What is your airplane saying to you?

Cessna 172 SkyhawkFlying is a sensual experience. Sight, of course, rules the senses, whether in IFR or VFR conditions. Touch and feel play a role as well, but less of one once in cruise and everything is in equilibrium. That’s not to say that they don’t play an important role—I was once alerted that a major hydraulic failure was about to occur by what I felt in the way of vibration through my feet. But behind sight, I believe that sound is critical when it comes to flying. Specifically, the ability to identify certain sounds.

Reference the above hydraulic situation. It started with a vibration we could feel in the floor, but it soon escalated to a sound similar to that of an idling chainsaw. Within a few minutes, we had been alerted via an engine indicating and crew alerting system (EICAS) message what was going on, and the idling sound turned into a high-pitched whine. It was the pump tearing itself apart.

Every airplane has a certain “sound footprint” in each phase of flight. I’ve always been partial to the way an airplane sounds during the takeoff roll. It’s a good time. After all, you’re getting ready to go fly! The engine or engines are at full power, the wheels are spinning up, and the airflow is generating wind noise. There is a certain comfort level that you feel when you know it all sounds the way it should.

When I was a full-time flight instructor, I spent the majority of time in a fleet of Cessna 172s. The Skyhawk has a definite sound that it makes in all phases of flight: takeoff, cruise, descent, slow flight, landing. It makes a certain sound when you allow it to get away from you in a descent. The sound, with practice, will often alert you to a change in your condition—a disturbance in your equilibrium—before your eyes register what the panel says.

To this day, I think I can fly a 172 without even looking at the panel, because the sound talks to you and tells you what you need to know. Given that I have yet to fly a glass-panel Skyhawk, I’m going to need all the help I can get!

In so many ways, your airplane is talking to you. Often, that voice is the sound or sounds you hear. Learn them. Associate each phase of flight with the change in the pitch of that voice. Spend more time looking outside (which is why you probably wanted to learn to fly in the first place).
Take that information, and use it. If all else fails, it may be all you have.—Chip Wright


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