'EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT FLYING' - Air Force's oldest instructor pilot gives his perspective

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gordon P. Kimpel
  • 50th Flying Training Squadron at Columbus AFB, Miss.
Everything I know about flying can be summed up in two words: control and performance.

I'll never forget an air show performance flown by the very talented and famous Bob Hoover at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in a direct 30-knot crosswind. Hoover flew a spectacular aerobatic profile in his P-51 Mustang, somehow maintaining a precise show line up and down the runway. He ended his demonstration with an engine out loop to a dead stick landing on one wheel, wing up into the wind so he could wave to the crowd!

But that was only half the show.

Hoover then took off in his twin-engine Rockwell Aero Shrike Commander and duplicated the Mustang's performance, including the engine out loop to a dead stick landing on one wheel facing the crowd. Only when you factor in the challenging weather conditions, the significantly different aircraft types and the dead stick landings do you begin to grasp the magnitude of Hoover's incredible pilot skills to achieve such a memorable performance.

Hoover had become a pilot who had complete mastery of control and performance flying.

While assigned to the F-15 Eagle, my squadron endured long deployments involving multiple air refuelings. It was standard for the flight lead to assess a penalty to any pilot in the formation who failed to stay "on the apple," or even worse, fall off the boom. At the cost of having to buy multiple rounds or shaving your cranium, Eagle drivers were very motivated to stay in the contact position. This is the essence of control and performance.

One of the many challenges of instructing specialized undergraduate pilot training students is providing them with a common thread they can relate to all phases of their flying training. For many students, SUPT can seem overwhelming considering their syllabus encompasses transition, instrument, navigation, formation and low-level training in multiple aircraft. The concept of control and performance is that common thread.

Control and performance is the core of all flying. Whether it is the classic condition of instrument flight, tactical formation or traffic patterns, achieving a desired performance is the direct result of precise pilot control input. It is a fluid process that requires constant performance analysis and timely control adjustments -- more commonly referred to as a "crosscheck."

The pilot controls power with the throttle and attitude with the stick, rudder and, occasionally, the speed brakes. He evaluates performance by reference to not only the performance instruments, but also to external visual cues and "seat of the pants" (think airframe buffet). The performance instruments and/or external visual cues indicate the results of pilot control input.

Instrument flight is the classic application of control and performance flying. The pilot applies known pitch and power settings to achieve a desired performance. He can make precise climbs, descents and course changes using specific control inputs. The resulting performance is a function of how efficient his crosscheck is at recognizing the need for control adjustment.

Ever wonder why a Category III instrument landing system approach to 600 runway visual range must be flown with autopilot engaged? It's because the autopilot computer can make those adjustments one hundred times a second ... considerably faster than the best pilot. Therefore, when hand flying, it is the combination of hand/eye coordination and knowledge that yields superior performance. The pilot who knows precisely what performance he desires and couples that knowledge with an effective crosscheck will be able to make more timely control inputs and successfully arrive at published approach minimums on course, on glide path, with the runway touchdown zone in sight.

Transition training teaches the student pilot both performance and aircraft handling characteristics. Stall recovery training teaches the importance of both approach to stall recognition and proper recovery techniques.

Formation flying is primarily a visual event, especially when flying the wing position. I like to tell my students that the only difference between them and the Thunderbirds is the T-Birds not only practice daily, but they also train themselves to deviations measured in inches instead of feet -- the essence of precision formation flying.

"In position or correcting" is always one of our primary training objectives when instructing tactical formation. This requires the student to constantly apply error analysis relative to his position and then make the proper control inputs required to maintain a briefed formation.

Lead, arguably the more challenging formation position, requires significant in-flight planning to achieve a desired result. Proper energy management is key to effectively leading a formation profile. And, once again, control and performance are critical to achieving efficient energy management.

The student pilot who has the accumulated knowledge of all previous training in contact and instruments coupled with an efficient formation profile will most likely yield superior performance.

Of all the human factors associated with flying high performance aircraft, task saturation is not only the most common but also the most threatening to effective error analysis or crosscheck. Task saturation leads to channelized attention, which significantly slows down a pilot's crosscheck. Staying focused for too long on only one performance indicator generally results in one or more other performance deviations going unnoticed. The end result is getting "behind" the aircraft. Self-awareness of task saturation is the key to combating channelized attention and needs to be briefed and debriefed on every mission.

If you're always "on course, on glide path," then you've already mastered control and performance flying. However, most of us mere mortals have to constantly make control input corrections to achieve a desired performance.

One of my favorite sayings is "you're only as good as the information you have." Knowing what to look for is equally as important as knowing where and when to look to accomplish an effective crosscheck. While your crosscheck in the final turn will be different than your crosscheck on instrument landing system final or tactical line abreast formation, the concept of analyzing your performance to properly adjust your control inputs remains the same. The concept of control and performance flying is the common thread to the many different types of aircraft and phases of flying we encounter not only during specialized undergraduate training but also for the remainder of our aviation careers.