There are a lot of procedures in current flight training that have been inherited from the past. At the same time, new developments in flight training have not kept pace with new developments in equipment and airspace. Some of these older procedures are merely a nuisance, but the lack of emphasis on later developments can place newly-minted pilots at a disadvantage. AVweb's Howard Fried explores the many changes in flight training over the last few years and explains why current practices are some 20 years behind the state of the art.
June 4, 2000
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
Flight training has been consistently running 10 to
20 years behind the state of the art. A prime example of this is the way I was
trained in the early 1940s. Aircraft engines produced back in the early 1930s
(and before) were so undependable that every time one took off you could toss a
coin as to whether or not the engine would quit. Consequently a great deal of
time in primary training was devoted to practicing "forced landings."
The instructor would reduce the power to idle at several unexpected times during
every training flight, and the student would pick out a suitable landing area
and glide toward it, explaining to the instructor just how he planned his
approach (into the wind, parallel to the plowed furrows, etc.). Out in the open
country we would glide right down to the flare before the instructor would give
the engine back for the climbout. Now, since engines are infinitely more
dependable, we still teach the technique, but with not nearly the emphasis we
did back then, nor do we bring the airplane down anywhere near as low, at least
in populated areas. This is okay because the likelihood of losing an engine,
short of brain-fade and running out of fuel, is quite remote. I used to tell my
students, "These engines just don't quit," until one day one did. But
that's another story.
There are several other maneuvers and procedures in the training curriculum that
probably ought to be revised or eliminated. The original purpose of ground
reference maneuvers was twofold. First, to train the student to divide his
attention between inside and outside references. The student is required to be
constantly checking his altitude, while also carefully observing his ground
track. Even more important, however, was the objective of making the student
aware of what the wind is doing to his flight path at all times. Formerly, when
the primary training airplanes were the J-3 Cub and the 7AC Champ, this was a
very valid procedure. The airplanes were going 50 or 60 miles per hour and the
maneuvers were performed at 400 to 600 feet above the surface, so the wind drift
was readily apparent. Today, however, with training airplanes that are going 90
to 100 knots, and the maneuvers being accomplished 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the
surface, it requires a substantial wind for the drift to become apparent to the
The bottom-line purpose of all these ground reference maneuvers (S-turns across
a road, turns about a point, eights along a road, and the rectangular course)
was to prepare the student to fly a proper pattern at the airport, to shade the
bank on the first turn to crosswind so that the crosswind leg is perpendicular
to the departure path, to crab to the right while on the crosswind leg, to again
shade the bank on the turn to downwind leg, to fly the downwind leg parallel to
the runway, to again shade the bank on the turn to the base leg, ending with a
crab to the left, and finally, to shade the bank on the turn to final, ending up
aligned with the runway. (All assuming the wind is right down the runway.)
In those days the traffic pattern at uncontrolled (non-towered) airports and
the vast majority of training was done at such fields was 400 to 600 feet above
the ground, and again, wind drift was readily apparent. It was essential to
train the student with the ground reference maneuvers away from the airport to
prepare the student for flying a good pattern at the airport, because, as I've
repeatedly pointed out, a good landing starts with a good pattern. Today, with
1,000- to 1,200-foot patterns and faster airplanes, the time spent on the
crosswind and base legs is so short that the student hardly has an opportunity
to observe what the wind is doing to his flight path.
Consequently, perhaps we should rethink the whole business of spending training
time on ground reference maneuvers. I certainly don't mean to imply that wind
awareness is not important it is vitally important, but it can be forcefully
brought home to the student in more realistic ways than wasting training time on
S-turns across the road,
As pointed out above, another purpose for the ground reference maneuvers was to
train the pilot to divide his or her attention between inside and outside
references. With all the wonderful toys cockpits are filled with today, many
pilots are lax at looking outside. Not only do they miss the scenery as they fly
along, but they might bump into something if they fail to look around for
traffic. Personally, I live in abject terror of a midair collision. I have this
supreme confidence in the equipment and my ability to extricate myself from a
bad situation to the point that there is almost nothing I can imagine that is
not survivable, with the exception of fire in the air and an encounter with
another airplane. Surviving a midair collision is rare, and failure to look
outside the airplane is an invitation to just such an event. Consequently, it is
absolutely essential that we constantly look around outside.
Of course, in some of our large pressurized general aviation twins it is almost
impossible to see out even if we want to. I have sat in and operated a Duke and
King Air where my eye level was even with the top of the panel and I had to
really stretch to see over the nose. And it is even worse in the Citation.
These airplanes are going so fast that by the time one spots traffic on a
collision course, it may very well be too late to avoid hitting the other guy
(or being hit by him). Of course, everywhere I flew those airplanes I was on an
IFR flight plan, but, even so, a controller on the ground is a poor excuse for
being alert to see for yourself. Please don't misunderstand: I want all the
eyeballs I can get watching me, and everywhere I go when I'm VFR I take
advantage of flight following provided by ATC.
I sometimes feel like a pioneer. When I learned to fly very few airplanes had
radios of any kind and those that did were equipped with what can only be
described as extremely primitive stuff by today's standards. We had low-frequency, tunable radios filled with vacuum tubes (or as our British friends
more accurately say, electron valves), powered by huge, heavy power packs. And
we had only one frequency for transmission with which we could talk to the tower
or flight service. Our position reports were relayed to center from flight
service nobody talked directly with the center! For navigation we had the
Adcock Range (the four-course radio range) which put out four legs defining the
airways. We also had ADF, but you had to turn the loop antenna by hand!
The advent of crystal-controlled VHF radios for communication was a wonderful
thing. Now, of course, instead of a bunch of crystals, we have frequency
synthesizers. Along with VHF radios for communication came the VOR. What a
wonderful thing! Now, even that won't be with us too much longer. With LORAN C
you can go almost anywhere, and GPS is even better.
Along with these advances we have seen the old needle and ball (what we called a
"Turn and Bank") replaced with the turn coordinator, the gyro compass
(which turned the wrong way) with the heading indicator, and the old artificial
horizon, which is little changed, but is now called the attitude indicator. And
with the HSI (horizontal situation indicator) it all comes together. Even better
is the flight director. All these thing have rendered flying infinitely easier,
but somehow I keep feeling that the more complex we make something, the more
there is to go wrong. And, of course, all these wonderful gadgets tend to make
us keep our heads in the cockpit rather than maintaining vigilance as we look
Attitude instrument flying has replaced the old Stark system (needle, ball, and
airspeed) as the means of keeping the airplane upright, and it is much better.
It always works under any flight condition, which is more than can be said for
the Stark system! In the old days we centered the needle with the rudder and the
ball with the stick or yoke!
When they make me FAA Administrator (a likely event) there will be a bunch of
drastic changes in the way pilots are certified. First, I will simplify the
written (knowledge) exams, by eliminating all the chaff and including only the
absolutely essential knowledge. Then I would require everyone to get a score of
100 percent! On each of the knowledge tests there is at least one question that points
to a legal but dangerous situation (e.g., the ability to fly in IMC without a
clearance in uncontrolled airspace).
Then I'll clean up the practical tests, including only those procedures and
maneuvers that are really important. In today's world of aviation we don't need
the ground reference maneuvers anymore. If the applicant can fly a good pattern,
that's enough. After all, a good landing starts with a good pattern, and S-turns
across a road, turns about a point, and the rectangular course are all in aid of
flying a precise pattern.
I would also place more emphasis on emergency procedures. In training for the
advanced certificates and ratings, particularly the multiengine and various type
ratings, great emphasis is placed on emergency procedures. Why not do the same
with the private and commercial? Although airplanes of modern design literally
have to be forced into a spin, I would be sure to include spin training and
testing, at least by way of oral quizzing if not in actual flight.
Today's pilots are taught to fly "by the numbers." On the takeoff they
go pounding down the runway until the magic number comes up on the airspeed
indicator, then they ROTATE! This is not the way I was taught. I was taught to
bring the stick (or yoke) back as I was rolling down the runway and hold the top
of the cowl on the horizon. When the airplane got ready, it would fly itself off
the ground. Except when operating a complex airplane or a twin, I still do it
that way. It gives one a better feel for what is going on. Flying is a learned
skill. The pilot who flies by the numbers is apt to be somewhat jerky in his or
her movements, whereas the one who flies by feel is likely to be smooth as he or
she manipulates the controls and the airplane does his bidding. There is nothing
natural about flying, but with enough practice the skills involved can become
"second nature." I have always envied those rare individuals who strap
an airplane on, fire it up, and it seems to begin to breathe with them. These
are truly the great ones, and they fly more by feel than by the numbers.
Another flaw in the "fly by the numbers" system is that it encourages
the pilot to bury his/her head in the cockpit and fail to properly look around
outside. And it breeds a type of pilot who is much too dependent on the airspeed
indicator. Airspeed indicators are notoriously inaccurate, and can easily
mislead a pilot. And what if the pilot loses his/her airspeed indicator as
happens with some degree of frequency? Many of today's pilots are so dependant
upon the airspeed indicator that they are lost without it. All they need to know
is that if the airplane's attitude is right and the power setting is right, the
airspeed simply has to be in the ballpark.
Today's pilots seem to have no concept of what that rudder is all about. Because
airplanes are more efficiently designed, the pilot can get away with planting
his/her feet firmly on the floor and steering the airplane through the sky like
driving a car down the road. I know a flight instructor who simply hated to do
spins. When he had an instructor applicant he would turn him over to another
instructor for his spin training. This instructor, trained in the modern system,
had students put him in no less than four inadvertent spins in his first six
months of instructing. I, on the other hand, in my first 56 years of instructing
had a student do this to me once! And that was because I wasn't paying proper
attention to the student's attempt to execute a steep power turn!
As John Deakin stated in a recent AVweb column, they keep tampering with Part 61
of the regs (certification of pilots and flight instructors) without enhancing
safety an iota. There will no doubt be more on this subject in future Eye of
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this
column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That
way others may benefit from your input.