About the Author

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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Top 10 Stick-and-Rudder Skill Builders

Stick-and-Rudder skills are perhaps the most important skills a pilot has. Without good stick-and-rudder, a flight will be, at best, inefficient, and at worst, dangerous—even to the point of being fatal. Further, stick-and-rudder skills are the only skills that really must be learned in the aircraft. Classroom instruction and home study may help a little. But ultimately, you have to get in the airplane and do it in order to learn the skills. This is distinct from other important skills like flight planning, navigation, weather assessment, and decision making—all of which can be learned largely on the ground and then fine-tuned in the airplane. Educators may note that stick-and-rudder skills fit squarely into the psychomotor domain of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Many experienced instructors lament the fact (belief?) that average stick-and-rudder skills are, and have been for some time, on a steady downtrend. I'm not sure this trend is real, but regardless, there is always room for improvement. Hangar talk often involves discussions of exercises that can be used by pilots and instructors to raise the bar a little. So, in the spirit of improved standards (and the resulting increase in flight safety and efficiency), here are The Top 10 Stick-and-Rudder Skill Builders:


Dutch Rolls involve rolling the aircraft back and forth between two opposing bank angles while maintaining a steady heading. The difficulty is in using the rudder effectively. Initially, because of adverse yaw, pro-roll rudder is required. But as the bank angle is established, opposite rudder is required to hold the heading. Upon reversing the aileron, further rudder adjustment is required. The value of this exercise is in learning the coordination of rudder and aileron—even though you are deliberately uncoordinated for much of the maneuver. You learn how to control the attitude and the movements of the aircraft very effectively, and you learn how to cross-control effectively—which will set you up nicely for crosswind landings later on. The difficulty varies with roll rate, so try the maneuver at various roll rates and angles of bank. Also, try the maneuver in different configurations, and in cruise, climbs, and descents.


Every pilot has done steep turns. Rolling in to, maintaining and correcting, and rolling out of steep turns is part of the basic skill set taught early in pilot training. But Steep Turn Reversals bring the difficulty level up a notch. Rather than returning to wings-level and neutral rudder to roll out of the turn, keep the roll going to a turn in the opposite direction. Steep Turn Reversals carry on the lessons of the Dutch Roll, with the new twist that you want to stay perfectly coordinated throughout the maneuver—so you want the ball centered at all times. Maintaining a fixed heading is not the goal here (as it was with the Dutch Roll). Maintaining coordination is. Try the Steep Turn Reversal at different roll rates and with different angles of bank—up to and including 60°.


I've talked about the Falling Leaf Stall before (right here in Fall Like a Leaf, Grasshopper). For the Falling Leaf, simply enter a stall and, instead of recovering, stay in the stall while preventing a spin. The Falling Leaf is a great way to learn about the stalling characteristics of your aircraft. Further, it's a great way to learn rudder control in and around the stall, and to train yourself not to use ailerons in the stall. Try the Falling Leaf in a variety of configurations and with a variety of power settings. As a safety note, don't risk entering a spin (even inadvertently) in a configuration that is not certified for intentional spinning.


Slow Flight is the operation of the aircraft at speed lower than best endurance but above the stall. We often refer to this speed range as the "Region of Reversed Command" because of the increase in power requirement as speed is reduced. In this speed range, we experience a number of notable aircraft behavior changes, including: increased adverse yaw, increased lift asymmetry in a turn (i.e. - the tendency to overbank), reduced control forces, increased left-turning tendencies, speed instability, and a requirement for more power at lower airspeeds. Combined, these new (or more pronounced) characteristics make flying the airplane precisely much more of a challenge. Simply entering and exiting Slow Flight is a good start if you're new to the exercise, but don't stop there. Be sure to include maneuvering in Slow Flight. Conduct turns, climbs, descents, and climbing/descending turns. Also, don't set one airspeed, learn to operate the aircraft throughout the entire Slow Flight speed range.


The airplane only sees airflow. Our visual cues come from the ground. The difference can be critical and is more pronounced in high winds at low altitudes. Visual illusions caused by our interpretation of track/groundspeed as heading/airspeed can be very convincing, and have caused fatalities in the past. Low-level Ground Reference Maneuvers can help us learn to defeat these illusions and fly the aircraft more accurately.

Ground Reference Maneuvers include turns around a point and pylon eights. But if you're new to Ground Reference Maneuvers, keep it simple at first—try tracking along a straight road in a crosswind, then try flying a square or rectangular track (preferably following some visual reference like a set of roads).


The crosswind takeoff requires us to transition the aircraft from uncoordinated operation (while rolling on the runway) to coordinated flight with a minimum of fuss. We have changing roll inputs to prevent rolling over on the runway as our speed changes. We have changing yaw inputs to remain straight while on the runway and to eliminate the slip once we're airborne. And we have changing pitch inputs for the takeoff itself.

Conducting crosswind takeoffs in a taildragger is especially good for developing stick-and-rudder skills.


Opposite to the crosswind takeoff, the crosswind landing requires us to transition from coordinated flight (on approach) to uncoordinated operation by the time we're on the ground. In practice, we usually enter the uncoordinated phase very late in the approach (ideally just before touchdown). But in training, the transition is often made earlier in order to reduce the workload during the learning process. The maneuver requires us to maintain a track (along the extended runway centerline) while correcting for the crosswind—this means "crabbing". Near the runway, the "crab" is replaced with a slip so that we can touchdown with the wheels aligned with the runway. So we see coordinated track corrections followed by uncoordinated aileron-rudder cross-control, which is immediately followed by pitch inputs for the roundout and flare.

Conducting crosswind landings in a taildragger is especially good for developing stick-and-rudder skills.


The aileron roll doesn't require a whole lot of precision—which is why it's usually the first type of roll taught to new aerobatic students. But it does build a pilot's exposure to extreme attitudes, and therefore enhance our ability to maintain orientation and precise control throughout the entire maneuvering envelope. It also serves as an excellent warm-up for slow rolls, discussed next.


In principle, the loop is a very simple maneuver. But flying it well requires a degree of precision not required in "normal" flying. Because you lose sight of the horizon during the initial pull-up, it's difficult to make roll corrections until you can see the opposite horizon again (at around the 120° point of the loop). This lack of good correction amplifies any bank errors on the entry. So a good loop—although it is primarily a pitching maneuver—requires excellent bank attitude control on the entry. This, combined with the exposure to extreme attitudes, is what makes loops such a great skill-builder.


A well flown Slow Roll can look very easy. But, as is often the case, looks can be very deceiving. The well flown Slow Roll requires proper—and often counterintuitive—coordination of all three primary flight controls. Aileron is used to roll the aircraft. Rudder is used to prevent a turn initially, and then to maintain a pitch attitude at very high angles of bank. And elevator is used to maintain a pitch attitude and to prevent a turn at very high angles of bank. The rudder moves from neutral to opposite the roll, back to neutral (when you're inverted), and then to pro-roll. The elevator moves from slightly back for cruise, to neutral at 90° bank, to well forward when inverted, back to neutral at 270° bank, and back to slightly aft as you return to cruise. The rate at which all of these changes take place depends on the amount of aileron used—and therefore the rate of the roll.

With all these goings-on, one can imagine how perfecting the slow roll will help you learn to coordinate all three controls to precisely control attitude and direction.


Anonymous said...

This is excellent, thanks. I'm looking for ways to improve stick and rudder skills without flying a tail wheel (simply cause none are available in my area) so some of these I can do in a Cessna. Thanks

Unknown said...


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