posted on Mar, 19 2018 @ 06:31 PM
Hello. I’m a 35-year commercial pilot and flight instructor.
All aircraft, whether by the hand of the pilot or by the autopilot, must continuously adjust configuration to maintain a constant altitude. This is
necessary because the aircraft trims for level based exclusively on atmospheric conditions*, and these conditions change continuously due to pressure
gradients, temperature variances, humidity, and other factors which are only partly influenced by the curvature of the Earth. In addition, burning
off fuel, weight shifts and other incidental actions require flight path adjustment too. In fact, if an aircraft is established at a level altitude,
and thereafter flown without any adjustment to its configuration (“hands off”), then as it encounters changes in the atmosphere it will simply
hunt for higher or lower altitudes—specifically, the ones matching the atmospheric conditions for which it has been trimmed.
Also, establishing and/or maintaining altitude is more than just a matter of the aircraft’s pitch. It can be done by moderating in combination the
power, weight distribution, and aerodynamic configuration. For example, it’s possible to fly level over a wide range of pitch attitudes, and to
even achieve a descent by pitching up, or a climb by pitching down. You can start a climb in a Piper Cherokee simply by opening the little six-inch
plexiglass window at the pilot's shoulder.
In simpler terms, there are five important points to make: (1) flight path is not exclusively dependent upon pitch angle, which is indicated in the
instrument called the “attitude indicator”; (2) pilots do not maintain altitude by reading the attitude indicator anyway, but by reading the
altimeter(s); (3) the curvature of the Earth requires adjustment to a flight path only to the degree that it influences atmospheric conditions, not
by mere virtue of its shape; (4) many other factors also affect atmospheric conditions; (5) to maintain a constant altitude, an aircraft must
continuously adjust one or more of the following: pitch, power, weight distribution and aerodynamic configuration (flaps, slats, spoilers, etc.) On
long flights this is burdensome, and explains the usefulness of an autopilot.
Lastly, the attitude indicator is not for altitude control, but to maintain attitude in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions)—in other words,
to keep the craft upright when the visual horizon is lost. It does not rotate upward as an aircraft follows the curve of the Earth, because it's
built with a self-erecting mechanism to align its gyroscopic axis with the gravitational vector, meaning pointed at the Earth’s center.
*Gravity variation is also a factor, but is negligible at the altitudes that aircraft fly.