The ability to sense a flight condition, without relying on cockpit instrumentation, is often called “feel of the airplane,” but senses in addition to “feel” are involved.
Sounds inherent to flight are an important sense in developing “feel.” The air that rushes past the modern light plane cockpit/cabin is often masked by soundproofing, but it can still be heard. When the level of sound increases, it indicates that airspeed is increasing. Also, the powerplant emits distinctive sound patterns in different conditions of flight. The sound of the engine in cruise flight may be different from that in a climb, and different again from that in a dive. When power is used in fixed-pitch propeller airplanes, the loss of r.p.m. is particularly noticeable. The amount of noise that can be heard will depend on how much the slipstream masks it out. But the relationship between slipstream noise and powerplant noise aids the pilot in estimating not only the present airspeed but the trend of the airspeed.
There are three sources of actual “feel” that are very important to the pilot. One is the pilot’s own body as it responds to forces of acceleration. The “G” loads imposed on the airframe are also felt by the pilot. Centripetal accelerations force the pilot down into the seat or raise the pilot against the seat belt. Radial accelerations, as they produce slips or skids of the airframe, shift the pilot from side to side in the seat. These forces need not be strong, only perceptible by the pilot to be useful. An accomplished pilot who has excellent “feel” for the airplane will be able to detect even the minutest change.
The response of the aileron and rudder controls to the pilot’s touch is another element of “feel,” and is one that provides direct information concerning airspeed. As previously stated, control surfaces move in the airstream and meet resistance proportional to the speed of the airstream. When the airstream is fast, the controls are stiff and hard to move. When the airstream is slow, the controls move easily, but must be deflected a greater distance. The pressure that must be exerted on the controls to effect a desired result, and the lag between their movement and the response of the airplane, becomes greater as airspeed decreases.
Another type of “feel” comes to the pilot through the airframe. It consists mainly of vibration. An example is the aerodynamic buffeting and shaking that precedes a stall.
Kinesthesia, or the sensing of changes in direction or speed of motion, is one of the most important senses a pilot can develop. When properly developed, kinesthesia can warn the pilot of changes in speed and/or the beginning of a settling or mushing of the airplane.
The senses that contribute to “feel” of the airplane are inherent in every person. However, “feel” must be developed. The flight instructor should direct the beginning pilot to be attuned to these senses and teach an awareness of their meaning as it relates to various conditions of flight. To do this effectively, the flight instructor must fully understand the difference between perceiving something and merely noticing it. It is a well established fact that the pilot who develops a “feel” for the airplane early in flight training will have little difficulty with advanced flight maneuvers.