I Could Teach My Dog To Fly


Waiting for the clouds to part a couple of weeks ago at the drop zone, I was trying to explain how flight instructors teach student pilots to land. I may be a little rogue on this, but I don’t think we teach them so much as we keep them from smashing the airplane while they learn for themselves. I apply that sentiment to all aspects of learning to fly. Really, it just ain’t that hard.

So I was explaining to my friends that when instructing landings, I basically just sit there, run my mouth as much as is necessary to sort of jolly things along and put my mitts on the controls only in the direst of circumstances. Dire is not an impending bounce or a hard touchdown.

“I could never do that,” one of my friends said, suggesting it must be nerve-racking. I don’t find it so. It’s just the job of instructing, but I acknowledge that not everyone does it this way. I have flown with instructors who hover over the yoke as though they imagine they’ll have to seize control in that microsecond before the fireball. I’ve always thought that people that nervous certainly shouldn’t be instructing nor maybe even flying at all. Like a poorly timed fart, that tension will infuse the cockpit to the detriment of all.

I do keep my feet on the pedals during approach and landing. It has been my observation that you can do a lot with rudder before ever needing to seize the stick. It has also been my experience that if you keep the airplane pointed straight down the runway, it’s less likely that any serious harm will come to you, bounces and swerves notwithstanding.  

When flying with someone else, I can’t wait to hand control over, even for a non-pilot. I much more enjoy watching someone else fly and trying to compose the right words to help them fly better than I do actually flying myself. If you’ve done one roll input, you’ve done them all. To me, this is the core challenge of teaching someone the basic hand-eye for stick-and-rudder skills. Provide the essential idea, then shut the hell up and let them experiment.

Back in the winter, a friend of mine who’s a supremely skilled motorcycle rider visited and we did a flight in the Cub. I got the bright idea that his speed sense would be good enough for direct transference to land a Cub. So I planned to talk him through it until just the last part of the flare. Didn’t work. Even though to me short final kind of feels like approaching a technical corner on a motorcycle, it didn’t to him because he’s only seen the corner, not the three-dimensional trajectory of an airplane approaching the threshold. Several tries and in each one, he gave me the controls at 100 feet. I’m still convinced he could have done it with a couple of more tries. It was a fun exercise I want to try again.

And this gets me to pilots who demo airplanes for various companies. Like instructors, they tend to run the spectrum. At the far undesirable end are pilots who think a demo is a ride and so they fly you around for an hour. I’ve had this happen a handful of times, most recently in this video. A colleague noticed this and said, “He didn’t let you fly much, did he?” The upshot is I don’t have very good feel for a gyroplane and I’m vaguely suspicious that they may be harder to fly than I imagine. I doubt if I’ll go learn to fly one.

At the opposite end of this same spectrum is CubCrafters. When you show up, they pretty much brief you and toss you the keys. For the NXCub I flew for this week’s video, I didn’t avail myself of that, but I have in the past. Absent an airplane with weird characteristics or bad habits, this is the best way to learn and evaluate an airplane, just as a student who has been signed off to solo will suddenly experience a boost in confidence and competence.

Once you’ve got the basics down, there’s really not much to be gained by having someone look over your shoulder for another 10 hours. I think it’s often more distraction than it is benefit. In the rarified skill levels of aerobatics and some military flying, the ability required is daunting. But for most of us, it’s really rather mundane. The less we make of it, the easier it is to do and do well.

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  1. There is a big difference between transitioning to a new type of airplane and learning the basics—though they each only take a few hours.

    Learning to fly requires learning what each control does—as well as “proportionality”— how much pressure to apply to controls—as well as how MUCH movement. Transition to different types of aircraft involves a sense of HOW to apply that pressure. Physically handling new types of aircraft isn’t hard—I recently flew my 350th unique type (one of the perks of aviation journalism!). HANDLING a new aircraft isn’t hard—it’s a “fur piece” from having total command of the systems—for instance, U had no problem Flying a DC-9 in the sim, but struggled with understanding the hydraulic system—until I realized it was much like a Falcon 10–THEN I began to understand. These “bridges” from the unknown to the known make transition easier. Similarly—a student often struggles with “round out” and flare until developing both the sight picture and rate of airspeed decay—but once you have it—you can relate newer aircraft to previous aircraft. Look at the progression of pilots in WW II trainers—from Cubs to Stearman to the BR SERUES TI T-6s to fighters—all in a couple of hundred hours (and including instruments, aerobatics, gunnery, and formation flying in those few hours.

    Summary—teach them the basics so they have something to build on and relate to—verbally coach them—let them make mistakes (right up to nearly losing the aircraft) and they’ll likely not make THAT mistake again!

  2. Once or twice a week I get to take someone up for a ‘trial flight’ at the local flying club. It’s all about having a good time for them, plus a bonus if we can fly over their house.
    My usual routine is to get airborne and heading the general direction we want to go, then level off at 1,500 to 2,000′ or so. Then I spend 2 minutes showing them the basics of operating the controls, and then let them fly it as much as they want (often most of the flight). No-one has ever struggled, and in fact usually their confidence soars and they have a grand time, even the nervous ones.
    Of course, we tend to wander around the sky a bit and the altitude can vary considerably (a bit of trim can adjust the general trend!), but that is of no consequence in our big uncontrolled sky and there is no reason for them to fly precise headings or altitudes. It’s all about sharing the joy of flight and making great memories.

  3. My time working as a full time instructor coincided with the late 1980’s airline recovery. By the luck of good timing (It is always better to lucky than good) I quickly ended up as the “senior” instructor at my 10 airplane flight school.

    This meant that I got the “problem” students and the passing on of said problem students was invariably preceded by an announcement that “they can’t land”. The problem alas was almost invariably not that they couldn’t land, it was they couldn’t fly. This was because their instructor did not spend enough time on teaching the foundation manoeuvres, especially attitudes and movements.

    I found I generally had to start over with attitudes and movements, and then work through straight and level, turns, and climbs and descending. Not surprisingly if you could not fly those maneuvers it was going to be pretty hard to fly a good circuit (pattern for you Americans). If the student could not control the airplane in the circuit it was going to be even harder to control it in the flare and touchdown.

    I did have one notable exception. I was given a lady who “couldn’t land”, but the referral was from the best junior instructor in the school which really surprised me. He said she had a confidence problem and flew fine but just gave up in the flare. After meeting her husband, a crude, domineering, dismissive, asshat, who told her she would never be good enough to fly on her own, I realized both what the problem was and how much soloing meant to her.

    We went flying and on the trip around the patch in the mighty Cessna 150 I was quite happy with how she was flying, however in the flare the aircraft ballooned slightly and she immediately shouted “you have control”. So on the downwind of the next circuit I jammed my hands under my butt and told her there was no way I could get my hands free in time to take over so she had better land the airplane herself. I still remember the expression on her face when she realized I wasn’t joking. What I didn’t tell her was I still had my feet on the rudders so I could make sure we hit straight and that if I bent my leg it would pull the wheel back so we would hit on the mains, so basically she could not hurt the airplane.

    With a bit of encouraging words the first landing was OK and the third was pretty much as good as I could hope for. I got her to go back to the school and could see the disappointment on her face. She turned to me and and in a discouraged tone, asked where I wanted her to park the airplane. I said well not here as it is too long a walk to the school., I then picked up the microphone and told the tower I was sending a student on their first solo.

    It was one of the most satisfying moments of my instructor career.

  4. I agree with all that’s been said so far.

    Some years ago I employed a young instructor in her first year of instructing and she proved herself to be first class. However, within the first 6 months she returned from flying a might shaken more than once. Her ‘Trial flight’ person had grabbed the controls and she had to fight them to regain control during the climb out, but she had instructed them “to remain hands off the controls and firmly in their lap throughout the take-off”, she told me.

    My answer was simple: brief the student, of course, and then let them handle the flight controls from the off including during the start up – what harm can they do? They must be part of the flight and this should continue throughout including the landing phase. She followed the advice and never had any more such problems. If the instructor introduces fear and danger then fear and danger they will get. There can be nothing worse than an instructor hogging the controls and then hovering over them when the student is eventually flying.

  5. Excellent points Paul. To become a pilot, a person needs to learn how to operate the controls, not be directed how to use the controls. A person must learn the eye hand coordination. Forty some odd years ago, my primary instructor was a laid back Californian who never touched the controls during our flights except when demonstrating a maneuver. After one rather bumpy landing I said, “so Ricky, when do get involved?” He said, “if I grabbed the controls every time I saw something that you were doing incorrectly, you would never learn. If you are going to break something, I’ll stop that from happening but otherwise, it’s all you “. I will have to admit, I would have a tough time being that hands off. The result was I got my PPL in 40 hours.

  6. When the manufacturer of the aircraft throws you the keys and says “see ya later” they really mean that they will see you at their repair facility later.

  7. Good point about once basics are learned there is not much gained by instructor’s eyes over the shoulder. One of my first students was truly a natural, smooth and totally in control except for on the take off roll during which we were directionally all over the runway. I couldn’t figure out his problem was till I asked him “what are you looking at?” He responded by saying “I just can’t seem to keep the ball in the center during the takeoff roll.” As soon as I relieved him of having to center the ball on take off roll he did just fine and soloed that day. The problem was not his, it was mine and was more of a lesson for me as an instructor than it was for him as a student. Somewhere along the way I must have over stressed coordination instead of eyes outside to include on takeoff roll, and, more importantly I had not yet as an instructor learned to look at what was commanding my students’ attentions. Had I done so he would have soloed earlier and learned without my eyes looking over his shoulder.

  8. I always find it puzzling that when I learned to fly, around ’58, my airport (Torrance, Ca.) had two flight schools. One taught with Aeronca 7ACs, until you were ready to move up to the performance of their Tri Champs, the other Luscombe 8As, until you were ready for their Tri Pacer. I went with the Aeroncas. Bunch of us young guys doing the same, walking in off the street with no prior experience. And then with about 8 to 10 hours of dual, we were soloing the Champs around and around the patch. The other school was having the same success with the Luscombes (now considered by many as the “devil’s airplane”.) For the years I flew out of TOA, I never saw even one ground loop from either school. Was it the instructors, or ignorance is bliss, or what. I’m thinking it’s they actually taught you to fly the airplane thoroughly and completely. Still puzzling.

  9. I once had a flight instructor who never took her hands off the yoke (or feet off the rudder pedals) during landing, so consequently I never learned to fly, until I changed instructors.

    • You’re right Barry, There are CFIs who would take the controls (rudder) when the student deviated 4 deg off runway take off hdg.
      I happened to be the other way – go for it, but, just don’t take out any runway lights.

      • I was supposed to learn by feeling her fly the plane and follow her lead. I am a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Mantra is “You don’t know how to perform an operation until: you’ve seen one, done one, taught one.”

        You have to know when/how to hand over the surgical blade.

  10. Two thoughts for Paul:

    1) if you teach your dog to fly without a LODA you will be in the (FAA) doghouse since you are obviously doing it to crry favor with the dog (pun intended foy those who missed it).
    2) when the CFI MAINTAINS contact with any controls (rudder or stick/yoke) I’ve found it useful to ask “when do you want to start the clock (for payment)? I’m obviously receiving no training, BFR, recurrent instruction, IPC or whatever… Until I control the aircraft they aren’t gonna receive compensation (money, that is…). Satisfaction is gonna have to suffice. FWIW, I’ve noticed the believers in the ‘laying on hands instruction’ tend to be airline pilot wannabe time builders who fear a speed bump besmirching their otherwise perfect record.

  11. I haven’t instructed for a while, but a student once remarked how they felt totally out of control and I was just sitting there calmly talking them through what was happening and how to fix it. They wondered how I could be so calm the whole time while they basically felt we were seconds from disaster. I went to the whiteboard and drew three concentric circles. I said: “This outer circle is what the plane is capable of. This inner circle is what you’re capable of, and your level of comfort. This middle circle is what I’m capable of and comfortable with. So when you feel at the edge of your abilities, the situation is still well within my comfort zone and I know at all times how to immediately and safely fix things.” That initial explanation was made up on the spot, but I used it several times after that to help reassure new pilots that things were not so close to turning into a flaming wreckage as they might think. In fact, during every intro flight I would slowly bring back the throttle while trimming for best glide and show the person that really nothing changes when the engine dies – no dramatic spiral of death. Slowly pushing the edge of the possible back for students was my favorite part of working with them.

  12. I would add that it varies with the type of aircraft how close one needs to be to the controls. The more responsive the aircraft, the closer you need to be with the controls to take over if necessary. It also depends on the phase of flight and the type of maneuver you are doing. One big example is learning to fly a helicopter: by necessity, almost every instructor will hover over the controls in most phases of transition flight (i.e. anything other than en-route cruise) because of the inherent instability of the aircraft and how quickly you can get out of the flight envelope. Over time, as a student gains more proficiency (and the instructor becomes more familiar with the student), it’s easier and easier to relax as an instructor.

  13. I agree with the idea that the student has to teach him/herself how to fly. I have, perhaps, a unique experience to support my opinion: I taught myself how to fly in an Aeronca 7AC. How it came about that I had access to the plane and to fly it on my own is too much to tell here, but in 1950 as a 15 year old kid, there it was. To tell the truth I did have an hour an 15 minutes formal instruction by an ex-WWII pilot that consisted in taking the Knocker up and spinning it for two or three turns during the first lesson. Tiff, my instructor, asked me what I thought of that, I said, Do it again! He said it was possible that I was pilot material. Unfortunately, after an hour of teaching me some of the basics, Tiff got a job in another town, and I was left with access to the plane at an airport that saw maybe two transients a week, if that many. Long story short, with my teenage brain it was easy to think that I knew enough to be able to fly on my own. So I did. And it was. I don’t know how many hours I flew that plane over the year or so I had access to it, maybe 20 or 30, but it was enough to be pretty good at strafing cows and other fighter pilot activities that only a teenager could think of. I did go through the process of receiving the necessary formal instruction a couple of years later and got my private ticket.

    My point in this is that the process making a machine such as an airplane do what you want it to is not that difficult. The difficulty comes with interfering with the natural learning processes by imposing inappropriate expectations. As Paul says, just keep the student from smashing up the airplane, they will learn in their own unique way no matter what you do. I learned that by teaching adolescents in public schools for 20 years.

    • I’m embarrassed. The number hours I thought I remembered I flew on my own came from some memory about that time that was unrelated. I can’t explain how I thought to put them in. I’ll play the age card and blame in an old guy’s quirky memories and unedited of-the-cuff writing. At that time, the thought of keeping track of how much time you flew never entered my mind, odd when you compare with now and our compulsion to fill in our logbooks with every kind of time possible, PIC, night, instrument, etc. When I work on recalling those flights, they were all pretty close to the airport, in good weather–except one–and most probably less than an hour each. So maybe I put in 10 hours. But I do remember they were all a great adventure.

  14. Paul, I really think you should try getting another gyroplane “lesson” with a different instructor who will actually let you fly the thing. You are right to suspect that all is not quite as simple as it seemed in that video.

  15. Probably not the problem it was in these electronic days, but for years, many or even most, air force pilots did not have flying problems but shooting ones.
    Best solution according to the fearsome instructor I knew was not to allow them in a plane with a gun until they could show decent clay pigeon scores.

  16. The old “experiential learning” game. Let them bump around – within your ability to save it – till they get it. Used to do it a lot with yachts. Some quite large ones.

    One day I had a group of mining apprentices aboard (another story as to why). Their trainer was along for the ride too. He was completely and utterly horrified. His comment was that if you allowed that down a deep pit coal mine – everyone would be dead in a moment. It was all chapter and verse and precisely worked out procedures.

    Which sounds a bit like a stabilized precision approach.

    Gotta be a happy medium in there somewhere.

  17. I have always hammered into my students “YOU fly the airplane, don’t EVER let the airplane fly you”

  18. First off, that is one of the funniest T-shirts I have ever seen. Another favorite (worn by my son) simply read ‘COLEGE’. And my dog also uses a GPR tracker.
    Second, Paul, thank you for starting this love-fest thread of the joys and magic of teaching. It is one of those practices that, if done well, rewards both the giver and receiver.
    Third, my favorite CFI during primary instruction was a screamer. He yelled from “clear prop” to idle cutoff. He was indelicate, insulting, and caustic. Before signing me off for solo, he abruptly stopped the banter. I was used to it by then, so I asked him why the silent treatment? He answered that he didn’t have to anymore. It was all a calculated ploy to build my skill with the added burden of distraction. He not only taught me how to fly, but also how to handle flying. I also added his technique to my teaching repertoire (although my volume and language is a little softer). Wherever you are, Paul (coincidence?), thank you.

  19. Aren’t we instructors just there to entertain and distract the students while they learn to fly on their own?

  20. Dennis L

    When I read your description of the screamer instructor I thought of the greatest aviation book of all time, Ernest K Gann’s immortal “Fate is the Hunter” .

    I once completed an instrument rating with a guy who was on his 3 rd instructor. He literally reduced his first 2 instructor to tears. Dealing with him was like lion taming. If you showed fear you were dead meet.

    I rode him like a cheap donkey and he respected me for it. The ultimate validation was a call from him about a year later. For the first time I heard a humble tone from him. He said my training saved his life when his Cardinal shed 6 inches of one prop blade when he was on top of a solid overcast. The vibration toppled the AI and DI and rattled the knobs of the radios. He did a partial panel cloud break averaging the swings on the ADF needle.

  21. Dennis L

    When I read your description of the screamer instructor I thought of the greatest aviation book of all time, Ernest K Gann’s immortal “Fate is the Hunter” .

    I once completed an instrument rating with a guy who was on his 3 rd instructor. He literally reduced his first 2 instructor to tears. Dealing with him was like lion taming. If you showed fear you were dead meat

    I rode him like a cheap donkey and he respected me for it. The ultimate validation was a call from him about a year later. For the first time I heard a humble tone from him. He said my training saved his life when his Cardinal shed 6 inches of one prop blade when he was on top of a solid overcast. The vibration toppled the AI and DI and rattled the knobs of the radios. He did a partial panel cloud break averaging the swings on the ADF needle.