As Wolfgang Langewiesche said in “Stick and Rudder”, “Altitude is money in the bank, but airspeed is money in your pocket”. That’s why I stress gaining speed in ground effect when we’re taking off. But that’s not what concerned me when I thought about the title of this little article.
It was altitude as “money in the bank” that was concerning me. I was wondering why so many pilots are in such a big hurry to squander that altitude. Altitude represents safety if the fan quits. The higher you are, the more time you have before you glide to the ground and the further you can glide before you have to put it down. It also represents stored energy. It can be converted to airspeed and time saved.
When we’re returning to our home airport in Sisters, Oregon, we often have to cross some places where I’d just as soon not have to land. So why do so many pilots want to start that descent so far out? And why do they want to reduce the power below cruise to do so? All that does is increase the time to their destination and decrease the amount of energy stored for later use.
Here’s what I’d really like to see. And I’d like to know if you think that what I’m saying makes sense: By maintaining a cruise altitude longer, we also maintain a margin of safety that’s just not there anymore if we begin a long descent many miles out. I like to see my students maintain their altitude as they head for home. I like them to do some rough mental calculations that will enable them to stay high longer, then eventually use “cruise descent” to intercept the power-off glide path from which they can safely reach the airport. And if they figure it right, their descent rate will never be higher than 500 feet per minute. That’s my magic descent rate. It’s one that will not bother the normal person’s ears as they experience the change of pressure in a descent.
All my students hear me say the same things. One of them is, “Where ya gonna go if your engine quits now?” Every pilot should know the answer to that question at all times. And that’s the question that will receive a reassuring answer if you’ve got plenty of altitude before you can reach your destination.
 Read “The Exposurometer” in “Brian’s Flying Book”, available at the Tailwheeler’s Mercantile.