Aviation Safety Program
Aviation Safety Education

U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

Rudder Pedals Are Not Foot Rests

                                       Submitted by Myron W. Collier

From time to time there is talk among those in flight training about the merits of reinstating the requirement for spin training at all levels of pilot training and certification, as it existed several decades ago. The issue asks a simple question---"Would spin training for private and commercial pilot applicants have any tangible benefit in terms of improving overall safety?"

Earning my private pilot certificate in 1947, commercial pilot certificate in 19 48, and as a young flight instructor in the early 1950s, I have experienced my share of spins. Has this experience in itself made me a more capable or safer pilot --- probably not?

Accidental spins usually occur at low altitudes when doing such things as making the turn from base to final or buzzing someone's house. Under these or similar conditions a recovery is highly unlikely, even if one had previously undergone spin training. Pilots who have had spin training know how to recover from them, but at low altitudes they don't have the room needed to apply what they've learned .

Prevention is the key to avoiding these situations, and before instructors can teach prevention they must know the cause. Almost without exception, improper use of the rudder is the primary contributor to an accidental spin. What can be done to decrease the chance of an accidental spin? Perhaps returning to the "basics" would be appropriate.

During the nearly 45 years this writer has served as a designated pilot examiner(DPE) it has become apparent that many (if not most) contemporary pilots suffer, at least to some degree, from what I call, "Lazy Rudder Syndrome." In other words, they simply don't use appropriate rudder response when required. Rather, they attempt to "drive" the airplane with inputs from the yoke with little, if any, rudder input.

Why is this? The root cause lies primarily with the tricycle landing gear and yoke control. Many years ago training-type aircraft had  "conventional" landing gear. In other words, the aircraft had a tail wheel. Initially, just learning to taxi one of these "tail-draggers" was a challenge in itself.

With time students soon got the hang of it, and the rudder's use required to make the airplane go where they wanted it to go. This resulted in a conditioning of the student's reflexes. This conditioning became so well ingrained that at the first hint of any directional deviation, on the ground or in the air, immediate and appropriate rudder response was initiated without conscious effort. This development simply doesn't happen to the same degree when learning to fly in a tricycle-geared aircraft.

The inherent tendency to suffer from lazy rudder syndrome by one trained in a tricycle-geared aircraft is reflected in Federal Aviation Regulation 61.31(I) (1),that in part says,

"No person may act as pilot in command of a tail wheel airplane unless that person has received and logged flight training from an authorized instructor who found the person proficient in the operation of a tail wheel airplane."

Besides a tail wheel, trainers of years past had a "stick," as opposed to a yoke or "wheel." When driving an automobile one unconsciously turns the wheel in the opposite direction when the vehicle starts to drift to one side of the road or the other. This also is a conditioned reflex. Unfortunately, this conditioning carries over to airplanes equipped with yokes. Unlike the yoke, the stick provided little similarity to an automobile's steering wheel, and a pilot trained in a stick-airplane was less likely to attempt to "drive" the airplane.

Aircraft designs of the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s were generally not as aerodynamically
"forgiving" as current designs, and using the ailerons during a stall recovery was a no no. With these aircraft attempting to pick up a wing or maintain directional control during a stall recovery with ailerons was cause for failure of a flight test. The flight-training manuals of the time emphasized that, "Only the rudder is to be used to maintain directional control during stall recoveries."

Quoting from Civil Aeronautics Administration Bulletin No. 32, June 1943, "Fundamentals of Elementary Flight Maneuvers" (Yes, I still have those old manuals), it was emphasized: The wings are to be held level without the use of ailerons.

Why did this bulletin and other training manuals stress using the rudder to keep the wings level? To spin, an airplane must first be in a stalled configuration and, while in that configuration, "allowed" to rotate. If the airplane is prevented from rotating it cannot spin. It is the rudder that is the key to preventing rotation.

Aircraft that initially came onto the market following World War II were primarily designs that existed before the conflict. Eventually some of these aircraft, along with entirely new aircraft designs, were given various aerodynamic enhancements that came into play when approaching and during a stall. Of particular note were differential aileron travel and wing-washout.

As any CFI knows, differential aileron travel provides that the down-aileron deflects into the slipstream to a lesser degree than the up-aileron, thereby, minimizing adverse yaw. Adverse yaw can have a villainous impact on various aspects of controlled flight.

Frise-Type ailerons can also address adverse yaw. Although not common on typical training-type aircraft, the Frise-Type aileron provides for the structure's leading edge to project into the airflow, thereby, increasing drag. Unlike a conventional aileron design, the increased drag contributes to a decrease in adverse yaw. In addition, the "slot" afforded by this design makes the aileron more effective at high angles of attack by disciplining the airflow over the structure's surface.

Wing-washout provides for a decreased angle of incidence from wing root to wing tip. Thus at the onset, the stall occurs at the wing root and then progressively moves outwardly toward the wing tip. This results in increased aileron effectiveness during slow flight and, to some degree, during a stall.

With embellishments of this nature applied to a wing's platform it has now become acceptable practice, according to FAA's current Flight Training Handbook, to use aileron inputs during a stall recovery. However, it gives this caution:

It is important that the rudder be used properly during both the entry and recovery from a stall to counteract any tendency of the airplane to slip or yaw, the latter being a prelude to a spin.

Talking about the proper use of ailerons and rudder means little if pilots don't practice their interaction in flight. Having conducted pilot certification flight tests for over four decades as a DPE, it has become abundantly clear that today's pilots simply don't comply fully with FAA's intent in the use of ailerons during a stall recovery. In many cases, the rudder pedals appear to serve only as foot rests. Or put simply, the pilot suffers from lazy rudder syndrome.

How can flight instructors address lazy rudder syndrome when training pilots, including those who may have learned to fly in a taildragger but have since have become a victim of lazy rudder syndrome? Recognizing that the condition exists is a good place to begin. Lest it be thought this applies only to the student or private pilots, rest assured it applies to all levels of pilot experience and certification, including the flight instructor.

Mr. Rich Stowell's excellent article in the August 1999 issue of "Mentor," a publication of the National Association of Flight Instructors, offers several excellent training exercises to strengthen one's basic stick-and-rudder skills. I would like to offer several others of a more subtle nature that, nevertheless, can be effective in reinforcing one's stick-and-rudder skills.

When taxing the aircraft, keep one's hands off the yoke, unless wind and surface conditions suggest otherwise. This reinforces and reminds the pilot's subconscious that the rudder controls the airplane's "direction," not the yoke. It is not uncommon to see an applicant for a pilot certificate turn the yoke in the direction of the desired turn when taxing the aircraft. Almost assuredly, this tendency will be demonstrated in flight as well.

From time to time the instructor should consider having their students take their hands off the yoke during a climb and straight and level flight, using only so ft applications of the rudder to maintain directional control. If a wing drops slightly, as it will likely do at some point, smoothly applying opposite rudder pressure in a timely manner (human yaw damper) will return the wings to level flight.

Naturally, it is important that the aircraft be in proper trim, particularly in its' roll axis. Because many training-type aircraft do not have in-flight capability to adjust roll-trim, trial and error adjustments of the aileron's manual trim-tab may be required to achieved the desired results.

This exercise cannot only have a positive impact on developing one's rudder reflexes, it can have a more subtle value as well. When conducting an Instrument or ATP flight test, I have observed that, almost without exception, when the applicant attempts to change a radio frequency, review a chart, etc., the aircraft will pitch up/down or drop a wing due to unintended control inputs. If pilots simply removes one's hands from the yoke, and with a little assistance from the rudder to maintain directional control while attending to these needs, the aircraft will remain in straight and level flight remarkably well. When I offer this suggestion pilots generally dismiss it, as if removing one's hands from the yoke would result in immediate loss of control.

Perhaps in the entire repertory of aerial maneuvers, evidence that pilots suffer from lazy rudder syndrome is greatest during the initial lift-off and during approach and landing, particularly when dealing with gusty, crosswind conditions. On rotation to correct for yaw generated by torque, the pilot is likely to react solely with an input from the yoke. During approach and landing as turbulence induced yaw rocks the aircraft from side to side, invariably, the applicant attempts to counter these motions with yoke inputs, again with nary a budge of the rudder. This not only doesn't get the job done, it exacerbates the very thing the pilot is attempting to counter.

When faced with these conditions pilots must discipline themselves to adhere to the fundamental principals that apply---"use the rudder to maintain alignment of the aircraft's longitudinal axis with the runway centerline while concurrently maintaining any required wing-low adjustment to counter for wind-drift." Unlike non-turbulent air conditions where coordinated control inputs are the norm, in crosswind conditions the feet and the hands may appear to operate independently for brief moments, if not counter to each other.

This becomes particularly critical during the flair and initial contact with the runway. If directional alignment and drift corrections are not maintained, the aircraft will touch down in a crabbed attitude, not unlike that of an automobile sliding sideways on icy pavement onto dry pavement. When this occurs, a landing incident or, perhaps even worse, an accident is highly probable.

Admitting to one's self that one's stick-and-rudder skills have deteriorated, or perhaps have not been fully developed, may not be easy to accept. This can be particularly difficult for the flight instructor. But recognizing the need for improvement of one's stick-and-rudder skills can be a first step to becoming a more proficient flight instructor, as well as a safer pilot. Performing and teaching properly executed maneuvers is not only indicative of a professional, but becomes the mold that determines the quality of the product the flight instructor produces.

Do you suffer from lazy rudder syndrome?

Myron W. Collier