June 16, 1999


The most fun that I ever had instructing was in a Piper J-3 Cub. The Cub is a delightful plane in its own right, but this plane was special because the oil pressure gage was the only operative instrument on the entire panel. The tachometer hand waved wildly at all flight power settings, and the airspeed indicator hand laid dead. The altimeter was inaccurate, but consistent; if the plane was flying level, its hands would stay in one place.

Everything was done by feel, by sight, and by sound. I was liberated because I had no numbers to enforce, and the student had no numbers to adhere to. We became quite sensitive to the plane's motions and the little sounds that make up the cacophony of powered flight. One could look back and suspect that this was the pivotal experience which caused me to develop some of my rogue concepts toward flight instruction.

I have found over the years that students will rise to any rational challenge which confronts them. With a 150 foot wide runway available, students are inclined to let the plane wander 50 feet either side of the centerline, despite my exhortations that they stay in the center. An inspection of the 50 foot wide runway at Dundee though, shows 15 feet of undisturbed grass between each edge of the runway and the center lane. Students can easily land in the center of a narrow runway because they have to, but a wide runway invites laxity. The ability to precisely control the airplane lays in the hand of all average students, but the desire to attain precision is a matter of heart for both the student and the instructor.

Matching the plane to the runway is a physical thing, but flying without numbers is more of a psychological matter. My J-3 student accepted flight by feel because his alternative was to spurn the "family airplane" and fly a rental plane. Most contemporary airplanes have a panel full of gauges, and there is a strong temptation to gravitate towards their numbers for guidance.

Is it any surprise that we are "number-bound"? Most of us spent our formative years striving for numbers, and being rewarded (or chastised) with numbers. Numbers summarize all our years in school, and in the adult world, many use the numbers on the pay stub to keep the score. For better or worse, numbers identify and categorize each one of us, and everything else on God's green earth.

Many people are unnerved by the concept of flying an airplane with only casual reference to just a few numbers. They do not have the confidence to just wing it and follow various feelings, sights, and sounds, because they haven't ever done it before. The whole concept is too much like something that the Cheshire Cat might have offered to Alice.

The outdoor temperature is a perfect example of the everyday interactions of numbers with feelings. If the weather forecast calls for the temperature to be 90 degrees, you factor in the forecast cloud cover, breeze, and humidity, and decide what to wear, and how to plan your day. When given the temperature in Celsius however, most people draw a blank. Cut off from their accustomed relationship between temperature and feel, they try to convert the Celsius number to Fahrenheit rather than recalibrate their sense of feel for the new temperature scale. (Zero Celsius is freezing, and ten is warm, but only on a winter day. Twenty is comfortable, and thirty is hot, even on a summer day).

Numbers have their place in life and in airplanes too, but little airplanes are maneuvered by the hands of the craftsman. Only later, in the clouds and in faster and heavier planes, do the numbers become significant. The folks who sit in the two front seats of the airliner are awash in numbers, but in the end, that plane too is flown with the craftsman's hand.

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