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#190 Energy Management

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Written in 2016

Brian lands the Big Yellow Glider at Sunriver, Oregon. Nothing prepares a pilot for energy management like glider flying.


Years ago I was commissioned to produce a video about a popular aerobatic team.  The team consisted of three aircraft (I’m not going to say what make and model because I want them to remain unidentified).

I decided that I’d shoot a lot of footage of their routine, both ground to air, air to air and in the cockpit of each aircraft with close-ups of each pilot.  Then I’d record an interview with each pilot, the audio of which I could use over the shots of them flying.

In the course of those interviews, I asked each pilot what his particular job was within the team.  Now I already knew what each guy’s job was.  Obviously, there was a leader and two wingmen and within the flying portion, their jobs were pretty obvious.  I also knew what their jobs were when they arrived at an airshow.  One was in charge of seeing that contractual obligations were met and the airplanes were hangared.  Another was in charge of getting the rental cars and another in charge of making sure arrangements for fuel had been made.  But what I found particularly interesting was the answer each of them had when I asked him what his job was.  “Well,” each man would say, “I guess you could say that I’m the energy management specialist of the team”.  Huh?

It seemed that each guy felt it was his job to manage the energy of these high performance aircraft while they flew in formation.  It was so important to the flying of a formation team that each guy thought it was his domain.

And that’s just my long, convoluted way to say that energy management is the critical ingredient of operating EVERY airplane and it must be understood by every pilot.

I hope that everyone who is starting to learn to fly understands this.  It will make the learning process so much easier!  As we climb out of the airport, we are storing energy.  In this particular instance, that energy is in the form of altitude.  Should we lose the engine, we will still have stored energy in the form of altitude.  We can use that energy in different ways.  If we want to maintain altitude with no power, we will simply continue to increase the angle of attack.  The energy will be used in the form of airspeed.  We’ll pay for the maintenance of altitude with that airspeed, giving it up in order to maintain our altitude until we have no more to give.  We’ll be “broke” when the airplane’s angle of attack reaches the stall.  If we choose to go faster, we can spend energy in the form of altitude, but eventually we’ll be out of altitude.

When you fly, you are the energy management specialist of that team, consisting of you and the aircraft.

Many pilots fly at the best angle of climb (Vx) for their airplane as soon as they reach that speed on takeoff.  They simply want to gain energy in the form of altitude and there may be a little fear of terrain in their thinking.  Or they may choose to pursue that climb, simply because it seems like the best way for them.

In most cases, I choose to gain speed over altitude in the early stages of a takeoff.  There’s a simple reason for my choice of staying in ground effect as the speed increases.  It’s because, if the engine should fail, I’ll have a lot of options as to where I’m going to go.  If I’d immediately gone to Vx in order to gain altitude, I’d have to dump the nose immediately in the case of engine failure. Instead of concerning myself with where to go, I’d be concerning myself with the maintenance of airspeed in order to avoid the stall.  That’s just the way I do it.  Is it right?  Beats me.  It works for me.

As with so many things in aviation, there are several ways to manage energy.  Every situation is different, but the bottom line is that we are all the energy management specialist of our team.