LITE. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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