Teaching Flying

by Philip Greenspun, ATP, CFII, January 2015

Site Home : Flying : One Article

I am a commercial/CFI student and am consistently finding that flights with my usual CFI are tense and somewhat stressful recently. He is very professional with a work ethic and knowledge I wish to emulate but during the flights he is very nitpicky for many things, i.e. small amounts of out-of-trim, takeoff profiles for certain terrain, where I hold cyclic during start up and seems like numerous other things as well. I have tried to get ahead on all these things but cant seem to and find a heavier mental workload when I feel it should be getting more manageable.

I have been flying with other instructors for training recently as well and they are much less on the controls and not correcting me on minor trim or other issues where my flying is not perfect. I find these flights much easier and I am more calm and able to make the corrections on my own and therefore fly much better as well.

It's probably past due where I should have brought this up more directly with this CFI and will do so soon. I would like to hear any comments or suggestions about this.

-- email from a reader, December 2014

I decided to answer this email with an article for his CFI to read. I've been a flight instructor since 2005. Here's what I have learned.

Teach One Thing at a Time

Learning pilots are overwhelmed. Their ears are filled with the noise of the aircraft and transmissions on the radio. Their eyes are filled with scenery that may be rushing past, e.g., if close to the ground. Their minds are full of primal fears: "We're way above the ground"; "We're going really fast"; "I don't know how to control this machine." Once you recognize that there is a limit to the number of additional stimuli that the learner can process, the natural conclusion is to try to teach fewer things with fewer words.

A reasonable limit for an instructor's comments to a student would be one sentence every 10 seconds and on only one topic at a time.

If the student is making three mistakes, use your limited word budget to encourage the fixing of one and ignore the other two. Suppose, for example, that the student is trying to land a helicopter with too much power, is overshooting the final approach course, and is out of trim. You can say something such as "Consider reducing power to 15 inches." Maybe the student is trying to land an airplane without flaps, without the fuel pump on, and skidding from left base to final. You can quietly put in the flaps and turn on the fuel pump while mentioning something about how it is even more important to maintain coordinated flight than anywhere else.

Tell them how they are succeeding

I stood in a lift line at the Sante Fe ski resort once. A father and daughter were in front of us. The father said to the child "The reason why you failed..." and was interrupted by a veteran instructor next to me. He said "Don't tell her why she failed; tell her why she succeeded."

How can we translate this great advice into the world of aviation? As noted by the FAA, students have an unfortunate tendency to compare themselves to the instructor, the only other pilot whom they have been able to observe closely. Look for opportunities to remind your student that he or she is doing well for this stage of training. If the stick and rudder skills are below average, praise the student for planning and checklist usage.

Personal story from my Weblog:

On week after I completed [Initial Operating Experience at a Delta Airlines regional jet subsidiary] I was assigned to fly with a young recently upgraded captain to Toronto. I had about 75 hours of experience at this point during one month of flying the CRJ. The Tower cleared us to land on runway 33R. I had the plane set up perfectly. We were 3-4 miles from the runway and descending in a stable configuration. Then the Tower controller changed his mind: "Cancel landing clearance. You're now cleared to land Runway 33L." This is a shorter runway that starts about 2000' farther away than 33R and also requires a horizontal sidestep of about 3500'. I would have to add some power and maneuver the airplane to line up with the other runway.

A good CRJ pilot would have added exactly the right amount of thrust so that it wouldn't be necessary to touch the levers again until 50' above the ground when it was time to pull them back to idle. How did I handle the situation? I added too much power. Then I took some back out. Then I had to add some back in. Then I finally got us stabilized close to the 500' above-the-ground minimum altitude that our company rules called for (if not stable at 500' in visual conditions, go around; if not stable at 1000' in instrument conditions, go around). After we'd pulled off the runway and cleaned up the plane I said "That was so embarrassing. I feel like I should mail my ATP certificate back to the FAA.. The captain replied with one of the wisest and kindest things that anyone has ever said to me: "Nobody was born knowing how to fly a 53,000 lb. jet."

Note that I benefitted from this captain's wisdom a few years later when teaching my 2.5-year-old daughter Greta how to ride her first bicycle. She had trouble pedaling and said "It's hard to do." I responded with "Just keep practicing, Greta. Nobody was born knowing how to ride a bicycle."

Stay off the controls

Unless there is a hazardous situation developing, stay off the controls. Beginner pilots have a tendency to get motion sickness if someone else is adding inputs.

Suggest attitudes and power settings, not airspeeds or climb rates

Learning pilots don't need any encouragement to fixate on the instruments inside the airplane. Since an experienced pilots in visual conditions might look inside about five percent of the time, your task as an instructor is to train the student to look inside less rather than more. That means you should avoid saying things such as "Try to hold 70 knots for the final approach" if the student is too fast. Instead say "Look out the window and concentrate on holding a pitch attitude about 2 degrees higher; I'll tell you if that works out to be a good approach speed." If you think the student needs a number from an instrument, read out the number rather than suggesting the student look inside.

Example: On downwind takeoffs in helicopters I tell students "Just look out the window and keep the ship level; I'll call out your airspeeds." They won't lift until the helicopter reaches about 45 knots indicated airspeed but they also won't fixate on an interior item when they need to be looking out the window.

Keep a supply of Post-Its and other instrument covers for students who can't resist looking inside. Show them that if they hold attitude and power constant the heading, airspeed, and altitude will more or less take care of themselves.

Preach stability and go-arounds

Aside from the two-pilot crew, a cornerstone of airline safety is the stabilized approach. A typical standard might be stabilized (no further power or configuration changes) by 500' above the ground in visual conditions or 1000' AGL in instrument conditions. These numbers make sense for heavy jets. With a slower airplane that have less inertia due to its lighter weight, a standard such as 300' AGL might be more appropriate. In the helicopter world, Robinson suggests a "decision height" for aborting a practice autorotation of as low as 100' AGL.

More important than the threshold and criteria is the mindset that there will be a threshold and criteria that, if not met, will result in a go-around. If your student can recognize a bad approach and go around rather than continue he or she is almost guaranteed to be safe regardless of the level of skill.

Remind them that examiners look for overall airmanship

As beginner pilots get close to a checkride they tend to worry about the possibility of failure due to a brief deviation from the PTS standards. You can help them calm down, and therefore fly better, by reminding them that applicants fail who are consistently outside of the PTS standards. If they notice a problem during their checkrides they should vocalize it immediately, airline-style, e.g., "correcting altitude." That way the examiner doesn't think that an applicant is oblivious, which is far more dangerous than an applicant who is just a little behind the aircraft.

Remind students that good examiners look for overall airmanship. If a student is careful about briefings, looking stuff up rather than making stuff up, using checklists, etc., the examiner won't be looking for an excuse to fail him or her.

What about the flight review student?

The FAA specifies a minimum of one hour of ground and one hour of flight training for a flight review. Some of the junior instructors at our school have had awkward post-flight reviews with certificated helicopter pilots who expected to be signed off for their flight review but were instead told that they needed some more practice.

Why do private pilots expect to be signed off after so little training, even if they haven't been doing any maneuvers practice or autorotations? I think it is because they are using the FAA minimums as some sort of norm. What they should be looking at is airline pilots who, despite flying regularly, must do a couple of days of recurrent training every 9-12 months. I personally schedule 3-4 hours of recurrent training (flight time) whenever I am going to be doing something that I don't do regularly. Feel free to use me as an example. If someone comes to you and says "I haven't done any autorotations for more than a year but I would like to schedule a 1-hour flight review," you can respond with "I know an ATP/CFII with 2000 Robinson hours who schedules three flights when he is in your situation."

Teaching Instrument Flying (with special tips for helicopter IFR)

Some of the worst advice on how to fly on instruments can be found in the most authoritative sources, e.g., "conduct a regular scan around the six-pack" or "do a star scan where you look at the attitude indicator and then at airspeed and then back to the a.i. and then to the altimeter and then back...". Why is this bad advice? The "scan around the six-pack" has the pilot looking at the attitude indicator 17 percent of the time. The star scan has the pilot looking at the attitude indicator 50 percent of the time. The competent VFR pilot has been looking at the attitude indicator (i.e., the horizon out the window) more than 90 percent of the time. She is able to hold altitude and heading just fine with this technique. Why would you tell her to do something completely different because she is in the clouds (real or simulated)?

As far as I know there are no jet pilots using the "scan around the six pack" method. By the time the pilot got back to the attitude indicator, a minor pitch deviation would have resulted in a 500' loss of altitude. Nor do proficient instrument pilots tend to use the star scan method. What competent real-world IFR pilots do is the same thing that competent real-world VFR pilots do: spend most of the time looking at the attitude indicator, with occasional glances at the other instruments.

As suggested above, during VFR flight you can show (hooded) students how well this works by covering everything except the attitude indicator and asking them to hold a constant attitude for two minutes. Then uncover everything and show that the heading and altitude are still within reason.

Helicopter CFIIs inflict a special form of torture on pilots working toward a helicopter IFR rating by telling them to keep the wings level on the attitude indicator during cruise flight. This is great advice for airplane instrument students. However, due to the fact that an American helicopter will tend to hang left-skid low, a wings-level, ball-centered attitude in a helicopter is a slow right-turning attitude. Sometimes students come to us from other flight schools and have been fighting the heading for 30 hours of hood time without anyone telling them what kind of attitude to target. Before the very first hood session, show the student that the attitude for straight and level flight is about 2 degrees of left bank with the ball slightly off to the left.


If you're a CFI and don't want to repeat my mistakes...

About the Author

The author is a senior flight instructor for East Coast Aero Club's helicopter program. He is also an instrument airplane instructor at East Coast Aero Club, the father of young children, and a teacher of computer science and photography. He has been a volunteer mathematics tutor in a public high school.

Copyright 2015 Philip Greenspun.