Teach Me What I Need To Know

Most instructors do a great job of teaching the basics of flight — unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. The Practical Test Standards (PTS) tells precisely what’ll be evaluated on the checkride, and what tolerances are required to pass. Numerous texts and government documents provide guidance, to students and instructors alike, on how to go about achieving those tolerances. Trouble is, there’s so much more to safely flying an airplane than what’s in the PTS. Often, Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) themselves don’t have the experience to teach light plane enjoyment and survival; students and low-time pilots have no framework to understand that the PTS encourages good basic technique, but that they need to know far more to be safe. Translation: PTS maneuvers are just the beginning of what we need to know to fly safely, efficiently and with enjoyment.

Even highly experienced instructors know that there’s always more to learn. So, it shouldn’t be “taboo” to ask your instructor to go beyond the PTS basics with you — maybe he or she will be prompted to investigate topics further, and you’ll both learn from the experience. You can learn from other experienced pilots, even if they’re not CFIs. There’s also a wealth of information available on video and in print. Here are some things you need to understand:

  1. Maneuvers from the PTS. There’s no doubt that safety and enjoyment depend on your ability to fly these basic maneuvers. Pay special attention to high-performance takeoffs and landings, fuel management issues, and stall recognition, avoidance and recovery — poor execution of these basic skills sometimes leads to an accident.
  2. Weather. Ask your CFI or other pilots to spend some time with you, discussing weather hazards and development. Watch The Weather Channel or visit online weather sites. Review yesterday’s forecasts and today’s actual weather, and discuss why things are different than expected. With time you’ll understand that weather rarely turns out exactly as predicted — and you’ll need to recognize when things aren’t working out as planned.
  3. Situational Awareness You need to know where you are, where weather is improving, and where you’ll go in the event of a problem or emergency, at all times. Clouds or rain may move in … airports may close … or winds might prevent you from arriving before dark. Your GPS moving map may conk out. If you’re in the air trying to avoid weather, terrain or traffic, and you don’t know precisely where you are, you will be very uncomfortable, to say the least. Even experienced airline crews have flown into mountains or run out of fuel because they didn’t know where they were or how long it would take to get someplace else. Insist that your instructor force you to compare landmarks to the chart and crosscheck your position with ‘old-fashioned’ VORs or NDBs.
  4. Engine and Mixture Management. It’s rare that a pilot will fully understand how to run an airplane engine or to properly operate the mixture control until he or she has acquired hundreds of hours in the same airplane. Ask your instructor to explain mixture and power control. He/she should be able to:
    • Define “peak” exhaust gas temperature and how to find it.
    • Describe the difference between a “best cooling,” “best power,” and “best economy” mixture setting — and when to use each.
    • Discuss running “rich or peak” and “lean of peak;” and
    • Explain the whole concept of manifold pressure, even if you’re currently flying an airplane without a manifold pressure gauge. (There’s a lot of good data available online at sites like www.gami.com.) Lack of knowledge sometimes causes a crash (especially when density altitude is a factor), and more often results in long-term engine problems.
  5. Making the Go/No-Go Decision. Ask your instructor to describe times he or she has had to delay or cancel a flight (beware if the answer is “never!”). Discuss what would “automatically” cause you to delay or cancel (thunderstorms over the field, freezing rain along your route, low clouds or visibility, etc.), then talk about the “gray areas” where you might go “up for a look,” with an open escape route in case the “look” is not good. Remember: NO airplane is an “all weather” airplane — even “big iron” pilots have to divert or delay sometimes. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll have to re-route or cancel a flight, so get some expert guidance on making the “go/no-go” decision before you have to get it right.

BOTTOM LINE: You can learn to fly precisely to the tolerances of the PTS, ace your written tests and your checkride, and still not be prepared for the reality of flying safely. There’s a lot you need to know that isn’t in the PTS, so ask your instructor, ask other pilots, and read as much as you can to make your flying truly enjoyable and safe.