Our Overton Window
Air Facts Journal

This window of discourse got me thinking about our understanding as it relates to aviation and specifically to flying. A brief encounter with the window suggests that thoughts, understanding, and reasoning go through a continuous phase transition leading to a frameshift of our comprehension of the worldview and our place in it. There is a wilderness of possibility inside of us that invokes curiosity and hopefully some humility within. Thus, begins the journey through our Overton Window with the ensuing examples below.

overton window

The Vascular Surgeon.

Several years ago, a friend of mine who happened to be a vascular surgeon, juiced up on adrenaline spending many hours in the operating room day and night, wanted to go up for a flight. I accommodated his desire, and we flew for a 100 mile hamburger. Upon our return, we saw a beautiful site of multicolored balloons in the air against the blue sky. The tiny white patches of clouds in that backdrop were spectacular to my view. After landing, I asked him how he found that introductory flight? His answer was interesting; “Is that all there is to it?” I asked him what more was he looking for. “Oh, you know some loops and rolls and better speed.” Hmm, I thought, this dude better stay driving his Corvette. His Overton Window was stuck and shaded. Thrill seeking is fraught with hazards within any occupation. Perhaps he needed an outlet from the stressors in his professional life, but aviation was probably not the correct one.

The Simulator.

Before I was certified as an instructor, I was invited into a Falcon 20 simulator for a virtual flight. I hastily agreed. After all the preliminaries, and in full command of the cockpit, we, my instructor and I, took off on a simulated flight from Teterboro, New Jersey enroute to Norfolk, Virginia (short flight) at 15,000 feet. So, there I was hand-flying this simulator. Soon my arms were sore from the tension of keeping the heading and the altitude within the 100-foot tolerance, and we were barely over the southern tip of New Jersey. I was riding the artificially created scattered cloudy sky like a dolphin. After a while, the instructor took pity on my condition and simply showed me the wonders of a trimmed aircraft for level flight. And all the tension disappeared! My Window had transitioned to a new reality. Thus, began my journey in educating others.

The 360s.

The other day, flying in a Debonaire in the right seat, I asked the pilot to perform a 45-degree 360-degree left and right turns. It was difficult for him. I then showed him the manual trim and its magic of controlling the yoke with a thumb and forefinger while the aircraft merrily, and without changing its pitch, kept flying without much intervention. His moment of “Aha” had arrived and I could see the tension disappear, and the smile at the corners slowly filling in the gap of his understanding. “This is so neat!” he exclaimed. Indeed, it is. I have done countless such demonstrations, and each pilot is rewarded with a sense of happiness to be one with the aircraft thanks to a patient instructor in a simulator a long time ago.

Cessna 172 trim wheel

The manual trim is magical in controlling the yoke with a thumb and forefinger.

By the Numbers.

Another Window that, after two hours of flight in a A36 Bonanza, had remained unmoving and stuck at “acceptable” for its owner and operator, suddenly shifted to “logical and reasonable.” Although I did not quite see it then, it was obvious later. I had the pilot climb 1,000 feet and, simultaneously, do a 360-degree turn arriving at the designated heading at the right altitude. He started the procedure pulling on the yoke and zooming up 200 feet with a 25 MP and 2500 RPM setting. The chase was on. It reminded me of the ILS approaches that many Instrument-rated pilots do, ‘chasing needles’ when they fly oblivious of the “Flight by the Numbers.” Getting back to our pilot who made a butchery of the turns, his feet remained planted on the floorboards and his hands teased the yoke mercilessly, making the aircraft groan and moan with each passing dip and rise. After he was done, seemingly satisfied in his performance, he asked, “what else?” I looked at him and said, “that was pretty good, but what parameters were you using to do the procedure?” He looked with a frozen expression on his face back at me as if I had grown a Medusa’s head. I explained the basics to him and asked him to try again. He was a quick study and performed much better. I could see the smile on his face, his Overton Window had moved.

You might ask what I told him? Simple really, I asked him how many minutes does it take to do a 360-degree, standard rate turn? He said “why, two minutes, of course!” I asked, “If you climbed at a rate of 500 feet-per-minute, how long would it take to gain 1,000 feet?” His face lit up! The muddy shores had just received a fresh-water wave.

Most times asking questions and then experiencing, releases the hidden and minimally used abilities to bubble up and reveal themselves. It creates a state of comprehension and a moment of great comfort to realize that the aircraft is built to fly and do a darn good job of doing it without too many inputs.

The Power Jockey.

He was in his forties when we flew together in his V-tail Bonanza. I could tell he was a good pilot. His skills were excellent, and his anticipation was admirable. The aircraft was a like a glove on his hands. He could command his aircraft to do most anything you asked him to execute. But he had the habit of jamming power at the approach end of the runway and with a shove on the throttle, and a quick pull on the yoke, he would take off. On the other side of the flight, he also used the “chop and drop” method of landing. I wrestled with the thought of whether it would be good to undertake this since he had been doing it for most of his flying life. The better part of valor was to keep my opinion to myself, but he asked me if I could show him my technique for an ILS approach. Hmm, I thought this might be the chance I needed.

bonanza takeoff

While a good pilot, my student had the habit of jamming the throttle in to begin the takeoff roll.

As luck would have it, I asked if I could do a short round-robin trip departing the airport and returning to the same airport and fly the entire maneuver. He was okay with it. We landed and I took over the controls from the right seat and went about the pre-takeoff checklist with him. After lining up on the runway, I slowly and deliberately advanced the throttle marking the airspeed, oil pressure, and speeds. Upon reaching five knots before the rotation speed, I merely tugged on the manual trim slightly and the aircraft rose without hesitation. Upon returning for the ILS approach, I called out the power settings of 18 inches of MP and 2400 RPM. I put the gear down one dot above the glideslope and let the drag bring the aircraft down at its 550 foot-per-minute descent rate. I did not touch the flaps. Upon reaching our agreed upon, 500-foot ceiling, I put the flaps down and, without touching the power until the runway was made, I glided the aircraft to a (lucky for me) smooth landing. After we got out of the aircraft and onto a seat in the restaurant, he said, “I liked the way you did that. I’d like to fly another time with you so I can master that technique.” “Sure,” I said, “it would be my pleasure!”

LOP vs. ROP

The A&Ps holler at you for flying lean of peak EGT (LOP) and they always point to it as the cause if the valves fail, or the compression is low, or any myriad of engine issues that arise. I have been on the receiving end of that many times, even from the folks who make engines, “Fly rich of peak (ROP), the engine was made that way,” they claim. There is a huge discourse regarding this issue in various channels of communication. My claim is simple. LOP seems to keep the engine cool as the combustion is more complete and with less carbon monoxide byproduct, there is less carbon on the plugs and the valves and less gasoline is utilized, with the only negative being losing a few knots of speed. Unfortunately, this discussion will bring the two camps into blows if I continue with this part of the discourse. Suffice it is to say, there is merit in both.

Bonanza 36

There is merit to flying ROP and LOP.

The A36 Bonanza is rated to fly at 178 knots ROP at 6,000 feet. That is true, I have flown it that way to prove to myself and other pilots. But in my mind, ROP leads to higher intra-cylinder pressures (ICPs) and higher heat production. ROP also uses extra fuel, hence more unburned gasses and metals, given the minor imperfection in the state of metallurgy and the myriad of moving parts soaked in that heat which, over time, might not handle this hot onslaught leading to deformation. Conversely, as you go LOP, the CHTs come down due to more complete combustion of the fuel (hence lower ICPs) and the fuel flow (FF) is reduced proportionately, producing a “ka-Ching” moment in your pocketbook. LOP reverses all the excess mentioned above, but as mentioned, it diminishes that “I have the need for speed” moment. You can lose up to five knots or more. To that I say, “To each his/her own!” Although a caveat here is that Lycoming engines love to fly ROP. They have robust valves with sodium in their veins and a camshaft high up near the valves. The Continental engines prefer the LOP version of fligh—they have solid valves with brute force running in their circulation and the camshaft is near the cranky one, so they tell me.

This window remains open for transitions, back and forth, for all who care to delve into this subject deeply, and that is always a good thing. Such is the nature of this complication of complexities with a “chaos of forms” as Hermann Hesse stated, that defines this subject with arguers standing firm at their posts on both sides. The debate continues.

Our job as instructors is to open the windows of knowledge and bring the harbor of comfort and of their personal understanding to the pilot at the fore.

Fly safe. Fly long. And as Spock would say, “Live Long and Prosper!”

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