By Budd Davisson


On Becoming a Butt Head...
Using the cheapest instrument in the cockpit

Okay, let's get all the jokes and rude comments out of the way first. Like the various titles we played with for this article, including, "How to Be a Butthead" and "Butting in." And then there's the question as to whether it's grammatically correct to spell it "butthead," "butt head," or "butt-head." It's not in spell-check. What a surprise!

Okay, now that we've gotten that out of our systems, let get right down to the butt-business at hand (sorry, couldn't control myself). What we're actually talking about here is usually called "seat of the pants" flying, which is a super-common term. Unfortunately, not one out of a hundred pilots knows what it actually means and not one out of a thousand either can do it, or practice it. And aviation shows it.

When it comes to basic, down-and-dirty, stick and rudder aviating, a lot of the older instructors feel as if aviation is on a long, slow downhill slide. They (read that as "we") bemoan the fact that pilots can recite the GPS operator's handbook forward and backwards and actually know how to use all the functions these amazing new gadgets offer but they can't control their nose attitude, hence the airspeed wanders. We, I mean, they get tired of continually having to point out that it's not necessary to hold rudder while in a level turn and the rudder must used every time an aileron is displaced. There's a general depressed feeling amongst certain types of instructors because it doesn't seem as if they are getting their messages across.

One of the most critical messages which either isn't being transmitted or which is going over student's heads (which is pretty difficult considering we're talking about their butts...sorry, won't do it again) has to do with developing a "feel" for the airplane. Granted, what we're talking about here is, to a certain extent, pretty subtle stuff. But not all of it. Some of it is so grossly obvious that, once it's pointed out, it's hard to miss.

The concept of developing a feel for the airplane is often lost on a student/pilot because they think the feel we're talking about is the interface between the control yoke or rudders and their hands and feet. They think we're talking about the pressures our toes and fingertips are sensing. That's part of it, but only a small part. When we're talking about "feel" we're talking about an innate feeling of "oneness" with the airplane. A feeling within the central core of your body that tells you subliminally what the airplane is doing.

Yeah, this kind of talk probably makes you think it's necessary to have incense burners in the cockpit and chant "oooohhhmmmm" on short final. However, we're not talking about some sort of semi-levitated psycho-state in which we connect with the spirit of the machine. Hey, folks, I'm from Nebraska and don't know Zen from spaghetti. Nope, what we're talking about here is very, very tangible and real, but it translates itself into something that is close to being transcendental in its effect.

The areas where you contact the airplane with your fingers and feet tell you how much pressure you're applying. The airplane feeds back it's own pressures which tell you how hard you're pushing/pulling and, therefore, what kind of reaction to expect from the input. Those pressures are how you "control" the airplane, they don't necessary let you "feel" the airplane. Being sensitive to physical feelings which occur at the pilot/airplane control system interface is important. But that's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is the "feeling" that comes from within as the result of every force acting on the airplane being transmitted to the pilot through the seat cushion.

This is a vague concept to grasp, but there's a perfect example in your stereo system. When you are standing in the middle of your sound-deadened, hyper-acoustic den and have the speakers in all four corners perfectly balanced, the sound has no source. Think about it. It is as if the sound is just "there" and its focal point is somewhere inside your head. Put on your stereo headsets and fade the balance from one ear to the other. As you hit perfect balance, the sound no longer comes in one ear or the other. It emanates from a source right in the middle of your brain and between your ears. If you do this with your den system, there's a feeling that the point of balance drifts out and away from you to somewhere else in the room.

That is the exact feeling your body gives you when you are literally flying by the seat of your pants. Everything the airplane is doing is focused on your body in the form of subtle sensations brought about mostly by centrifugal and centripigle forces. If the airplane is perfectly balanced, the ball is centered and the airplane is neither going up or down, nor turning, nor accelerating or de-accelerating, your body won't feel a thing. That's because it takes positive or negative acceleration in some direction to upset the equilibrium and generate a sensation. When forces go out of balance and there's an acceleration or deceleration in some direction, left/right, forward/backward, up/or down, inertia wants to move your body. It also wants to move the soft gushy stuff inside your body. Airplane is turning left with the ball out to the inside of the turn and you'll feel yourself sliding to the inside of the turn right with the ball. The gushy stuff inside you moves first. Then your butt.

Listen to your body, grasshopper. It is telling you when things aren't right, if you'll just listen to it. Actually, if you're looking for more specific, less ethereal sensations, just focus your butt. No...bad image. Forget about the gushy stuff, as those sensations are really subtle and think about the interface between your fanny and the upholstery. The tiny changes in pressure at that point act in three dimensions and, if you're sensitive to them, you'll feel them. The next trick is figuring out what to do about them.

No, that's not exactly right. The first trick is developing a system for identifying the sensation (s), and we're going to do that with some butt-training exercises. These apply to almost any airplane but work better in some than others. If you don't feel what we're talking about in your bird, don't despair. The feelings are there, it's just that initially they are more difficult to detect. Also, some butts are naturally more sensitive than others. Nothing personal, okay?

A hint on reading butts: First, notice how it feels right at the edge of your fanny where the upholstery comes up around your thigh. There is a slight edge right there caused by the depression your weight makes. Right on the edge of that depression is where you'll first feel a pressure change. Focus your thoughts right there.

First, we're going for the macro view and trying to identify the big movements which are connected with the most common problems with basic pilot skills. We're going to do this in a max power, best-angle of climb speed, climb. Actually, best rate works for most airplanes, but the slower the airspeed at max power the easier it is to feel the sensation.

Okay, so, how were adding power and bringing the nose up. As the speed stabilizes, start checking the skid ball. Regardless of where it is at that moment, take your feet off the rudders and watch the ball. Depending on the airplane, it may be anywhere from a half to a ball and a half out to the right. Let it sit there for a second and stabilize. It may take some aileron to keep the wings level, which just helps with the demonstration.

Now, switch your mind's eye to what you're feeling in your butt while keeping your visual eyes on the ball. Now, gradually push the ball back into the center with the right rudder (remember how? "step on the rabbit to chase him back in his hole": 'can't believe I said that in public). As the ball slides back in, try to identify what's going on at the butt-upholstery interface. Now, ease off the rudder and let the ball slide back out again. Now push it back in.

While you're feeling the seat cushion pressure change, try to focus higher up in your body to see what is going on in there. Hopefully, you'll sense when the ball is coming back to center the same way you sensed when the speakers were in balance in your den: The forces were initially off-center, outside your body and pushing on you, but as they were forced back into balance with the right rudder, their focal point moved back inside your body and essentially disappeared.

It is absolutely guaranteed that you'll feel the forces we're talking about. However, to make the system really work requires a safety pilot because we're going to ask you to close your eyes. With him keeping an eye on things, close your eyes and repeat the rabbit-chasing exercise. Try to identify when you've pushed too hard and the ball goes the other way, reversing the pressure on your fanny. Purposely slide the airplane back and forth with the rudder and, with your eyes still closed, look for the feeling. Periodically, when you think you have it centered, open your eyes and check.

Now, center the ball with your feet and see what happens and what you feel when moving the ailerons independently. People forget dragging opposite aileron pushes the ball out requiring the aileron either be neutralized or rudder in that direction to offset the adverse yaw.

You'll be amazed how recognizable the feelings are, once you look for them.

Okay, now, let's do the same thing in level flight, but this time we're going to mix and match with the ailerons and rudder. First, look over the nose and roll into a 30° banked turn without using ailerons. Notice that the nose slides to the outside of the turn, hesitates for a second and then begrudgingly decides to go into the turn. Then watch the ball and do the same thing. Rolling left without rudder, as the aileron goes in, the nose will move right and the ball will go left. Then, as the bank is established and the nose finally decides to join the turn and the ailerons are neutralized, the ball goes back to center.

Now, do the same thing while concentrating on your butt. If you turn the airplane without using the appropriate rudder, notice how if feels as if you are sliding to the inside of the turn for an instant. It's exactly the same feeling as when climbing, only a little harder to feel.

Notice that which ever way you feel you are sliding is the rudder you need to depress to center the forces. Sliding left, left rudder and vice versa. Alternately, however, remember you may be causing the feeling by inadvertently dragging an aileron, which is super, super common. Holding ailerons to the outside of the turn slides your backside to the outside. If you want an easy-to-remember way to make seat of the pants flying work, try this: If your backside is pushed out, kick yourself in the fanny to get it back in the middle.

Here too, close your eyes and visualize the feeling.

Now, develop the same sensitivity when setting up a glide. Depending on the airplane, when you reduce power, the P-factor may or may not be pronounced enough to cause a major visible move of the nose to the right. Your butt, however, will feel it. As the power comes out, you'll feel pressure building against the left side of your thigh, and unless you correct it with left rudder, that pressure will stay there.

Right now, someone is saying "so what? So there's pressure on your thigh. It's not as bad a riding a crowded subway. Now! That's pressure on your thigh."

We're not doing this for comfort, we're doing this because an airplane is happiest when you feel nothing in your butt. When that's what you're feeling, the airplane is flying straight and true and is aerodynamically efficient. When the airplane is pushing one way or the other on you, indicating it isn't straight, it is generating much more drag than necessary. In the case of an approach, that means more altitude than necessary is being lost simply because you aren't listening to the seat of your pants. In a climb, those feelings are telling you the airplane is burning up horsepower overcoming unnecessary drag so isn't climbing as well as it should.

In any case, letting the ball move around is sloppy flying.

The seat of your pants, however, is not limited strictly to rudder and aileron inputs. It reacts to elevator, or vertical, inputs too, but, in those cases, it's indicators aren't as clearly felt. Before any instrument tells you you've just caught an upper while on final, your body is talking to you about it. Same thing with a downer. Your body senses those changes, and, if you're listening to it, you'd be amazed how far ahead of the airplane you'll put yourself. You can give yourself sensitivity training on the vertical plane the same way you did the others. Just ease the nose up or down and see what you feel. It's not as pronounced as in the other axis, but it's definitely there.

Okay, by now, some of you have either dozed off or turned the page. A small number may be sitting in a lawn chair naked trying to learn the true meaning of what the chair is communicating to them. For those of you who are still normal and with me: Just do yourself a favor and try some of the tricks we outlined. Then, whenever you're flying, at least be aware that your fanny is trying to say something to you. Just being aware that it's there and has something worth saying is a major step forward. All we're trying to do here is promote active communication between butt and brain. When the two really start talking is when you'll really start aviating.