Fantasy Based Energy Management Training for Pilots

Fantasy Based Energy Management Training for Pilots

Is it possible that you have no idea how to fly an airplane? Until now, you’ve probably been flying wrong, and “wrong” is the reason pilots experience loss of control, runway excursions, and other bad things too unmentionable to mention. That’s the residual hallucination you are left with after reading the newest chapter in the Airplane Flying Handbook titled Energy Management: Mastering Altitude and Airspeed Control.

Apparently, using overly simplified and controversial maxims such as pitch for airspeed and power for altitude (or visa versa) renders you less capable of mitigating the hazards caused by unsafe or degrading energy states. At least that’s what the FAA now wants pilots to think. As the de facto guardian of airmanship truth, the FAA now suggests that pilots dismantle their previous pitch-power behaviors and rebuild new ones on the brick-and-mortar fabulations of energy management.

Whoa! Hold on Rocket Pants
Before you surrender to consensus agreement on the FAA’s newest recommendations, please consider the following idea. Using elevator or throttle (pitch or power) to control the airplane’s airspeed or altitude is a personal technique, not a standardized procedure. Your pitch-power technique has no bearing on safety as long as that technique is used correctly. To the best of my knowledge, the NTSB has never attributed the crash of a general aviation airplane to the pitch-power technique used to fly it. Instead, these reports often state, “The pilot failed to monitor airspeed,” or “...failed to follow proper safety guidelines,” or even, “...failed to maintain sufficient altitude.” These are general references to procedures, not individual techniques.

Many years ago, the head of McDonnell-Douglas Flight Training told me that she designed two different flying techniques for flying the C-17. One for the US Navy (pitch controls airspeed, power controls altitude) and one for the US Air Force (pitch controls altitude, power controls airspeed). Both techniques worked just fine based on the demand characteristics of the flying environment. No one crashes an airplane because of the pitch-power technique used to fly it. Pilots crash because they fail to use their pitch-power technique properly.

As you’ll soon see below, the FAA has elected to shelve its one-time simple, easy-to-understand explanation on using the elevator and throttle to control an airplane. In its place, the FAA adopted another explanation that appears to have been crafted by the light of a crackling fire at a Big Sur Ashram. While I’m not against energy—I am quite fond it—I am against anything that makes training a private pilot more difficult without purpose. This is precisely what the FAA’s newest energy management offering does. To better understand the significance of this change, let’s examine the historical path the FAA took as it slipped down this post-modern rabbit hole of energy management flying.

The Trip to Wonderland
In its 1965 Flight Training Handbook (the precursor to today’s Airplane Flying Handbook), the FAA stated:

“The angle of descent, or glidepath, should be controlled by throttle adjustment; the airspeed should be controlled by changes in pitch attitude.”

The beauty in this decades-old statement is that it was forged at a time when the FAA wasn’t confused about how to teach primary students to fly small airplanes. The piloting principles presented in the 1965 Flight Training Handbook reflect advice by pilots (many having learned to fly in WW2) that knew something about basic stick and rudder skills. Whether you agree with its 1965 recommended pitch-power technique or fancy another is not the issue. At least at that time, the FAA offered a venerable, solid, and easy-to-understand control technique for new pilots.

In its 1980 Flight Training Handbook, the FAA reversed the polarity of its earlier recommendation to read:

“…the pitch attitude is adjusted as necessary to establish and maintain the desired rate or angle of descent, and power is adjusted to maintain the desired airspeed.”

OK, fine. The FAA did an about-face here, but it’s still a solid offering, irrespective of whether or not it reflects your technique. Why did the FAA change its recommendation at that time? Apparently, a significantly boisterous portion of the aviation population complained loud enough for the FAA to trim its sails and rewrite its handbook. No, this wasn’t an admission that it had recommended the wrong technique over the years. Instead, it was mostly an act of political submission to those in the jet community who felt they knew better about how pilots should fly small airplanes. They don’t. In fact, there’s almost nothing about flying a jet that pertains to flying a small airplane but almost everything about flying a small airplane pertains to flying jets. I remember these debates because I was teaching flight instructor clinics (circa 1978) when these arguments raged—and raged, they did.

Nevertheless, in the preface to the same 1980 Flight Training Handbook, the FAA wrote with great wisdom and stated:

“…it would be impossible to explain all the different [aviation] methods and concepts…. …this handbook takes a selective approach and adopts a uniform method and concept for the purposes of simplification.”

In my estimation, this is uncommon wisdom. Had the FAA stood steady as it faced the gale-like force of political pressure and honored this guiding principle, primary training would be better off today. Unfortunately, over the next two decades, a series of unfortunate decisions at FAA headquarters dissolved the once-solid and practical educational foundation on which flight training was originally built.

The FAA’s Millennial Gift to Pilots, or “Let’s Get Vague”
With the turn of the century, control usage recommendations became vague. The FAA’s 2004 version of its Airplane Flying Handbook (the replacement for the FTH) dismantled its earlier pitch-power control recommendations. In its place, the FAA asked pilots to embrace the following new “let’s all get along” airspeed-altitude control advice:

“…the power and pitch attitude should be adjusted simultaneously as necessary, to control the airspeed and the descent angle, or to attain the desire altitudes along the approach path.”

Do you see what’s happened here? Speaking in the quiet tongue of consensus, this recommendation promised to diminish the debate about how to control an airplane. After all, how can anyone argue about flight control usage if the flight controls do everything together while a single control appears to do nothing?

A Gift With No Return Receipt
This recommendation, having educational contour but no instructional depth, stayed almost the same until 2021 when the FAA published its latest version of the Airplane Flying Handbook. In it, the FAA introduced a new chapter titled Energy Management: Mastering Airspeed and Altitude Control. This chapter summed up the FAA’s newest airspeed-altitude recommendation as follows:

“The descent angle is affected by all four fundamental forces that act on an airplane (lift, drag, thrust, and weight). If all the forces are balanced out such that the net force on the airplane is zero, the descent angle remains constant in a steady state wind condition. The pilot controls these forces by adjusting the airspeed, attitude, power, and drag (flaps or forward slip).”

Stripped from the paragraph above is any hint of the specific elevator-throttle behavior necessary to control an airplane. In its place came vague energy-management platitudes, hydraulic-energy diagrams, and an energy map so cryptic that it encourages primary students to resist its interpretation.

Over a period of 57 years, the FAA went from a practical (how to) pitch-power recommendation to one without any behavioral meat on its bones. In other words, it lacks any specific reference that suggests “push that thing” to change “this thing.” It’s clear that the FAA has forfeited its original intent of a “… uniform method and concept for the purposes of simplification” and replaced it with one less likely to provoke debate on flight control usage.

For example, the FAA now defines the throttle as the Total Energy Controller and the elevator as the Energy Distribution Controller. The FAA states, “…rather than asking what controls altitude and what controls airspeed, a pilot can now ask what controls total energy and what controls its distribution over altitude and airspeed.” Huh? I honestly couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to. Look out, Alice! You have visitors.

The Ruse of the Rules
To help student pilots assimilate these energy management principles, the FAA now offers three energy management control rules, as shown below. Unfortunately, each of these three new rules is sufficiently abstract and vague that neither can stand on its own without referencing its pedigree. Therefore, the FAA was forced to define each rule using similar terms from the elevator and throttle recommendations it originally intended to eliminate.

Rule #1: If you want to move to a new energy state that demands more total energy, then:
Throttle: increase throttle setting so that thrust is greater than drag, thus increasing total energy;
Elevator: adjust pitch attitude as appropriate to distribute the total energy being gained over altitude and airspeed:

  1. To climb at constant speed, pitch up just enough to maintain the desired speed;
  2. To accelerate at constant altitude, gradually pitch down just enough to maintain path.

Upon reaching new desired energy state, adjust pitch attitude and throttle setting as needed to maintain the new path-speed profile.

Rule #2: If you want to move to a new energy state that demands less total energy, then:
Throttle: reduce throttle setting so that thrust is less than drag, thus decreasing total energy;
Elevator: adjust pitch attitude as appropriate to distribute the total energy being lost over altitude and airspeed:

  1. To descend at constant speed, pitch down just enough to maintain the desired speed;
  2. To slow down at constant altitude, gradually pitch up just enough to maintain path.

Upon reaching new desired energy state, adjust pitch attitude and throttle setting as needed to maintain the new path-speed profile.

Rule #3: If you want to move to a new energy state that demands no change in total energy, then:
Throttle: do not change initially, but adjust to match drag at the end of maneuver as needed to maintain total energy constant;
Elevator: adjust pitch attitude to exchange energy between altitude and airspeed:
a. To trade speed for altitude, pitch up;
b. To trade altitude for speed, pitch down.
Upon reaching new desired energy state, adjust pitch attitude and throttle setting as needed to maintain the new path-speed profile.

Do you see the irony here? You must translate the FAA’s energy control rules into their throttle-elevator behavioral components before using them. Why insert a topman (the three energy rules) just to make a place for the middleman (elevator and throttle movements)? Why not skip the topman and speak in terms of using the throttle and elevator directly, just like the FAA did in 1965? After reading these energy control rules, you feel as confused as a just-gelded bull. They make the act of primary flight training confusing, confounding, and difficult as a result. Frankly, all three of the FAA’s energy control rules above can be distilled into one rule as follows.

Control the glidepath with throttle and airspeed with elevator.
(Or, visa versa, if it pleases you.)

This Is Great Because It’s New, Not Because It’s Effective or Practical
Perhaps the single most revealing statement in the FAA’s confusing energy management philosophy reads as follows:

“An energy-centered approach clarified the roles of the engine and flight controls beyond the simple “pitch for airspeed and power for altitude” by modeling how throttle and elevator inputs affect the airplane’s total mechanical energy.”

Unable to see the forest for the trees, the FAA unknowingly confessed to sacrificing a “simple” technique—one that worked well for decades and required only seven words to comprehend—for an explanation that requires 7,398 words and 16 graphics in the Airplane Flying Handbook. (It should take no more than 300 words and single graphic of a bicycle moving and down a hill to explain energy management.)

Why would the FAA abandon a simple and practical 1965 flight training recommendation for the brain-fogging references of Total Energy Controllers and Energy Distribution Controllers? I suspect it did so because it concluded that disagreement on technique betrays a hidden structural flaw in the logic of airmanship. Well, it doesn’t. Disagreement, in this instance, is how pilots express their preference for a technique. It’s not a call-to-action for reworking the simple and practical principles of airplane control. Had the FAA offered wise leadership here, it would have cast this disagreement as such. Sadly, the FAA missed a wonderful opportunity to do so. Not surprisingly, it was a university-published paper on energy management that led the FAA in this direction.

A Tempting Mistress
The FAA has had a love affair with aviation academia for decades. It almost seems to gush, coo, and get a bit giggly when a major aviation university publishes a paper offering a new perspective on how to fly airplanes. It also appears to make no difference if a paper’s proffered principles have ever been subject to the rigors of scientific testing. For the FAA, it’s a plug-and-play arrangement where theoretical ideas are implemented without any need for peer review by the community these ideas affect most: general aviation instructors.

For example, in 2015 one aviation university paper suggested that pilots crash airplanes because of the “Failure to manage energy associated with vertical flight path (altitude) and airspeed.” In my opinion, it’s a fine paper from an academic perspective, not a practical one. The reason being is that the paper offered no proof for its assertions. Its central premise is based on the impression that energy management flying is, apparently, a good idea because it looks like a good idea. The paper then borrows a few hefty terms from the lexicon of physics to rework a simple and once-venerable pitch-power flying technique. The FAA was smitten with the novelty of these ideas. Thereafter, it elevated the paper’s principles to policy. 

Fantasy-Based Flight Training

This is just another example of what I call, Fantasy-Based Flight Training. For instance, imagine what it will be like for students when their instructors say, “You need to change your energy state,” instead of “lower the nose.” Rest assured that young flight instructors will eagerly adopt the language of energy management and use it on their primary students. After all, this is the lingo that young instructors believe airline pilots use. Young, impressionable instructors will gladly model the behaviors of those they admire. However, this isn’t the language student pilots easily comprehend.

When the esteemed Bob Hoover was once asked about the use of energy management in his aerobatic routines, he stated, “It’s nothing more than airspeed and altitude control.” Nevertheless, the FAA now insists that student pilots be capable of explaining energy management principles (an ACS requirement) in the exalted language of "energy distribution" and "energy control." Common sense suggests that this requirement confuses and confounds any understanding of airmanship’s basic principles.

Pitch for speed, power for glidepath should be the inheritance of every student pilot. Implied in the text of those six simple words is the poetic expression of two critical ideas: the elevator controls your proximity to a stall, and the absence of power prevents stretching a glide. Neither of the FAA’s three energy control rules alone or together conveys any relationship with angle of attack and glidepath (not surprisingly, angle of attack is mentioned only once in the Energy Management Chapter).

The FAA’s inclusion of energy management flying principles in the Airplane Flying Handbook is an assault on clarity and an abrogation of its flight training responsibilities. I do not doubt that the FAA’s and the University’s intentions were pure and intended to improve aviation safety. However, I’ve long believed that having good intentions is a highly overrated virtue. It’s what you do that counts, not what you intended to do. Common sense suggests that the FAA’s new energy management training program won’t produce the intended results and will only complicate general aviation training. General aviation training needs wisdom—wise oversight—to prevent these types of excursions into the land of ideology, opinion, and untested recommendations. Alice doesn’t need more company.



Sadly enough I think the reason for these changes is a bloated bureaucratic system where individuals are coming up with so-called new ideas in order to justify their salaries and position.

Sorry to sound so cynical but in the nearly two decades that I’ve been teaching full time I’ve watched the FAA turn the experience of learning to fly into a much more complicated obstacle course – from dropping the number of DPEs to such absurdly low levels that it often takes months to get a check ride scheduled ,,, to turning the practical test into a confused ACS mess subject to interpretations which we didn’t have with the old PTS

So , I’m not the least surprised to see this latest creation come from the bureaucrats that live on high and out of touch with the tarmacs of all the general aviation airports where some of us old timer CFIs have been teaching students to fly, full-time, day-to-day, hour for hour – over decades.


Not to mention, the way energy management is described… violates the conservation of energy! So many Physics 101 errors in the description.

If the discussion the FAA is trying to have started and ended at trading airspeed for altitude (or vice versa) – and kept as simple as “zoom” descriptions in Stick and Rudder – there would be value. That easily accommodates both pitch/power techniques and keeps things simple.

Kent Ridl

Thanks to Rod for calling out the FAA for its inconsistent rationales for policy positions. For me, it’s long been: (For normal flight regimes) Configure for airspeed, power for altitude. Configure being positioning of elevator, trim, flaps, and gear; power being throttle and prop—mixture and carb heat maybe in there somewhere. Rod has examples of such settings in easy to read tabular form in his instrument flying courses; he is very consistent in the matter.

FAA is somewhat mean-spirited here, inventing an operational concept of energy management, in full knowledge that no Energy Meter exists, and individual pilots can judge their momentary energy state only to a vague, approximate, degree.

JIm Hanlon

Again, Rod is a clear voice of reason in these cloudy times of an ever more politically whimsical FAA. Keep it up, Rod! We need more instructors like you!

Connor Juvonen

I have always answered this question as to what controls what with this reply….YES! Whatever is called for will work as evidenced by the difference between the Navy and the Air Force. I teach that power, pitch will give consistent performance. I understand (and remember) that it takes time to develop that instinctual feel.


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