Effective CFI; Attitude Control is Aircraft Control

Thank-you Charles McDougal, CFI (and former DPE) for these wonderful ideas and for helping us all become better CFIs. A good CFI is always learning!

When I passed my CFI check ride, I felt the full weight of my accomplishment. And after a few weeks of feeling brand new at it, I settled down and remember feeling that I was highly competent. In some ways, this was true; I was safe, kind, and really enjoyed working with students. But other aspects of teaching flight revealed themselves to me a bit later. And frankly, the learning has never stopped. Fifteen years of sitting in the right seat during practical tests as a DPE and trying to help students and instructors find better ways to teach and to learn had a helpful impact also. I hope that sharing some of what I have learned can help other new instructors to teach more effectively so that their students can learn more efficiently and with fewer difficulties.

The first thing I would ask flight instructors to do is to reexamine their concept of aircraft control. The age-old hangar discussion about pitch-for-air speed/power-for-altitude, does more to obscure a true concept of control than anything I know, and never ends. So, I will not comment further on those choices. Instead, I want to talk about this concept; Attitude Control is Aircraft Control.


Now I know we can prove that control can be achieved merely through power adjustment, but this does not make doing so a valid control paradigm. Just as flying the airplane with the trim(s) does not make this a correct technique, even though it can work. In aviation, it is often the case that one thing is true, and instead of the other thing being false, it is also true. It is also possible to learn how to control an airplane in a way that is not correct, just plain wrong, and to still achieve a tolerable level of success. So, before we start talking about teaching an attitude based control concept and its execution in the airplane, we should make sure that this is the way we are flying and thinking when we ourselves are at the controls.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-43-22-amIn a nutshell; The way we control an airplane in flight is to use the flight controls to change or maintain the aircraft attitude, while ensuring sufficient thrust for the altitude selected and the airspeed desired for the current configuration and flight phase. This may sound overly simplistic, but do me a favor; examine every action a pilot makes after adding power for takeoff. First, we have right rudder to counter left turning tendencies and aileron to oppose cross wind forces – This is to maintain the longitudinal axis with the runway centerline and keep the wings level; maintaining an attitude. When we rotate, we raise the nose to a climb pitch attitude and fine tune the rudder pressure to stay coordinated, or with the longitudinal axis aligned with our flight path. With the first turn we roll the airplane, changing its attitude to create a horizontal component of lift, and a turn. Etc., etc., etc.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-45-10-amOn final approach, we set an estimated power setting and fly pitch for our descent to the runway. Too fast or too high, we adjust power and then go back to flying pitch, perhaps quite often or even continuously. Don’t believe me? How does a coupled autopilot system fly an ILS approach? It uses the flight controls to change or maintain the attitude of the airplane while the auto throttles, (or the pilot) adjusts power for airspeed.

So please examine the way you fly and the way you think about your flying. Everything we do is changing or maintaining attitude, make sure the student understands that this is what he or she is really doing. Unintentional stall base to final? Power is nice to have, but what fixes the problem is lowering the pitch attitude that supports a flyable angle of attack, rudder to keep the empennage behind you! Attitude Control is Aircraft Control!


The concept that attitude control is what we are doing in the airplane at-all-times, notwithstanding the need for power changes, must be reviewed on every preflight briefing and reinforced during every flight lesson, at least pre-solo. Here are some ways to implement attitude flying concepts, as well as a few other tips that are guaranteed to make your instruction more effective.

  • Make sure you are teaching an attitude based control paradigm from the very first lesson, using outside visual references exclusively for control reference (the way the airplane flying handbook says), instrumentation only to confirm proper airspeed, heading, altitude, and power setting. We call this; Flying Outside, Checking Inside, versus: Flying Inside, Checking Outside. There is a huge difference!
  • For everything you are going to tell the student to do, develop commands that begin with; “OK, look outside and……”. NOT; “look at the ____ instrument and ….”. Maneuver first by outside reference, check the applicable parameter briefly to confirm efficacy of attitude and power setting.
  • When you are demonstrating a maneuver, concentrate on getting the student to look at the reference that indeed you are looking at (and this should be outside the airplane), and what you are doing to modify the picture. Don’t be afraid to demonstrate – you are not hogging the controls. Students need to emulate good examples of aircraft control.
  • NEVER be on the controls at the same time as your student. Let her fly, or transfer control and you fly and demonstrate, (or return the aircraft to a safe condition if that is the problem). When two pilots are both on the controls, only one of them has a clue what is going on…….and it’s not the student.
  • Require your student to use the checklist correctly from day one. This means, don’t use it as a read-then-do “cookbook” in flight. When airborne, normal procedures must be memorized; do the item from memory, THEN read the checklist to ensure everything has been accomplished. Other times, preflight, run up, takeoff, landing, emergencies – the checklist may be appropriately implemented either as a “do” or “review then do” list. Be demanding (but kind) enforcing checklist usage. Your student will only develop the ability to integrate the checklist properly if you require it on every flight. Someday this may save a life.
  • Don’t let your student land on the first lesson, or the second lesson, or the third. Probably not the fourth. If you do, you will be giving control commands (rather than the student seeing the need for attitude change and power adjustment), or even worse by “helping” on the controls. Instead, teach the student how to fly the pattern to a Go-Around from 50 feet or so. Then, you take control abeam the numbers (on the second approach) and demonstrate, getting the student’s attention OUTSIDE the airplane at the things you are looking at to fly the pattern and land. After four or five lessons the student will have learned how to execute a safe go around, and due to the law of primacy, will always have this skill available, will have seen multiple demonstrations of good pattern and landing procedures (including your relentless and correct integration of the PRINTED checklist, and will be “ready to learn” when it’s time for them to land.
  • Require your students to show up early, get a formal weather briefing including all elements of a standard briefing, calculate weight and balance manually, and be ready to brief you on the day’s flight lesson. If this doesn’t happen, don’t fly; turn the lesson into a ground session including the importance of preflight preparation.
  • Always require that your student have current charts, AFD, plotter, and flight computer with them on every flight. Turn the G1000 to full dim regularly. Fail the iPad regularly. Do not allow own ship position on the iPad.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-51-18-amMany of these tips are orbital, meaning they are peripheral techniques used to implement the core curriculum. The core curriculum is the concept of attitude flying. Any student should be able to respond correctly to this question by his third flight; How does a pilot control an airplane in flight? – By using the flight controls to change or maintain aircraft attitude while ensuring adequate power for the attitude selected!

As always, if any of this seems unfamiliar or extreme, or even substantially different than how you are used to flying and teaching (and thinking), then make sure to experiment with a senior instructor to ensure the safety of both you and your students.

Best wishes for safe and effective teaching!


Charles McDougal started flying in his late 30’s after a 20-year career as a performing musician. Instructing at the flight school where he learned to fly, he eventually became Chief Flight Instructor, supervising the activities of up to 35 CFI’s. In 1999 he was designated as a Pilot Examiner by the FAA. For 15 years Charles approached aviation from three tangents; as a very active DPE, the owner and operator of two Rutan Canard airplanes in which he flew 2000 hours over ten years (and a Mooney M20J after that), and as a corporate pilot and flight department manager for a succession of small business and families.  In 2014, the FAA chose not renew his designation. He has had several technical articles published in AOPA flight training magazine. Currently Mr. McDougal is Chief Pilot for an expanding flight department in San Antonio, TX where he lives with his wife and a number of dogs, and is on sabbatical from teaching.

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Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

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