O Airplane! My Airplane! Let’s talk

Here is a link to articles about and by Richard Bach. We printed his first-ever article in the September, 1960 issue of Air Facts. It was a beautiful story about a talk he had with a T-33.

I am not sure I had ever been aware of myself admitting that I talked to an airplane before that time but Richard’s article suggested that it might be fun as well as beneficial to be open about this and I subsequently had many long (imaginary) conversations with my airplanes.

Recently I read where an academic has suggested that talking about what is going on might be helpful to folks flying single-pilot IFR. That rekindled my interest in the subject of us talking to airplanes and how airplanes respond. Put another way, it relates to how we talk to ourselves, or think, about how what we are doing is affecting the airplane. The airplane replies by, well, doing, as reflected by what we see both outside and on the instrument panel.

For me, this goes way back, to my initial flying lessons. My instructor (and fine friend) Rudy Peace would, when I was having trouble grasping something, patiently talk me through it. I can, to this day, hear him on landings. There now, the height is right to stop the ground from getting closer with a little back stick. Hold it right there while the airplane slows. As it starts to sink, more back stick to slow the sink. Try now, to make it come out even by running out of back stick just as the tires touch the runway. That was in a tailwheel airplane.

I think I said that aloud to myself when flying solo landings and if I didn’t say it, I at least thought it.

The whole purpose of such an exercise is to keep the mind active. It is common for the thinking process to pause when something unexpected, or something that is not fully understood, crops up. Talking to yourself just might get it moving again.

CDI on approach
Keeping both needles centered does require some mental gymnastics.

One of the best examples of the value of this came up in connection with the first glideslope (written as two words at that time) receivers for private airplanes, introduced by Narco in March, 1961. Before that time glideslope equipment was found only in heavy iron.

If you think glideslope is a simple subject, consider that my father, Leighton Collins, wrote a 22-page article about it in the June, 1961 issue of Air Facts. He did like to explain new things.

Pilots had a tough time learning to fly the full ILS, staying on both the localizer and the glideslope, all at the same time. It was viewed as a difficult new task.

Not that many years earlier, radio navigation was done primarily with the ears. We listened to the sounds from the four-course low frequency range and adjusted the heading to play the proper tune. All visual attention could be given to controlling the airplane by reference to instruments. Then came the VOR and the localizer, both of which required eye time. When the glideslope was added to the picture many pilots related it to patting your head and rubbing your tummy and then switching hands.

As I was wrestling with this, I realized that it was quite helpful to talk about what the two needles were doing and what I was doing to control them. Many pilots fell victim to a natural reaction to needle movement and started doing what we called chasing the needles.

What that meant was that the pilot was turning or changing the rate of descent until the needle started back in the other direction. That would indeed result in a chase and it was something you had to talk yourself out of. There was not much help from instructors with this because the glideslope was as new to them as to the rest of the pilot population. Again, you could just think about it but it worked better if verbalized. And because you can hear yourself mumble, that worked in case you didn’t want to alarm passengers.

Okay ace, with the heading on 040 and the rate of descent on 500 feet per minute, the localizer is drifting off to the right and the glideslope needle is drifting down. Change the heading to 050 and the rate of descent to 600 feet per minute and see what happens.

Verbalizing that had the positive effect of emphasizing the numbers for future reference. If the localizer drifted right on 040 and came slowly back to center on 050 the next logical heading was 045. If the airplane was trending high at 500 fpm and 600 moved the glide slope needle back in the proper direction, then when it centered the rate of descent could be slightly decreased. Values on the VSI are not as clear as on a heading indicator so a bit of interpolation is required there.

I have talked a lot of pilots through an ILS approach only to have them say that it was easy to do with me describing it as we went along. I always then reminded them that if they understood it, they could talk themselves through it just as well. I do not think I ever flew a low approach without talking myself through it and annunciating my actions and the airplane’s responses. It is important to do the altitude callouts, too. I always used 500 feet above minimums, 100 feet, and then minimums.

When the glideslope first came along, many pilots embraced what we called a cheater technique. This was even taught by some instructors.

Pilot in G1000 cockpit
Even in a glass cockpit, a smart pilot will talk to himself on approach.

To do this, the ILS was started as if it were a localizer approach. After the final approach fix, the descent to minimums was made at a relatively high rate which put and kept the airplane below the glideslope. Then level at the localizer minimums and intercept the glideslope from beneath and then descend to the ILS minimums, usually another 300 feet. The theory was that doing it this way minimized the time you had to deal with two pesky needles.

That procedure sort of worked, but seemed convoluted to me and after I tried it once, just to have a look, I’d fly the full ILS all the way in, the way it was meant to be flown, talking to myself all the way.

Talking to yourself about what is going on can be beneficial in VFR flying, too.

A good example of this used to come when I would fly into a little airport in Fordyce, Arkansas, that my father had something to do with establishing in the late 1920s. (Fordyce now has a bigger airport, farther from town).

The runway was all of 1,400 feet long and was far from level. Landing to the southwest, if you didn’t get down in the first few hundred feet, the runway would start downhill which meant that you had best have really good brakes. Landing to the northeast was much better because the uphill started maybe a third of the way down the runway. I used the airport with a wide variety of airplanes but a Twin Comanche most of all. I would add that in the 30-odd years since the airport was established, those trees sure had grown.

Before committing to land there, I would speak to myself about all the things that had to be just right if I were to continue. Wind was a big factor. The preferred landing runway was to the northeast but even though it was uphill, no tailwind was acceptable for landing. A crosswind of more than five or ten knots wouldn’t do at all and if there was any weather phenomenon in the area that might lead to shifting winds, it was no-go.

Needless to say, I was sitting up straight in the seat with a full realization that the risk was acceptable only if I did a perfect job of flying.

As I lined up on final, I told myself that the sight picture had to be perfect all the way in and that the airspeed had to be 80 mph (which we still used at the time) not 81 though 79 would be acceptable. Most important, I applied the brakes immediately after extending the landing gear. If one pedal had been flat, continuing would have been pretty stupid.

Admonitions are good, too, and on final I spoke about the fact that if things didn’t look just right when about 200 feet above the ground, a go-around would be required. Further on that subject, once the tires hit the runway the only acceptable action would be to stop. It was not a place for a late abort.

The first few times we landed there, my wife Ann made a remark about my running commentary. She liked it and said that it helped her deal with us landing where there wasn’t a real airport. I think she closed her eyes on our first approach there. But that I could have done that.

I used that little airport on a regular basis until it was closed as the new larger one, farther from town, was opened. I never had any doubt about what I was doing and never came close to having a problem.

Richard Collins with N40RC
“What are you going to do to try to kill me today?”

My longest conversation was with my P210, Forty RC, over the 28 years and almost 9,000 hours that I flew it. The myriad problems I had with the systems and the engine are covered in another post. Here I will just say that I admit to asking the airplane, What are you going to do to try to kill me today? I’d ask that question as the hangar door was going up and felt the airplane’s reply was, I don’t know, I will think of something.

Because I was locked and loaded for whatever came up, I didn’t feel I was taking unnecessary risk by flying the airplane. To me the best way to manage risk was to acknowledge it and then deal with it.

At times the airplane would talk to me through instrumentation. I would listen attentively. One day I noticed the oil pressure gauge showed a decline that didn’t quite move the needle out of the green and then a moment later it recovered back to the normal position. What the airplane said was, Get the oil changed and have them cut the filter open and look for metal. As it turned out, it might as well have said, Limber up the checkbook, it is engine time.

Larry was a wise mechanic who looked after 40RC for a few years. At one point he installed a gadget that presented information on the exhaust gas and cylinder head temperature of all six cylinders. That was something new then.

The drawback was that the probes were not too reliable to begin and there were a lot of false indications. After I squawked this one more time, Larry said to me, When it does that, let the engine talk to you. Shut your eyes for a moment and just listen to it hum. If it has a complaint, you’ll be able to tell.

It was always important to heed any message from the airplane. I was about to start a descent for landing one day when the manifold pressure dropped for a moment and then surged back. It was obvious to me that some foreign object had gone into the turbocharger and caused it to spool down. Then whatever it was passed on through and allowed the turbocharger to spool back up. It was also obvious to me that my call to the shop would be expensive.

A small piece of cylinder, next to a spark plug hole, had broken off and gone out through the turbo so I was correct about the expensive business.

I flew that airplane so much that I did form a bond with it. Something like, I’ll take care of you if you will take care of me. And I can remember a lot of flights in interesting weather where I felt as one with the airplane. I was there because of the airplane and the airplane was there because of me.

I never got as poetic about my relationship with 40RC as my friend Richard got with his T-33 but I did often pat it on the spinner as the hangar door came down and say, Thanks, pal, I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.

One day I was taxiing 40RC onto a congested ramp, looking for a parking place, when I dinged a wingtip on a tree (yes, a tree—part of the ramp congestion) and busted the strobe light bulb. After I shut the engine down, did I hear the airplane say clumsy a..hole, or did I just think that? Whatever, it was an accurate observation.

I am sure that a lot of pilots scoff at the idea of communication between pilot and airplane and that is their choice. I just always felt it constructive and fun to do so.

If you noticed something familiar about the title of this post, it is indeed a take-off on a Walt Whitman poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln that starts out

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done. . .

May your airplane never say that to you.

3 Comments

  • Great article, Richard. I know I talk to the plane I am flying. Heck, I even do it to my car. Always seemed the thing to do.

  • There has been a lot of academic research into the beneficial effects of talking and writing to reinforce short term memory. That nicely supports your point that talking can improve cognitive function in the airplane.

    By the way, hats off for consistently landing that Twin Comanche on a 1400 foot strip!

  • I review a pilot for an instrument check ride. He had all PFD’s. On a VOR/DME I asked where is your DME display. He could not answer but pointed to the GPS distance. UUGGG!

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