What It Is To Fly
Ralph Shultz

A while back I was talking to one of my neighbors about my flying for fun and relaxation. He seemed to be interested in this part of aviation but quite uninformed and unsure of what's required or what to expect. He asked a lot of questions and wanted to know what it was like and how it felt to fly in such small and light airplanes. My neighbor has flown many times on commercial airliners but never on a small airplane. This got me thinking about how many others might fall into this same category.

This article is intended for non-fliers, maybe someone thinking about taking a flight in a small airplane, or perhaps even thinking about getting into flight training. It may be meaningful to other readers as well; these readers may include pilots reflecting back to their own early aviation experiences. It could also serve as a resource for pilots to share or give to their interested non-pilot friends.

It seems to me that people who have spent little time around aviation and particularly flying in small general aviation aircraft, usually have little or no knowledge about what to expect when faced with the opportunity to get a ride in one of these SMALL AIRPLANES! Some approach a first flight with much uncertainty and a touch of fear.

Like most fears, the fear of flying is the result of not knowing or understanding just what it is one is afraid of. When relative information is received, about whatever it is they fear, the knowledge usually lowers the anxiety concerning the matter. With that thought as a guide this article will try to impart some "relative" information about many of the aspects of flying in small planes and hopefully put more peopleís minds at ease about what to expect when flying in these small airplanes.

Flying is not just for the younger set. With a little knowledge it can be enjoyed by all ages, why even 60-year-old grandmothers have enjoyed it and gone on to learn to fly and earned their own pilots licenses.

To start with letís get straight one thing too many people seem to believe, and that is "if the motor stops the plane will fall from the sky". If that were true how does a glider FLY? The fact is that airplanes will fly quite well even if the engine stops. It may not be able to maintain a constant altitude but the fact is these small planes can glide approximately 1 and 3/4 miles for every 1,000 feet of altitude! So here are the real facts.

An airplane is kept in the air by the effects of all the horizontal surfaces on the airplane. As the airplane moves through the air, low pressure is created on top of each of these surfaces and a high pressure created on the bottom sides. The difference between these two pressures, even though they are very small, results in an upward force normally referred to as "lift". This lift is proportional to the speed of the airplane and the horizontal angle the plane is flying at as it moves through the air. Generally the faster the airplane goes the more lift is generated, likewise for the flight angle.

When first viewed by non-aviation people the instruments found in an airplaneís cockpit tend to be confusing. Most people seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable with them. Once the instruments are made known and their purpose understood many uncertainties about them seem to melt away.

Almost all airplanes have at least the following built-in instruments:

  • Altimeter ~ Displays at what altitude the plane is flying.
  • Airspeed indicator ~ Displays the speed of the airplane through the air.
  • Compass ~ Displays the direction the airplane is facing or flying towards.
  • Tachometer (Engine RPM) ~ Displays how fast the engine is running, higher RPM means more power.
  • Fuel Gage ~ Displays the amount of fuel there is in the tank.

On your first flight in a small plane the cabin will probably seem small and close. Then you notice the views out the side windows are awesome. On the dashboard, called an instrument panel in airplanes, you see lots of instruments and switches and you wonder what they all are for. You will be aware of every movement the plane makes through the air almost as if it were a magic carpet protected from the wind by unseen screens. If you are lucky enough to be in the right seat next to the pilot your views will be spectacular. It seems like you can see forever!

Probably the first thing most people feel and are aware of is how smooth and effortless the takeoff is. Many expect there should have been something more to it, perhaps a feeling of more massive power and heavy lifting taking place. Something more ---. Most are surprised how easy the climb out is, gaining altitude rapidly and easily at first then becoming less noticeable as the airplane gets higher.

Airplanes climb at full power, that power brings along with it a consideral amount of engine sound, at some altitude the pilot reduces the power preparing for level flight and the noise level drops significantly, this is normal. Some on their first flight find this frightening, fearing it spells trouble or doom. There is nothing to worry about it's just that the airplane requires less power for level flying. Some are very fearful when the airplane's nose is dipped or it's wings are banked. Many don't know or understand that's how an airplane turns, no bank no turn! Through all these maneuvers there is never a feeling that the floor was about to fall out from under them.

While flying in light airplanes your senses are always talking to you. When you can see around you and outside the cabin your brain is much better at interpreting any physical sensations you may encounter. Some sensations you might feel is that of the varying pressure on your bottom and sides when flying through slight disturbances in the air know as turbulence. These also can include the sensation of the planeís wings being banked while in a turn and even with the plane in a climbing attitude. With sight these sensations will be clear and unconfused. If, for whatever reason, you are not able to see outside the plane, your brain will interpret these sensations completely differently which usually results in confusion.

This is because the sense of sight has a big effect on how your brain interprets what is going on around you and the airplane. When a person canít see while flying much of their perceptions of what orientation and attitude the body is experiencing is controlled by the inner ear. One thing that can be taken away from this is that if you start feeling a little nauseous do not close your eyes, this will usually make it worse. What seems to work better is to focus on something in or on the airplane to give you a point of reference for your brain to make sense of what is really going on around you.

Pilots feel everything that their passengers feel. The difference is the pilot knows the what, when and why people feel the sensations they do. This fact helps him to understand and interpret what the various sensations are telling him about the orientation of the airplane and what it is doing. Believe me when I say he is gratified to realize that the passengers have enough faith in him to trust their well being to his piloting.

People usually donít have any sense of height after the first 1,000 feet or so and most have no fear concerning how high the airplane is flying. The ground will seem unfamiliar in regards to the expanse of what you see but details of known neighborhoods, roads, buildings, shopping centers, schools and the like take on new clarity and understanding. Itís nice to see where you are living your life in a manner that puts things in perspective; to be able to see the lay of the land as it really is!

The perception of speed also diminishes with height. Flying at heights over 5,000 feet can seem boring as details on the ground are not well defined. Flying can be boring at times, that is, until something goes wrong. Thereís an old saying that goes something like "Flying is usually 99% uneventful and 1% shear panic" that pretty much says it all except when flying for pleasure. The saying is especially true at higher altitudes. Most people, who have done it, say flying for pleasure is enjoyable, many see it as therapeutic.

The experience of flying in different types of airplanes will differ somewhat. For instance when flying in a glider one would think that the plane would feel light and feathery, kind of like floating on a cloud so to speak, but it does not feel like that at all. Gliders feel rock solid and not at all feathery. There is very little vibration and itís quiet as all you hear is the slight sound of air passing by outside the fuselage.

Flying on a large or small wing, or a high wing versus a low winged plane, each will have subtleties in feeling and handling that is all its own. Bi-planes, two wings stacked one over the other, usually feel rock solid in the air with no slippy feelings to them at all. They seem to be able to turn on a dime and they do conjure up feelings of aviation's past.

Single winged planes have quite a spread in wing loadings. That is to say the number of pounds the plane was designed to carry into the air for each square foot of projected horizontal wing area. The higher the wing loading is, the faster the airplane usually needs to fly. Likewise, low wing loading usually means a slower flying airplane. Small airplane wing loadings run from about 5 to 25-lbs/sq. foot. The higher the wing loading the smoother the ride is in bumpy air.

Ultralight airplanes have very lightly loaded wings (well under 5 lbs/sq. foot) and because of that can be tossed around like a napkin when flying in windy or bumpy conditions. These planes can, at times, feel light and feathery in flight.

Airplanes are powered by several different types of powerplants. Each has advantages and disadvantages along with their own operating requirements. See appendix A for more information on each type.

Flying is different from driving an automobile in many respects. The most disconcerting difference of course is the fact that one can not just pull over and stop when something goes wrong in or with the airplane. In an auto itís no problem you simply pull over to the side of the roadway and stop, inconvenient for sure but not a life-threatening event. In the air there are no side of the road parking places. Problems concerning airplanes can turn deadly if not recognized early and dealt with. Aviation accident reports have shown that accidents are seldom the result of just one or even two things that go wrong but a chain of small problems or events that go unrecognized or unresolved that add up resulting in an accident. This is why it is so important that pilots must have a sense of self-reliance and willingness to accept responsibility for the safety of the airplane and itís occupants. Throwing caution to the wind can get everyone killed.

If a person desires to become a pilot they must, at some point, come to terms with the fact that as the pilot of an airplane, their safety and indeed their very life is in their own hands. All decisions and their consequences will be theirs alone. No one will come to save them, it goes without saying their passengers lives are dependent on the pilot as well. The moment of truth comes, while in training, on ones first "solo" flight.

The "Solo" experience was set to poetry, by Patrick J. Phillips, in his poem titled "Solo", which follows:

The earth rolls by beneath my wings,
My mind dwells not on other things,
For as my nose points towards the sky,
I canít believe Iím going to fly...
Five hundred feet. Itís time to turn,
There is still so much I have to learn.
Ease the yoke and now the rudder,
The trick is not to make her shudder,
Thump! Iím down! It feels so good,
Nothing to it, I knew I could.
Take heart my friend and have a try,
For now I know that I can fly.

If your goal is to become a pilot you should know that all student pilots wish for "THAT" day to come, the day that they will make their first solo flight. By the time that day actually arrives the student will most certainly believe that he was "ready" well before their instructor actually thinks likewise and releasesĎ the student for that "all important flight". The moment the instructor steps out of the airplane and authorizes the flight the student has a rush of thoughts and emotions running from, at last, Iím ready, in fact past ready, then the instructor says "itís your plane" and steps back from the airplane and the reality sets in. Holy cow I have to do this ALL BY MYSELF. If it were not for the fact that the student has spent many hours and days unknowingly psyching themselves up to the challenge, they probably would decline the chance. If they really want that first solo they will proceed and thereby enter that new realm of self-reliance in themselves and "flight".

The feeling one has on that first circuit of the airport spans many emotions. First going through a truthful questioning of their abilities, then wonder and then just a little fear. They then move on to recognizing and understanding that they must do everything correctly, must not forget or get things out of order. Down the runway they go, checking for the correct speed for take off, they gingerly apply a little back-pressure on the stick and up they go.
Not too steep now, be careful to maintain the right climb angle and speed. Wow Iíve got myself up now all I have to do is make it safely around the pattern, descend and land this thing, yah I can do that! Careful now donít bank too steeply, OK, thatís good hold it, straighten the bank out and keep on climbing. All right Iím at pattern altitude itís time to turn downwind easy does it now level my wings and stop my climb. Great everything is going great so far. All right now I have to set up for my landing. Letís see Iím even with the spot I want to touchdown at, reduce the power and set up a nice glide. Angle and speed, angle and speed, good now start my turn to base. Almost there now, one final turn to final, must remember to watch my bank angle, MUST NOT GET IT TOO STEEP. How about that thereís the runway right in front of me, get lined up with the center of the runway now ease the throttle back to idle,. That looks good, 10 feet above the runway, man are things happening fast now, settle down, settle down I need to ease back the stick slowly, slowly, hold it off, hold it off while continuing to bring the stick back bleeding speed off, now let the plane settle to the ground while feeling for the ground. Crunch, bounce, must keep it straight crisp chirp Iím down, yeah! I hope that bounce didnít look too bad to anybody who saw it. Hey, I can really do this! With a BIG SMILE plastered on his face he thinks now I have to do it two more times.
Taxing up to the instructor afterwards you almost feel equal to him for now you both know that you do have what it takes to handle the self-control and responsibility of being a pilot. The feelings of joy, accomplishment and pride fill your being. Yessss, in deed, it is the happiest day of your life!

So, like the poem says, Take heart my friend and have a try, you will be glad you did and who knows you might just decide to go on and become a pilot yourself!


Several types of engines power airplanes. Engine types used in small planes come in six basic designs. For very small and light weight aircraft, those under about 800 lbs, of flying weight, the 2-stroke engine rules supreme. This type of engine produces a power stroke on every revolution of the crankshaft. This allows the engine to be smaller and lighter than other types of engines, the downside of the 2-stroke is they burn more fuel in producing their power, run at approximately twice the speed (RPM) of 4 stroke engines. These engines tend to vibrate more and seem to be noisier than other engine types.

The next engine type on the power plant list is the 4-stroke engine. It requires two revolutions of the crankshaft for each power cycle. These engines are usually somewhat larger and heavier per HP than the 2 stroke engines but they do allow for supercharging and turbo-charging that ultimately allows the engine to produce more power per cubic inch of displacement than the 2-stroke and they do run much smoother. As a result the 4-stroke engine ends up powering a much-expanded list of aircraft.

The third type of engine is called a radial engine. The radial engine is made up with three or more 4-stroke engine cylinders arranged around the crankshaft. By increasing the number of cylinders these engines can develop high HP in a relatively small package. Aircraft powered by radial engines sound powerful and give the perception of great reliability. Today, because of manufacturing costs, the radial engines are seen mostly on older bi-planes manufactured many years ago.

The forth type on the power plant list is the turbo-shaft (turbo-prop) engine. These engines use a kind of jet engine to turn a propeller. This design is built around a high-speed turbine that powers the propeller shaft. These turbo-prop engines are usually used on very high performance single and multi-engined aircraft. These engines give off a whirling, whistling sound when running. Airplanes using them display much reduced vibration and are smooth in flight.

The fifth type is the pure jet engine. These engines have high fuel burn rates, which tend to raise the cost to operate them. Jet engines donít produce much thrust until the aircraft is well into itís takeoff run. They are not a good choice for powering small airplanes using relatively short runways. The jet engine is relatively small for the thrust power it produces. However, on the positive side of the equation, a jet-powered plane is very smooth running with little or none of the prop torque effects of a prop driven aircraft.

The sixth and last engine type is the electric engine system. I termed it a system because to produce power it requires an energy storage package such as batteries or electricity generating solar cells or both. These systems produce thrust power by using an electric motor and propeller and usually require some sort of controller. These systems are just now beginning to show up in small lightweight aircraft. About the largest HP they now put out is around 50 Shaft HP. The down side for now seems to be that the batteries are not quite up to the task and are heavy and bulky. Solar cells require lots and lots of surface area, which translates to large wings and their higher weights. Aircraft so powered are smooth and quiet. However itís predicted today that it will be 10 to 20 years before these systems become viable power plants for passenger aircraft.