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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.