Reading the (excellent) new book Into the Black, about the flight test history of the Space Shuttle, I was intrigued by this line:
“Engle was a low-gain pilot. Like Charles Lindbergh or Chuck Yeager, he barely moved the stick, anticipating the need to do so and making small, necessary corrections in plenty of time. His inputs were smooth and progressive, never snatching at the controls.”
Rowland White, Into the Black.
The author is talking about Joe Engle, aeronautical engineer, test pilot, and NASA astronaut. He was scheduled to land on the Moon, a dream dashed by budget cuts, but ended up going back into space by flight testing the Space Shuttle. He’s a no-kidding ‘pilot’s pilot’ who loves flying anything with a lifting surface. And apparently someone who made small smooth movements of the control stick: A low-gain pilot.
It’s a concept that really does connect a pilot skill in all kinds of flying, all kinds of planes. From the simple Piper Cub stick, to the Airbus video game stick, to the complex F-16 and the Space Shuttle. I’ve seen it first-hand in master pilots several times over the years. They are ahead of the plane. They have a light touch. They make gentle early corrections.
I’ve seen it flying sailplanes with Jason Stephens, multiple-time glider aerobatic champion and owner of the famous Arizona Soaring flight school. Talking about high-performance soaring, he told me every little un-needed control input causes a little drag, and then needs a correcting control input that causes a little more drag. One of his ‘secrets’ of maximum performance is to be a low-gain pilot.
I saw it in the simulator with a USAF fighter and display pilot who flew combat in Vietnam and instructed in the T-37, F-4 and F-15. He later became an airline check airman in the B-727, F-100 and B-777. He repeated “be smooth” and “be small.” The light touch on the stick, the smooth movements, were such a part of his flying that his military call-sign was Stroker.
Legendary British test pilot John Farley, in his 2008 book A View from the Hover: My Life in Aviation, writes,
“Over-control is a common problem with learning to fly, almost regardless of the task but with experience we get better at relaxing, better at trimming, better at letting it fly itself for a bit and then coaxing it back to the desired state. In fact better at becoming a low gain (relaxed) pilot rather than being a high gain (overactive) one. Airplanes take time to respond and it is a waste of time to oscillate controls.”
Slow down and listen again to the words he uses: Relaxing. Fly itself. Coaxing.
It’s not just planes that respond well to low-gain inputs. It’s common to racing cars as well. You’ll see it watching Jackie Stewart talk about going fast in F1: “Monte Carlo should be driven smoothly and quietly”. And the one time I got to fly a helicopter, I spent every second I was holding the stick saying “small pressures, small pressures”.
The opposite to low-gain piloting has a phrase I’ve had thrown at me in tailwheel training and Airbus simulators: ‘stirring the pot’. The hapless pilot in the flare, not quite sure of what’s happening or how to fix it, ends up making loads of fast, seemingly random, inputs. The stick goes into continuous motion. Faster and bigger. Stirring the pot. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I used to tell primary students that the yoke came from Cessna completely smooth — it was nervous students gripping too tight that wore the finger grips on the back side. I thought it was funny. But there was a serious point to be made. You can’t make small smooth control inputs if you are gripping the yoke too hard. Relax. Slow down. Breathe.
Think ahead of the airplane, so you see early, when a small correction is all that is needed. It’s part of being one with the wing. If you are reacting late it’s hard to be low-gain. And if you are getting desperate in the flare, it’s easy to start stirring the pot.
After 18,000 hours I’m still trying to loosen my grip. Still trying to make early small smooth inputs. Still telling myself ‘don’t stir the pot’. Still trying to fly like Lindbergh, Yeager, Engle, Farley, Stroker, and Jason.
Still trying to be a low-gain pilot.