One of the first maneuvers student pilots learn is how to fly straight-and-level. For a given airplane configuration, this maneuver is successful when the pilot can control the airplane with minimal altitude and heading changes. Except for basic instrument maneuvers, straight-and-level flight is not actually listed as a specific task in the Airman Certification Standards; however, it is a fundamental skill element that must be mastered to successfully complete many other maneuvers and demonstrate positive aircraft control.
Each student learns in their own way and there are different points in training at which each student will struggle. Errors and mistakes are a normal part of training and should be expected. However, there are certain common errors that seem to occur more often. By becoming aware of the common errors that many students make, you can avoid them in your own quest to become a private pilot.
Straight-and-level flight is the most fundamental flying skill; however, some students are not able to master it until late into their training. Students often chase the altimeter and heading indicator in a series of oscillations and turns without leveling off at the desired altitude or maintaining a heading. Instead of chasing instrument indications, you should develop a sight picture outside the airplane to control the pitch and roll required to hold level flight.
To do this, hold the controls steady for a few seconds and see what the airplane naturally wants to do. If the airplane climbs, add a little bit of forward pressure to stop the climb; if it descends, add a little back pressure. When learning how to find the correct pitch attitude, the key is to make very small corrections so you don’t end up over-correcting which leads to oscillations. Make these small corrections until the pitch is no longer changing, and then take note of the attitude. When flying VFR, your primary reference for the pitch attitude should be the outside horizon. So, look straight ahead and try to memorize the sight picture of where the nose is relative to the horizon. In a Cessna 172, place your hand on top of the instrument panel so your palm is facing you. The nose will usually be below the horizon approximately the width of your outstretched hand. You can also reference the attitude indicator, which should show about 2° nose up. Once this pitch attitude and sight picture is memorized, simply return to it when you want to maintain an altitude (assuming you are using the same power setting and airplane configuration for the flaps and landing gear).
After establishing the correct pitch attitude, use the trim to relieve control pressures for hands-off flight. This is another common area where students struggle. The most important thing here is that the airplane must be established in the desired pitch attitude before adding trim instead of using trim to move the nose of the airplane up or down. So, prior to adding trim, set the airplane to the sight picture you memorized earlier with the yoke. Then momentarily let go of the controls and see if the nose rises or falls, then return to the level flight attitude and add the appropriate trim correction, a little at a time, until you no longer feel any pressure on the yoke. Trim should be used early and often from the initial climb out until landing, and remember, any time you change the pitch or power, use trim relieve the control pressure.
The biggest issue with students practicing slow flight is a loss of altitude during the setup and entry to the maneuver. As airspeed decreases, the angle of attack must increase in order to produce adequate lift. So, to maintain the desired altitude it is necessary to continue adding back-pressure as the airspeed bleeds off. Since you’ll need to fly at a higher angle of attack, your sight picture compared to straight-and-level flight at normal cruise power will need to change. Students usually don’t have trouble grasping this concept, but as the airspeed decreases, the flight controls become less effective, requiring more back-pressure to hold altitude. Students often make the initial correction at the beginning of the deceleration, then fail to continue adding back-pressure as the airspeed bleeds off and altitude decreases.
Once the altitude begins to drop, , students usually fail to add sufficient power to recover from the lost altitude. Add power to stop the deceleration once the airspeed slows to just above stall warning horn activation, then increase the power enough to climb back to the intended altitude. In a Cessna 172, approximately 2,000 RPM is needed to hold level slow flight, but if a significant amount of altitude has been lost, it may be necessary to add full or nearly full power in order to correct the deviation. To prevent these errors during entry to slow flight, develop a proper scan that will divide your attention between outside and inside to you can cross-check your instruments and respond to unintended altitude changes. Keep adding additional back-pressure until reaching the appropriate airspeed, and be quick to add power to correct for altitude loss.
During slow flight, your instructor may talk about flying in the region of reverse command or behind the power curve. You might be told that instead of using pitch for altitude and power for airspeed, you should primarily use pitch for airspeed and power for altitude. In reality you’ll constantly use both in a concept known as pitch-power performance. Remember, to always use trim for what should seem like hands off flight and you’ll find yourself having even greater enjoyment of the flight.
To learn more about the flight maneuvers and common errors required to become a private pilot, check out the Gleim Private Pilot Flight Maneuvers and Practical Test Prep. This book provides step-by-step instructions for all flight maneuvers required for the Private Pilot certificate in accordance with the FAA Airman Certification Standards. A Sport Pilot Flight Maneuvers and Practical Test Prep is also available.
Written by Karl Winters, Gleim Aviation Editor and Assistant Chief Instructor