How to Takeoff and Climb without Chasing the Airspeed Needle

You realize that she was right. Airspeed is controlled by the elevator control because pilots adjust pitch attitude with the elevator control.

Here’s how you come to that realization: It’s your turn to fly. Focusing on the airspeed indicator, you push your nose down until it points at the right airspeed. Good… not so good. The airspeed continues to climb. So you raise the nose until the once again points at the right speed. Good… not again? This time it continues to fall.

Your instructor shows you that she is controlling the airspeed with pitch attitude. She points out that she uses the elevator control to adjust pitch attitude. She explains that, for a pilot, pitch attitude is measured by noting where the horizon rests above or below the top of the engine nacelle (a.k.a. cowling). She raises the nose a bit. The horizon drops a little farther below the top of the cowling. The airspeed indicator gives up a few knots. To emphasize the point, she drops the nose and the plane gathers more speed.

She tells you that you need to be ‘mentally outside of the airplane.’ She goes on to explain that the best procedure is to look at the airspeed indicator and note its value. Then look at the pitch attitude. Only then can you safely change your pitch attitude.

If the airspeed it too high, raise your pitch attitude to a trial pitch attitude. Hold it there, and then look at the airspeed indicator. Only once the airspeed has stabilized, do you adjust your pitch attitude. When the airspeed stabilizes at the right airspeed, hold that pitch attitude to maintain a constant airspeed.

She explains that you were ‘chasing the needle.’ This is caused by pilot fixation. It can be deadly.

The cure is by ‘being outside of the cockpit.’ Even when flying strictly on instruments, you must be mentally outside of the cockpit.

Now she goes into a bit subtler subject – one that plagues MOST novice pilots – using rudders. She tells to rest your feet lightly on the rudder pedals – do it gently with your heels on the floor. You do. Then she asks, “What do you feel and see when I take my feet off the rudder pedals?”

This is your introduction to P-factor. You feel the right rudder pedal push on your right foot and see the nose yaw (swing) to the left. She says that this is P-factor; it is caused by the descending propeller blade having a higher angle of attack than the ascending blade, moving the propeller’s center of trust to the right.

This means nothing to you. Undaunted, you resolve to Google ‘angle of attack’ and ‘P-factor’ before the next lesson.

She tells you to climb with the wings level using ailerons, to keep the nose from yawing with your rudder pedals and to adjust your pitch attitude until the airspeed settles down where you want it. You try it. You’ve got the airplane.

Moving back to the practical issues at hand on this flight, she points out that once you reach the altitude you want to maintain, the role of the elevator changes from controlling airspeed to controlling altitude.

Her preferred method of leveling off is to continue climbing about 50 feet above your target altitude then to gain airspeed as you descend back down. You continue at full throttle until established at the target altitude and near the cruising airspeed. Then reduce RPM to cruise power setting.

If you are above 3,000 feet, she tells you to slowly lean the mixture by pulling out on the mixture control until the RPM starts to fall then to return the mixture control to peak RPM. She explains that not only does this conserve fuel, it minimizes carbon build-up on the sparkplugs – something that could cause fouling and power loss.

She points out that once the airplane has accelerated to cruise speed while flying at cruise power – typically 65% – 75% of maximum power – that you no longer need to press on the right rudder pedal… the P-factor has disappeared.

You discover that you still need to monitor your pitch attitude but now to maintain constant altitude rather than constant airspeed. Now that you’ve learned your lesson about chasing the needle, you check the altimeter to see if you are at, above or below your target altitude. You make small attitude adjustments while looking at the horizon in relation to the top of the engine cowling.

My next post is more about staying on altitude. It’s How to stay on Altitude without Concentrating Intently. Look for it.

I appreciate all the feedback I’ve been getting. But I’m looking for your feedback. What do you want discussed? Leave a comment, contact me directly, or both.


  1. Ettore on October 28, 2018 at 08:46

    As always, I enjoyed the article, simple and effective language. The instructor is really good. Thanks

  2. David Stum on October 30, 2018 at 01:59

    That’s the first time i have heard to pass your target altitude, then descend back to it. With only +/- 1ooft. on a checkride, i’d be concerned i might fly through my target. I am interested in the method though 😊.

  3. Mariobedayo on December 19, 2018 at 23:03

    For senior pilots this good for review…. Good instructor my instructor one of the best.

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