Un-Learning as You’re Learning How to Fly Airplanes

Shawn Arena

Okay, you have checked another box in your journey to earning your private pilot certificate. You and your instructor have set up a ground training schedule and an aircraft has been selected for your training. The next logical step then arrives, as you ask yourself, “So, HOW do I fly airplanes?” I’ll now provide you with an overview so you can answer that question.

Some Un-Learning is required

Since we spend our lives in a limited dimensional world on the ground, learning how to fly airplanes requires what I call ‘un-learning’. “What do you mean by that?” you may ask. As you are learning (or have learned) from your ground component of training, an aircraft operates in multiple dimensions as it is supported by the flow of the air around it.

To conduct many ground-based activities (like driving a car or riding a bicycle) much muscle input is required to accomplish the task. In an aircraft, however, very subtle yet direct muscular inputs and keen hand-eye coordination are required (as your flight instructor will remind you). Another piece of un-learning you’ll encounter is, since an aircraft is not designed for ground operations per se, that you use your feet instead of your hands to smoothly direct the aircraft while on the ground. You will quickly realize that while on the ground, your hand movements on the control yoke are basically useless.

A Quick Physics Lesson

Since the aircraft is designed to operate efficiently in the air, four forces of physics act upon it: Lift (Up), Gravity (down), Thrust (forward), and Drag (backward). In learning how to fly airplanes, you will find out (sometimes the hard way) that all four of these forces have to be in balance with each other. If one is not in agreement with the others, the aircraft will do something that you may not want it to do.

Today’s training aircraft are forgiving, allowing the student to get ‘a feel for the aircraft’. You will understand what your instructor means when he or she states, “Relax, become part of the aircraft, and things will become easier.” As each lesson progresses, the answer to the question “how do I fly airplanes” will be ingrained and easier to realize.

Flight Controls Management

As you gain confidence with every lesson, that hand-eye coordination will become second nature AND you will also realize the vestibular ‘feel’ in your body. Remember that sinking feeling you have when riding an elevator down? In an airplane, that feeling is magnified. Similarly, when that same elevator is rising quickly you feel a strange force pushing down on your body, and the same feeling (again magnified) is what your body feels in an airplane. Congratulations, you just discovered positive and negative g-forces!

That is where management of the flight controls comes into play. You pull back on the yoke or control stick and you go up (Lift), you push down and you go down (gravity). You accelerate the aircraft through the thrust control, you go forward (thrust), and you slow the airplane down, and drag (and gravity) take over. As you progress on how to fly airplanes, management of ailerons, rudder, flaps, and trim tabs become more important to control the pitch, yaw, and roll actions – THAT is how you fly airplanes! It is all about a smooth coordination of each of those individual three axes, that the aircraft operates.


As you progress through the basic training, a better understanding of physics, flight control, and hand-eye coordination management enlarges your physical world. It is so powerful that all five of your senses (yes, I mean all five) will forever be changed because you have experienced something very few people get to do in a lifetime. That physical (and physiological) impact on your body is something you will enjoy and treasure the rest of your life!

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