I don’t care who you are, how many airplanes you’ve flown, or what you do for a living—as a pilot, if you ever stop learning, you’re headed down the slippery slope of stagnation. I remember when I was a neophyte with a Private license; I passed my check ride with 40.5 hours in my logbook and figured that if I was cautious, one day I’d get that magical 200 hours I needed for a Commercial, and I’d really know what I was doing! Surprisingly, when I had those 200 hours, I looked back at my 50-hour days and realized just how little I really knew back then. But now I had more time under my belt, was still a little cautious, and figured if I ever got 1000 hours, I’d really be on top. Lo and behold, at 1000, I realized how little I knew at 200…and so it goes.
I grew up in the flatlands, that middle part of the North American continent where everything is between sea level and 1000 feet. Density altitude is taught, but it’s not really a factor unless you are grossly overloaded. Now I find myself moving to the West—the mountainous West. My new home base is near Carson City, Nevada, elevation 4,705 feet msl. Density altitudes in the 8000-foot range are normal in the summer. I’m flying my trusty RV-8 in which I have logged over 1600 hours (not to mention hundreds of hours more in similar RVs). And by golly, I can fly that airplane blindfolded—by feel.
So why, in fact, during my first week of flying, was I hearing “Angle, angle, push!” in my headset every time I turned from base to final at Carson City. Things looked and felt normal—but the AFS AoA lady was definitely not happy with me. Was it out of calibration? No, I went up and checked that. The only conclusion was that I was bringing myself much closer to a stall in that base to final turn than my “feel” for the airplane was telling me.
In fact, I might have thousands of hours in all sorts of things from Cubs to spacecraft, but I am still learning. This mountain stuff has its own special lessons. Forget the part about not flying up box canyons and watching out for rotors; lets just concentrate on the plain and simple act of flying to a landing at altitude.
The short form is this: To get the same indicated airspeed (1.3 Vso) on final with thin air, your true airspeed and ground speed are going to be a lot higher. Looking at it from the other direction, for the same groundspeed, the IAS is going to be a lot lower. And when I say I fly by feel, I am using all of my senses, including sight. Flying at a speed relative to the airport that I am used to, I am cheating the wing out of 8 knots of airspeed or so, and the wing doesn’t like that. Fortunately, I learned this solo, on a smooth day, not with a passenger and baggage in the bumps. It’s another lesson learned after all those decades—and a big thanks goes out to the folks that encouraged me to add AoA—and use it!
The point is, we are all still learning. None of us is all knowing, no matter how many years we have in the air. I have always been impressed by the pilots who, as they age, become kinder and gentler when teaching lessons to the young bucks because they themselves have been humbled and realize that no matter how much experience they get, there is always much more to learn. There is no shame in not knowing—only in thinking that you know it all.
Whether you are building an Experimental airplane or flying one that you have built, it is worthwhile to remember that we are all still students. We have more to learn. And there is no shame in admitting that. You will see safety messages throughout every issue of KITPLANES®. Some are clear and overt. Some are a little subtler. Yeah, we might be messin’ with you, feeding you the lessons when you don’t even know it. But our goal is straightforward and honest—at the end of the day, we want everyone home and all airplanes (in one piece) back in the hangars.
Fly (and build) smart!
Paul Dye retired as a lead flight director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the space shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He currently flies an RV-8 that he built in 2005 and an RV-3 that he recently completed with his pilot wife. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 4500 hours in many different types of aircraft. When not writing on aviation topics, he consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight testing projects.