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Stick and Rudder

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
August 17, 2021
2 min read

I’ve admittedly just started this book, but it feels like the right one for this week’s topic.

To preface, Stick and Rudder is one of those practical, craft oriented books that puts it’s foot up on the chair, leans forward, and tells you that while everything you learned previously in your craft is not necessarily wrong, it also wasn’t right. In this case, it’s discussing the craft of flying.

I do not know how to fly. I’m actually somewhat scared of flying, despite being on planes around a dozen times a year (in normal years, anyway). But over the past two months I’ve been slowly falling down the rabbit hole of flight simulators (Digital Combat Simulator in particular, though I’ve yet to try the combat part), and my curiosity about why certain things work as they do got peaked. For example, why did the wings of my SU-27 suddenly shear off when I tried that maneuver. Why am I able to “float” (or have it feel like floating) in the F-18 as I practice flying around a coastal city? DCS is detailed enough that the answer isn’t in the game, but in what the game is meant to simulate.

I’ve learned some of the basics of flight properties (think diagrams of wings in wind tunnels) in high school and some more since with my own reading, but never really understood it. The book has been an interesting refresher to some of that, but mostly what it endeavours to do is deconstruct some of the mental models that we take to flight.

One of the best examples is to the stick and being caught in a stall. One might think the plane is pitched upwards and that is how we go up, instead of that upward force being a function of various contributive forces mostly oriented around the wing. If the joystick is framed as the upwards control (i.e. pitching the plane’s nose up to go up) and the plane stalls, then the instinctive urge is to pull back on the joystick because that “makes the plane go up.” Instead, the correct maneuver might be to simply have the stick in neutral and allow the plane’s form to correct itself, or to manipulate other controls that lead to fast, upwards flight. But, caught in that moment of stall and freefall, the fear impulse is to pull up.

As I read this book, I don’t think I would’ve understood any of it without the past month or so of failing to fly properly in DCS. So much of it feels intuitive and yet — as mentioned previously — suddenly one can find oneself missing one’s wings as your fancy fighter plane becomes a fire-wreathed frisbee. But reading it now, I’m basically getting an “OHHHHHHhhh kay. Wow.” moment every other paragraph.

So, while somewhat esoteric and probably not applicable to most, I’d definitely suggest this book. I can’t say I love the tone or writing consistently, but it is without question a useful, valuable read.

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Andrew Lovett-Barron

Software Designer and Researcher

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