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Why is flying hard?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2010

Nelson Minar on why flying is so difficult (in comparison to driving).

Cars only steer in one dimension; planes steer in two. Even a level turn is hard in a plane, you have to coordinate two controls, except sometimes you deliberately uncoordinate them. Managing engine power is harder in a plane: two or three controls in a piston, not just a single pedal. And then there’s auxiliary controls you have to use occasionally: flaps, carburetor heat, fuel tank selector, etc. Even starting a plane requires carefully using four controls in the proper relationship.

My dad was a pilot and used to let me fly when I was little, like 5 or 6. It was easy in clear weather, easier than driving a car in fact…just keep it level. I actually didn’t even need to touch the yoke much of the time…the plane just flew itself. When I got older, I realized that what made it so effortless was that my dad was taking care of the hard part, the 95% of flying that doesn’t involve moving any of the controls. What made it look so effortless for him, even when things got tough1, was the 10,000+ hours in the cockpit of a plane, flying.

[1] Like when he made a crosswind landing in a Cessna 172 ahead of an oncoming storm which we later learned had spawned some tornadoes while running a bit lower on gas than was generally acceptable by the plane’s captain. He’d already attempted one landing, aborting after the wind dropped us like 10 feet in half a second while about 30 feet from the ground. The sensation of that crosswind landing — of gliding over the runway twenty feet off the ground at ~60-80 mph while pointed about 30 degrees off axis and then, just before touching down and presumably tumbling down the runway wing over wing, straightening out for a surprisingly gentle landing — was one of the freakiest things I’ve ever experienced, partly because I wasn’t scared at all…I knew he’d get us down safely.

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