I think it was during the filming of Dawn Flight back in 1974 that I first became aware of the distinctive look of an aviator’s hands. Tim Saltonstall flew the Cessna 180 which we used both as a towplane and a camera ship. Later it would be the first airplane out of which I would leap to become a skydiver.
But coming back from a filming mission during the production of “Dawn Flight”, I happened to become aware of Tim’s hands. His fingers curled sensitively around the Cessna’s control wheel as he gradually flared the airplane in its landing back on the broken up strip at Pope Valley. Tim held the control wheel of that 180 with both hands. I insist that students flare with one hand on the throttle in case they need a spurt of power. But, you know, once you
have some experience, that little spurt of power won’t be needed. Tim didn’t need it and that was why he could caress that control wheel with both of those hands. Years later, I would notice the same distinctive sensitivity in the hands of another airman in a totally different aircraft. It was about 1995 and the airman was Bob Hosking as he flew with incredible artistry in the Schweizer 300 Helicopter billed as “Otto”, one of the most successful air show comedy acts to hit the aerial theater’s stage. As the rotor blades whirled overhead, every little nuance of tracking was reflected in the light touch of Bob’s hand on the cyclic. It was obvious to me that what I was watching was the result of thousands of hours of experience and learning.
I’m often asked about the difference between a control wheel and a stick. Seems
like everyone prefers the stick. Can’t say I blame them. Sticks are nicer for “stick and rudder” flying. Although when you’re flying an instrument approach, you’re usually very grateful to have a lap in which to put the approach plate. Or maybe you put that approach plate under a clip on your control wheel. Try THAT with a stick.
I spend most of my time in a Cessna 140. It has arguably the worst designed control wheel of most airplanes. But that’s what it has, so we deal with it. Many students ask me how they should hold it. I guess it all depends. When I was a student pilot, I was taught to hold the outer edge of the wheel while my other hand clutched the throttle. As soon as my instructor, Dwight Thomas, soloed me, I grasped that wheel right at the joint of the shaft, just like he always did.
I still tend to put my hand around the middle of the yoke where the shaft is attached. That works okay for me until I have to execute a slow roll, in which a little more leverage is required, so I move my hand to the outermost part of the wheel.
I don’t think you’d ever see hands like Tim’s or Bob’s if you were watching a student pilot. Their hands just haven’t yet had a chance to develop the sensitivity that can only come with experience. But why the hands? Those who know me, know how much importance I place on the use of feet to feel the rudder and input it with the speed and precision that it takes to keep the airplane heading straight on takeoff and landing and to coordinate every turn, compensating exactly for
adverse yaw as the aviator feels the coordination or lack of it through the seat of his pants or the subtle movement of his body. So why didn’t I write about feet? Hmmm, maybe it’s because our feet are way down there in the gloom of the footwell. And they are normally encased in shoes, making it even harder to appreciate the movement of those feet on the rudder pedals.
Geez, maybe I should have chosen to write about butts. After all, that’s what a lot of people feel in order to coordinate those turns. But would you have read an article I wrote about pilots’ bottoms? Somehow I doubt it. Naw, I’ll stick with hands.
Happy Swooping… and, as the late Bill Warren would have said, “feel yer butt”!