Tag: Chris Martin

Take your hands off the controls

Is that what I heard?

“Take your hands off the controls.”

We were climbing after take off in a Cessna 152, and I was applying significant control inputs to keep the aircraft level. Before the flight, there had been some conversation among other pilots on the ground about there being some turbulence at low level today, and I had just remarked that this seemed to be true.

In response to this gentle instruction, I took one hand off the control column, but continued to concentrate on maintaining the attitude of the aircraft in the bumpy conditions. Then the instruction was repeated, still gently, but with a little more emphasis:

“Take your hands OFF the controls”!

Now, whether one follows instructions like this does depend to some extent on who is issuing them! On this occasion, I was honoured to be flying with the most capable pilot and flying instructor I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet.

As it happens, I was not formally under instruction, being qualified to fly and my “passenger” having lost that privilege on medical grounds. Nevertheless, when flying with other people there is always something to learn and, when flying with someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Dickie Dougan, one is learning all the time! Dickie had a very long flying career during which very many people learnt a tremendous amount from him. Sadly, he passed away in 2007, at the age of 89.

So, in this case, the instruction was being issued by someone for whom I had the utmost respect and trust. Nevertheless, it was contrary to my instincts and seemed to me to be decidedly risky.

Very gingerly, I let go of the controls which, now free from my grasp, moved more violently and over a much wider range than I had been moving them. My instinct was to grab them again, but my trust in the instruction that I’d been given was just sufficient to hold that instinct at bay for a short while.

The aircraft seemed to be rolling more than it had under my control, but it was returning to level flight fairly consistently. It was, at least, stable and seemed to be flying satisfactorily without any input from me (to be accurate, I was continuing to apply some right rudder to compensate for the yaw effects of the single propellor in the climb, but it seemed to me that I was not controlling anything!)

After I had realised that the world was not turning upside down and my level of anxiety lowered slightly, Dickie then said quietly, in his soft Irish tones:

“There you are; you’re working too hard! The aircraft can fly itself!”

Incidents like that teach us something quite profound. The world functions without us.

We are not the centre of the universe!


This post was inspired by Trey Pennington’s description of his conversation with his daughter about Copernicus, as described in his interview of C.C.Chapman.

Further information about the legendary Dickie Dougan can be found in this document in an obituary for him written by Chris Martin who was the Chief Flying Instructor at Exeter Flying Club during the time that I was trained there.

By John Lewis