Straight-and-Level Flight – Pitch Control (Part Two)

Partial Panel Flight

One important skill to practice is partial panel flight by referencing the altimeter as the primary pitch indicator. Practice controlling the pitch by referencing the altitude tape and trend indicator alone without the use of the attitude indicator. Pilots need to learn to make corrections to altitude deviations by referencing the rate of change of the altitude tape and trend indicator. When operating in IMC and in a partial panel configuration, the pilot should avoid abrupt changes to the control yoke. Reacting abruptly to altitude changes can lead to large pitch changes and thus a larger divergence from the initial altitude.


When a pilot is controlling pitch by the altitude tape and altitude trend indicators alone, it is possible to overcontrol the aircraft by making a larger than necessary pitch correction. Overcontrolling causes the pilot to move from a nose-high attitude to a nose-low attitude and vice versa. Small changes to pitch are required to insure prompt corrective actions are taken to return the aircraft to its original altitude with less confusion.

When an altitude deviation occurs, two actions need to be accomplished. First, make a smooth control input to stop the needle movement. Once the altitude tape has stopped moving, make a change to the pitch attitude to start back to the entry altitude.

During instrument flight with limited instrumentation, it is imperative that only small and precise control inputs are made. Once a needle movement is indicated denoting a deviation in altitude, the pilot needs to make small control inputs to stop the deviation. Rapid control movements only compound the deviation by causing an oscillation effect. This type of oscillation can quickly cause the pilot to become disoriented and begin to fixate on the altitude. Fixation on the altimeter can lead to a loss of directional control as well as airspeed control.

As a general rule of thumb, for altitude deviations less than 100 feet, utilize a pitch change of 1 degree, which equates to 1⁄5 of the thickness of the chevron. Small incremental pitch changes allow the performance to be evaluated and eliminate overcontrolling of the aircraft.

Instrumentation needs to be utilized collectively, but failures will occur that leave the pilot with only limited instrumentation. That is why partial panel flying training is important. If the pilot understands how to utilize each instrument independently, no significant change is encountered in carrying out the flight when other instruments fail.

VSI Tape

The VSI tape provides for an indirect indication of pitch attitude and gives the pilot a more immediate indication of a pending altitude deviation. In addition to trend information, the vertical speed also gives a rate indication. By using the VSI tape in conjunction with the altitude trend tape, a pilot has a better understanding of how much of a correction needs to be made. With practice, the pilot will learn the performance of a particular aircraft and know how much pitch change is required in order to correct for a specific rate indication.

Unlike older analog VSIs, new glass panel displays have instantaneous VSIs. Older units had a lag designed into the system that was utilized to indicate rate information. The new glass panel displays utilize a digital air data computer that does not indicate a lag. Altitude changes are shown immediately and can be corrected for quickly.


The VSI tape should be used to assist in determining what pitch changes are necessary to return to the desired altitude. A good rule of thumb is to use a vertical speed rate of change that is double the altitude deviation. However, at no time should the rate of change be more than the optimum rate of climb or descent for the specific aircraft being flown. For example, if the altitude is off by 200 feet from the desired altitude, then a 400 feet per minute (fpm) rate of change would be sufficient to get the aircraft back to the original altitude. If the altitude has changed by 700 feet, then doubling that would necessitate a 1,400 fpm change. Most aircraft are not capable of that, so restrict changes to no more than optimum climb and descent. An optimum rate of change would vary between 500 and 1,000 fpm.

One error the instrument pilot encounters is overcontrolling. Overcontrolling occurs when a deviation of more than 200 fpm is indicated over the optimum rate of change. For example, an altitude deviation of 200 feet is indicated on the altimeter, a vertical speed rate of 400 feet should be indicated on the gauge. If the vertical speed rate showed 600 fpm (200 more than optimum), the pilot would be overcontrolling the aircraft.

When returning to altitude, the primary pitch instrument is the VSI tape. If any deviation from the desired vertical speed is indicated, make the appropriate pitch change using the attitude indicator.

As the aircraft approaches the target altitude, the vertical speed rate can be slowed in order to capture the altitude in a more stabilized fashion. Normally within 10 percent of the rate of climb or descent from the target altitude, begin to slow the vertical speed rate in order to level off at the target altitude. This allows the pilot to level at the desired altitude without rapid control inputs or experiencing discomfort due to G-load.


Airspeed Indicator (ASI)

The ASI presents an indirect indication of the pitch attitude. At a constant power setting and pitch attitude, airspeed remains constant. As the pitch attitude lowers, airspeed increases, and the nose should be raised.

As the pitch attitude is increased, the nose of the aircraft raises, which results in an increase in the angle of attack as well as an increase in induced drag. The increased drag begins to slow the momentum of the aircraft, which is indicated on the ASI. The airspeed trend indicator shows a trend as to where the airspeed will be in 6 seconds. Conversely, if the nose of the aircraft should begin to fall, the angle of attack, as well as induced drag, decreases.

There is a lag associated with the ASI when using it as a pitch instrument. It is not a lag associated with the construction of the ASI, but a lag associated with momentum change. Depending on the rate of momentum change, the ASI may not indicate a pitch change in a timely fashion. If the ASI is being used as the sole reference for pitch change, it may not allow for a prompt correction. However, if smooth pitch changes are executed, modern glass panel displays are capable of indicating 1 knot changes in airspeed and also capable of projecting airspeed trends.

When flying by reference to flight instruments alone, it is imperative that all of the flight instruments be crosschecked for pitch control. By cross-checking all pitch related instruments, the pilot can better visualize the aircraft attitude at all times.

As previously stated, the primary instrument for pitch is the instrument that gives the pilot the most pertinent information for a specific parameter. When in level flight and maintaining a constant altitude, what instrument shows a direct indication of altitude? The only instrument that is capable of showing altitude is the altimeter. The other instruments are supporting instruments that are capable of showing a trend away from altitude, but do not directly indicate an altitude.

The supporting instruments forewarn of an impending altitude deviation. With an efficient cross-check, a proficient pilot is better able to maintain altitude.

Flight Literacy Recommends

William Kershner's Instrument Flight Manual - Everything you need to know to obtain an FAA instrument rating, or a great refresher for existing instrument pilots. Covered subjects include airplane performance and basic instrument flying, navigation and communications, clearances, planning IFR flight, and carrying out the instrument flight itself from preflight, takeoff and departure, en route, through to the approach and landing phases.