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Pilot in Control?

The hunt was on. My instructor Jim and I were on a training flight in a glider and we were searching for a usable thermal to gain some altitude. We were finding lots of sink and plenty of light turbulence everywhere, but the lift was eluding us. As we slowly lost altitude, I headed in the direction of the gliderport to keep us in gliding range.

"Let's try the house thermal," Jim suggested, referring to the spot just West of the gliderport where afternoon thermals often form. It's sort of a last resort before admitting defeat and returning for a landing.

"OK," I replied and made for it. On the way, as we rode through the bumps, I was doing my best to correct the attitude excursions, but it seemed most of my control movements were too big, too little, or too late.

After a little while, Jim said, "You really don't need to react to every little bump like that. Here, let me show you. I have the glider."

"Your glider," I confirmed.

Miraculously, the air smoothed out immediately! I chuckled quietly to myself. I had just learned about "pilot-induced turbulence." In my earnest desire to control the glider's path, I had been over-controlling.

"See, the glider does just fine with a few bumps. The pitch trim and the wing's dihedral help keep the glider stable," Jim explained.

This experience was an early hint at some of the subtleties involved in flying an aircraft. When I first started flying, I think I heard terms like "flight controls" and "pilot in command" and misinterpreted their meaning. I took them to mean that the pilot controls the aircraft—that flying was all about making the aircraft do exactly what you want it to do when you want it to do it. The flight environment, however, is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. We can't know from moment to moment what the air around us, the weather, other traffic, and countless other variables are going to do. In truth, there's precious little that we control with any certainty.

On the other hand, we have enormous influence, especially when we learn to pay close attention to what the aircraft, the environment, and all our senses are telling us. That little patch of haze might be the precursor to a cumulus cloud; there's probably a thermal over there. The ripples on the lake below indicate a strong Westerly wind; there's almost certainly bad sink just to the East of that ridge. The turbulence is light, well within the ability of the aircraft to right itself; there's no need for more than an occasional nudge on the controls. An awareness of details like these informs our actions, making them much more effective. That's why I've come to think of the phrase "pilot in command" as meaning not just the pilot who's responsible for the flight, but also a pilot with a command of the skills, knowledge, and judgment needed to fly an aircraft safely and well—not one who commands the aircraft with an iron fist.

"You have the glider," Jim said. "Try a light touch."

"I have the glider," I confirmed, handling the controls as gently as I could. After a few moments, I felt a slight bobble in the stick indicating a thermal under the right wing. I quickly rolled into a steep right turn and the variometer confirmed the lift. After a couple of turns I had the thermal centered and we were climbing at a modest but consistent 100 to 200 feet per minute.

"Wow, that was really subtle!" I commented to Jim. "I would never have noticed that thermal if I'd been fighting the bumps."

Jim just smiled. "How about that?" he said.

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