From The CFI #8: Musings of an Old CFI

AVweb's Linda Pendleton has been teaching people how to fly for decades, and remembers fondly how flight instruction used to be. But before you go accusing her of living in the past, she's got strong opinions on how things need to be different in the age of technically advanced aircraft -- and what parts of past training experience that need to be rediscovered.


If you’ve read my previous columns, you know that I have advocated changing the way we train new pilots. The old, maneuvers-based training is no longer meeting the challenge of today’s technically advanced aircraft and the evolving national airspace system. We’ve got to spend more time teaching folks to make good, solid judgments and to use their aircraft as transportation tools. No, this does not mean that we have to give up $100 ($300?) hamburgers, but that we need to train for more than that.

A Certain Lacking

This all got me thinking about the way it’s always been and the way we educate pilots now. I know a young man who was educated by one of the finest university aviation training programs in the country. His education has been superb. (He was, however, trained in a traditional, maneuvers-based program.) He knows the academics of aviation cold and he’s one of the most precise pilots I’ve ever met. (Others who are products of this same program are equally technically proficient.) He knows the FARs and he can find a reference in the Aeronautical Information Manual in far less time than I can.He’d never heard of Ernie Gann. (I guess I can judge the relative age of my audience now by counting the number of emails I get saying, “Ernie Who?”) How can one consider him/herself an aviator — an “airman” perhaps — and not know of Ernest K. Gann? How can one consider one’s education complete with that void?

How It Was

I’ve been re-reading some of Gann’s works lately and it set me to thinking about the apprenticeship some of us served on our way to our well-worn logbooks and gray temples. (I’m not advocating going back to this way of educating airmen. It wasn’t a very efficient way to train pilots, and many of the lessons they learned are written in blood. Let’s not forget those hard-won lessons, however.) Many of us sat in the right seat for hour after hour without anything more to do than cycle flaps and gear and make radio calls. And sometimes to get reprimanded for accepting a clearance too rapidly before the master in the left seat gave his approval. That usually came when ATC wanted to give us a vector that the “old man” thought would take us into some worsening weather or a descent that was going to be less than fuel efficient. What did work, however, was that while we were just occupying the seat, we were unconsciously absorbing some of the hard-won wisdom of the captain. Not all of it, to be sure, since we had not seen one-tenth of what the graybeard had, but some did sink in. It wasn’t a very efficient way to transfer knowledge, but it was the one we had.I wonder sometimes how much wisdom is being transferred when the “old man” in the left seat is 24.

Some Things Take Time

Have you ever been out flying — perhaps IFR or perhaps listening on Flight Watch — and heard the airlines complaining about rides and asking for turbulence reports? Did you ever think that those pilots were a bunch of woosies who couldn’t stand a little light chop while your slogging along in mid-summer thermal bumps and not complaining? Some of that concern may have nothing to do with the light chop but what that light chop may foretell. Sometimes the small bumps you feel now are the harbinger of far worse to come. You gotta see a lot of weather to come to that conclusion, though. (Of course, the airline guys are also concerned that the folks in the back have a good ride. That is, after all, their paycheck.)I was out with a student who wanted to get some actual IFR one winter day when icing was not forecast. True to the way my week had been going, however, we started to pick up a little light rime. The student thought it was neat, but I thought it was time to move now and told ATC so. The student had not seen enough ice to know just how quickly it could get unbelievably bad — almost to the point of disaster — and so wasn’t worried. That kind of knowledge takes time and not all of my contemporaries were as lucky as I was to be able to accumulate the knowledge and live to fly another day.

A co-pilot once acknowledged a clearance for a turn for vectors for an approach that I quickly declined. The co-pilot didn’t understand my reluctance to take up the heading. “Geez,” he said, “that cloud’s not even black.” He was right, it wasn’t black: It was green. He’d learned to fly in an area that just doesn’t see thunderstorms and he didn’t know that green clouds are far worse than black ones any day, and put out nasty things such as hail, tornadoes and extreme wind shear.

Some Things Take a Good Instructor

An applicant showed up for a private checkride with a friend of mine last week. The oral didn’t go extremely well, but was passable. The in-flight portion got off to an inauspicious start, however, soon after takeoff. They were to stay in the pattern to do some takeoffs and landings. ATC gave the applicant a clearance he didn’t understand. What did that applicant do? Well, he asked for clarification of the clearance. “What’s wrong with that?” you say. What was wrong was the phraseology he (mis)used in his query. He said, “Please tell me that again because I didn’t really get it that time.” Where did he find that in the AIM? What has his instructor been teaching him about proper radio procedures? What kind of an example had that instructor been?Many applicants for the private certificate show an appalling lack of ability in the areas of pilotage and dead reckoning. True, handheld GPSs are getting cheap enough that I anticipate seeing them blister-wrapped at the checkout counter of the supermarket any day now, but that’s no reason not to know the basics. One applicant for his private certificate was going to use the crossing of an east-west section road with a north-south railroad track as a checkpoint. Nice, identifiable point — if there hadn’t been a similar point every couple of miles or so. Nobody seems to want to navigate by reference to the ground any longer — but doing so sure keeps your head out of the cockpit. Why haven’t instructors shown their students the fun of this method of navigation? As long as it’s in the PTS, we’ll have to demonstrate proficiency, so why not make it fun? It will take an instructor who is proficient in these skills to engender that enthusiasm. (Navigation without the use of radios or batteries is a skill I hope we never stop teaching. GPS doesn’t teach the same skills and does not encourage “head out the window” behavior.)Instructors need to teach, just not read the syllabus to students. They must teach the “why” along with the “how.” Somehow that’s just not getting done very well these days.

The “Good Old Days”

I guess I’m starting to sound like older folks always do to the younger generation, but I’m seeing some skills deteriorate among our pilot population — especially among younger pilots. I wouldn’t give up my nights hauling freight in the Beech 18 (I’ve found that if I say “twin Beech” to younger pilots, they think I’m talking about a Baron of some sort) for all the money in the world. Nor, would I go back to those days for all the money in the world. There were some things I learned as a freight dog, however, that have been invaluable. Self-reliance was a biggie. There’s nobody up there with you in the middle of the night, and there are rarely any folks on the ground who can give you meaningful help. The same is true in the daytime — it just doesn’t seem as scary, somehow. You’ve only yourself to rely on and somehow you’ve got to figure out the best course of action and then take action. It’s up to you.I learned that about 97% of the weather you encounter will be safely flyable. The big skill is in accurately identifying the other 3% because it will flat-out kill you. Now, as long as you don’t confuse “safe” with “comfortable” you’ll understand what I’m saying. There is weather I’d fly through with the freight that I’d never attempt with passengers. Not that it isn’t safe — it just isn’t comfortable. When I have folks in the airplane with me, they’ve paid a price to be there — either with money or with their trust in me. They deserve the smoothest, most “boring” flight I can give them. The freight doesn’t care. (It also doesn’t barf all over the seats, but that’s another story.)I learned that ATC isn’t God (sorry, Don!) and they can make mistakes, too. Those who have flown in the Northeast Corridor know that where you want to go and where ATC wants to send you can be two different and sometimes apparently irreconcilable places. I’ve had them point me right at a mountain and seemingly forget about me in the congestion of Southern California airspace. Not a good feeling. You don’t want to argue with ATC just for the sake of asserting your authority, but when their instructions potentially put your flight at risk, you’ve got to speak up. It’s hard to teach new pilots this. They give up command authority very easily, especially to ATC. If you accept a clearance that puts you at risk, you may not be here to defend yourself — but the ATC specialist will.I’ve learned that airplanes are disposable. That’s what insurance is for. Too many pilots spend too much energy trying to save the ship when the emphasis needs to be on saving the people. After all, you owe nothing to the airplane, and if you’re making a decision as to who to save, the airplane has already let you down. Always concentrate on what’s best for people. Not the schedule, not the airplane, just the people. I’ve watched pilots do stupid tricks with airplanes — while putting people at real risk — just to try to avoid damage to an airframe. It isn’t worth it.

How Will Pilots Learn Now?

How will we transfer what my boss likes to call “tribal knowledge” — all those gems that airmen have collected over the years — to a new generation of pilots who may not have the luxury of an apprenticeship in the right seat? How can we impart the wisdom — most of which was handed down to us — to them? Many of us have had the privilege to study at the feet of a master. We’ve been helped along the way by the nuggets of wisdom and the examples of the sterling aviators that went before us. I can never repay the debt to the old salts who have helped me immensely over the years. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to pass along all I can to the next generation of pilots. We must encourage new pilots to seek out the advice and mentorship of senior airmen. Then, perhaps, our sterling young pilots will become true airmen. We must be mentors — it’s the debt we owe.It takes a teacher, a student, and a desire to learn. Somehow it seems that one side of that triangle is often missing. Maybe we can change that. I certainly hope so, and next time I’ll pass along some ideas on how you can do it.

For more From The CFI, check out the rest of Linda’s articles.