The most important skill for new pilots to master: airspeed control

To be a good pilot, you have to balance many different skills: pre-flight planning, weather analysis, communications, stick and rudder flying, plus a whole lot more. Flying involves art and science, left brain and right brain. In many ways, this diversity is part of what makes learning to fly so fun and rewarding, but it also makes it hard to focus on the most important things.

At the end of the day, is there a single skill that is most important? One that would, if mastered, have the greatest impact on your ability to fly safely? I think there are actually two, one mental and one physical.

172 landing

Good landings are the results of good approaches—which means on speed.

On the mental side, it’s hard to overstate how important judgment is (AKA, aeronautical decision making or risk management). This topic gets a lot of attention already, so in this article I’d like to focus on the physical side, specifically airspeed control.

It may not sound as exciting as crosswind landings or short field takeoffs, but learning to precisely control your airspeed is a foundational skill that makes these other skills easier to master. It demands discipline, practice, and attention, but it rewards you with smoother, safer flights. It’s also a skill that translates well to any airplane, from Cessna to Boeing.

Every airplane has a correct airspeed to fly for each segment of a flight: rotation speed on takeoff, best climb over an obstacle, cruise speed in turbulence, initial approach, and final approach. The climb and approach speeds are most critical, as they are used during phases of flight close to the ground that offer little margin for error. If you miss your cruise speed by 10 knots, it’s probably not a big deal; miss Vy by 10 knots and you might stall.

Many of these airspeeds are published in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, and should be committed to memory. Others may require you to ask your flight instructor or go practice, but can still be determined with pretty good certainty. Some flight schools post these important airspeeds on a placard on the panel.

Knowing the right airspeed is only part of the job. Flying at the right airspeed—every single time—is what can really improve safety. In fact, two of the most common accidents in general aviation can be traced back to poor airspeed discipline:

  1. Low altitude loss of control accidents are all-too-common. The typical scenario here involves a pilot getting too slow in the pattern and eventually stalling/spinning the airplane into the ground, often on a base-to-final turn or after takeoff. Now, you’ve probably had it beaten into your head that an airplane can stall at any airspeed—it’s angle of attack that matters. That’s certainly true, but so is this: if you fly within normal operating limitations (no 80 degree banks or 3G pull-ups), airspeed is an excellent substitute for angle of attack. Keep your airspeed where it should be and you won’t stall. It’s that simple.
  2. Runway incidents are another common accident, and are also related to airspeed control. Whereas stall/spin accidents are almost always a result of getting too slow, these are often a result of being too fast. The pilot either lands long and goes off the end of the runway or forces the airplane on the runway and damages the nose wheel and propeller. If you’re 15 knots fast on short final, you can’t make the airplane land—a go-around may be the best decision.

Beyond just safer flying, good airspeed control usually leads to smoother flying too. Most passengers don’t like rapid changes in speed or altitude, as it makes them question whether the pilot is really in control. By flying a constant airspeed climb or approach (and not adjusting the throttle every five seconds), you’ll have happier passengers and a happier airplane.

pitot

Nail that airspeed, every time.

Good airspeed control also pays off as you progress in your flying. It’s critical for operating at busy airports, where Air Traffic Control may ask you to maintain a specific speed for spacing. If they ask for 120 knots until three mile final, you need to be able to hold that or endure the wrath of an upset controller.

If your career goals include flying jets, airspeed discipline is even more important. Jet pilots calculate a specific approach speed (Vref) before every landing, then maintain this speed religiously until landing. It’s common in two pilot crews for the pilot not flying to make regular airspeed callouts throughout the approach. Why all the fuss? At the higher approach speeds of jets, even 10 knots too high on final approach can be fatal.

The good news is airspeed control can be practiced on every segment of every flight. Learn the profiles—what power setting plus pitch attitude plus flap setting results in the airspeed you want? Practice flying at the right airspeed, minus 0 knots and plus 5 knots, first in light winds but then in stronger winds.

This may not be the most exciting flying you do, but it does pay off. Once you master airspeed control, you may be surprised how much better the rest of your flying gets.

6 replies
  1. Phil Work says:

    This is absolutely true, and something to strive for. Navy carrier pilots MUST fly a precise angle of attack/airspeed when landing on the ship to ensure that the tailhook is positioned properly to engage a wire. Sloppy airspeed control results either in a bolter (missed all the wires) or a waveoff from the Landing Signals Officers (LSOs), who monitor every landing from the side of the deck. Once the airspeed is nailed, rate of descent is easily controlled with power.
    It’s equally critical on climbout, especially from short or hemmed-in airfields, to nail Vx or Vy, for best desired performance.
    It’s easy to be sloppy with airspeed and get away with it; it’s a matter of self-discipline. Be a little tough on yourself, and be a better pilot!

    • Mike McGinn says:

      We carrier pilots focused almost exclusively on AOA. You would do an AOA/airspeed check vs gross weight when you “dirtied up”, but from then on you hawked AOA, line up, and glide slope. AOA indicators are becoming more common in the GA world and they are a boon to flying a good approach (not that you can’t do it by hawking your airspeed).

  2. Herman Birkner says:

    Over a period of a few decades, I have heard rather different recommendations from a number of instructors concerning flying the final approach in small airplanes in VFR conditions:
    1) Control the airspeed with pitch and the glide path with power.
    2) Control the glide path with pitch and the airspeed with power.
    3) Make small incremental changes in both pitch and power to control both airspeed and glide path.
    I would appreciate learning your preference.

    • John Zimmerman says:

      I think too much is made of this trade off. The right answer (to me) is to use both airspeed and power adjustments to fly a stabilized approach. Maybe early in training it’s helpful to separate the two options for learning easier, but in normal operations the key is to do what needs to be done to fly safely.

      I often use pitch to establish an airspeed and power to maintain the altitude, so in that sense I agree with 1. But it’s just not that simple. That may be an unsatisfying answer but I think it’s best to acknowledge this messy reality.

      • Cary Alburn says:

        I fully agree—use both. In fact, I go even further and apply that to flying in general—use whatever is appropriate for the task at hand. Flying is dynamic. I once heard an experienced pilot say that 20° of flaps was “normal”, to which my instructor at the time said, “hogwash—use the amount of flaps that is necessary for the kind of landing you’re doing.”

  3. Cary Alburn says:

    Airspeed control is critical for ALL pilots—and I’ve been surprised at how many long term, experienced pilots have poor airspeed control. Or alternatively, they have a poor idea of what a proper airspeed is, especially for their final approach speed. Just watch a series of landings at any fly-in. They seem to be so afraid of getting too slow in the pattern (which is a legitimate fear) that they forget to slow down on final.

    1.3 Vso on final works well for just about every light airplane. But Vso varies according to the weight of the aircraft at the time. Even a small 4 place such as a 172 or PA28-150 will have a significant difference, depending on whether the pilot is alone or the airplane is loaded to maximum gross. It’s helpful to have an angle of attack indicator on the panel, but if not, it’s not too difficult to determine. At a safe altitude, stall the airplane, look at the airspeed indicator, multiply its reading by 1.3. Do it with both light weights and with heavy weights. Don’t worry about the difference between calibrated and indicated airspeeds—we don’t typically calculate calibrated “on the fly”, because we just look at the airspeed indicator. Then use those speeds for normal landing approaches.

    If it’s gusty, add half the gust factor—for clarity, “gust factor” is the difference between the low and high winds, so for instance, winds 15G20 means a gust factor of 5 knots, so add 2-3 knots to the airspeed. Too many pilots seem to think that 15G20 means to add 10 knots, half the high gust speed, and that results in a too fast final approach speed.

    And trim! Failing to trim for the desired speed means that the speed will vary. Or as one of the phase check instructors told me back in 1972 when I was a student, if you don’t trim, you’ll never be a pilot—you’ll always be just an interested passenger.

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