Writing About Aeroplanes: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I started writing stories about pilots before becoming an actual pilot myself, which is kind of an interesting contrast to Timothy Gwyn, who started writing after establishing a career in aviation. I imagine he didn’t make a lot of the silly mistakes I did.

Part of the problem is when you start researching planes and flying, there’s lots of talk about design, and neat things like, I learned early on how the radial engines gave way in design to the sleeker in-line positioning of the pistons to reduce drag, and I’d learned how many crew were needed in a Lancaster Bomber and what their positions were from when the Lanc visited Winnipeg last. But when it came to the basics, I had learned about the Bernoulli principle, and I understood the control surfaces and how they worked, that the rudder was controlled by pedals, while the elevator and ailerons were connected to the stick or control column.

That was…it.

So I go off on my merry way writing my novel, and then I bring it to a critique group where one member had got his private pilot’s licence many years before, and he pointed out some of my incorrect assumptions about how planes work.*

Oh. Well that is very helpful. It was one of those things, I just would never have thought to ask.

I tried to do more research, but I kept finding that the basics were hard to find resources on. The information online about aviation tends to be geared towards people who already know how to fly a plane and the info presented only builds on that. I could have looked up the answers to specific questions, but I didn’t know enough to know what questions to ask.

Fast forward to where I had decided I was seriously going to make a go of becoming a commercial pilot and I’m out at St. Andrews for my first ever flight, and we’re doing the walk-around, and my instructor is pointing out all the plane parts. I’m like, I can tell you all the things I know about airplanes – ok, propeller, fuselage, rudder, elevator, ailerons. That’s it. Oh, wheels! Yep, those are wheels.

Good job, she says, except those aren’t the ailerons, actually, those are the flaps.

The what? In all my reading about aeroplanes, this term had not come up. Or if it had, it wasn’t explained, and I just assumed it was some kind of auxiliary fancy thing that the big planes had. I’d been on jets, you know when you look out the windows at the wings and there’s these little squares that lift up on different parts of the wing?**

I had always intended to hunt down a pilot to help me edit my story, and it turned out I didn’t actually do that badly – fixing my mistakes didn’t break my novel’s plot, it was just touch-ups here and there.

But as a pilot now, the amount of knowledge I have to pour into a novel about pilots affects the type of stories I’m telling now. It’s not just a mode of transportation, or a mount to ride into combat anymore – they’re complex and I have a way more detailed understanding of how I can use these things to almost, but not quite kill my characters.

That and an understanding of the diversity of aircraft and features available, and enough knowledge to not put a feature on an aircraft that’s unrealistic. I mean, a Cessna 150 is not going to have autopilot installed. It is possible to have a plane without flaps, but I know enough not to make it a large one, and know what that means for the plane. I know the differences in ground handling between tricycle and conventional landing gear now and can throw that into a story, or simply portray it accurately. I know enough to describe accurately the characteristics of a good versus a bad landing.

I know what’s dangerous, and what seems dangerous but isn’t actually a big deal. Like, you see videos of WWII planes being started by hand-swinging the prop so often you’d think that wasn’t big deal, but that’s one of those things that kills people or takes limbs if you aren’t careful. Whereas, doing spins was something so easy to do and recover from, I was doing it in my first week of flying, and doing it solo in my first hundred hours with my instructor’s blessing, but it’s something that people think must be horribly dangerous.

There’s just so much to know about aviation, and I’m still a rookie low-hours pilot looking for my first job.

So how do you get that base level of knowledge if you want to write about pilots without becoming a pilot yourself. Well, there will be snobs who will say, just go get your private license, but not everyone has that kind of money kicking around.

One great way would be to take a ground school course. Most schools offer it in a classroom setting, but there are online versions as well – my school’s online ground school is Transport Canada approved. There are textbooks available too – the one my school uses is called “From The Ground Up”. It starts assuming no knowledge of aviation. There are others, and this one is specific for Canada, though that’s mainly only relevant for the air law side of things.

The other thing you can do that’s not horrifically expensive is most schools offer a “Discovery Flight”, which is just an introductory flight that goes over the basics, they take you up in the aeroplane and let you fly it, show you some of the basic maneuvers. There’s some real danger in going this route though – huge risk you might realize you love it and need to get your licence. Take precautions.***

On that note, I can confirm my attendance at Keycon this year. Timothey Gwyn will be there too, and I hope to do at least one panel covering a lot of these sort of topics for writers who might be interested in writing about aviation. Hope to see you there!


*Apparently, planes taxiing are propelled by their propellers, same as in the air – there’s no power transfer to the wheels to move them on the ground. Who knew.
**Ladies and gentlemen – those are spoilers. The flaps, incidentally, are the things that extend and curl downward in preparation for landing.
***Just kidding, do it, it’s amazing!

10 responses to “Writing About Aeroplanes: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

  1. There have been a few propeller-powered cars, none of which worked well even when they did remember to put a cage around the propeller to avoid slicing and dicing pedestrians.

      • Here in Ireland the Hoover vacuum cleaner was so popular that ‘Hoovering’ is still used to mean vacuuming (this was long before Mr. Dyson). When I first read about hovercraft as a kid I misread the word as ‘Hoovercraft’ and therefore got the principle of the thing all wrong. In short, I thought they sucked, which they did, but not in the way I thought!

  2. Great tips, Lindsay! I’m always wondering what kind of unintended blunders I’ll be made aware of by those-who-know-much-more-than-me in my WIP, haha. I’ve never thought of taking a class before! Could be fun. ^_^

    Funnily enough, I think I’ve, perhaps unconsciously, been veering the story more towards its invented fantasy and political intrigue aspects and away from the “flying adventure” parts–because hey, let’s not get too technical. (I mean like where the heck do I find info about how vintage flying wings were actually piloted???)

    That must have been interesting, looking back on your work after becoming a pilot, heh.

    In some ways, I guess being a writer is kinda like being an actor, with all the things you can voluntarily put yourself through just to “get into character” and come from a more authentic place.

    • Yeah, the ground school classes aren’t near so expensive, a few hundred dollars at the most, usually, plus the text books, and while it’s normally for preparing pilots to take the written test, you don’t have to take the test to take the class. You’ll learn a *lot*.

      Honestly, I suspect I’d be disappointed with a story that I picked up for the flying adventure that veered away from the flying and focused on the political stuff out of fear of getting it wrong. You can certainly get too technical, but aviation and the techinical side of it would have been something that made the story unique and made it stand out.

      If you’re looking for info on vintage flying wings, taking that ground school (or just reading through the text) would give you a good grounding to start, but I know the old flying wings had issues with stability. Yaw control was the main problem, and there are reasons this type of design has been largely turfed.

      There’s definitely a lot involved in writing about aviation, but I wouldn’t let that stop you. In fact, when I went back to look over what I’d written once I was a pilot, I realized I hadn’t done *that* badly. Don’t be intimidated. Be ambitious. Ambitious writers will stand out above the crowd.

      • My WIP has a flying wing among its many aircraft, but its role is such that I don’t need to describe how it works in detail. Modern flying wings like the Northrop B2 stealth bomber seem to rely largely on electronics to keep them stable.

        Incidentally, electrically powered nose-wheels are a thing! Even for airliners. Check out http://WWW.WHEELTUG.COM. Mind you, they haven’t taken off yet, literally or figuratively.

        • Oh, boy. Gotta love technology! 🙂

          I’ve been getting inspiration from Northrop’s earlier aircraft from the 1940s, mostly. Know of any cool sites related to those?

          • T. M., Google “Northrop Flying Wing” and check out Wikipedia etc. Googling “Northrop Flying Wing PDF” will bring up lots of interesting technical papers. Image searches are useful too.

            The late 1940s were indeed the heyday of the Northrop flying wings, though their 1956 nuclear-powered asymmetric flying wing bomber was their most outrageous proposal, piloted from a cockpit in a small fuselage attached to the outer end of the port wing!

      • Hmm…I guess when I say “veer away” I meant more from the amounts of technical descriptions used, not so much the use of flying as a plot device in the story. It’s part of the protagonist’s life but not the greatest focus of the story, if that makes sense. It’s not like Charles Cornell’s DragonFly, to name another dieselpunk novel, which clearly, in the name, puts the emphasis on the protagonist’s aircraft and her flying it.

        In any case…I won’t be a complete wimp, Lindsay. You’ve convinced me. 😉 Puttin’ the big girl panties back on, heh.

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