Teaching By Ambush

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I had an instructor who had a teaching technique unlike any other instructor I’ve flown with. Let’s call it teaching by ambush.

On this particular flight, we were in a non-pressurized twin, repositioning it to pick up our passengers. It was a cold morning, and I was a complete newbie to the multi-engine training. My instructor had no need for a copilot, and certainly not for a student, but the owner of the airplane felt it made passengers more comfortable if there were two people in the front.

I was in the left seat for the repositioning flight (free, loggable ME time). Shortly after takeoff, I could hear the dissonance of the engines going out of synch. I loudly asked, "What’s that?” (I confess to having used more colorful language in posting the question.) “Identify! Dead foot dead engine.” And thus, a flight lesson was commencing.

I was already well behind the cranial power curve. I had no idea what she was talking about. Like much of my training at that point, I was in the middle of a flight lesson that did not follow a lesson brief: What are we going to do, and how do we do it?

You can probably imagine the sequence of events that followed. She walked me through the process of confirming the failed engine, pulling back the throttle and mixture controls on that side, trimming to overcome the imbalanced thrust, etc. It was all SOP. Except, I had never read about MEL SOP.

This was to be a very short flight on a very cold morning. We had a minute or two to discuss what had gone wrong, and how we would attempt to correct it. She explained that I forgot to check something. Was the fuel turned off for one of the engines before we departed?  Which engine? The one that failed? Why didn’t I spot that before we departed? What should I do to attempt a restart?

And then, the show began. Fuel on. Mixture rich. Prop full. Power cracked. Primer. Starter. It didn’t start. We had barely warmed it up before takeoff, and it sputtered to idle during our climbout. So, for the next 10 minutes, my lesson in multi-engine management transitioned into “What happens when you generate a true engine failure while teaching how to manage an engine failure?”

Eventually, she started the engine and I was free to “relax” for the pickup at a nearby airport. I was then demoted to the status of passenger, regardless of the unwitting respect I might receive from the folks in the rear seats.

As you may have deduced, the “lesson” here was that the “instructor” turned off the fuel to one of the engines, either on the takeoff roll or immediately thereafter. But I did, in truth, learn a lot about “how to teach flying” during this circus. This was not how.

What did I learn? I learned that an arrogant instructor has a serious personality flaw. I learned that there is no logic or practicality in a one-hour flight lesson, because that lesson may require more than an hour pre-brief. I learned that it is wrong to present a “surprise” flight lesson.

On the day of that flight, I was ambushed by my instructor, humiliated for not knowing what she assumed I knew, and frightened at the thought of flying a multi-engine piston airplane. This was not the only arrogant, wild-west instructor I would meet. Eventually, about three decades after this incident, I decided to get my CFI, and to focus on effectively communicating with my students.  An example: When I teach aborted takeoffs, I explain that on this flight, I will be opening the door during your takeoff roll. You will need to decide whether to abort the takeoff, or continue and return for a landing. This airplane flies well with a door cracked. If you see that we don’t have enough runway to stop, you will need to continue the takeoff. Do you get that?

On a future lesson, I might remind the student that he or she should always be prepared to abort a takeoff. Saying no more than that, I might unhinge it, and I might not. I might do it at a point where the takeoff must continue, and I might not. But there will be no flat-out ambush.

Comments (10)

I've got mixed feelings about this article. On one hand there is definitely a strain of training techniques that are akin to a cycle of violence - "it was done to me and I'm ok so I will do it to my students." And there are also known issues with hazardous attitudes that can negatively impact all aspects of the undertaking of aviation. On the other hand, there wasn't enough in this account to justify the description given of that instructor in particular and spring surprises in general. I saw a technique applied incorrectly. That required assumptions about your state of training to be made incorrectly. If this experience has influenced your techniques down the track, fair enough. A diversity of training attitudes is important. I don't believe a mistaken application of a known technique necessarily counts as a personality flaw.

Posted by: Cosmo Adsett | July 15, 2018 6:08 PM    Report this comment

One of the issues the FAA wants to do and the NTSB has called for is more realistic sim training on emergencies including stalls. In the airplane I would not recommend what the author has described but what you can a lot more in the sim. As far as a real learning experience, how do you balance the need to pre-brief items covered on the sim session to creating a realistic surprise malfunction during that session?

Posted by: matthew wagner | July 15, 2018 6:39 PM    Report this comment

A perfect example of the late and unlamented "FISR" method of instruction. (Fear, Intimidation, Sarcastic, Ridicule)

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | July 15, 2018 10:42 PM    Report this comment

I had to laugh reading this article.

Way back in the early 70's when I was earning a multi-engine rating in a C310, I had a similar incident. This was in an era before the idea of pre-briefing in flight instruction was much more than a good idea. I had just finished the airplane fam flights and a couple of inflight engine shut downs when -- on takeoff -- the CFI killed the critical engine with mixture just about the time of rotation. I instantaneously shoved all the engine controls forward and froze. We're going down the runway, the airplane is starting to pick the operating engine wing up and trying to turn itself upside down. The instructor is trying to get me to let go and finally grabs the other mixture and shuts it down too. A white faced CFI and student lived to do it another day ... but only by accident.

Pre-briefing ... it's a wonderful thing. Years later when I was involved with flight test, I learned that not one possibility is overlooked in those briefs and a separate safety review board looks over the work, as well. THAT is one of many reasons more accidents don't occur during flight test these days.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 16, 2018 3:25 AM    Report this comment

I won't defend this particular method of practicing engine failures on takeoffs (in all the training I've done, it's been accomplished by the instructor or examiner pulling back the throttle; engine failure on takeoff at low altitude is just too risky to practice for real, because you might not get it back). But I have found it occasionally useful to "teach by ambush" when you have a student who thinks they know everything necessary to pass an exam with flying colors when in reality they still have a ways to go. It is a last-ditch effort to be used only when all other teaching techniques have failed, but used judiciously, it can be useful to get some students to wake up and realize that they do need a bit more work before they're ready. Even so, this presumes that the instructor has thought it out ahead of time and isn't just making it up on the go; otherwise, it has a tendency to backfire and make the instructor look like the incompetent one, as apparently happened in the story told above.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 16, 2018 7:56 AM    Report this comment

Follow on funny ... I paid the instructor who scared me back a couple of weeks later.

Now nearing the end of my ME training and getting ready for the flight test in Sacramento, we were headed back into Beale AFB from the Aero Club entry point (a barn a couple of miles from the runway). An SR-71 is on a long approach but the nice tower guys -- knowing the C310 was costing me $65/hr (sic) -- asked if I could expedite. I replied, "affirm." So I was cleared for an expedited landing and get it off the runway pronto or else go away. So I'm on a fast descending 90 deg to the runway path and just about the time I get to the runway, I heel it over hard to capture the centerline. I level out just about the time the wheels touch down and clear. A real Steve Canyon approach. I look over at the instructor who had turned white and asked, "what's wrong?" He says, "... do you know how close that tuna tank was to the ground?" I replied, "THAT was for scaring the crap outta me." True story.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 16, 2018 9:06 AM    Report this comment

The FAA is trying desperately to reduce the "Loss Of Control" (LOC) accidents. Thank you Jeff for reminding us why planes are falling out of the sky.

"I was already well behind the cranial power curve."

Next time you have an actual emergency or get behind the "Cranial Power Curve" hit the pause button on the dash and discuss the steps and procedures.

You realize the second you made the decision to get free twin time and sit in the left seat you are expected to have the knowledge and preparedness of "P-I-C" (Pilot In Command). Even if you don't want to take this Aviation thing seriously the instructor demonstrated she did. The owner and passengers have absolutely every reason to believe that the "Left" seat is occupied at all times by a pilot that is studied and prepared for a safe flight.

This story should remind every single pilot that: Before taking the P-I-C position, self examine yourself and ask "Yourself"

???Am I Ready For ANYTHING That May Happen On This Flight????

Posted by: Klaus Marx | July 16, 2018 12:02 PM    Report this comment

"You realize the second you made the decision to get free twin time and sit in the left seat you are expected to have the knowledge and preparedness of PIC"

Why? I didn't expect to have the knowledge and preparedness to act as PIC (or at the time, even know what that meant) when I started taking primary flight training. And even when I later took multi-engine training, I expected that I didn't know enough to act as PIC...hence the training.

It's one thing to have been forewarned that prior studying is required and that you'd be "drinking from the fire hose" in an accelerated training course (like where I took my ME training), or that any maneuver/procedure that had been practiced to at least a minimum of understanding could be expected at any time, but an entirely different thing if it was something that had never been experienced or studied before.

That being said, once you are rated to fly something, you are correct in that you should always ask yourself the question "am I ready for anything that could happen on this flight".

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 16, 2018 12:29 PM    Report this comment

I apologize, I'm the odd man out in this comments section.

I was the guy who received my multi engine training by formally paying a flight instructor for both ground and flight training. I had no idea how many pilots got their ratings doing ride-alongs.

Man do I feel duped, it cost me thousands of dollars and just think, I could have been trained on dead-head legs by a company paid instructor? I never was very bright :(

Posted by: Klaus Marx | July 17, 2018 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Wow, this is more than just a little disturbing. If I understand the circumstances correctly the "so called" instructor intentionally turned off the fuel to one engine either prior to takeoff or shortly thereafter. If that really is the case, there is no defensible reason why this reckless behavior is warranted and whoever that CFI is should be summarily grounded, perhaps permanently. That this foolish nonsense did not result in an accident which would likely have been accompanied by fatalities is fortunate. People like this have no place on our airways.

Posted by: Jeff Owen | July 19, 2018 12:07 PM    Report this comment

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