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Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying (1944) (archive.org)
103 points by JasonFruit 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

I have no idea how it ended up on the front page of HN, but this is an amazing book. Highly recommended for any pilot, especially those flying small airplanes. Don't let the date scare you, it holds up incredibly well. Wolfgang figured out how to describe things that good pilots do unconsciously in a way I've never seen matched.

I'd like to share one passage that because of a small aside in the middle of a sentence has stuck with me for years.

Of course it is conceivable that a perfectly maintained airplane, perfectly trimmed and flying in smooth air, might continue to fly straight ahead indefinitely simply because it would never be disturbed, would never get that first slight deflection from straight flight which starts the spiraling. But it is also conceivable that a pencil, stood on its point, might be so perfectly balanced and so completely shielded from all disturbances that it would stand on its point indefinitely. Both things are philosophically possible; both are so highly improbable as to be practically impossible. And anyway, the stability of a thing, just like that of a man, does not consist in its being shielded from all disturbances and thus preserving a precarious balance; it consists in the ability to recover from disturbances that inevitably will occur, and to regain lost balance.

Don't let the date scare you, it holds up incredibly well.

Indeed, the laws of physics have not changed. It seems like a lot of people are turned off by old books, when I've found that my experience has often been the exact opposite --- for subjects like maths and electricity, the very old books had a way of explaining things that makes them quite easy to understand and perhaps even better than the new ones which simply glance over a subject and almost assume knowledge.

> Indeed, the laws of physics have not changed.

That's not the reason people might be hesitant to read a book from the 1940s. Technology changes a lot, and maybe things changed in airplanes to make it obsolete, maybe not. That's why that comment was necessary.

Also: our understanding of physics has evolved:


That explanation hasn't exactly died out these days even if you won't find it in official sources.

The airplanes people first learn to fly have hardly changed since then, with, I would say, tricycle undercarriage being the biggest change, followed by more docile stall/spin characteristics, in particular in being less likely to drop a wing in a stall. After that: engine reliability.

I occasionally read accounts of flying the first generation of airplanes (or replicas), and it does seem to have been rather different then, not so much in first principles as in the craft of making it work.

If I am remembering this correctly, some pilots of piston-engined transport aircraft had difficulty transitioning to jet airliners, a problem addressed by an influential and well-regarded book (Davies, "Handling the Big Jets", 1967?)[1] which, among other things, recommended putting aside the "throttle for height, stick for speed" principle.

[1] See, for example, https://www.flightglobal.com/FlightPDFArchive/1967/1967%20-%...

An example from hang gliding: the wings form a shallow "V", with you at the centre. If it tilts left, there's more lift area downwards on the left (and less on the right), so it tends to tilt back, righting itself.

I'm not sure what prevents oscillation; nor how pitch is stablized (pointing downwards vs pointing up), but I've found hang gliders very stable.

The "projected area" theory is a common misconception of how dihedral works (that I also subscribed to for many years). All things being equal, the port and starboard wings create the the same amount of roll torque, no matter which one is 'facing' the ground better (of course, dihedral does still work, because all things are not equal).


Check out page 126 of Stick And Rudder for an intuitive illustration of why dihedral works.

Pitch is stabilized by the tail. When the nose points down, air hits the top of the tail and pushes the tail down, bringing the nose up. And when the nose is pointing up, air hitting the bottom of the tail pushes the tail up.

The V shape thing you mentioned for hang gliders is also true for most light planes. It’s a self stabilizing thing. I think what prevents th oscillation is that as it comes to level, the amount of upward force from the other wing equalizes.

Yet canards can be made stable in pitch as well. In either case, the 'trick' is that the forward plane, whichever one it is, should be rigged at a higher angle of incidence than the rear plane.

I'm not a pilot. My father flew small planes for a time and obtained a commercial license. This is just me reminiscencing about two experiences I've had as a passenger in small aircraft.

I hopped on a six or eight passenger tour plane operating from the grass field at Grand Marais Airport in Michigan around 1993. I was in the first row behind the pilot. There were high, gusty winds off Lake Superior and the pilot had to really work the yoke and throttle. It was almost athletic; the pilot was reacting to strong wind gusts -- big deflections of every control surface every second or two -- and yet the plane felt rock stable; if you had closed your eyes you could not have known there was this amazing pilot working it that hard. This went on from the moment he cleared the trees till just before touchdown. Really astonishing.

Around 2003 I took another flight in a Schweizer sailplane out of Boulder Municipal Airport in Colorado. I was amused by how the pilot somehow knew exactly where to find lift. He would deliberately fly along ridge lift, entering and exiting like there were signs in the sky; never a doubt where to find it even though the foothills were so far below there was no obvious correlation between the contours and the lift.

I think piloting is far removed from just about everything else. Non-pilots don't even suspect things that experienced pilots take for granted.

Gliding is more or less all the stick and rudder stuff with actually staying up and going places a whole other layer on top.

I don't recall ever reading this book, but as a student pilot, I was given a copy of "You have 178 seconds to live" and it had a tremendous impact on me.


I do not hold a license but have plenty of simulator experience. Do they not teach how to use an attitude indicator even for a VFR license? Or how to do an instrument scan? I thought this is pretty basic. Even with a good forecast, you can get caught badly by weather. The linked document indicates that invertion can happen with no visibility, but can't this being prevented bay paying attention to the attitude indicator.

To get a VFR license, yes, you have to know about everything you mentioned. You must learn about all the instruments. What kind of instrument scans to do in various kinds of situations. Ascent/descent, climbing turns, level turns into a heading, etc. VFR pilots do learn about reading the instruments, but at the same time they learn about the dangers that come with focusing too much on the instruments— such as not watching for traffic or other awareness issues. They also must learn a ton about weather.

So a VFR pilot is trained in some of the basic instrument reading things needed for low visibility flight. But there’s a lot more expertise involved in safely flying instruments than in visual flight. Precise, mentally demanding procedures, multitasking. VFR pilots are also required to learn about why instrument flying is so much more difficult. A big part of the reason is spatial disorientation[1]. Your senses tell you one thing while the instruments tell you another. And the scary part is that when the equipment fails, sometimes it’s your senses that are more correct. Pilots either blindly following their senses when their senses are wrong, or ignoring their senses when their instruments are wrong— both of those kill people.

To compare flying in a real small plane versus a simulator: When you go into a stall in a small plane, the feeling of dropping feels a lot like a roller coaster, with your stomach coming up into your mouth. That woozy feeling is much the same. And certain kinds of weather can cause a similar rapid change in elevation even without you changing the attitude of the plane. The small plane is so much more (potentially) wild than a big jet, it’s a bit more like being in a flying lawnmower. A simulator does teach lots of the skills you need to know, and is especially useful for establishing muscle memory for things like instrument scans and other procedures. Then doing that in a real plane is like doing the same thing, but on a wild roller coaster, and with the full knowledge that if you mess up you’ll die.

You should go for a ride! Tons of places offer very cheap introductory flights where you get to take the controls for a bit during that first flight.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spatial_disorientation

Currently a student. I was having a rough day getting my approaches right. Paying too much attention to my speed and such and coming in too fast anyway. On the next round, still in the downwind, my instructor reached over and turned the brightness on the display down to zero. It's an all in one Garmin setup so I was instrument blind - no altimeter, airspeed, tachometer, nothing. I pulled my eyes up, looked out the window, said "thanks" and flew the approach correctly. VFR flying is mostly about the V. Look out the window, feel what's happening, hear and feel the engine power setting, know where you are in relation to everything. It's supposed to be a visceral experience. Instruments are important, but so is knowing how to fly in the sense that a bird knows.

Paying attention to the attitude indicator is absolutely not the right way to fly in visual conditions for many reasons. The best way to deal with reduced visibility under VFR is by doing a thorough preflight planning (e.g. stay on the ground when the weather is marginal) and applying proper risk management techniques in the air (e.g. divert, turn back, land etc when the weather deteriorates)

In the U.S. we are required to give at least 3 hours of instrument training for Private Pilot license. There is no such requirement for Sport Pilot or Recreation Pilot License

In my experience teaching hundreds of private, instrument, and commercial pilots 3 hours is not enough to develop any kind of instrument proficiency. For people who take the instrument rating course it usually takes around 20 hours to develop minimal instrument proficiency. Simulator training helps a lot when done with a qualified instructor who understands how to teach instruments in a sim (unfortunately many don't). But even the students who nail the sim portion often struggle in the real aircraft when they are faced with task saturation.

Yes.Actually all Private Pilot students spend a fair amount of time under the hood (a device that prevents you from being able to see outside the airplane) practicing unusual attitude recoveries.

Basically, you close your eyes while the instructor tosses the airplane all over the sky for a couple minutes in an attempt to get your inner ear fluid sloshing around to disorient you, then puts the airplane into a state where, e.g., you're in a deep stall, nose up, turning left, then instructs you to open your eyes and determine the airplane's attitude from reading the instruments. Once you have the attitude correctly described, then you return it to straight & level using instruments.

This was actually some of the most fun I had during pilot training. It was like a puzzle under stress (you only have so long before you hit the ground) figuring out what the airplane was doing and describing how to get out of the situation.

The point of teaching this to VFR students is to prevent the "178 seconds" situation so you will hopefully have enough instrument experience and calmness to turn the airplane around and get back into clear air.

The point of the article is to drive home the point that using your normal human instincts and feelings will kill you in that situation. You can be completely inverted and feel just fine. Only trusting what the instruments say will get you out of trouble (edit: and cross checking them to be sure you don't rely on a failed instrument).

And actually, the situation can deteriorate faster than you realize. I recall days with my instructor where, while it was technically VFR flight, it was so hazy that I spent a lot of time using instruments because I couldn't see the horizon very well.

It’s a shame JFK Jr. didn’t read this.

When that happened I saw a photo of his plane with doors open so that you could see the cockpit panel. From the glance it was equipped with everything you could wish for. Afair he was caught by darkness but otherwise reasonable visibility. I had a hard time to understand why he failed this (but I admittedly have only simulator experience).

It'd be hard to understand without feeling it for yourself, but in actual instrument conditions (IMC), it's easy for your sense of balance to mislead you into thinking you're level, when in fact you're turning.

There's some physiology to explain this, but one key point is that once you're in a coordinated turn, even a descending one, your weight is still going straight down the vertical axis of the seat. So, you'll think you're doing fine, and possibly even pull the turn tighter (the graveyard spiral), and fixate on things other than the attitude indicator and your plummeting altitude.

A true classic; I read (and re-read) the dead-trees version (a library copy, even!) many moons ago.

A similar and more modern take on these same fundamentals of flight dynamics titled "See How It Flies" is freely online at https://www.av8n.com/how/ — enthusiastically recommended.


I've read through at least half a dozen times, and I'm re-reading it in preparation for my first real flying lessons. (I'm very excited.)

I really like SHIF, if you have a physics-y bent it's great.

My understanding is that this book is still basically the bible of aviation.

Of additional potential interest to smart folks who like to read is the fact that the author's son is of note as well; he's written a lot of really great long-form journalism, often but not exclusively about aviation as well, both in high-profile magazines and in book form. He's on the short list of authors whom I read automatically.


Seek out "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," which ran in the New York Review of Books in 2002. It's STELLAR, but then his work across the board is especially solid.

Of his books, I think my favorites are "Inside the Sky," about flight, and "The Outlaw Sea," about shipping. "The Atomic Bazaar" is also great, if terrifying.

It's amazing how literally everything in this book is still relevant in 2018, it really is the bible of flying. Take for example this line:

> The so-called "elevator" is really the airplane's speed control, the throttle is really its up-and-down control. This is hard to believe but is one of the keys to the art of piloting.

That is one of the most important facts about flying; it is also one of the most misunderstood.

When I read it as a student pilot, I found the book to be oddly written, but so applicable. That one sentence will do wonders for final approach and landings!

Seems like this might be a good place to link to The Turn (1993):

> At the very heart of winged flight lies the banked turn, a procedure that by now seems so routine and familiar that airline passengers appreciate neither its elegance and mystery nor its dangerously delusive character. The author, a pilot, takes us up into the subject.


That is a great article --- he had the knack of making difficult concepts not only clear but enthralling.

So happy to see a well-illustrated book endure the test of time. I still look for old texts on science, physics, chemistry ... even (especially?) electronics.

In the chapter on landing, there's a series of illustrations[1] of a giant building with white and gray horizontal stripes. They're used to show how you can tell how high you are when landing.

During a ground lesson, I'd show the student the picture and say "of course, it's not like you'll have a building like that actually next to the runway!." They'd agree, then I'd point out the window at this building[2], right next to the runway.

1. https://i.imgur.com/i4qlsYQ.png 2. https://i.imgur.com/vZXZOIp.jpg

Hope you teach your new students 'crabbing' techniques during cross-wind landings before sending them off solo. I remember during one solo cross country taking-off from a V-shaped private field lined with 50 foot trees, zero evident or forecast winds, and after second rotation (which just happened to be at tree-top level) was hit by a cross-wind from the left. Now as we know it's not particularly healthy to attempt flying sideways 70 feet AGL so full right rudder was applied until the wings 'bit' and ascent was stable. Interesting that early exposure to cross-wind landings did trigger that immediate corrective response.

is that a grass strip and where is it?

I have a recent hardback version that I lend out to folks interested in flying or are going through their training.

While not to everyone’s taste, the style of writing is approachable and distils many somewhat technical concepts (for folks with a poor physics background) into very easily understandable passages.

The book is centred around on more how to fly an aircraft, rather than how an aircraft flies, but covers both equally well, and is quiet a refresher in all the current flight training manuals and regulations that one has to go through.

This book is also available as a boxer set with Weather Flying Robert Buck and Instrument Flying by Taylor.

The first of those is almost as good as Stick and Rudder.

This is still (after 74 years) a hugely popular book among student pilots to understand the basics of fling. Technically, very little has changed over all those years. Popular training and GA aircraft like the Cessna 152/172 are built and powered in the exact same way as back then.

Anybody here fly commercially? I always wanted to, then 9/11 happened in my 18th year and caused a lost decade for the aviation industry. Thinking about a mid-life career change now, but it’s going to be a very expensive endeavor.

It is definitely an expensive road but the regional level pay has gotten much better. The regional I just left was paying new pilots upwards of $55,000 first year. As a junior captain I left making around $120,000. Probably nothing among a crowd of software devs but far above the $23,000 I made my first year, 7 years ago.

If you already have a 4 year degree and a relatively stable financial situation then I’d say go for it! Major airlines are hiring like crazy and just about anyone without skeletons in their closet should be working for a major over the next 10 years because of mandatory retirement.

Great to hear that they solved the "mystery" of the lack of new pilots (paying a living wage helps...)

I don't but I'm a full-time CFI. It's a good time to be in aviation. There's a shortage of airline pilots, which leads to a shortage of instructors and other commercial pilots (banner towers, skydiving, etc.). Just don't do it for the money. :)

I'm debating taking the commercial checkride and doing it part-time. It's expensive to get the time for even basic commercial and seems impossible to get ATP unless your full-time.

I don't fly, but it's a tough road. Senior pilots at the big airlines make good money, but it takes a lot of years working for peanuts at the regionals to get there.

This is somewhat outdated information, it's gotten quite a bit better over the last year or two. Regionals are paying pretty good these days. Starting pay still isn't amazing, most are in the high 40s, but it doesn't take very long to move up and the average regional pilot is making $70k. Senior captains at the majors are making high 200s. Most of the regionals have signing bonuses, too.

don't rush - as someone who works commercially as a pilot, I can tell you this: important to keep the mix of the creative, curious and fold that into the flying - if you have an science engineering or creative background, find a way to make the flying thing interdisciplinary

Even if the content of this book were bunk, I'd still conclude that this author is great. Good reading for anyone who wants to write an instruction manual for anything.

this is a good compliment to Stick and Rudder: https://www.amazon.com/Compleat-Taildragger-Pilot-Harvey-Plo... if you are interested in getting into actual "stick and rudder" flying - tailwheel flying (while a bit of a dying art) is kind of key for all test, aerobatic, bush, and most "fun" types of flying where your "involved" with the machine

If you’re in the SF Bay Area, Palo Alto airport has several clubs offering primary flight training in the Citabria 7ECA (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Champion_Citabria). Student in the front, instructor in the back (and out of your line of sight), right hand on the stick between your knees, and left hand on the throttle. Tailwheel. 1120 lbs empty weight.


An intro flight will cost about $200.

In my bookshelf. I think that the most fundamental statement in Stick & Rudder is that you are flying a Wing. And a Wing is something that is inherently non-intuitive to most human beings.

Hate to be that guy, but I'm pretty sure this book is still under copyright; the author passed away in 2002. HN is probably not the right place to post this...

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