Law of Primacy

Barbara Kirmsse

First, I must thank Brian Lansburgh for allowing me to post another in his series of excellent articles. This particular article delves into flying the most efficient and safest pattern among your options. As a pilot, you can fly a pattern that’s a virtual cross-country on downwind with a ridiculously long final or you can operate your aircraft so at any given point in your pattern, with total engine failure, you can safely glide to the airport. Granted, if you lose an engine on take-off, your options are limited, but once on downwind, you should always be able to glide to the airport property. Personally, I’ve always tried to keep my patterns tight but after reading this article a couple months ago, I’ve focused more, practiced more and improved my skills. One note; after many power-off approaches in a gamut of wind conditions, I have to tell you, airplanes do not glide as far without power as you probably think. Practice!


According to the Law of primacy, instructors must teach all facts correctly the first time.  That law ignores what “correctly” means.  It also gives an amazing advantage to those who first get their hooks into a student pilot.  Because, you see, the Law of Primacy also states that what is learned first is learned best.  It’s only recently that I’ve observed the truth in that statement and the fact that it puts common sense at a great disadvantage when compared with “the way we’ve always done it”.  And that is my big issue with Acme[1].  I’ve addressed this fact before in one of the documents that I give to all of my students.  I’m going to address it a bit more specifically here. 

Although there are several areas where this law takes effect, I’m going to address the ones that I see all the time, in the order of their importance:

Power-off approach:

I think it was my CFI instructor, George DeMartini, who first explained the main reason that the power-off approach is a good way to go.  He explained that the guy who makes a power-off approach is practicing for the day when he has no power and must make an accurate approach into a field or other landing spot, improved or otherwise.  If, like a growing percentage of pilots, you feel that the modern aircraft engine is so reliable that you’ll never have an engine failure, think of the economy and efficiency of this approach.  It’s smaller, takes less time and gets your airplane out of the way of other traffic.  Acme doesn’t use it.  They use progressive power reductions that simply create a larger pattern and guarantee that you will not be able to get to the runway if the engine quits after you’ve turned base.  If you stand next to almost any general aviation runway, you’ll see that the vast majority of pilots gradually decrease their power, only closing the throttle as they flare.  You may also hear the sound of me, slapping my forehead while watching them.  I can’t tell you how many people have come to me as private pilots.  I’ve explained to them why we use this approach and what it’s advantages are.  They nod their heads and agree with me that it is a superior method.  And yet, later, they will revert to the method that has been proven to be inferior.

The Law of Primacy has struck again.

By the way, I recently saw a video in which the flight instructor demonstrated the “Power-off 180”.  He treated it as an unusual maneuver which takes lots of practice to do well.  What he demonstrated was the technique that we at Tailwheel Town use for virtually EVERY landing!

Size of Pattern

Personally, I think it’s important to understand that an airplane/s route to the ground is determined by an angle, not an altitude.  The feds and most localities publish a pattern altitude, which is usually between 800 and 1000 feet above the surface.  So, if we fly that altitude, we have to fly further away from the airport in order to have the proper angle which will enable us to glide to the runway.  Since the vast majority of student training flights in the pattern consist of “touch and go” landings, the airplane is being climbed at full power, only to descend with partial power.  The Tailwheel Town pattern is a bit different, but it depends on whether or not “Acme” pilots are in the pattern as to whether we fly it or not.  After all, safety is our biggest concern and if that means being somewhere where other traffic can see us, then we may have to bite the bullet and do what they are doing.   Even if it is wasteful and wrong.  Because the pattern I prefer is significantly lower.  All I care about is safety.  So if I’m in the pattern by myself, I might be at three hundred or so feet above the surface and positioned for an immediate turn toward and landing on the runway in the event of an engine failure or other emergency.  And I’m not making that engine work hard to get me to a pattern altitude only to give it up and glide down.  In fact, I normally reduce my power a bit after turning downwind.

If I happen to be number two and be behind an Acme-trained guy (please forgive me, but we refer to them as “Dog Farts”), I have to alter my pattern somewhat.  Remember that safety is my number one concern and I must obey the first rule of pattern flying, which is that you must be able to glide to a safe landing on the runway in the event of an engine failure.  If you were a mouse in the cockpit (That would be a mouse who understood English), you’d hear me tell my student that if the “dog fart” is causing us to extend our downwind leg and get too far away to glide to the runway, we must slow down and climb in order not to be out of gliding range.  And for my more advanced students there’s another winkle in our actions.  We must get on that guy’s tail on landing.  Why?  Because he’s going to climb way out on upwind.  We’re going to take advantage of that to turn inside him and become number one.  Although I’ve often been accused of “cutting someone off” by doing that, I’ve never actually cut anyone off or caused them to alter their wasteful pattern.  In fact, most of the time I will tell the guy that I’m turning inside him and that I will be no factor.  Even Acme instructors seem to understand why I do that and have always been cooperative and understanding.  I’m not a Christian, but it might be useful to quote Jesus when he was quoted as saying, “Father, forgive them… they know not what they do.”

Flap extension

I’m really going to try to keep this short, ‘cause I can go on and on about flaps!  Assuming that we are on a fairly accurate no-flap approach, we’ll hold off putting flaps down until we can make the runway with them.  Then we put all of our flaps down and re-trim as necessary.  Acme prefers to add a notch of flaps at a time, starting on downwind and ending on final.  In my opinion, this kind of defeats the purpose in favor of making the trimming easier and a bit at a time. 

I also teach a technique not widely understood, but really handy!  Let’s say that we are at best L/D speed (about 65mph in the 140) and it looks like we are really close or maybe too low without power.  Let’s have a hand on the throttle, but hold off, because we know that ground effect will shortly extend our glide and that airplanes glide a bit further than we think.  As we enter ground effect, we extend all of our flaps and guess what!  The airplane leaps up because the combination of greater lift with flaps and greater lift in ground effect has been greater than increased drag with full flaps.  We made it to the runway and never had to add power.  This technique requires a bit of practice, but it’s really fun and effective.  Just remember that if, like Acme, you already have flaps down, you are not going to glide as far and may need that burst of power in order to extend your final long enough to make the runway!  I like to view flaps like a parachutist’s reserve:  Don’t use them until you need them and you’ll likely have a better result.  My pal, Jerry says it best when he states, “if you have to use power AND flaps, you’ve already made a mistake”.  (I think he might have stated it a bit stronger, but I’m treading lighter for my more sensitive readers).

Radio work

I once watched one of the most talented students at Outlaw Aviation land the 172.  While I watched her land, I listened to my handheld radio.  One of the things this particular student excels in is the use of the radio.  She always sounds good and sounds like she knows what she’s doing.  I was impressed by the landing, although, like almost all students, she failed to have the control wheel all the way back at touchdown.  Almost everyone gets away with that and it’s not a big deal, just resulting in a very slightly longer touchdown.  But when she cleared the runway to come back on the parallel taxiway, I couldn’t help but notice her use of the common transmission, “Sisters traffic, Skyhawk six one lima is clear of the active”.  There are times when this call is useful.  An example would be a runway which is obscured so that a landing aircraft can’t see the guy who hasn’t yet cleared the runway and may be in the way.  But every time?  I think not.  This call, which is designed to increase safety, actually impedes it because the frequency is blocked. Many is the time that my instructions to my student or my transmissions to other traffic are blocked needlessly by this transmission.  Is it a big deal?  Not necessarily.  At an airport like Sisters, it usually doesn’t get in the way, but at busier airports, it simply adds to the congestion.

I recently read a piece by an “expert” instructor, who said that the call, “Any other traffic, please advise” is wasteful and to be avoided at all times.  What nonsense!  First of all, he ignores the fact that a large percentage of pilots are afraid of the radio and will not answer you if you call them directly.  That is the main reason that we would always make that call when getting ready to drag our glider out to the runway for launch at Sunriver Soaring.  It’s a good call, doesn’t clutter the frequency most of the time and I think that guy did the flying community a real disservice by acting like an “expert” and disparaging its use.  Even now, when I’m giving tailwheel instruction, I will sometimes use a long back-taxi in order to build competence at understanding and controlling a tailwheel airplane.  I often use a call of, “Any other inbound or outbound traffic, give me a shout”.  I don’t want to be in their way if they are inbound or outbound and by letting me know their intentions, I can hold my position for a while and let them in or out.

And finally, a little correction that you won’t find in a previous edition (pre – third edition) of my book.  When you make a call, start it with where you are and end it with where you are.  The instructor is probably talking to his student on the intercom and they are going to miss the first part of your transmission.  Then, when you end with where you are, they are listening and they won’t miss it.

The Law of Primacy works because most pilots never ask “why”.  If they did, they might realize that just because they learned a certain way to do things first, it may not be the best or most efficient way. 


[1] “Acme” is the admittedly negative name that Tailwheel Town ascribes to the estimated 98% of all flight schools.  The author has contempt for them simply because their teaching is peppered liberally with bad information, like the short field takeoff technique, the gradual cessation of power during the landing and the gradual extension of flaps starting on downwind.

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