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Essential Skills Missed in Pilot Training!

Using the ACS testing standard as a training manual leads to many missed opportunities in primary pilot training. Essential skills like fueling or tying down a plane are critical to safety but often ignored in the “rush for the rating” – teaching to the test. How exactly can you be a pilot if you don’t know how to add the “blue juice” that makes a plane go or secure the aircraft after a flight? Here are 10 ideas developed by the SAFE Faculty Lounge – please add your comments below!

"The First 50 Hours" by Budd Davisson offers a syllalbus on how to safely expand your skills as a new pilot; the "Missing Manual!"

1) Every pilot needs to know how to fuel a plane and also correctly operate a self-serve fuel pump – this is a safety-of-flight issue! But since many pilots learn at larger academies, there is often no opportunity to gain this essential skill. Fly to a local non-tower field and work with the local line crew to learn this skill (tips and donuts accepted!) Flying with friends at a local club or EAA chapter is a great method to learn skills like this (and also experience some different planes!)

2) Every pilot should be able to tie down an aircraft securely (and apply the chocks). The basic knots are simple, and most super-fun fly-outs (like SnF, OSH) require this skill. Once you “leave home” as a pilot this is usually *your* job.

3) Taking off and landing on real grass runways (dual first please) is an exciting and skill-expanding experience. Suddenly a whole world of new airports is available for learning and exploration. And every new experience as a pilot improves all your other flying and makes a safer pilot. Remember, survivable emergency off-field landings require these skills with obstacles, terrain and surface conditions. Grass fields are also the first step toward a tailwheel signoff or a seaplane rating.

4) Grab a competent CFI and build skill with crosswinds and wind gusts. Every pilot should be able to comfortably handle a 10K crosswind and most initial training never gets this far. Every pilot will experience this as soon as they are “out in the world” – guaranteed. And 60% of accidents happen here so better wind skills are required immediately.

5) If you learned at a tower field, it is necessary to build your non-tower chops. If you are only comfortable with unicom, go practice in a Delta until you are comfortable. We are all victims of our initial training and it limits our capabilities for safe flight in the larger world. Master flight following and get comfortable with ATC services for safety.

6) Keep building the skills above by working up to a busy airport in Class C or B airspace. Taking an experienced friend or knowledgable CFI is a good idea to make this a fun “learning experience” (not terror). Many pilots never even fly in these airspaces. Until a pilot develops the skills and confidence to handle busy airspace with traffic and ATC, they are handicapped as a pilot. Pretty quickly, the rapid pace and busy comm. become second nature. This is a critical step toward an instrument rating and allows access to more airports safely and comfortably.

7) Master stalls with ballistic recovery (no power) straight ahead and turning. You will have to find a CFI who is comfortable with this area of flight, but once you see how easy recovery is (unload) a lot of fear melts away and all your flying will improve dramatically with the confidence at the edges of the envelope.

8) Following on the above, practice dead stick landings (no power) from various points in the traffic pattern – you should always be able to get back safely from the pattern (and in emergencies, just figure out how to get to your custom “pattern.”) This used to be considered “essential knowledge” in every basic flying guide but is rare in pilots today. Your energy management will improve dramatically (as will all your flying). Some training in a glider or tailwheel aircraft will help these same skills; look what happened to “Flight Chops” when he discovered tail wheel.

9) Fine-tune your pitch and power management so you can minimize pitch and power changes transitioning from climb to cruise to descent. Study and memorize all the standard configurations and “know your numbers.” Aim for greater precision in all your flying. All smooth flying is a series of increasingly smaller corrections to the desired performance.

10) Fly in some “Ugly VFR” that would be “personally unacceptable” weather so you can calibrate how lousy 1sm really is to fly in. (Do this safely with an IFR current CFI and IFR-legal plane) Then bore some holes in real clouds on a clearance without a hood and see what real clouds look like. It is truly valuable to experience real “VFR into IMC.”  Currency with real cloud flying will prevent panic and save your life.  Local ATC can usually approve block airspace for maneuvering.

Finally, put all these skills together, flying with flight following to a field >50nm away. Fuel and tie down the plane, and learn how to borrow the crew car. Maybe get some IFR on the way back home and buy lunch for your CFI. Thank this important person for showing you all the diverse and fun ways to use aviation and to continue learning. Pilot certification is just the beginning, we learn every day in aviation. Fly safe out there (and often!)

Thanks to all the participants in the SAFE Faculty Lounge for the ideas in this blog. If you are a reader here check out this (tightly curated) FB group.

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

The Best in Aviation Education: MCFI!

Of the 117K CFIs on the US registry, the majority are inactive or “frozen CFIs.” Only 8% of FAA CFIs are actually  “active” by measurable metrics. Many CFIs on the FAA registry make their living flying airliners or charter jets and their GA experience can get rusty. The FAA defines “inactive” by what they can measure, no sign-offs in a year, and some CFIs stay pretty busy with IPCs and reviews (thank you for your service)!

FAA statistics also reveal that 16K new CFIs  are added to the FAA system every year. These are often the “sled dogs CFIs,” actively teaching full time, brand new to the business, and building their flight hours. As a consumer of aviation education – perhaps your daughter is learning to fly or you are shopping for training or a challenging flight review – your options for professional aviation education are pretty depressing. Your choice is either a “frozen” CFI who has not taught in years or a brand new academy graduate (though some are great). How do you find a current, professional aviation educator?

If you are a conscientious pilot seeking challenging training, you should receive more than a WINGS pin because excellence and professionalism are totally voluntary in our current system. The flight training system is pretty broken. While every GA airplane requires an extensive annual inspection (with a couple days in the shop), a pilot can get a quick review every two years flying to lunch with any CFI buddy. This sometimes “perfunctory flight review” is probably the biggest hole in our safety system (see AOPA Focused Flight Review!) And the majority of pilots were taught by the brand new CFIs to the minimum testing standards (and why do we have a problem with continuing accidents?)

Conscientious pilots, who are serious about safety, seek out training to improve every year. The FAA WINGS program and the Focused Flight Review are excellent resources for these pilots, but professional CFIs are almost impossible to find. The few passionate CFIs who continue to teach, despite the lack of financial reward, receive little recognition or visibility. This professionalism and excellence are entirely voluntary in the FAA system since professional instructors have no continuing FAA accreditation.

This is exactly why the Master Instructor Program was created 25 years ago. This accreditation defines the true professionals who are actively teaching and continually improving their knowledge. FInd a professional CFI on the website. For CFIs in the field, this program keeps an educator motivated and learning. Sandy and JoAnn Hill created the MCFI program in 1997 to challenge educators and also to define a standard for continuing educational excellence. Just about every active CFI can qualify for a Master Instructor certification if they document their activity. This process requires some record-keeping since the standards are suitably rigorous. Download the worksheet and start filling in your experience to earn your MCFI designation.

For those senior CFIs who are timing out of the airlines (or COVID escapees) please get back into aviation education and help the “youngsters” – we need you (and even created a great CFI insurance plan)! Fly safely out there (and often).


Please complete the Redbird GA Flight Training Survey to accurately assess our current GA activity. See you at Redbird Migration and Sun ‘N Fun!


Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Better (Safer) Instrument Flying!

Last week’s “VFR into IMC” blog generated a lot of comments and discussions online. Many readers were surprised at how poorly instrument-rated pilots do statistically with a simple 180-degree turn in IMC (when surprised) – usually not much better than VFR pilots. This problem illustrates some interesting – and scary – facts about most instrument pilots.  Many IFR-trained pilots are pretty bad with manual control; either never trained well or rusty. Many IFR pilots have also never actually been in a cloud (not FAA-required). The trend away from hand flying is also accelerating as avionics become more capable. The modern pilot in most planes is increasingly becoming a “programmer.” There are endless YouTubes online covering “buttonology,” and all hell breaks loose when “George” goes away requiring hand flying to survive. These pilots might as well be remotely operating their (MQ-9?) “aerial vehicles.” Automation dependency is not just a problem with GA, but started with automated airliners and is now a problem in aviation at all levels and starts with basic flight training.

In nearly 100 million flights by United States passenger airlines over the past decade, there has been a single fatality. Other than most landings and takeoffs, the planes have largely been flying themselves.

The origin of this problem is with the basic training and testing of pilots. One of the weakest parts of most IFR checkrides is the applicant’s demonstration of basic instrument flying skills (without the automation). This is an increasing trend despite the FAA’s urgent plea to develop and maintain manual piloting skills (and not just IFR). If you want to be safer as an instrument pilot – and have more fun – please get some actual IMC flying and work on your hand-flying skills (I am guilty too). We already know that the autopilot can fly in IMC just fine, we need to focus on keeping the hand flying skills sharp too.

The pilot’s role has moved from “physically manipulating flight controls and interpreting cues into a role where they ‘interact and control complex systems and play a central role in system safety. ERAU white paper

In a good instrument training course, the first 1/3 of the training should be learning to control the aircraft entirely by instrument reference and without automation. This involves discovering and utilizing standard power and attitude references for performance targets. This is naturally disappointing for many pilots because there is an urge to play with all the fun computers in the panel they paid so much for. But only when an IFR trainee can hand fly as confidently by instrument reference as by visual outside cues are they ready to move on to tracking, holding and approaches. (BTW, there is a completely analogous situation in VFR training where every new learner wants to start off with landings, before the basic skills are mastered).

So if your CFII starts your IFR training off with approaches (as is the case in most quickie “crash courses”) have a discussion, or just fire them. And saving money by hiring the cheapest CFII you can find is also a dumb idea; it takes years to learn to teach instruments well with a perspective of actual experience; hire a pro. You are developing skills that will save your life in an emergency (or not). Fly safely out there (and often)!

Apologies to my MQ-9 buddies (instructors and pilots) nearby! Apparently the MQ-9 is entirely "hand-flown?" (Bad assumption on my part). And I have never been invited to try one out...for some reason?!

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Inadvertent IMC: Level Wings, Climb!

Any pilot caught in “inadvertent IMC” usually got into this trouble somewhat intentionally, continuing into deteriorating weather with some hope of improvement or “getting through.” This continued flight, usually driven by “mission mentality,” often gets lower (and scarier) until continuing visual flight is impossible (CFIT is often associated with these accidents). But what happens next usually kills pilots. 2/3s of both IFR-rated and VFR die when they try to turn around without visual references; they lose control or run into terrain while maneuvering. A 180 degree turn immediately after entering inadvertent IMC seems unwise for a panicked and unprepared pilot (even IFR rated).  But pilot training and testing often still recommends an immediate 180-degree turn as “the FAA solution to an IMC encounter”- and it is airplane handbooks everywhere. Actually, a 180 turn for IMC escape is *not* in the ACS  or any FAA guidance I could find! The newest FAA Airplane Flying Handbook also now recommends all IFR turns (for pilot emergencies and in training/testing) be limited to a maximum of 10 degrees of bank.


Thank you Doug Stewart; POH guidance!

This “boiler-plate” recommendation is > 60 years old and based on very limited data available at the time. This advice also predates the FAA requirement for every private pilot to have 3 hours of instrument training (and computer simulators). The 180-degree turn using a clock (with a sweep second hand) also seems to even predate gyro instruments in GA planes? Technically, applicants for flight tests are instructed to follow their POH guidance (required for check rides).


A turn before entering IMC is wise – avoidance!  A turn immediately after entering IMC seems like poor risk management given the GAJSC data. A pilot in this scud-running scenario is usually low and in a panic. Getting control (level) and getting away from terrain (climb) creates time to calm down and determine the best course of action (and it might be a 180 is a good idea when you have settled down and achieved control – but not immediately). There is no clear source of this flight training dogma but the first mention might be a 1954 AOPA study with Bonanzas? After that, it seems have migrated from “avoidance to escape” and become part of some many flight manuals.

The FAA guidance on surviving inadvertent IMC is first recognizing and accepting the failure of visual reference to control the plane by committing to flight on the instruments – entirely! Then definitely do not make (or teach) an immediate 180 turn; job #1 is achieving and maintaining control. Flying level is safest (if the terrain is not an issue). My personal advice (having watched many pilots attempt that immediate 180 degree turn) is to initially stare at the attitude indicator while you calm yourself, carefully keeping the wings level. “Stare” works best because an inexperienced pilot “scanning” can often result in fixation and LOC-I too. (Personal simulators have helped greatly with these IFR skills though)

The pilot should make a conscious effort to relax. The pilot needs to understand the most important concernin fact the only concern at this pointis to keep the wings level. FAA Airplane Flying Handbook

The modern age of YouTube confessions enables a look at an actual “inadvertent VFR into IMC” that worked out. This IFR-rated pilot admits to panic and confusion entering the clouds. To his credit he used all his resources; autopilot and ATC. He climbed, continued straight and was able to sort out the situation without resorting to sudden and inappropriate maneuvering.

Once a pilot is calmed down (trimmed and breathing again) some cross-checking is valuable. In most cases, the best next action is a smooth, stable climb away from the terrain (while maintaining control) since the terrain is often a threat. This maneuver is often emotionally difficult since this same pilot was just previously avoiding clouds. But now it’s time to avoid rocks. Accepting the emergency and climbing away from terrain in most cases is critical to survival. Finally, as control becomes more comfortable and a safe altitude is achieved, seeking help with a radar facility is important. There is a reason this is required on the flight test. Learning division of attention is essential to aircraft control. Every pilot must be cautious and assertive about flying the plane first (within your level of safety) when talking with ATC. Unfortunately, not every controller can understand the gravity of your predicament (SAFE has good people working on this). Flying the aircraft under control is your first priority. This video from AOPA with Rod Machado recommending flight training in real weather pertains to this situation (and also last week’s blog.)

VFR into IMC resources from AOPA

SAFE Executive Director Emeritus, Doug Stewart, is working with the GAJSC to codify a new “IMC escape maneuver” that specifies a wings level climb. This was also advocated in an AOPA article in 2005. Usually, a pilot in these inadvertent IMC situations has usually gotten increasingly lower while avoiding clouds and CFIT is a significant hazard. Let’s eliminate the “immediate 180 turn” advice and save pilots who blunder into clouds. Level wings, maintain control (breathe), and climb; no turning?! Fly safely out there (and often).


Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Beyond “Blue Sky” Flight Training!

Have a happy and restful holiday! Here is one quick “handshake commitment” for the New Year between your main course and dessert on Christmas Day.

There seems to be an increasing tendency in flight training to only fly on “blue sky” days; no clouds and little wind. Many schools claim this is “safer” but we are actually creating increasingly weaker pilots with degenerating levels of real skill.  True, these pilots (and junior CFIs) could probably survive fine in the right seat of an airliner under close supervision. But what about the 1500 hours they will spend “preparing” the next generation of pilots? We need more proficiency here to correct the downward spiral of timid CFIs teaching increasingly weak pilots. (Contact SAFE for a CFI-PRO™ course at your school).

Last week we examined crosswinds, (80% of accidents in the pattern have wind) but VFR into IMC is one of the most toxic areas of flight: 4% of accidents but 63% fatal! Most new pilots never were exposed to real weather. Add wind and weather together and you have the most common and the most fatal accidents – and neither area is taught in primary training!

It is essential for senior CFIs (SAFE CFI-PRO™) to train junior CFIs to be safe and confident with wind and marginal weather (within the constraints of safety of course). Then these CFIs must expose flight students to wind and weather so they understand this environment and know their real personal limits. Every pilot I have trained in wind or weather comes away from this exposure simultaneously more confident but also personally respectful; understanding their limits. By contrast “blue sky” applicants on PPL flight tests sometimes (over)confidently tell me they could fly X-C in 1-3 sm viz “no problem!” (and why are pilots killing themselves?)

Every private should have 10 crosswind landings (logged) and should demonstrate solid proficiency – because your DPE will never see this on “test day”.  All instrument students should have 3-5 hours of actual weather flying experience (ditto). And the fact that CFIIs teach pilots instrument skills and have never themselves been in a cloud is unconscionable. Most learners quickly understand that real clouds are actually easier to fly through – what a confidence builder (and necessary step).  Every VFR pilot encountering marginal VFR suddenly gains respect for how minimal “FAA minimums” can be.

No new CFI should instruct without Extended Envelope Training (and hopefully a UPRT course). Try a stall power-off in a full slip – and witness *nothing* happening; “what?” Real experience is required to be safe and confident, both for CFIs and pilots in training. We need to extend our flight training envelope beyond blue sky days. Fly safe out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

*Excellent Educators* Make Amazing Pilots!

There are endless questions, comments, and suggestions online and in advertisements as to what makes the most effective flight training experience. But extensive data reveals that the biggest source of variance in student achievement is the quality of the educator (not the equipment, school or environment). You can have the best school with super equipment, but if your CFI is not a good fit or up to the job, your training is going to be slow and painful (and largely unsuccessful). And it takes years to overcome inadequate training (remember primacy?)

We should focus on the greatest source of variance that can make the difference – the teacher. We need to ensure that this greatest influence is optimized to have powerful and sensationally positive effects on the learner. Excellence in teaching is the single most powerful influence on achievement. Dr. John Hattie

So instead of shopping for shiny new planes and sparkling facilities with fancy extras, every new flight candidate should instead interview the potential educator more carefully and get feedback on the quality of their instruction. You need to get beyond the front office and interview the people doing the actual teaching.

We have elsewhere explained that an FAA CFI you trust your life to may have as few as 5  hours of actual solo time in the aircraft, only 200 total hours, and flown for less than a year. A brand new FAA CFI may lack even the most basic aviation knowledge; never fueled a plane, or even tied one down. The point is, the FAA certificate by itself is no guarantee of quality. If your new CFI grew up in an aviation family, and began flying at 12, they may be an amazing resource and inspire great success. The essential point is you have to dig in and ask a lot of questions of a lot of people.

If you are learning in an SLSA, your Sport Instructor could be only a private pilot; that is all the FAA requires. Despite this, their instruction counts toward a private pilot certificate. There is no requirement for a commercial or instrument rating at the sport instructor level, and the instructor total time could be as low as 125 hours. This does not mean they are not good, only that their experience level may be a bit superficial.

So how do you find a great CFI?

This is a job every student should take very seriously (given the data above) and it is largely a networking effort. Try asking recently graduated pilots, local DPEs and even your FAA SPM. These are people without a “dog in the fight” who will objectively share their experiences. The FAA finally has actual pass/fail and activity statistics on every flight instructor the US. And it is also critical to get a good personality match, so interview and spend time with your potential educator.

Master Instructor accreditation is a sure sign of well-rounded educator experience and achievement. Finding someone at this level assures that the CFI is the top of their game and also cares enough about their personal level of excellence to pursue advanced certification. The Master Instructor program challenges every CFI to continually learn, contribute broadly to the aviation community, and continue to advance their knowledge and skill. You still want to assure a personality match and also the kind of experience in your area of interest. Every experienced CFI should pursue Master Instructor Accreditation. Stay safe out there and fly often!


Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Essential Crosswinds (Not Tested)!

We bend and break more planes in crosswinds landings than in any other phase of flight. Take off and landing = 64.1% of accidents  and 80% involve wind as a causal factor. This large number of accidents represents less than 5% of piloting time and does not include “incidents” and non-towered “grass excursions” (oops!) The FAA does not require the demonstration of crosswind landing skills in the FAA private or commercial ACS so it is often not taught (specified on ATP/Type in sim.)  This is a very sad commentary on aviation safety and CFI professionalism. The post-test “trial and error” acquisition of this skill is obviously just not working.

When the winds blow, the risks increase for light aircraft operations. The single leading cause of accidents involves loss of directional control during takeoff or landing…over an 11-year period the National Transportation Safety Board identified wind as a primary cause of more than 2,800 accidents.

The CFI is the primary determiner of aviation safety. They spend many flight hours and months creating a safe pilot. The DPE only sees them for a couple hours and DPEs have a strict “no teaching” mandate from the FAA. The standard is “yes or no” and “perfection is not the standard”. As a whole, flight training providers are failing pilots in training. If a pilot does not learn a skill in their primary training, they are out in the world to learn and discover this on their own. It is incumbent upon a conscientious CFI to teach the crosswind skills necessary for safe piloting!

Trying to incorporate crosswind testing into a standard (see above) might unnecessarily complicate the testing process (waiting for wind) and I am sure that is why it was probably removed. But it is the duty of every professional CFI to insist on crosswind skills for their pilots (at all levels). For private pilot level pilots, please embrace the “10@10K landing initiative” (and log it). This would be just like the 10 required night landings. Pilots need this capability to be safe…hopefully this helps? Fly safely (and often)!










We published a blog on "Known Icing" 2 years ago. This stirred up a lot of controversy and it still is one of the most read articles in the archive. Bold Method published an excellent article today highlighting many of the same points and I highly recommend that every pilot encountering winter conditions read it!

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Increasing Non-Compliance = Accidents!

Most FAA regulations are “written in blood.” First, someone did it wrong and died. Then, if a trend reveals itself, the FAA writes a rule to guide future behavior (for those that follow the rules). This is simple “never do this” like mom and the hot stove – bad things can happen and it hurts.

Though we usually delve into training and proficiency issues in this blog, this is an obvious billboard-sized safety message. Following the SOPs and regs is a clear path to long life and health as a pilot. If someone already dug a hole and died doing it wrong, I personally do not feel the need to replicate that experiment. Remember also, the FAA methodology is prescribing the regulatory minimum -what’s legal- not necessarily what’s safe. Pro tip: exceed the regs and establish a margin of safety for the surprise events.

This pilot had no medical and the Skyhawk was out of annual with know deficiencies.

The NTSB found the plane was out of annual, and the pilot didn’t have a medical certificate. Neither legality caused the accident, but were both safety checks blown past.

Unfortunately, statistics reveal pilots are increasingly ignoring FAA guidance – there seems to be a growing lack of compliance in aviation. Following the rules was once a badge of honor in the aviation industry, but increasingly the fashion seems to be how much can we get away with. Aviation depends largely on compliance since there are no “sky cops” at every corner to enforce correct behavior (ramped lately?) Usually, violations only become apparent when a plane crashes. And they only get the NTSB focus when innocent passengers die.

Currently, 59% of fatal accidents reveal prohibited drugs in the pilots’ bloodstream. To be fair, these are often over-the-counter “impairing medications,” but the upward trend in aviation is horrifying; it seems everyone is on some kind of pill or drug. Here is some good guidance, and the FAA publishes clear and helpful guidelines. The full NTSB report is here.

As educators, we deal with all levels of non-compliance and “pilot attitude repair.” In most cases, the bad behavior can be remedied with a positively framed caution or reminder. But if a person is a repeat offender (like Bill Rhodes’s “Scary Pilots“) we owe it to our aviation community to get out the accident reports and demonstrate “you resemble this scenario and it does not end well.” And some people should not be in charge of high-powered mechanical equipment in a populated area; off the island!

Regarding maintenance, there seems to be a disturbing increase in GA aircraft maintenance negligence. Not only is our aircraft fleet incredibly old, but pilots also seem to be ignoring required inspections (like the accident cited above). Data here is scarce and admittedly this is a personal observation. Flight instructors on the front line are the first to see these problems in the field. The NTSB focuses on “transportation accidents” where non-pilot passengers are injured or killed. Their recent focus on Part 91 revenue flights reveals some horrifying trends. Rules for annual inspections and regular maintenance are there for our safety and need to be respected and followed conscientiously. Regs and SOPs are the low-hanging fruit in the safety equation. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

How to be a “Great CFI”

The primary challenge to becoming an effective flight instructor is, ironically, to not fly and not talk on the radio (even though you desperately want to). Taking physical control in these two areas steals time and important learning opportunities from your student. Taking control also ruins their confidence and leads to frustration and demotivation (“I failed!”). Stated in a positive manner, your job and primary goal as CFI is to be an educator not pilot. Using only words and very occasional demonstrations, you must build skill and mastery in your student, incrementally turning over full control. Arms folded, stoic silence for three landings is my personal test for solo. One final landing after revealing the imminent solo (while signing the log) tests their nerves. No one said this was easy!

The objective of the instructor should be to achieve a minimum amount of time physically flying the airplane.

John Stickle, master of “stoic silence!”

It is perfectly natural as a CFI to want to fly and talk on the radio (and CFI training actually promotes these two bad habits). As pilots-in-training, we spent many hours developing precision when our job was “pilot.” Consequently, it is initially painful, as CFI,  to experience the plane wandering around the sky; we instinctively want to create precision. But student error correction is at the heart of learning, and it’s what you signed up for as an educator. Achieving control and then precision is their job. The CFI role is now educator not pilot. It helps to remember that you were also exactly this clueless and clumsy when you started this process – and look how good you turned out!

Anytime you have physically taken the airplane away from a student quickly, you have missed the opportunity to verbally correct and have also degraded the confidence of your student.

So at a basic level, the frustration of both CFI and learner, and interference from the CFI, can be the largest impediment to learning. How many times do you see a primary CFI and student exit a plane smiling – wouldn’t that be nice? The solution is creating (and maintaining) an honest and open relationship and managing expectations (a light tone and a little humor help too). Learning is a continuing process that requires patience and compassion; don’t expect initial perfection. The objective of every lesson is progress and “small wins.”  As progress is obtained, it is also critical to recognize success and celebrate mastery. This is hugely motivating and every successful maneuver becomes the domain of the learner; “you handle the preflight, taxi and take-off.” You moved the needle and are turning over control. Progress in learning is “motivation magic.”

The syllabus is an essential tool to organize flight training but often creates havoc with expectations. Just because it is the third time in the plane does not mean this is “Lesson 3.” It is critical to be patient with this process; every learner has unique abilities. Early advancement seems like a benefit but actually leads to frustration and dropouts if real skills are not honestly learned and reinforced. A syllabus can easily become a cruel master instead of a helpful guide.

If you have a simulator you should teach and reinforce the basics in this low-pressure environment to build procedural memory. Every pro-level pilot program does exactly this, with paper cutout cockpits (it’s fun to watch high-time ATPs tapping on posters at Flight Safety.) Watch a master describe this process in this webinar. Their rule at CHS Flight School is “teach in the sim, practice in the air.” Simulators or procedure trainers allow efficient repetition and rapid mastery (“chair flying” is the same idea). “Instant repeat” builds skills and fixes problem areas. You will be amazed how fast people progress without the confusion and time pressure of a running engine (and less CFI frustration too). And this is (mostly) not yet scenario time; the basics require repetition building muscle memory.

Another critical awareness as every CFI is eliminating the natural – but totally harmful – habit of stereotyping students; e.g. “another lesson three,” or worse “another housewife.” It is essential before every lesson to psychologically prepare and emphasize to your “CFI self” that this is a unique individual and this is their first time with this experience; opportunity! Care and compassion are critical to effective education. Successful aviation education requires a deep well of patience and understanding.

And this is another great reason keep learning and growing. It is essential to put yourself in the “struggle zone” as a CFI. Adding a rating or class/category to your certificate will help you commiserate with your students.  We all are struggling and confused when encountering new equipment and environments; make it fun. Fly safely out there (and often).


Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Keep it Simple; Angle of Attack!

In recent blogs, we emphasized a “perfect picture” for each new student and also how and why it is critical to break the driving habit immediately. A good educator is eliminating obstacles and building solid habits while embedding actionable mental concepts. And now it is finally time to go flying.

Though the physics of lift thankfully works, it is unsettling for pilots at all levels that the best minds in science are still arguing about what actually makes it work. Most books present 2-3 conflicting theories with associated passion – and mathematical smoke and mirrors. It can all feel like childhood church stories – and even has the same Greek letters. We create even more confusion by over-emphasizing terms like “stall speed.” This concept is in all the books and even painted on the airspeed indicator. Imagine the confusion when we subsequently reveal “a wing can stall at any speed!” It is no wonder that pilots at all levels very quickly demonstrate this mental muddle on checkrides if you start to press this issue. Pilots need basic, actionable information when discussing what enables wing lift or even creates a basic turn.

To this end, I think the best starting point for discussing lift is “angle of attack” (AOA). The basics are deceptively simple; AOA is the angle of the chord line to the “relative wind.”  If you take the complicated lift equation (with the Greek letters) and remove all the constants, what you have left is the relationship between the speed and AOA. And as we know, we control AOA with elevator inputs.

Purists may chafe at this simplification but if flying requires calculus to be safe, we have bigger problems. Every airplane with a yoke (or stick) has a pretty good angle of attack indicator already installed – you don’t have to spend extra money or stare inside at LEDs. The more chrome you see showing on the yoke, the higher the angle of attack. If the yoke (or stick) is held all the way to the backstop, your plane is either stalled or at the highest (positive) angle of attack the manufacturer allowed by design.

“The position of the stick merely fixes the Angle of Attack and the airspeed at which the airplane flies as it descends.” Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

“Relative wind” and AOA are invisible to the pilot, so a major misconception that must be actively purged and continuously discouraged is equating flight attitude with the angle of attack. This misconception seems almost intuitive in our minds and is subconsciously reinforced by diagrams like the one above. As educators and pilots, we must continuously emphasize (and remember) that a higher nose is not necessarily a higher angle of attack, and the nose does not have to be up high to stall a wing. One creative way to demonstrate this on the ground with diagrams is to present the same angle of attack in different flight attitudes:

That is exactly what the classic Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators does in a less colorful diagram. And though pictures have great value on a cognitive level, it is essential to fly to the edges of the flight envelope and experience these configurations. These do not have to be terrifying and are easily accomplished in a standard trainer.

In early training CFIs emphasize a concept called “stall speed.” This number is in all the POHs and even marked on the airspeed indicator. Then in the next breath, we explain a wing can stall at “any speed and any flight attitude.” If we do not carefully and fully explain all this, it is no wonder most pilots are confused (as are the instructors). Questions on a flight-test, at any level regarding stalls or AOA can quickly go sideways with poor preparation and understanding. It can help to play a few revealing YouTubes (I call this one the “perfect stall.” How did an F-16 stall while pointed down at the earth?

Carefully chosen YouTubes (I call this one “the perfect stall”) can be very helpful in creating a better understanding for your pilot-in-training. First comes “cognitive dissonance: “How is it possible to stall an F-16 while pointed straight down at the earth?” Then comes understanding (hopefully). Damn physics!

Another way to empower understanding is by demonstrating different pitch attitudes with the same AOA, and then different AOA with the same pitch attitude. This kind of practice disconnects these two concepts and creates more complete understanding. Both airplanes depicted below are at the SAME AOA (and same yoke position) but very different flight attitudes and configurations.  This nose-high flight attitude (scary for many pilots) and also the nose-low (incorrectly assume  “safe/comfortable”) have the same AOA. Safety is achieved by understanding that both are just as close to a stall – which could occur with any more pull/backpressure/AOA in either case.

“A wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many important respects, a wing’s behavior is exactly contrary to common sense.”  Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

Once your training with different pitch attitudes progresses into stall demonstration and practice, students will assume that to stall the nose has to be UP and that the wing has to be flying slow (both serious errors). During initial training, we create benign 1G stalls and this reinforces the dangerous misconception that the nose has to be high to stall and that stalls only happen when the wing gets slow. We need to fix this huge (mostly intuitive) misunderstanding, to get to increase aviation safety.

The best method to teach stalls is to select a “too high” nose attitude (hopefully with a cloud reference). At this point, your pilot-in-training should know the Vy/Vx pitch references, so have them set and maintain a “too high” pitch attitude precisely and maintain this as the airplane deaccelerates. This maneuver will demonstrate the yoke continually moving aft (increasing AOA) to maintain the picture and more usefully achieve a stall. This is much more effective than the usual (and less helpful) “pull to the sky technique.” (BTW, an airplane that has leveled off in ground effect for landing is elegantly transiting this exact same range of AOA – except while “low and level.” Notice the yoke continuously moving backward while “flaring” creating this same ever-increasing AOA for a soft touchdown).

As students become more comfortable with stalls and recovery, demonstrate a full stall and maintain the excessive AOA while the nose drops though the horizon. Throughout this maneuver, the yoke is held all the way back (same AOA/wing stalled) as the nose falls and the flight attitude changes. Recover only when the nose has fallen through the horizon. Secondary stalls are also a great way to kinesthetically reinforce the larger flight envelope and demonstrate the danger of “nose low” stalls (and possibly experience stalls at some higher G load). After these demonstrations, AOA will become more apparent. These essential demonstrations are not part of the normal flight training syllabus or required in any FAA ACS, but they are critical to creating a safe and confident pilot.

It takes some time and a caring relationship to introduce stalls correctly and not scare a pilot-in-training. If your student has not yet mastered coordinated flight (especially during climbs) it is too early to introduce stalls. The result will be predictable (and your fully scared student will probably drop out). A much better use of early flight time is demonstrating stability in the aircraft due to the clever aerodynamic design. Trim for an airspeed and raise the nose demonstrating how the plane will return to the trimmed speed/AOA. Trim a speed and add/reduce power demonstrating how the plane will seek that same speed/AOA. At least half of private pilot applicants are not aware the tail “lifts down” (and some CFIs do not know this either) providing dynamic stability for an aircraft in flight. Once pilots understand the nose is the “heavy end” and that recovery will take care of itself they have a greater sense of confidence and understanding of the physics involved. Planes don’t stall capriciously, *pilots* stall planes! Just because a plane *can* stall in any flight attitude does not mean that it *will.*

All of these concepts are a huge load to assimilate during early flight training, so patience and meaningful repetition is essential to successfully navigate this rush of information and new experiences. I would guess of the 80% of pilots who drop out during flight training, more than half would identify being scared of stalls (introduced inappropriately and too early) as the primary cause. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Join SAFE and immediately get great benefits. 1/3 off ForeFlight. This savings more than pays for your membership and simultaneously supports our SAFE mission of increasing aviation safety.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

 

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