Teaching Accurate Rudder Usage!

Misuse of the rudder while flying – usually too little or none at all – is a sure sign that some aviation educator failed their student during initial training. This sloppy “flat foot flying” or “driving an aircraft” is sometimes a symptom of an burned out CFI who has just “given up” and does not care any more. This CFI is tolerating sloppy flying out of frustration (“whatever!”). But it is also true that some CFIs were themselves taught badly and cannot sense or teach accurate rudder usage. There are easy exercises to teach rudder (standby for that…) but first, every pilot has to appreciate that lack of correct rudder usage is the heart of unsafe flying. Improper yaw control leads directly to loss of control accidents in the pattern (57% of fatals) – we touched on this elsewhere. This article however is “Rudder 101,” porviding CFI resources to build appreciation and proper usage of this misunderstood and underutilized control. A pilot without yaw control does not understand the most basic principles of flying; they are still “driving the plane” and it isn’t pretty or safe. As professional aviation educators, we can fix this. ( And if you are a pilot reading, there is great benefit here for you also)

To clearly define terms for this discussion, by “driving an airplane” I mean just cranking the yoke or deflecting the stick like a automobile without correcting for adverse yaw with the rudder. And it is obviously much harder to successfully rehabilitate a “numb butt” than to initially teach accurate, correct rudder usage. Creating and illustrating the aerodynamic principles and developing an appreciation for the *need* for correct rudder is the first step; some pilots do not detect their slip/skid flying and cannot understand the need. Entrenched habits and lack of caring about rudder usage require unlearning first to develop new habits; “no need no sale.” Then, every pilot initially learning, rusty relearning, or continuing proficiency has to overcome their “driving habit” (we all drive much more than we fly). In a normal syllabus, accurate and appropriate rudder usage has to begin during flight lesson #1; “demonstrate that flying is clearly and demonstrably NOT driving!”

So when your new student (or your recovering “numb butt”) is up at altitude in the airplane, just demonstrate an extreme “driving turn” with no rudder and make the problem obvious! If you crank the yoke (deflect the ailerons) aggresively in one direction the nose predictably yaws off in the other direction (a prebrief on adverse yaw is obviously essential to create “step one” understanding). A couple of these gyrations aggressively applied might also induce a bit of nausea (and that might be a “good thing” – uncoordination makes me sick in a plane!) Next, illustrate a well coordinated roll on a distant point on the horizon (eyes outside, not on the ball please) Help your pilot in training try a coordinated turn and demonstrate how much smoother and easier on the stomach it is appropriate rudder is applied. Here is a great Rod Machado video to show a student illustrating this technique:

Now pick a point on the distant horizon and roll with correct coordination on a single point and sustain a level turn for a while. Have your pilot in training practice this with eyes entirely outside; roll into a 30 degree banked turn (make sure the release the rudder pressure) and continue  for 90 degrees of stable turning (This is a good time to mention and practice the appropriate amount of back pressure if it is a new learner). Reverse after 90 degrees of turn in the other direction. This reversal is initially more of a challenge but perfectly illustrates accurate yaw cancelling. After a few cycles of turning, try rolling into a bank and reversing on a single point without letting the airplane enter the turn (many pilots call this a “Dutch Roll”). This exercise should be part of every initial flight lesson; and tunes up the feet and overcomes our more common “driving impulse.” Every aircraft requires a different amont of rudder pressure so this is something I do on down wind in every airplane (solo, not with the boss in the back). This exercise is very efficient and only takes about as long as this description required; easy and effective!

This introduction can be followed by more advanced illustrations of yaw correction if your pilot immediately “gets it.” When flying level at approach speed, apply and reduce power aggressively (with NO yaw correction) to demonstrate the left-yaw effects and the necessary application of rudder to hold a distant point on the horizon. As power is applied, right rudder is necessary. (I make this a “muscle memory exercise” – as the right hand goes in with more power, the right rudder is applied).

Finally, illustrate that as the nose pitch is aggressively increased, left turning tendencies are created requiring right rudder to cancel yaw to the left. And when you combine these two forces (as in a take-off or simulated go-around) the right rudder force is more obvious. Again, this is lesson #1 and 2; vital understanding of the physics at work.

These are understandings and skills every pilot in training needs to successfully take off and turn; lesson #1 and 2. As soon as your pilot in training has mastered these skills, turn over the control and responsibility completely to your new pilot (with no educator intervention or correction). This is the incredibly valuable incremental mastery we mentioned in an earlier blog. This empowers and motivates your new pilot and starts them on the road to assuming full control PIC (essential but rare in student training).

Notice that yaw is so much easier to illustrate in its pure form if you remove and practice these exercises in isolation from “the scenario.”  Once you practice this “yaw cancelling” as a distinct and pure exercise with a little drill and repetition it is quickly mastered and available for all future flying. Unfortunately, in most pilot training, appreciation of yaw forces gets lost in the continuing scenario and the CFI just ends up just bleating out “more right rudder” in a meaningless fashion. Most pilots never learn to properly use the rudder.

Once basic rudder understanding and proficiency are completed in isolation, we reassemble this package resuming a “normal flying scenario” and apply it in every maneuver. This is analogous to practiceing scales on piano during initial training *before* we attempt Chopin. A few times through these exercises and your new pilot will only require an occasional “right rudder” reminder or tune up. Pilots trained correctly instinctively sense yaw (“something feels wrong here”) and apply appropriate/accurate rudder. We’ll discuss more advanced rudder exercises next week; fly safe (and often)!


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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