The FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

It always struck me as remarkable that elementary and high school science textbooks could take their inherently interesting subjects and make them cataleptically boring. The authors of these texts understood the formulas and definitions alright, but, when they tried to apply the concepts to the real world, they were completely stumped. They didn’t have the imagination to know what the ideas might be good for – which, I assume, is why they were elementary school textbook writers instead of scientists. Let’s face it, I’m never going to set off 500 feet behind Bob but running twice as fast and with a two-second head-start and need to figure out how many feet I’ll run before I catch him.

To take just one example, I could never remember what the dew point was: though it was explained that a wet thermometer registered a different temperature from a dry one, I simply filed that under the category of the bleeding obvious and forgot the rest.

Now, however, the dew point concept is indelibly etched in my mind, because I’ve learned something pretty nifty: rising, cooling air catches up to the dew point – the temperature at which the air is completely water-saturated – at a rate of about 4.4 degrees F per 1000 feet. So, if you know the temperature and dew point on the ground, you can take the difference, divide by 4.4, and, voila, you get a pretty good estimate of how many thousands of feet above your head the lowest clouds are floating. If you want to be a pilot, which all little boys and many adult little boys do, the dew point cloud-calculation is not only nifty but handy. It’s a shame our elementary schools spent so much time teaching us how to determine the dew point and no time at all showing us what it was good for.

And that brings me to the FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, which in many respects would make a dandy textbook for introducing basic scientific concepts: physics and aerodynamics, why planes fly and how a moment arm (a force applied at a given distance from the center of gravity) can change its direction, how centrifugal force works, how air pressure can be used to measure speed and acceleration, how internal combustion engines and jet engines work, how the earth’s magnetic field is arranged and how and why compass readings can be corrected to give you a true direction, what causes different types of weather and how to decipher weather maps and predict near-term weather changes, and so on and so forth.

You see the formulas – and how they were derived – and then you immediately see them in action, not helping you figure out when you’d pass Bob in the footrace from Idiotville, but showing you how much runway distance you’d need to land safely at a given weight and altitude. It’s a more engaging approach. Basic physics wasn’t invented just as an academic exercise – it describes how the world works. Our schools’ textbooks should get out more.

Prose: 4-6/10, variable

General Appeal: 5/10, limited

Interestingness: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, published by US Dept of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service.  This edition 2008, 471 pages.