Learning to Fly – Getting to Grips with Aircraft Flight Controls and Engine Controls

Cessna 150 Cockpit

If you took an introductory flight or trial lesson, you would probably have been introduced to the various flight control systems that propel and direct the aircraft. On a basic trainer aircraft, used for the purpose of training students, these control systems are:

Flight Surface Controls

– The control yoke/stick which controls the pitch and roll of the aircraft through the deflection of the elevator and ailerons respectively.
– The rudder pedals that deflect the rudder on the vertical tailplane. This deflection controls the yaw of the aircraft. This surface provides the same control function as the steering mechanism of a ship.



Engine Controls

– The throttle which controls the flow rate of the air/fuel mixture to the engine.
– The mixture which allows the pilot to adjust the air/fuel ratio for a more efficient burn at higher altitudes.
– The carburettor heat control which delivers engine heat to the throat of the carburettor to clear any icing that may exist. This depends on aircraft type as fuel injector aircraft do not require a carburettor.

The latter two engine controls may have been briefly referred to, but not described in depth, as for the purpose of a trial lesson their effects do not demonstrate a visual or tangible consequence that, say, increasing the throttle or banking the aircraft would produce.

With this brief introduction to the aircraft controls it would be representative of your commitment to succeed if you were then able to go away and read into these controls systems further. Drawing from personal experience, I left my introductory lesson without using the rudder pedals or understanding their purpose. In my mind, directional control was the work of the ailerons and elevator: if I wanted to aim at a point below and to the left of me I should bank towards it with the ailerons and aim down towards it using the elevator. This led me to ask why the need for the rudder pedals and what purpose did they serve if I could achieve all direction using one control – the yoke?  I asked my instructor to impart on me their interpretation of the explanation which ultimately made things click.

By the end of your PPL, you will have a concise understanding of how the aircraft operates. It is demonstrative of a good pilot to understand what mechanical responses are as a result of their inputs. Unlike jet-liners that employ sophisticated fly-by-wire or hydraulic systems, the humble light aircraft’s control surfaces are deflected by a series of hinge lines and pulleys. Familiarise yourself with how they work and interact. Most light aircraft elevator and aileron mechanical lines, whilst controlled by the same input, the control yoke, are independent of one another. This further reading is important for your development as a pilot, as knowing these behind-the-scenes systems, even at a glance, will assist you when troubleshooting if you experience the unenviable situation of control surface loss or difficulties.

With regards to engine control, The Air Pilot’s Manual 4: The Aeroplane – Technical will cover all engine related topics such as engine operations and limitations and how, as a pilot, you can monitor and run the engine safely. If you have experience of working with or on engines, or have an interest in mechanics, then wrapping your head around this topic should not be too taxing. If, however, you are not well versed in the ways of the internal combustion engine and self-contained magneto systems, then the aforementioned book will give a pilot-level insight. Further, there are some very clear and well-presented videos on YouTube covering this intimidating and, seemingly, rough-around-the-edges topic.

The technical aspects of flying can put off prospective students; largely those who just want to fly and have no interest in what makes a machine fly. I once fell into that category as I had no interest in the physics and mechanics of flight. As someone whose mechanical and technical ability bore no further success than replacing a bicycle chain in 2008 I distanced myself from this subject matter for as long as I could. In hindsight, however, I can see how this delayed my progression through the theoretical examinations. Ultimately, the PPL is designed for anyone who is interested, physically fit and of sound mind to pass. To that end, the content is not too deep or demanding. Once I tackled the technical arena of the theory I was surprised by how manageable it was. Any independent reading regarding this topic, at the early stages or later in the PPL, will serve you well.

Your club and instructor will be very impressed by any additional reading. Discussing and talking through what you have learned with your instructor will serve to aid their understanding of your knowledge and ability. It will also provide an opportunity for them to give you feedback and any additional or corrective information. Instructor aside, there are also other outlets where one can seek clarification. That is one of the great things about flying – the knowledge is readily available in books, from peers or online. I know of no other community where this is such free and readily available information to aid learning – so long as you are prepared to seek it out. A word of caution, however, whilst the community is rich with contemporaries who are willing to share information and knowledge, I would strongly advise, as before, running anything you have learned, or been told, past your instructor; and never accept or rely on any knowledge imparted on you, if you are not 100% understanding of it.


The-PPL-Companion-Cover-sqThe PPL Companion

This extract is from the book The PPL Companion – 45 Lessons to Guide You Through Flight Training

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Matt Falcus is a private pilot and aviation writer. He has been flying since 2006, taking the opportunity whenever the British weather allows to explore the local area and other airfields. He is author of a number of aviation books.

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