How to fly a plane - Manual Control

Stein Mjåtveit

I am often asked what it takes to become a pilot. What are the airlines looking for when they hire pilots? What are the skills required to be great at your job? In an attempt to answer these questions I will cover the eight core competencies a Professional Pilot is expected to master.

This week we are looking into the core competency of Aircraft Flight Path Management - Manual control of the aircraft - A Professional Pilot is expected to...

Control the aircraft flight path through manual flight, including appropriate use of flight management system(s) and flight guidance systems.

Want the full overview? Check out the first blog post in this series and bookmark it for later. 

In layman terms, manual control of the aircraft is what most people think of when you say "flying an airplane". It is basically the "stick-and-rudder" inputs the pilot makes in order to command the airplane to do what she/he wants. This core competency ties directly into the automation part of the flight path management, since pilots are expected to transition smoothly between the two flight regimens.

As you can see in the picture below, both triangles consist of the same skills - the difference lies in what skill is predominantly used during manual or automated control of the flight path. Skillful pilots must also know when and how to transition between the two.

Flight DeckManagementSkills

For example, let's say that the aircraft is flying in turbulent conditions with the autopilot activated. Depending on the make and model of the aircraft and the type of autopilot in use, this may cause the autopilot to disconnect and revert the aircraft into manual flight mode. In other words, the pilot must be ready to take over and fly the airplane safely to its destination (or until smoother air allows the pilot to reconnect the autopilot). 

Since the amount of manual flying is relatively low after students graduate from flight school and start working for an airline, it is vital that a strong foundation has been created during their initial training. The stick-and-rudder skills need to be deeply rooted in their muscle-memory and readily available when the situation calls for it. 

The transition must be smooth when transitioning from manual flying to automation as well - when pilots must ensure that the correct mode(s) are selected and that the correct flight path has been programmed before activating the autopilot.

Selection and screening

As early as in the selection and screening phase, we test the psychomotor skills of our applicants to ensure that they are up to par for flight training and a career as a pilot. To become a proficient and professional pilot, one needs to be at a certain level even before starting the training. Which is why screening and selection of candidates is of the utmost importance, both for the individual, the training provider and the employer.

Click here to learn more about selection and screening of pilots. 

Usually the psychomotor skills are tested in combination with other tasks simultaneously, to ensure that candidates have a sufficient capacity for task management - as well as having a high level of stress tolerance. Because when all else fails, the pilots are there to ensure a safe and successful outcome of the situation and the safe return of their passengers and cargo.

Some magnificent manual flying can be seen in the video below, where pilots are challenged by strong crosswind conditions at Düsseldorf airport - crosswind landings is a skill we take every opportunity to practice during flight training (the fact that it challenges us also makes it highly interesting and fun!)

Tune into the Pilot Talk podcast where two pilots get into a windy and interesting subject of crosswinds technique. Here they talk about how pilots train for and master crosswind conditions during taxi, takeoff, and landing. Listen below.


Behavioral indicators - What are we looking for during flight training?

When it comes to manual flying of the aircraft, these are the behavioral indicators we are looking for in our cadets to determine their level of mastery:

1. Controls the aircraft manually with accuracy and smoothness as appropriate to the situation.

2. Detects deviations from the desired trajectory and takes appropriate action.

3. Contains the aircraft within the normal flight envelope.

4. Controls the aircraft safely using only the relationship between aircraft attitude, speed and thrust.

5. Manages the flight path to achieve optimum operational performance.

6. Maintains the desired flight path during manual flight whilst managing other tasks and distractions.

7. Selects appropriate level and mode of flight guidance systems in a timely manner considering phase of flight and workload.

8. Effectively monitors flight guidance systems including engagement and automatic mode transitions.

As you can tell from number 7 and 8 on this list, the interplay between automated and manual flight is a crucial skill to master, given that pilots constantly transition between the two. These two elements are usually introduced towards the latter part of an integrated training program, when the manual stick-and-rudder skills of the student has been honed through the practice of a variety of different flight maneuvers. 

The four fundamentals of flying

In the beginning of flight training the student pilots are introduced to the four fundamentals of flying:

  1. Straight and level flight
  2. Turning
  3. Climbing
  4. Descending

Once they have mastered the basics, we start combining the different elements and adding more factors. There is also a lot of focus on takeoff and landing in the beginning of the training, in order to prepare the student for his/her first solo flight (meaning that they go up by themselves without an instructor on board). The first solo flight usually occurs after around 20 hours of dual flight with an instructor and is usually done in the vicinity of the home base. 

Flying solo is an important element of flight training, as it gives the student valuable experience with problem solving and decision making - during these flights they have to rely solely on their own judgement and intelligence. 

Adding complexity

Once the basics have been covered and students display an even performance across the four fundamentals and different combinations of them, we start adding complexity to the maneuvers we practice. Students learn how to stall the aircraft and recover from safe altitudes, we teach them how to fly the aircraft with a wide range of speeds and in different configurations and they are introduced to abnormal and emergency operations. 

We also practice maneuvers that are primarily for improving coordination and precision as well, here are a few examples:

  1. Steep turns (45 to 60 degrees of bank).
  2. Flight at minimum controllable airspeed (balancing the aircraft on the verge of a stall). 
  3. Slow flight (below cruise speed in different configurations)
  4. Stalls (departure and arrival stalls, practiced at safe altitudes of course)
  5. Spin and spin recovery (this is a really fun maneuver to practice!)
  6. Crosswind landings
  7. Chandelles
  8. Lazy eights

There are several other maneuvers that can be practiced to improve the manual flying skills of a pilot in training. But these are the more common ones during initial flight training. 

Removing the luxury of looking outside

When flying under instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) the luxury of being able to look outside is eliminated by either flying in clouds or putting a "hood" on the student to limit his/her field of vision. During this part of the training, referred to as the instrument phase, students are only allowed to navigate and pilot the aircraft by reference to the instruments displayed in the cockpit. 



Although it would have been entertaining to play instruments on the flight deck, it is not quite those kinds of instruments we are talking about here (I imagine that having a concert in the cockpit would be rather distracting as well). 

When pilots talk about instruments, we are usually referring to the instrumentation in the cockpit that gives us information about where we are, where we are going and how the engines are performing. Flying by reference to only our instruments, is a substantial and important part of flight training. It also provides a different set of challenges that our students must practice and master in order to be prepared to work for an airline. 

Multi engine training

The next step in training will be to fly aircraft with two engines - but to be fair, most of the training involves handling the aircraft with one engine inoperative. Piloting an aircraft with all systems operating normally and nice weather on the horizon, is no challenge for a properly trained pilot. The difficulties lie in dealing with unforeseen events, engine failures and harsh weather conditions.

This is why we constantly raise the bar on our students as soon as they master a skill. Adding increasingly difficult elements for them to handle. It is a philosophy that I like to call "train hard - fight easy" - meaning that training should be a constant skill-improving challenge, that makes real life situations easier to handle when they occur. 

If you would like to learn more about how to specifically control an aircraft during different maneuvers, I would recommend downloading some of the amazing handbooks that the Federal Aviation Authorities have available on their website. For airplanes, some of my favorites are:

All of these books are free to download and includes many great tips, illustrations and detailed descriptions. Enjoy!

I could go on forever about the skills involved in manually controlling an aircraft and the interplay between manual and automated flight - and we will dive into some of these elements in later blog posts (subscribe to our blog if you haven't already). This general overview of manual flying and how it develops throughout a pilots initial training has come to an end however, I hope it gave you some valuable insight into what can be expected during the course of a pilot education. 

If there are any specific maneuvers or other flight related questions you want help finding the answer to, I am more than happy to answer any comments you leave in the comment field. 

Until next time...

Blue skies and safe landings my friends! 


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