The Flying Equation: The Basics of Attitude Flying
Albert Einstein gave us E=mc2, one of the most venerable of physics equations. It’s an equation that allows us to understand the relationship between mass and energy. Then again, I’ve never understood why Einstein, despite his towering intellect, didn’t comprehend the equation: Bad Haircut + No Conditioner = The Frizzies. Oh well.
Aviation also has its venerable equations, and one of my favorites involves absolutely no math at all. This equation expresses the relationship between attitude, power and performance. It’s to be taken seriously, but not literally. It reads as follows:
Attitude + Power = Performance (A+P=P).
No, you don’t get this from the App Store, either. This is the equation I use on every flight. Every one! When the two variables of attitude and power are exchanged for specifics, I can estimate my airplane’s performance with a high degree of precision. Pushing the throttle fully forward at sea level on a cool day and raising the nose to climb attitude allows me to anticipate good climb performance (good for that specific plane, of course). Turning base, reducing power to flight idle and selecting a specific nose-down attitude allows me to predict the airspeed I’ll achieve during the descent. The equation doesn’t lie, as long as long as you are aware of two traps that can alter one or more of its variables.
For instance, some pilots misinterpret A+P=P to read as follows:
Attitude + Throttle Position = Performance.
Unfortunately, the only thing that this equation predicts is that some pilot might have a reason to use the word deductible at some future time. That’s because as density altitude increases (for normally aspirated engines), the position of the throttle (full forward, full aft, etc.) becomes a less accurate indicator of potential power production.
Move the throttle to its full forward position while flying at 5,000 feet MSL on a standard day, and your engine might produce 75% of its maximum rated power. Do the same thing at a higher altitude and/or warmer conditions and you’ll get less power even with the throttle pushed to its full forward position. That’s why Attitude+Power=Performance is only useful when you consider how environmental conditions influence power production. At high density altitudes, you can raise the nose to climb attitude and move the throttle full forward, but don’t anticipate sea level climb performance. If you understand that, you will successfully avoid trap number one.
Trap number two involves mistaking attitude for angle of attack. Attitude is not angle of attack, though it can be a good approximation as long as you can compare it to the airplane’s direction of motion (i.e., the movement directly opposite the relative wind). Most pilots make this comparison by looking directly over the airplane’s nose. Others do it by looking out their left window to observe the airplane’s motion relative to the wing’s chord line. Either way, the plane’s attitude can provide a practical estimate of the angle of attack, but only when you’re aware of the direction your airplane is moving. Understanding this concept allows you to avoid selecting an attitude that might cause the wings to exceed their critical angle of attack. Expressed another way, "You always think angle of attack but fly attitude."
Using attitude to estimate your angle of attack becomes less reliable when it’s harder to identify the airplane’s actual motion through the air. This is most likely to happen during steep descending turns to landing.
Steep descending turns involve increasing elevator back pressure which produces a relatively quick increase in angle of attack and an increase in load factor. Since the airplane is turning, the background scenery constantly changes instead of moving steadily toward you. This makes it more difficult to assess the airplane’s motion through the air, so an accurate estimate of the angle of attack is more difficult to make. Complicating matters, the nose is pointed below the horizon in these turns. Unfortunately, many pilots have difficulty understanding how the wings can exceed their critical angle of attack when the airplane is in a nose-low attitude. High g-loading in a descending turn is where this is likely to happen.
Avoiding trap number two means recognizing that a sudden increase in apparent weight (load factor) implies that you’re closer to a stall than the nose-low attitude might suggest. The remedy? Unload those wings a bit by reducing the bank angle and releasing sufficient elevator aft pressure to take the pressure off your derriere. Understand this concept and you’ll never step in it (trap number two, that is).
Given those caveats, is A+P=P still useful? You bet it is. Abraham Lincoln once said that nearly every major decision he made was influenced by the Declaration of Independence. In a structurally similar way, every maneuver I make in an airplane is guided by the equation A+P=P. Every one!
No, I’m not sitting there manipulating the controls while mumbling, “A plus P equals P.” I may be mumbling other things, but in the back of my mind A+P=P is simply my reflexive strategy for flying any airplane.
Fortunately, this equation involves no math, which is good because five out of four people have trouble with math. It does, however, involve two generalizations, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Keep in mind that, without the ability to generalize there can be no such thing as wisdom. We must simply be aware that that throttle position doesn’t necessarily represent engine power and that attitude becomes a less reliable indicator of angle of attach when accompanied by an increase in load factor.
Given these caveats, A+P=P becomes a useful tool for anyone who flies.