Pilot Performance
The Power of Leverage and Trim
by Henry K.

The series of articles on Pilot Performance explores a metaphor for business leadership and performance improvement based on training techniques in aviation and the performance of pilots. The metaphor of executing with skill and precision in ‘turbulence’ seems particularly relevant to the challenging environment we face in business and organizations today. (ed.)

Pilots are trained to execute complex skills in guiding an aircraft safely and efficiently through an ever changing and three dimensional environment. Very early in training pilots learn that small and focused actions can produce significant results. This notion of ‘leverage’ - making a small change with a minimum of effort to create a major impact on direction and performance - is one that we can very easily apply if we are aware of the dynamics and the ‘physics’ of what we are dealing with.

Small, focused actions can have the largest impact!

The best illustration of the concept of leverage is the effect of the control surfaces of an aircraft - the rudder, the ‘elevators’, and ‘trim tabs’. The tail section of an aircraft or ‘empennage’ consists of two important surfaces - the vertical stabilizer or fin to which the rudder is attached, and the horizontal stabilizer or smaller ‘wings’ to which the ‘elevators’ are attached. The rudder provides directional control. The ‘elevators’ provide ‘attitude’ control, moving the nose of the aircraft up or down to direct the aircraft to a new altitude. 

The entire empennage of which most is stationary, provides directional stability, acting like the feathers on an arrow or dart to help maintain a straight path through the air. The control surfaces, namely the rudder and the elevators, are very small in relation to the total surface but are extremely effective in providing positive directional control for the aircraft. 

But back to ‘leverage’. Two important aspects of leverage are - that small actions can create large changes, and that high leverage changes are not readily obvious unless you understand the dynamics of what you are dealing with.

Understand the underlying dynamics!

If you want to turn an airplane i.e. you want the nose to go towards the left, you apply left rudder. What actually happens is that the very small rudder deflects to the left, causing the air rushing past to deflect the entire empennage or tail assembly to the right, thereby pointing the nose of the aircraft to the left. This is the same principle as steering a ship. You can’t change direction by affecting the bow of the ship. The leverage lies in deflecting the stern.

Similarly, the elevators affect the attitude of the nose of the aircraft. To climb you pull back on the elevator control. What actually happens is that the elevator deflects upwards, the air rushing past deflects the empennage downwards, thus raising the nose of the aircraft. These very small control surfaces are very effective in providing complete directional control for the entire aircraft. The coordinated use of the ‘controls’ with small positive movements and adjustments to changing circumstances is a basic flying skill.

The smallest control surface has the most significant impact!

One of the most powerful leverage points however, is the smallest control surface in terms of surface area. A ‘trim tab’ is usually installed on the elevator to assist in its effectiveness. The trim tab is a fraction of the size of the control surface and acts as the mini elevator for the elevator (and in the case of ships - the rudder for the rudder). It’s purpose is to relieve the pressure necessary to deflect the elevator (or rudder) in the desired direction. Its function is to make it easier to deflect the elevator which in turn makes it easier to deflect the aircraft. 

The elevator trim tab on small aircraft is deflected by the pilot’s use of a mechanical or electric trim setting, which relieves the pilot of the need to manually hold the controls in a desired setting. For example, to maintain a desired climbing ‘attitude’ the trim tab is activated or adjusted to the setting that relieves the pilot from holding the positive pressure. Once leveled at cruise altitude, the trim is adjusted to the setting that relieves the pilot from exercising positive pressure to hold straight and level. The pilot sets the attitude, adjusts the trim, and carries on with the business of ensuring that all systems are functioning properly and the aircraft will safely reach its destination. In the case of a light aircraft, the tiny trim tab of several square inches, through the ‘physics’ of leverage influences the functioning of two thousand pounds of metal and pilot moving through the air. 

And if we look deep into the ‘physics’ of this leverage we can see that with trim tabs, elevators, rudders, and indeed with the wings of an aircraft, when air is deflected around both sides of a surface a pressure differential is created. It is this pressure differential that ‘sucks’ the control surface in the desired direction. The shape of an airfoil (wing) is designed to ‘leverage’ the pressure differential. The elevators and rudder are designed to leverage the empennage to achieve directional control. The trim tab is designed to leverage and enhance the action of the elevator or rudder. The entire aircraft is wonderfully engineered to apply the principles of leverage to enable a mass of metal to be maneuvered with precision through the ever changing atmosphere.

Look beyond the obvious!

How do we apply the principle of leverage in business and in organizations? Perhaps by looking beyond the obvious - to raise the nose of the ‘craft’ by lowering the ‘tail’, turning the bow by deflecting the stern, ‘installing’ trim tabs to deflect the rudder which in turn makes it easier to change course or hold the desired configuration with a minimum of effort. Perhaps through the application of new metaphors to identify areas of high leverage not obvious to most participants in a ‘system’. Definitely by a greater appreciation and understanding of the dynamics and the underlying ‘physics’ of the organizational and human processes involved. 

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Henry K.

Henry K. is a private pilot, author, artist, actor, whale watcher, fly fisherman, tour guide, seasonal server and surfer residing in Tofino, B.C. Canada, as well as a contributing editor to The CEO Refresher.

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