Advice for those new to driving 100+ horsepower tricycles.
If you’re new to flying airplanes, taxiing is a skill that can be hard to master. Steering with your feet, having more than one brake, and no gas pedal makes for a strange arrangement. Here’s a quick list of tips for getting the hang of taxiing an airplane.
How to Sit
Taxiing is a maneuver of sorts – like any other you perform. Accordingly I teach students to taxi using the same body position and placement of hands and feet as any other maneuver. Position the seat so you can easily push each rudder pedal all the way down. Sit up straight and place one hand on the control wheel or stick and the other hand on the throttle. Place the balls of your feet on the rudder pedals with your heels hovering just over the floor. Keep your feet off the brakes unless you are using them to slow or turn. Use this same position any time you fly and are doing anything other than sitting still on the ground or cruising in straight and level flight.
Just like driving a car is a poor time to be distracted by electronics, the same is true when taxiing an airplane. When the airplane is moving on the ground your head should be looking outside. If you need to run checklists, tune frequencies, reference charts, or do anything else that requires your attention, do it while the airplane is stopped.
If One Brake is Good…
As if steering with the rudder pedals isn’t confusing enough, they decided to stick the brake pedal down there too. Better yet, we have two brake pedals – one for each side of the airplane. Applying both the left and right brakes simultaneously will help you slow and stop, but using one at a time can help you turn more quickly than with the rudder pedals alone.
A common mistake for pilots is to press on the brakes without knowing it. This can be problematic especially during takeoff and landing. The antidote is to train your feet to use two distinct positions:
- A rudder-only position where you can move the rudder pedals and stay clear of the brakes. – this is the default.
- A brake position used only when brakes are required. When not actively braking, slip your feet back to the rudder-only position.
A good habit is also to check that your feet are clear of the brakes before applying power for takeoff.
There are three speeds at which you can taxi:
- A nice slow barely-moving crawl which works well on parking ramps and tight spaces with people or obstructions.
- A brisk walking-pace where someone walking next to you could keep up with you without being Usain Bolt. This works well everywhere else.
- Way too fast! Slow down!
One common error in taxiing seems to be opening the throttle to taxi and then not closing it again when needed. Generally, taxiing is accomplished this way: Release the brakes, open the throttle to start moving, close the throttle as needed to maintain desired speed. To slow down close throttle completely first, then apply brakes as needed. It’s a common error for pilots to taxi at partial power while riding the brakes. Let the airplane roll at idle most of the time, using the brakes as necessary to slow down or stop.
Color Inside the Lines
Most local police departments frown on people driving down the center of the road, but in an airplane at an airport that’s exactly what we aim to do. Airport markings and signage are well worth their own lesson. For now let’s just
talk about the taxiway centerline. The solid yellow line marks the center of the taxiway, and we’d like taxi along directly over it. In airplanes with side-by-side seating, judging our alignment with the centerline can be difficult. Use this tip: When properly aligned, the centerline appears to pass below your right knee when you’re in the left seat. The opposite is true for those on the right side of the airplane. It takes practice to get the alignment right, but its an important skill to develop.
One of the major differences between a car and an airplane is that cars have much shorter wing spans. It’s rare for new pilots to have much experience driving something that is 35 feet wide, but most light airplanes fall close to this dimension. Accordingly, it’s important to know where your wingtips are at all times. Whenever you’re maneuvering close to other aircraft, buildings, hot dog stands, or other obstructions go slow and follow taxi lines. Line technicians or other spotters can also assist you in maneuvering in tight spaces as long as you keep a “trust-but-verify” mentality. If you think you’re too close to something, you probably are.
Also keep in mind that whenever you turn the airplane the outside wing moves a lot faster as it keeps up with the rest of the aircraft. Trying to turn suddenly to avoid an object may just cause your wing tip to hit it harder (don’t ask how I know that). Instead, just stop, shut down, get out, and move the plane with a tow bar. It is always easier to do that than to explain to your boss how his chief flight instructor managed to damage two of his airplanes at the exact same time. …so I’ve heard.
Taxiing in the Wind
Airplanes are incredibly light for their size with a fully loaded training airplane weighing around half as much as a 4-door car. Also wings turn air flowing past them and turn it into lift – it’s literally their one job. This means that we have to pay attention to the wind while we taxi. A very strong gust could pick the airplane up and deposit it elsewhere. Much more likely, however, the wind can make it difficult for us to maintain directional control while taxiing unless we correct for it. While taxiing, get in the habit of positioning the yoke or stick to correct for the wind. The objective is to keep the wind from lifting our tail or one of the wings, and the correct technique depends on the direction of the wind relative to the airplane.
The memory aid I use is, “Wind ahead: climb into it. Wind behind: dive away from it.” Here’s what I mean by that:
- If the wind coming from in front of you:
- Pull yoke/stick back to neutral.
- Turn yoke/push stick left or right in direction of wind.
- If the wind coming form behind you:
- Push yoke/stick fully forward.
- Turn yoke/push stick left or right in opposite direction of wind.
Each time you turn in a different direction, you’ll need to adjust the controls for the new relative wind direction. If your heading indicator has a heading bug, set it to the wind direction before taxiing. As you taxi, this bug will help you stay aware of the relative wind direction.
Taxiing an airplane is perhaps one of the strangest parts of learning to fly. It seems like it should be like driving a car, but everything is different. Hopefully these tips are helpful for those starting out. For more information on taxiing and ground operations checkout chapter 2 of the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook. What tips and tricks have you learned? Let me know in the comments below!
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