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How Much?

"Argh! Frustrating!" I growled as I watched the altimeter dip almost 200 feet below my target altitude.

"You just need to use more trim," said my instructor Bill.

"Well, I know, but how much?" I asked, almost rhetorically, as I fumbled with the trim wheel between the seats. We were practicing slow flight in the Piper Arrow II that I've been using for my Commercial and CFI training, and the difference in the amount of pitch trim required compared to my club's Cessna 172 and A36 Bonanza was giving me fits.

I struggled through the flight, noticing some improvement, but overall, it was one of those "character building" lessons. Afterwards it occurred to me that the basic question of "how much" comes up a lot in flying and, come to think of it, in learning any new skill. I described a similar experience in my observe-act-observe post last year. While trying to stay on the localizer in a very strong crosswind, I just couldn't bring myself to use the large crab angle required to hold course.

At the time, I realized that my pre-conceived notion of how much crab was "reasonable" was limiting my ability to respond appropriately to the information my instruments were giving me. In light of my recent experience with the Arrow's trim, however, I realized that in general I bring pre-conceptions about "how much" to any new situation. Invariably, I use a range of action that's based on past similar situations.

This often serves me well, such as when my buddy Gabor let me take the cyclic and anti-torque pedals of his helicopter. I'd heard that helicopter controls were very sensitive, so I unconsciously applied my habits from gliders, which require a very light touch on the stick. As a result, I had very little tendency to over-control. This is an example of what's called "positive transfer" of skills.

By contrast, the Arrow requires much more trimming than anything I've ever flown before, so my ingrained sense of how much to roll the wheel didn't transfer nearly so well. I'm hoping this experience will teach me to more quickly recognize situations in which my pre-conceived ideas of "how much" aren't working, so I can consciously recalibrate.

On our next lesson, Bill and I headed to the practice area for more slow flight and stalls. This time they went pretty well. On noticing the airplane trending away from my desired altitude, I more quickly brought the airplane back where I wanted it and trimmed aggressively to keep it there.

"You made a lot of progress today," Bill observed in our post-flight de-brief.

"Yes, it felt much better," I said. "It got a lot easier when I accepted that what I was doing wasn't working!"

There's yet another valuable lesson, learned in the cockpit, that applies to all areas of life!

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