removing the death grip

I was a very tightly wound student while working on my private. There were tension headaches after some lessons. The morning after we did soft field landings my shoulders ached from how much tension I had held in my body during that lesson. Granted the soft field we were using had a power line on approach and a house at the end of the runway on departure. As we got up into ground effect my CFI’s instructions were to “aim for the house.” His objective was to keep me flying in ground effect and not try to climb too soon, but I hope it’s the only time I ever hear someone tell me to “aim for the house” while flying.

There was also the death grip on the yoke. A lot of students start by holding onto the yoke really tightly. Does it make us feel like we have more control? As we start to learn to feel how the airplane is flying we learn that a death grip has the opposite affect. It makes our movements a little clumsy and causes us to over control and over correct the airplane. We start to learn that a light touch is all we need to make those micro-adjustments to keep the airplane were we want it. We need to release that death grip.

When I say I was a  “very tightly wound student”, I mean a really tightly wound student. For every student solo, the sign-off conversation with my instructor finished something like this:

CFI: “Sarah, what’s the number one rule of flying?”

Me: “First fly the airplane. No, wait. You can always go around. Or is it, altitude is your friend.”

CFI: “The number one rule is RELAX! And have fun.”

Me: “I am having fun! I’ll relax later.”

Thankfully I don’t fly with all of that tension any more. I still fly with more tension than I should. There is a lot about flying, aviation, and airplanes that a low-hour pilot like myself doesn’t know and I don’t take that lightly.


Today, however, there was a small, but noticeable, breakthrough in my comfort level in the air. I was headed back to my home airport after a short, hour-building cross-country flight. My home airport is class C and I had just contacted approach to let them know who I was and my intention to land there. The next couple of minutes were exactly as you would expect – approach provided a squawk code, confirmed radar contact, and informed me to expect a specific runway. While that was happening, off in the distance I could see the tell-tale lakes near the airport. I knew where I was, where I was going, and someone had me on their radar. For the next 20 minutes all I needed to do was sit back, enjoy the view, and fly the airplane. That’s exactly what I did. I leaned back in the seat – giving myself the best broad view of the aviation instrumentation to keep an eye on everything and good view of the airspace around me.

As my back came in contact with the seat there was the strange realization that this was unfamiliar. I did not know the feeling of being in contact with the back of the seat. Apparently I’m always leaning forward when I fly. This was the first time that I had relaxed enough to lean back in the seat.

Like releasing the death grip on the yoke, leaning back in the seat was a moment in which being a little more relaxed made it easier to fly the airplane. By leaning back, all of the instrumentation was in my field of view. I would have a better chance of noticing something that was askew. It wasn’t a big thing, but it felt like a milestone.

That’s a cool thing about being a pilot, you are always learning and always getting better. It may be something big like getting another rating or endorsement. Or it may be a little thing like being more relaxed at the controls.

Happy flying!

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