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# 73 Descending Too Soon

As Wolfgang Langewiesche said in “Stick and Rudder”, “Altitude is money in the bank, but airspeed is money in your pocket”.  That’s why I stress gaining speed in ground effect when we’re taking off.  But that’s not what concerned me when I thought about the title of this little article.


“Does that engine sound a bit rough to you?”

It was altitude as “money in the bank” that was concerning me.  I was wondering why so many pilots are in such a big hurry to squander that altitude.  Altitude represents safety if the fan quits.  The higher you are, the more time you have before you glide to the ground and the further you can glide before you have to put it down.  It also represents stored energy.  It can be converted to airspeed and time saved.

When we’re returning to our home airport in Sisters, Oregon, we often have to cross some places where I’d just as soon not have to land.  So why do so many pilots want to start that descent so far out?  And why do they want to reduce the power below cruise to do so?  All that does is increase the time to their destination and decrease the amount of energy stored for later use.

Here’s what I’d really like to see.  And I’d like to know if you think that what I’m saying makes sense:  By maintaining a cruise altitude longer, we also maintain a margin of safety that’s just not there anymore if we begin a long descent many miles out.  I like to see my students maintain their altitude as they head for home.  I like them to do some rough mental calculations that will enable them to stay high longer, then eventually use “cruise descent” to intercept the power-off glide path from which they can safely reach the airport.  And if they figure it right, their descent rate will never be higher than 500 feet per minute.  That’s my magic descent rate.  It’s one that will not bother the normal person’s ears as they experience the change of pressure in a descent.

All my students hear me say the same things.  One of them is, “Where ya gonna go if your engine quits now?”  Every pilot should know the answer to that question at all times[1].  And that’s the question that will receive a reassuring answer if you’ve got plenty of altitude before you can reach your destination.


Happy Swooping!


[1] Read “The Exposurometer” in “Brian’s Flying Book”, available at the Tailwheeler’s Mercantile.

6 comments to # 73 Descending Too Soon

  • The U-2 could take longer than an hour to get down from cruise when the “fan” quit. That equates to about 180 nm no wind. In fact, if you lose your engine in the U-2 the first thing you do is tell somebody where you are and where you’re headed. The next thing you do is turn off your standby electrical power to save the battery. That was only guaranteed to provide power for 30 min!

    • brian

      Does anyone know where I can get a used U-2? I have a director of videography who needs to have something to fly that befits his experience and ability. It’ll help keep him with me!

  • Peter Peers-Johnson

    Potential Energy+Kinetic Energy= Smiley Face icon for pilot 🙂

  • Wendy Philcox

    Thank you for another great article-Chris enjoyed Stick and Rudder which Bill Vasilevich gave him at one of your cocktail parties 20 or so years ago! Also, thanks for the impromptu air show and formation flying–in our backyard! Love it! More! More!

  • Christian

    Thanks Brian

    As you say, my father always tell me.(we are in Chile)

    “Velocidad y Altura conservarán tu dentadura”

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