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Airspeed and Altitude control two schools of thought

As some of you are aware, there are two different schools of thought when it comes down to how we think about controlling airspeed and altitude in an airplane.

Some refer to it as Navy vs Air Force. I find that over the years I have become the “Navy” type of pilot.

For example, when I am on an approach where a constant airspeed is desired, I think pitch = airspeed and power = altitude. If you get slow, better fix that airspeed with a pitch change, if that is going to make you low better bring in some power.

When I want to control my flight path and there isn’t power available (engine quit) I have to give up airspeed to gain altitude and if I give up altitude I can gain airspeed (aka energy) (unless I increase drag by use of flaps, gear, slip etc).

So using that same method of thinking, let’s back it up a bit. On departure, we use pitch to control airspeed in the climb, if we need to reduce power for cooling etc we will see a reduction in climb performance if we maintain airspeed. I make two changes during initial climb in our 182RG. The initial climb is made at 80knots (without flaps), I bring the gear up and once I am at let’s say 1000 feet agl I pitch for 100 knots, bring the power back to the green arc and reduce prop rpm to 2400. Pitch = Airspeed and Power = Altitude or climb rate in this case.

During the cruse phase of flight the two schools of thought appear to meet. If I change pitch without changing power I can climb. For a moment my airspeed lags a bit but eventually you will see a drop in airspeed as forward momentum is converted to climb performance. I think the cruse phase of flight is where this debate is really seated. Have fun with it. As I think about it, you could really go either way on this one. On one hand, if I were to pitch up I would climb until I ran out of airspeed (up for a hammer-head stall anyone?). If I pitch down I will go down, but I will also go faster.

Back to the Navy. We are in cruse flight and want to climb up 50 feet or so, a small pitch change should do it. Sure you might see a drop in a few knots depending on your airplane, but it will be right back. If the airplane was trimmed out you should only have to hold the yoke a few seconds after leveling out at the new altitude before the back-pressure is no longer needed. If on the other hand we are climbing 1000 feet we better add some power with that new pitch attitude or ATC might get a bit annoyed at you (what the heck is that Cessna flying at 60 knots for!).

Now on to the descent, we have two options:

Option 1. We want to get down but also want to get to our destination a bit faster. Leave the power alone (just make sure you keep your RPM in check on fixed pitch airplanes) and pitch over for a faster airspeed this will require a new trim setting for the faster airspeed.

Option 2. We are approaching the airport environment and would like to arrive at a reasonable airspeed. Time to change power and pitch.

So I am wondering what are your thoughts with regard to altitude and airspeed control debate? I have talked with pilots of all experience levels and have found that this topic is a lively one. I once had a retired 747 pilot argue the “pitch is altitude” school of thought with me, witch got me thinking.. Is either one right or wrong or are we just thinking of the same thing in two different ways?

Note: I am not a flight instructor at this point so please ask your flight instructor before changing any methods of flying you might have been taught in the past. Everyone has their own way of doing things, some are wrong, but most are just different ways of accomplishing the same task. If you spend some time around aviation you will find that there as many opinions as there are pilots sometimes.

Happy safe flying everyone! Comments welcome.
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Amanda Michelle (Younkin) Franklin 3/14/1986 – 5/27/2011 Click for information on Amanda