Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Harder to Fly

By Scott Spangler on March 18th, 2024

A long voicemail from my nephew is not what I expected after I ignored a call from an unknown number. Recently married, he was on his honeymoon in Cartegena, Colombia, and from their hotel they could see the airport. This led to what he described as an “argument” about whether it was easier to control a prop plane like a crop duster or an airliner like a Boeing 737. His wife asked, “which is more complicated to fly?”

In a series of back-and-forth voicemails and texts we defined “harder” and “complicated” as a pilot’s fundamental stick-and-rudder inputs needed for a safe flight. It took some time to explain why airline pilots have an easier time flying than those flying prop planes like ag aircraft.

Once he grasped the contribution made by an airliner’s flight management system and autopilot, and how it pretty much takes the airplane from Point A to Point B, he accepted the idea that airline pilots are busiest making the takeoff, landing, and taxiing to and from the gate. (And based on my simulator flights in a Boeing 737, 777, and Lockheed Tristar, steering an airliner around an airport with that twitchy tiller is the stuff of nightmares.)

Making the airliner’s flight even easier, I briefly explained the structured environment in which it flies. It is a routine and regimented operation defined by federal regulations, air traffic control, and the airline’s standard operating procedures that are supported by an expanded team that includes dispatchers and other experts in subjects such as meteorology and air traffic management. And the airline pilot is the member of a two-pilot team, each of whom have clearly defined duties and responsibilities.

A prop plane pilot, I explained, more often than not is the sole manipulator of the controls and, therefore, responsible for every aspect of conducting a flight safely. More often than not, prop pilots are not flying on an instrument flight plan, required for entry in the more structured air traffic-controlled highway in the sky system. There are regulations, like hemispheric cruising altitudes, that are supposed to keep these pilots from running into each other, but ultimately, they are individually ultimately responsible for seeing and avoiding each other.

The stick-and-rudder challenges ag pilots face are even more daunting because they so often fly so very close to the ground. Often their altitude, sometimes a single digit above the crop top, depends on the chemical they spreading. And just to make their flights more challenging, adjusting for whatever the wind is doing, they must plan each pass to ensure no plant goes unsprayed while avoiding obstacles such as trees, powerlines, wind turbines, and cell phone towers.

As our text conversation reached its conclusion, it seems that my nephew’s wife was arguing on behalf of the prop pilots, because he reported her “jumping around in victory.” –Scott Spangler, Editor



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