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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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  • MIke, great website, great articles, love the IPad….
    I am a cfi/i/mei, amatuer photographer, using the canon S10 HD video camera, canon 50D, etc….
    As far as the article pitch VS power, very nice…
    As far as comments, here's mine…..I find the slower you get, you start to use more pitch for airspeed, like climbout, approach, or slow flight, but on the opposite end of the airspeed indicator, i'm more inclined to go the other way, and anything inbetween gets a little of both! Just touching base….GREAT JOB!!! steve

  • This may be the best website on flying. Do you know of any others ?

  • Mike Bennett

    Thanks Stephen. If I didn't know you I would think this was a spam comment (I get them all the time) things like "Wow I didn't think of that, great points here" with a link to a porn site are some of the more common comments. 🙂 I have a list on the sidebar with some other aviation sites that I found to be pretty entertaining. Check them out. Thanks again for the comment. Make sure you vote Navy vs Air Force above.

  • Bookmarked, I enjoy your site! 🙂

  • Thank you for the comment Steven. I agree, once the speeds go up things change a bit as you have more energy to deal with. Great site by the way. I will make sure it's included in our blog list.

  • gr8 resrch bro…

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  • Bless you for finding the time to describe the terminlogy towards the noobs!

  • Brian

    I believe it depends upon your current airspeed, power setting, and what you are trying to accomplish. For example in normal flight (eg. cruise flight) pitch=altitude and power=airspeed. In the region of reverse command (eg. slow flight, approach to landing) pitch=airspeed and power=altitude; this is also true when your power setting is constant (climb or descent without changing power), pitch controls your airspeed. It all depends on whether the aircraft in in the region of reverse command, region of normal command, or if the power setting is constant. It's not necessarily a different school of thought (AF vs Navy), just dependent upon the situation and which phase of flight you are in.

  • Thank you for sharing the info. I found the details very helpful.

  • I don’t think it’s so much of a difference between schools of thought. They way you manage speed vs. altitude is going to be determined by what operations you are doing. For example, in a normal climb, you set climb power (usually full throttle in a small trainer) and pitch for speed (Vx, Vy or cruise climb). 50 foot climbs are a moot point as I would consider that an altitude correction – no power change is necessary.

    On the other hand, if I am performing aerobatic flight, then I will typically leave the power constant regardless of attitude. Altitude governs speed and I am strictly focused on proper energy management.

    Approaches allow some leeway and we are usually taught that pitch = airspeed and power=altitude. This is fine, but isn’t going to work on an ILS approach where we must constantly adjust pitch to maintain the glideslope. Power becomes secondary as a means of maintaining recommended or ATC assigned approach speed.

  • Thanks for the comment Pat. All good points.

  • Bob Reser

    Maneuvering, Control in
    Space (Tractor Engine Thrust)
    is controlling the aircraft attitude away from engine thrust sustained,
    straight and level, constant indicated-airspeed flight.  At takeoff, the aerodynamic flight controls become effective as
    acceleration attains sufficient encountered airflow.  Total engine thrust is causing acceleration.

    Upon becoming
    airborne, the rudder, aileron, and elevator-pitch controls aerodynamically
    steer the direction of engine thrust. 
    The throttle controls the extent of engine thrust effect, but there is
    no more acceleration, the engine thrust now sustains the liftoff elevator-pitched
    indicated-airspeed (angle of attack) of continued flight, and the excess thrust-component lifting
    is causing climb angle.

    The elevator-pitch trim previously set for takeoff has set the
    angle-of-attack of airmass encounter for the indicated-airspeed the aircraft
    will fly.  Manual elevator control
    overrides angle-of-attack pitch allowing any necessary adjustment of

    In climbing or level flight, the throttle is the control of altitude
    and elevates with engine thrust.  The
    elevator position controls the angle-of-attack frontal plate area allowing the
    indicated-airspeed the aircraft will fly.

    In descent, things change.  With
    power reduction below level flight sustaining thrust, that portion of tractor-engine
    thrust-component lifting contributing to angle of attack reduces allowing a
    small acceleration.  Control with power
    and power changes below level flight sustaining thrust now require continuous coordination
    of elevator or elevator trim to maintain a constant indicated-airspeed…
    Maneuvering at slow indicated-airspeed and added power for go-around require special consideration. has much good info about these things.

  • Thanks so much for the detailed comment. 🙂

  • Jim Webb

    Pitch always controls altitude while power controls airspeed unless power is fixed. If power is fixed pitch controls airspeed.

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Amanda Michelle (Younkin) Franklin 3/14/1986 – 5/27/2011 Click for information on Amanda