Beware Them Words

Forward slip to a landing is a required skill for pilots earning a tailwheel endorsement and familiar to most pilots. This common skill, is aviation’s the most misunderstood maneuver. A discussion of the forward slip at any gathering of pilots will promote strong opinions and disagreement. Discussion of a forward slip will expose a plethora of Them Words.
Forward slip to a landing is a required skill for pilots earning a tailwheel endorsement and familiar to most pilots. This common skill, is aviation’s the most misunderstood maneuver. A discussion of the forward slip at any gathering of pilots will promote strong opinions and disagreement. Discussion of a forward slip will expose a plethora of Them Words.
Towards the purpose of promoting airmanship, this series of essays titled, The Top Ten Best Stick and Rudder Habits, is written to address the common mistakes pilots share during maneuvers training. This essay, ninth in the series and in no particular order, is titled Beware Them Words.

Characterized by subjective definitions, Them Words are the words we use when speaking and writing about flying. They convey meaning, context and purpose. The way pilots practice maneuvers and develop flight control habits is based upon an understanding of Them Words. Aviation trainers, trainees and pilots alike routinely repeat words and phrases that constitute aviation terminology, pilot jargon, Them Words.
• Think of jargon as a type of political correctness or group think.
• Aviators repeat popular words and phrases and assume the listener, a member of the group, understands the full meaning. But maybe not.
• Over time too many pilots, and perhaps even flight educators, have lost the fundamental concepts and meanings behind the jargon.

Last month my Best Stick and Rudder Habit was Guard Against Monkey Flying. An important element of Monkey Flying are the words that describe the Standard Task a pilot seeks to perform. Them Words are frequently associated with a Standard Task instead of the definitive deeper meaning. For example; “Pitch up to stall” instead of increase the angle of attack to stall. Pitch is not the same as angle of attack, but pilots frequently do not understand that. Pilots do not understand (nor believe) that airplanes can stall from any attitude or airspeed: for example, from a vertical dive at 120 mph. That scenario is not consistent with their understanding of “pitch up”.

Flight instruction offers a plethora of memory aids and tired axioms that are common place and meant to help pilots do the correct thing, develop good habits; but what if that message is incorrect? For example, are you familiar with the common advice “keep your airspeed up to avoid a stall”?

During my instructional sessions, I focus on words and concepts that promote the two fundamentals of airmanship: do not stall and control yaw. (Yes, good airmanship is that simple- only two things to master.) In depth discussion, during my one hour ground school that precedes every flight, exposes how many pilots simply do not understand what they know – Them Words. The most common examples are essential elements of upset recovery training:
• What is a spin? The FAA Flying Handbook defines a spin as an “aggravated stall”. A pilot might ask “how the hell do you aggravate a stall?” In fairness, the book continues with the explanation that an airplane spins when it yaws while exceeding the critical angle of attack. A spin is stall with yaw. Ok, so why not simply define a spin as a stall with yaw? Why must we confuse a simple concept with extraneous words that distract from the fundamental point?

Coordinate, it is seldom that I meet a pilot who will mention yaw in context with the word “coordinate”. We frequently hear “use rudder to coordinate a turn”. I do not think that is instructive. Instead, consider this advice: use rudder to control yaw during a turn. Control yaw, what a beautifully simple concept.

• What is a stall? When asked, most pilots define a stall as when the airplane’s wing exceeds its critical angle of attack”. It seems we educators have done a good job of pilot training with reference to the stall. Well, maybe not. Follow up with the question: “how do you cause an airplane stall”? Frequently pilots answer “exceed the critical angle of attack”. That circular logic is not very instructive. Push them harder and ask, “What does a pilot do to make the airplane stall?” A common response is “pitch up”.

Pitch – another one of them words that brings us back to where we started. Pitch is what the pilot sees. Angle of attack is what the airplane sees. Pitch is not the same as angle of attack nor does pitch explain how an airplane can stall in a dive at maneuvering speed. Pitch controls airspeed as in power + pitch = performance. That relationship is an important fundamental and does not need to be confused with a discussion of stalls and spins.

Key Point: Them Words are characterized by subjective definitions. It is very difficult to recognize Them Words because they are popular group think and part of the system in which we learn. Pilots actually think they are doing the right thing.

Loss of control accidents are killing pilots. Subjective definitions and Them Words have become a contributing factor. The following commentary is an example of how student pilots and pilots trying to improve their skills are being misinformed.

A mainstream aviation magazine featured a story titled “Mastering the Forward Slip”. Written by the popular magazine’s editor, the article incorrectly described the maneuver and featured comments contrary to basic flight fundamentals. I contacted the editor, offered counterpoint, and asked that he not accept my logic, but actually try flying the maneuver. His response was “We have a difference of opinion …….. if [he] is wrong, so is the vast majority of the flight training community”.

The editor’s reference to opinion and community suggests that instead of using the science of aerodynamics, logic and actual flight test in his analysis, the editor participated in group think, subjective definition and Them Words. Each of his article’s five steps were problematic; however, step #4 Fine Tune the Forward Slip, is a rich example of misguided control inputs that are common to group think and subjective definition:
1. The rudder is held full.
2. Extended centerline Is held with ailerons,
3. The glideslope is tracked with pitch.
4. Ten knots above normal approach speed will maintain a safe margin above stall speed.

Perhaps those steps sound reasonable when read aloud, but a pilot should consider the words in context of aerodynamics and even common sense:
1. Full rudder? What happened to the fundamental of using as much rudder as you need to control the nose on its vertical axis.
2. Extended centerline is held with ailerons. Steer with ailerons? A dreadful yet common misuse of ailerons. Ailerons control bank; increasing bank reduces vertical lift and airplane losses altitude. In a forward slip, ailerons control rate of descent.
3. The glideslope is tracked with pitch. You might ask, “Why does pitch control airspeed except during a slip?” Instead, consider that bank angle determines rate of descent in a slip; therefore, glideslope (rate of descent) is tracked with ailerons in the forward slip.
4. Ten knots above normal approach speed will maintain a safe margin above stall speed. What about the fundamental relationship of airspeed and lift? Increasing airspeed during a slip increases lift and is counter-productive to the purpose of the forward slip – to lose altitude.

Perhaps the editor’s most egregious recommendations are relating airspeed to a stall.
• When are the pundits going to stop reinforcing that false narrative? Instead reinforce the fundamental that stalls are related to angle of attack – not airspeed!
• Reinforce the fundamental that pilots cause airplanes to stall with excessive deflection of the elevator – the angle of attack control.

Key Point: Deadly Consequences
When pundits recycle tired axioms and rote memory with unclear meaning and without proper context, Them Words encourage group think and promote monkey flying. Pilots develop bad habits. In an emergency, bad habits prevail, and we fly like we train. Simple maneuvers can turn deadly.

Good airmanship requires that a pilot understand fundamental aerodynamics and the proper use of flight controls. Avoid using words and phrases in a context contrary to those fundamentals. Avoid subjective definitions. Beware Them Words. It is one of the Top Ten Best Stick and Rudder Habits.

Click here to see this month’s feature video: Side Slip vs Forward Slip

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