Using the Sight Picture for Attitude Information

Continuous attitude information is necessary for conduct of safe flight. Before flight by reference to instruments, pilots received necessary attitude information by reference to the horizon – the sight picture. Using the sight picture is not merely “looking out the window”. Rather proper interpretation and use of the sight picture is a basic element of good airmanship. This photo of a typical sight picture shows bank, pitch yaw and even drift. Properly interpreted a sight picture displays necessary flight data to include airspeed, rate of turn, flight path and pilot induced over-control.
Continuous attitude information is necessary for conduct of safe flight. Before flight by reference to instruments, pilots received necessary attitude information by reference to the horizon – the sight picture. Using the sight picture is not merely “looking out the window”. Rather proper interpretation and use of the sight picture is a basic element of good airmanship. This photo of a typical sight picture shows bank, pitch yaw and even drift. Properly interpreted a sight picture displays necessary flight data to include airspeed, rate of turn, flight path and pilot induced over-control.
This Hangar Talk is the second in a series discussing my Top Ten Best Stick and Rudder Habits. My list is presented in no particular order; however, recognition and interpretation of the sight picture should be near the top of any list depicting airmanship skills. Pilots know sight picture basics, but some pilots find certain Key Points allusive during everyday maneuvers such a flying a traffic pattern.

The sight picture shows pitch:
Perhaps the most important element of the sight picture is pitch. It is important because pitch shows effects of using the elevator, the angle of attack flight control.

Side Bar: Angle of attack is a big deal – it causes airplanes to stall, controls their airspeed and makes the airplane turn. It is important to understand that pitch, what the pilot sees, is not the same as angle of attack, what the airplane sees. The two are easily confused and a subject for another Hangar Talk.

Three interesting aspects of pitch as displayed on the sight picture are:
• At a specific power setting and when trimmed for some airspeed, the sight picture will show a corresponding pitch attitude; and likewise pitching to that sight picture will result in the specific corresponding airspeed. Don’t chase your airspeed.
Key point: Instead, know what your airspeeds look like and fly your sight picture on final approach to landing.
• Every pilot knows how to transition from climbing to level flight: pitch- power- trim. Correctly stated, the procedure is “pitch for airspeed” and most pilots pitch down. That is a gross mistake when transitioning from climb to level flight at a constant airspeed; for example in a traffic pattern at Vy (best rate of climb). During the climb at Vy the sight picture will show a nose high pitch attitude. When arriving at level flight altitude do not pitch down; instead, hold the pitch, maintain the sight picture because that is what Vy looks like.
Key Point: reduce power, hold a nose high sight picture and then trim to establish level flight at pattern airspeed.
• A deadly mistake too often results from not using the sight picture. Airplanes stall for one reason, the pilot applies excessive back pressure to the elevator control. Typically that control input is seen as a small pitching moment in the sight picture. If this pitching moment occurs during a turning maneuver, it becomes problematic, even deadly when the pilot is tempted to look at some ground reference during a turn.
Key point: the sight picture betrayed the inadvertent pull, but the pilot was not looking at the sight picture, and he did not see the impending stall and subsequent loss of control.

The sight picture shows bank angle.
Maintaining a constant bank angle during a maneuver, and that includes level flight, is basic airmanship. I fly with way too many pilots that do not maintain a constant bank during maneuvers. My airplane is aerobatic and does not have any attitude instruments; so when a pilot does not keep the wings level, I must conclude he does not know how to interpret the meaning of that big horizon extending across my entire windscreen.
Key Point: with reference to bank angle, pilots are cautioned to avoid two common mistakes:
1. The yolk is not a steering wheel. Avoid steering your airplane especially during turns. Instead, use ailerons to establish bank then allow horizontal component of lift to push the airplane thru the change of direction.
2. Airplane roll and yaw moments are linked. When a wing lifts (or drops) it is frequently associated with yaw. Instead of aileron rudder would be a correct flight control input.

The sight picture shows yaw.
Yaw, rotation on the airplane’s vertical axis, results from any one of four forces:
1. Pilot induced
2. Drag produced when using the ailerons (adverse yaw)
3. P-factor yaw when climbing or descending due to unequal thrust between ascending and descending blades
4. Gyroscopic yaw, the nose moves left when pushing the stick and moves right when pulling.

Whatever the cause of yaw, it must be controlled. That sounds simple, but it is impossible to do if a pilot does not recognize yaw. Key Point: the sight picture shows yawing motion, but the pilot must be watching to see it. Watching the ball and “stepping on the ball” is not good advice nor good airmanship. To begin with, if the ball is out of center, stepping on the corresponding rudder is too late. The airplane has already yawed. Good airmanship demands that the pilot watch the sight picture to detect the beginning of a yawing moment and counter it with appropriate and timely rudder. That is fundamental; use the control you need when you need it and as much as you need it.

Using the sight picture is essential to good airmanship. A story I heard supports that good practice. An observer who had an opportunity to fly with Bob Hoover when he was practicing his incredible point rolls wanted to determine how Bob used the rudder during the point roll. After the flight, the observer challenged Bob with the fact that Bob’s control inputs appeared to be inconsistent, they varied with each roll. Bob, the quintessential airman, replied that he never thought much about it. He explained that he simply looked out the windscreen and used the control he needed.

Click here to see this month’s feature video Using the Sight Picture.

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