Eye of Experience #28:
The Evolution of Flight Training
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.
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.
Ground Reference Maneuvers?
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 pilot.
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.
Communication Radios and Navigation Avionics
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 around outside.
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.
Seat of the Pants
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 Experience columns.
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.