Learning… and Practice

Learning doesn’t happen in an airplane — (the airplane is) where you practice what you learned on the ground.
–Linda Pendleton, in Twin & Turbine April 2003

An airplane is a terrible classroom. It’s noisy. It’s cramped. It’s hot — or it’s cold. It can be a high-pressure environment. It’s difficult for the instructor to control training, because of weather, other traffic or airspace issues. And it’s hard for students to “step back” from the physical tasks of controlling the airplane long enough to assimilate new information. In short, it’s about the worst place to teach … or to learn. To be safe, and effective, flight instruction must be focused by training on the ground.

The Wright Brothers didn’t have the advantage of a mentor to teach them to fly. Like many in the earliest days of flight, they built an “aeroplane,” jumped on, and flew. That first successful powered flight wasn’t held to about 12 seconds and 120 feet because of weather, power or mechanical causes, but because Orville entered a series of pilot-induced oscillations (PIO) that ended with a collision with the ground. Orville didn’t know about PIO (no one did), and he wasn’t prepared to recover.

Simulation: The Wrights (and many others) learned through sheer repetition, extraordinary reflexes, and not a little luck. Many other early pilots were not nearly so lucky. Very soon after the introduction of airplanes came crude attempts at flight simulation to overcome the shortcomings of learning to fly. The Wrights themselves created the first known flight simulator, a sort of chair mounted on a pivot, that required its “pilot” manipulate Wright Flyer-like control levers to maintain balance. By 1910 leading-edge “flight training device” technology was a seat atop cut-off barrels, with “instructors” moving the “aeroplane” with long, wooden levers (view photo).

Clipped Wings: Another common practice was to use airplanes with truncated wings, unable to achieve more than “hopping” flight, for solo high-speed taxiing before graduating to a “complete” airplane for the first solo flight — eliminating the flight instructor altogether. The French made extensive use of these “Penguin” trainers (named for a flightless bird) in the First World War, as did many of the U.S. combat aviators that trained in France during that war.

The Link Trainer: The modern era of flight simulation began with the Link Trainer before World War Two. The method advanced with the state of electronics and, later, computerization, and today extremely accurately replicates flight.

Whether a pair of rocking barrels or a Level D Full-Flight Simulator, aviation ground training devices were designed to teach flying in a highly controlled environment, eliminating most of the drawbacks of instruction in the air. Solid instruction given on the ground can then be practiced aloft.

What good does this do me in a Cessna 172 or a Piper Archer?” you might ask. Although there are some advanced Flight Training Devices (FTDs) for even these entry-level airplanes, for most pilots accurate simulation is beyond physical or financial means. The plethora of “game-style” computer-based flight simulation, if approached from a “learning to fly” (as opposed to “looping the Golden Gate” or “Blasting the enemy tanks“) can have a positive effect on flight instruction, too. But in most cases, if the majority of general aviation pilots and their instructors are to overcome the shortfalls of the airplane as a classroom, then we’ve got to get radical. We need to use our heads.

Back when my wife taught high school there was much controversy over a teaching technique called guided imagery. What seems logical and practical — imagining a situation and how you’d react to it to make decisions — was perceived as “revolutionary,” even “sacrilegious.” Regardless of the local politics of that fight, the concept is very sound, and in fact is in use (under different terminology) in most major flight training organizations. Some call it “chair flying.” Others employ “dry cockpit time,” simply sitting in the airplane while thinking and working through checklists. An emerging trend is to take inflight video of a flying lesson and play it back on the ground, “Monday morning quarterbacking” a flight. A few schools employ a technique called “self-reflective journaling,” where it’s the student who reviews inflight videos, then briefs the instructor on his or her own performance.

Regardless of how it’s done, there’s little debate that the best inflight learning results when the student knows the objectives of the lesson beforehand, reviews the upcoming flight with the instructor in a preflight briefing, and spends time critiquing the mission with the instructor afterward.

I’m guilty of it too, until I learned better. Back when I first began instructing, a typical flying lesson went something like this:

Preflight Briefing

STUDENT (arriving at airport): “Hi, instructor. I’m here for my flying lesson.

INSTRUCTOR (glancing up from “Help Wanted: Flight Crews” section of Trade-A-Plane): “Keys are in the airplane. Go on out and preflight and I’ll be out when you’re done.

Postlflight Briefing

INSTRUCTOR (scribbling in student’s logbook): “One point two hours, good job. That’ll be $60.” (Yes, it was quite some time ago).

STUDENT (writing a check): “I’ll see you next Tuesday.

INSTRUCTOR (greeting next student coming in the door): “Keys are in the airplane. Go on out and preflight and I’ll be out when you’re done.

It’s a wonder pilots didn’t fly ourselves to extinction that way. Much more conducive to quick, rapid learning would be a regimen such as this:

Preflight Briefing

STUDENT (arriving at the airport): “Hi, instructor. I’m here for my flying lesson. I’ve read the books and watched the video you recommended for this lesson, and I have a list of questions.

INSTRUCTOR (still looking up from “Help Wanted: Flight Crews“– we have to continue some traditions): “Hi, student. Let’s go in the classroom and look over the lesson plans. We’ll cover your questions and look again at a short video clip of the new maneuvers we’ll introduce today. I want to make sure you know exactly what we’ll be doing before we get in the airplane. Then you’ll brief me on the results of your weather briefing, and I’ll observe and critique your preflight inspection.

Postflight Briefing

INSTRUCTOR: “Let’s go in the office and talk about your performance on this flight. I’d like you to tell me what went well, and what you need to practice more. I’ll review my notes with you in case you missed anything, bad or good. Then I’ll answer any questions and give you your homework for the next lesson.

There are still many impediments to this professional approach to flight instruction. Certificated flight instructors (CFIs) need to be honest with their students, and their employers, to overcome these stumbling blocks. Students need to know they should insist on professional instruction technique, including ground work. What gets in the way of a good instructional system in aviation?

  • Problem 1: Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) make more money when their airplanes are flying. There is strong pressure on CFIs to spend the student’s entire lesson time in an airplane with the Hobbs meter running — maximizing the FBO airplane rental and CFI instruction time on the student’s bill.

    Strategy: CFIs should speak frankly with the FBO owners about the value of ground instruction to maximize instruction and safety in flight.

  • Problem 2: To satisfy the terms of Problem 1, many FBOs only pay instructors for the time spent instructing in airplanes. Time spent teaching students on the ground is unpaid time for these CFIs; in fact, it takes away from the time available to be paid for flying with another student.

    Strategy: Instructors and FBO managers should charge students fairly for the instructional time spent on the ground and demonstrate to FBO owners that their “cut” of the ground instruction bill is pure profit — without an aircraft’s direct operating expense.

  • Problem 3: Most pilots, students included, think in terms of the cost per hour logged. Ground instruction time is not logged toward pilot certificates or ratings. Students may balk, then, at paying instructor time that does not end up in the logbook.

    Strategy: CFIs, may overcome this student concern by demonstrating that time spent in pre- and postflight briefings reduces the total time (and money) it takes to master flight maneuvers in the air.

  • Problem 4: The business of many CFIs is to log time for a “better” job. Time spent in ground instruction won’t help toward that goal, tempting instructors to skimp on ground time to get more time in the air.

    Strategy: CFIs and students must remember the enormous, literally life-or-death responsibility of the CFI. Whether this is his/her first student or the last one before moving to that airline job, the job must be done right.

When the Federal Aviation Regulations were amended about a decade ago, a subtle but important addition to the Flight Review was the addition of the requirement for no less than one hour of ground instruction in addition to flight time. Although there is no specific requirement to provide ground instruction in other flight training, it should be obvious that faster, safer and more efficient learning occurs when student and instructor take the time to prepare for and review each flight.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Although there are significant impediments, the risks of flight training and the inappropriateness of the cockpit as a learning environment demand extra measures — instructors, students and FBO owners must allow for time spent to both prepare for and review flights. CFIs have a professional obligation to provide the most complete instruction. Students have a right and an obligation to demand it. Pilots as early as the Wright Brothers realized simulation, or at least critical thinking about what was to be done during a flight lesson greatly increased each lesson’s effectiveness. As Linda Pendleton put it, “Learning doesn’t happen in an airplane — (the airplane is) where you practice what you learned on the ground.