Pitch vs. Power: Landing Better

10 Jul 09 9 Comments

Flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

When I first started flying, I presumed that the phrase was referring to the take-off and landing. I hadn’t even begun to conceive of things going wrong in the air; flying from A to B was the easy bit. Getting into the air and getting back down, well, that was where I found my heart beginning to race.


Now that I am only flying intermittently, I’m very aware that my skill-set is diminishing when I don’t get up into the air regularly. The first sign that I’m falling out of date is the quality of my landings. A simple flight after weeks of sitting on the ground is much more stressful than it should be. Instead of instinctively knowing what’s next, I have to think hard and I fall behind the plane, desperately trying to keep up with everything that needs doing.

A major change that has helped me in the Saratoga is shifting from the traditional approach. Like most PPLs, I was taught to use attitude to control airspeed and power to control height. However, the inertia of the Saratoga and its tendency to sink like a stone at low speed, combined with my inability to nudge the power gently enough to keep my pitch steady, can make this difficult. A bad approach can feel like a ship in heavy weather as I adjust the power back and forth to try to keep my perspective of the runway correct.

North Weald

I flew with a commercial pilot last year and he mentioned that this was not the best system for fast planes. When flying a jet, he told me, pilots always used attitude for height and power to control airspeed.

This is referenced in one of my favourite books, Beyond the PPL

In days of yore, instructors always taught that on the approach you should control airspeed with pitch and maintain the correct glideslope with the throttle.

The technique taught was (and still is) a good device for getting students to co-ordinate properly their applications of pitch and throttle.


So the old-fashioned technique is not appropriate for a jet and its pilots are therefore taught to adjust speed with throttle and glideslope with pitch control. The need to co-ordinate pitch and throttle remains as before, but the cardinal requirement for the jet pilot is to monitor the speed on the approach to a degree which usually amazes piston pilots at first. You simply HAVE to nail that speed and catch any departure before it has a chance to develop into anything the least bit significant.

Once I started looking into methods for final approach, I found a lot of discussion about pitch and power. It seems clear that attitude for speed and power for height makes for one of the most practical demonstrations of secondary effects. It also works: I was very happy using pitch and power that way in the Cessna 172 that I trained in.

More power!

But the moment I shifted to using power for speed and pitch for height in the Saratoga, my landings improved. After two days of flying touch-and-go over various airfields, I felt confident in my ability to land this way: point the plane at the numbers and hold it there, use the throttle to adjust the speed. My adjustments remained minor and my approaches became smoother than they’d ever been before. My passengers were amazed at the difference.

However, I don’t think that it not simply a case of turning the controls around. The critical factor is that I began to control the plane using both systems. I finally grasped that it isn’t a question of using pitch or power but that they are completely interlinked. I’m sure this was stated a million times in the PPL but I only understood this as a theoretical concept. I didn’t really have an instinctive feel for the fact that you can’t change one without affecting the other.

I love long finals now simply because I can see how perfectly everything works together. I set up my approach and now I’m holding the pitch steady and watching my touchdown point and my airspeed. I can almost visualise a road leading down to the runway and just a tap on the controls to keep me travelling on it. I know the correct approach speed and holding to it has never felt so easy. My interaction with both the controls affecting both height and speed means that I avoid the abrupt power changes and my approaches no longer make people seasick.


When I completed my PPL, my instructor told me that my flying was perfectly competent but that I lacked finesse. It’s been a few years but I feel like I’m starting to understand what he meant and that just maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this flying thing. Now, if only I could learn to use a soft touch on the rudder and keep that damn ball in the centre, maybe he’d agree.

If you enjoyed this post, you would probably like my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman at Amazon.

Category: Flying,


  • Sylvia,
    I really enjoyed readinf this post. I recently obtained my PPL and have expenses to fly regularly. As time goes by I find myself developing an anxiety towards flying. Right now my biggest concerns are winds. I don’t enjoy flying in anything greater than about 6kts. At the sametime, I find my self wanting to get out there and improve in those conditions. This has lead to an internal struggle between knowlege of my own limits and the need to continuously improve. Anyway, thanks for the post. If you have time check out my blog.

  • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. As you can see, it takes a long time to get confidence up, especially when you can’t fly regularly. Stick to it and look into sharing flights with other people, so that you can look out for each other. This helped me a lot, both in terms of feeling more secure flying with a second pair of eyes and building confidence in my own abilities.

  • Any instructor who told you to use ONLY power to control the vertical and pitch for speed (or vice versa) was giving you bad advice.
    The two are intertwined (as you discovered on your own). You must look at it as an energy equation. You can add energy to the system by adding power or decreasing altitude.
    Adjust the pitch and it will affect your flight path AND speed (duh!).
    For any flight path and speed there is a pitch and power combination that works. Make adjustments to that as necessary.
    For example, if you are on the glideslope and you know it takes 1800 rpm to maintain it at the desired approach speed; if you get low, you probably also gain a little speed. pull up to get back the glideslope and the speed will correct itself(if not, then perhaps you had a headwind and the pitch/power formula needs a tweak). If you aren’t also fast, and the correction isn’t just a minor tweak, you’ll need to add power. Might as well do it with the pitch change (you are changing your flight path, afterall)or you WILL end up slow. When you regain the glideslope, reestablish the pitch power combo that works, adjusted for the new reality.
    I think you’ll find that using pitch for vertical control power for speed control is more responsive. But you have to realize that each input affects both outcomes. It’s a SYSTEM, not to individual separate things.

    (the author is a wide body captian/instructor/checkpilot, glider pilot, and long time light airplane pilot and instructor)

  • Yes, I think understanding that system is what’s taken me a long time (and I’m not sure my initial instructor would have done anything but confuse me if he’d tried to make this clearer). I am definitely finding it easier now that I’m predominantly using pitch for vertical control/power for speed.

    But I think learning it the other way around helps to understand the secondary effects (as it’s not intuitive?).

  • The same rules of physics apply to your car. Go down a steep hill and you’ll see that the position of the gas pedal isn’t the only thing that controls speed. It’s the combination of the steepness of the hill (up,down,or lack thereof) AND the gas pedal position. I don’t know why it’s so hard for instructors to convey that simple analogy, and opt for a power =altitude philosophy which is only partially true.
    Interestingly enough, speaking of an “energy system” some gliders have a pitot/static tube design called a “total energy probe.” This design attempts to compensate for the tradeoff between altitude and airspeed in short term maneuvering (and it does a pretty good job at it). The probe affects the indications on the variometer (a sensitive vertical speed indicator) so as not to display rates of climb or descent that are simply tradeoffs between altitude and airspeed. Total_Energy_Compensation

  • Now this is something we all learn at some point – A great little article.

    As an aside, I’m learning to fly with Flight Training Europe in Jerez. They teach the ‘nail the speed’ method, and teach it very well, but then they are training us to (hopefully, and job-market dependant) become airline pilots.

    I flew into Malaga just the other day on an IFR land-away. Grand fun and your picture brought back the whole experience wonderfully :D

    Keep up the great writing!


  • Nice post this is what i encountered in the very beginning but as hours went by the mystery unfolded — energy management/..

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