The Importance of Attitude Flying

“Power + Attitude = Performance”

There it is, the performance equation and the secret to flying any manoeuvre. Want to fly straight and level? Set cruise power and attitude. Want to climb? Simultaneously apply full power and raise the nose to the climb attitude. Want to do a barrel roll?.. You get the picture. What is attitude though, and why is it so important?

What is Attitude?

The Airplane Flying Handbook describes attitude as “the angular difference between a specific airplane’s axis and the natural horizon”. In plain English, it’s how the aircraft is orientated relative to the horizon, i.e. what you see through the front window.

In order to determine your attitude, you need to compare two things:

  • The natural horizon – where the Earth and sky meet. In mountainous areas, or when there is something obscuring part of the horizon, you may need to choose a reference point that is approximately where the horizon would be if you could see it properly. And,
  • A reference point on the aircraft – this should be something directly in front of you such as the cowling or the instrument coaming (glare shield). Whatever you choose, be consistent so you don’t get mixed up when setting attitudes.
Aircraft attitudes
Climbing, Straight & Level, and Descending Attitudes Source: AFH

Have a look at the three images to the right. At first glance they look quite similar; but, if we look closer and compare natural horizon (in this case, where the water meets the sky) with the coaming, we can see that each aircraft has a different attitude. In each picture we can tell that the wings are level because the horizon and the coaming are parallel, but the distance between the coaming and the horizon changes. Holding each attitude would result in the aircraft climbing, maintaining straight & level, or descending, respectively.

Attitude Flying vs Performance Flying

So, now you know what attitude is, and how to determine it, let’s have a look at why it’s so important. To help you understand what exactly attitude flying is, let’s first have a look at performance flying, then compare the two.

Performance Flying

Performance flying means to disregard the aircraft attitude and to fly the aircraft by using the performance instruments for feedback (e.g. the altimeter). The problem with this is that the performance instruments will lag slightly behind any attitude or power changes due to aircraft inertia and instrument lag; which will lead to performance chasing and make your life much more difficult. Think of it like trying to catch a ball after it’s bounced by standing on the spot where it hit the ground and hoping it comes back down in the same location; you’re going to end up running from bounce to bounce, always behind the ball and never catching it.

Attitude Flying

Attitude flying means to fly by setting attitudes to achieve the desired performance outcome. For example: if you want to fly straight and level then you’d set the horizon parallel to, and a fixed distance above, the instrument combing or engine cowling (depending on the point of reference you are using). Then, using the ALAP work cycle, you would continue to monitor your performance, making adjustments to your attitude if you need to correct.

As you can see, the difference between attitude flying and performance flying is that the aircraft attitude indicates where the aircraft is going, whereas the performance instruments tell you where the aircraft has been. So, if you want to fly smoothly, reduce your workload, and make your passengers happy, then set attitudes and don’t performance fly.

How to Practice Attitude Flying

Attitude flying is something you should be practicing from your first flight. It’s a skill that will improve over time, as you gain more exposure and build up a memory of different flight attitudes; there are a few ways to help you speed up the learning process though.

In the Air

  • Once you’ve set the correct attitude for the manoeuvre you’re learning, take a moment to really focus on that attitude, look for visual cues (such as the position of the compass) and try to lock that in your memory.
  • Take a photograph of each attitude from your eye height, then you can review this later.
  • Get your instructor to cover up the attitude indicator (or other instruments) to remove the distraction and force you to focus outside.
  • Remember to keep using your work cycles.

On the Ground

  • Watch videos, there are a lot of great instructional videos on YouTube viewed from, or close to, the pilot’s perspective.
  • Make yourself a skummer (see below). Use this to practice setting attitudes by yourself or with your instructor.
  • Review the photos you took whilst flying, memorising the cues/features that help you identify that attitude.
  • Chair fly the flight manoeuvres, visualising each attitude.
A skummer for practicing attitudes. Use these links to make your own: horizon and C172 skummer


Attitudes are the basic building blocks for all flight manoeuvres. Being able to set attitudes precisely, and identify when changes need to be made, will ensure that you remain ahead of the aircraft, make your flying smoother, and reduce your workload.

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