Build Better Flight Educators; New CFI-ACS!

New CFIs are safe if they are aware of their limitations…But are they effective and efficient?

Please stand back and take a fresh  look at our flight training industry. Why do we have the least experienced aviators (brand new CFIs) in charge of creating our next generation of pilots? Does this enhance safety? Should those “one year olds” really be teaching our new aviators? There is even a push in our industry now to roll back the long-standing requirement for 200 /2  to sign off initial CFI applicants as the “puppy mills” crank out “educators” even faster. Have we gone totally mad?

Certainly, part of why we do this is cultural inertia; “that’s the way we’ve always done it” (and it “sort of” worked due to mentoring and slow hiring). But the primary motivator has always been economics; “they want/need essential hours and we can pay them less!” But now that the pilot crunch is on, no one is left to teach our new students, and there is no mentorship to assure continuity and “seasoning”.  With the aviation student drop out rate already at 80% our industry is at a tipping point. First, we need more senior CFIs back in the field (ideas on this in a future blog) but we also need a dedicated cadre of better new CFIs. SAFE’s primary mission is to raise the professionalism (and pay) of our educators and hence raise all aviation excellence. With the creation of a new ACS for CFI (now out in beta form), SAFE is taking a close look at this educational process. What an amazing opportunity to raise the level of CFI skill, knowledge and judgment and make a difference! We were all there as the “new CFI” what would you change?

Our industry has finally come to realize that basic aircraft control is at the root of our aviation safety issues; “Loss of Control” is the leading cause of aviation fatalities. There is a failure in the basic instructional understanding of aircraft control; this is transmitted down through our whole training system. We’ve become fascinated with technology and lost our focus on the basics of pitch and power. Our new CFIs must have a better understanding of aerodynamics and focus on primary attitude awareness for aircraft control. We need to get back to basics of attitude plus power to achieve control and performance rather than teaching whizz bang technology. CFIs have to know this to teach it or all is lost. We want your input and ideas (and energy) This letter was written by a former DPE and current G$$ driver and countersigned by many senior DPEs at SAFE. Let us know your ideas please:

“This letter is in response to the recent FAA webinar explaining ACS changes as well as offering a ‘sneak preview’ of the ATP and CFI ACS. It is crafted by a former DPE (15 years and 2400 tests, now a current G4 pilot) and then edited and counter-signed by several DPEs at SAFE. The opinions here also represent a widespread opinion among experienced CFIs and DPEs throughout our aviation industry.

We feel the new Flight Instructor Airplane ACS should have multiple task elements that require a deeper understanding of aerodynamics and a serious requirement to teach each maneuver using aircraft attitude as the primary control reference. We also need to develop more knowledgeable and professional instructors, dedicated to aviation education as a career rather than temporary “hour-builders.” These changes are essential to addressing the continuing GA accident rate and 80% new student dropout rate which are ruining our industry. With the aging pilot population and precipitous drop in student pilot starts, recreational flying is in danger of disappearing entirely in the US. The new CFI ACS is an excellent opportunity to finally move the needle on these vital issues.

Focusing on attitude control as primary control reference will revitalize the understanding of correct basic aircraft control among our students, our flight instructors, and dare we say, our evaluators. Here we have a chance to make a quantum difference in training efficacy, and ultimately, the safety of the flying public; pilot and passenger alike. 

Current and former pilot examiners have witnessed a marked and progressive decline in the understanding of correct aircraft control paradigms among both pilots and flight instructors. As the last of our “greatest generation” of senior aviators “goes west” we are in danger of losing the “true wisdom” of aircraft operation. Control of the aircraft is always achieved through attitude control combined with a proper power setting. This simple and effective concept is well documented in all versions of the airplane flying handbook, yet in interactions with the CFI population, we find it largely unknown, or unclear – what we might call fuzzy knowledge. This needs to be documented and tested in the new FAA CFI ACS.

The fact is that giving a new student a firm grasp of this basic concept, as well as effective instruction in its application from the first lesson, are the most important aspects of the entire training process. We all have witnessed pilots who did not receive good attitude based instruction from the first lesson. They are prone to slow progress, unexplained, unsafe, and arbitrary control inputs, fear of basic maneuvers such as stalls and slow flight, and higher levels of frustration and delayed progress with the landing phase. But due to the vagaries of the training and testing process, a pilot without a good conceptual foundation in attitude flying will eventually pass his or her check ride. 

One of the bizarre aspects of this general decline in knowledge about how we actually control an airplane in flight is a quite universal agreement among highly experienced instructors and evaluators that it is indeed widespread. Networking with highly experienced CFI’s and DPE’s, we find universal agreement that this lack of understanding is present at every level of the pilot population, and is an issue for both safety and training efficacy. Yet most seem apathetic about trying to change this pernicious trend, having tried over the years to move the needle of understanding in a positive direction. In most cases, these attempts have been largely unsuccessful.

Without a concept of attitude control at the base of one’s knowledge pyramid, hearing this message later has little impact on how a pilot flies or how a CFI teaches. Basic aerodynamic knowledge informs the (attitude flying) concept, which enables the learning of proper techniques and procedures. What most often happens in current training programs is this; background knowledge – informing no fundamental concept – then techniques and procedures drawn directly from the laws of physics. This does not work well. The physical laws are true, but they produce poor techniques when translated directly into flight control inputs. Attitude control as aircraft control must be introduced early (as it is in the Airplane Flying Handbook) and often, as the fundamental concept which enables precise and accurate aircraft control techniques. The CFI ACS is the place where a renewed emphasis on the teaching of attitude flying concepts and techniques can spark an industry-wide increase in understanding and application of correct control paradigms.

Evidence of the erosion of authentic knowledge about attitude aircraft control was highly visible in the recent NTSB roundtable on the Loss of Control pandemic. While a few participants did try to move the discussion towards attitude flying – Patty Wagstaff, Doug Stewart, Charlie Precourt, and Sean Elliot all tried – it seemed the discussion kept moving back to technology solutions and airspeed, airspeed, airspeed. The nifty device invented by the young EAA innovators is a wearable display of airspeed and factored stall speed; very cool. But this also points to a questionable paradigm. Airspeed is not the control reference, it is a result of aircraft attitude combined with energy state. The fellow who kicked off the roundtable actually described a scenario ending in tragedy when the pilot “took his eye off the airspeed indicator for one split second”.  I would say he actually lost situational awareness of his attitude and his energy state which caused a decrease in airspeed at a critical moment. We don’t want our students flying by looking at the airspeed indicator – we want them flying by outside attitude reference and reading the results on the flight instruments or the PFD, right? 

SAFE and allied professionals are poised to help advance this initiative in basic flying skills and instructor professionalism. I don’t believe you will find much dissent among those of us who are most experienced and knowledgeable about flight training and testing. It is our humble opinion that the most prevalent contributor to loss of control accidents is the loss of attitude awareness due to a lack of the solid foundation in attitude control concepts and techniques. Yet we seem to be slipping further and further from the truth of what we actually do with those flight controls. Please consider this suggestion carefully and feel free to contact us for additional aspects of this problem and its remedy. The CFI ACS is the place to change this trend.


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Author: David St. George

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

14 thoughts on “Build Better Flight Educators; New CFI-ACS!”

  1. David,

    I agree heartily with most of what you’ve written here. The new CFI ACS is the right time and place for much more emphasis on teaching attitude flying. This is especially true in light of the FAA’s recent change to the way slow flight, minimum controllable airspeed is now supposed to be taught. A concentration on airspeed and stall indication warning, but not nibbling at the actual stall.

    In response to new CFIs teaching other new pilots, I don’t think that is altogether a bad thing. However, flight schools must, must stress attitude flying. In my part of the U.S. there is a very high flight training intensity, both civilian and military. The military has both young, fairly low time and more experienced, higher time instructors. The same is true of the civilian flight schools. In fact, many of the civilian schools are doing Initial Flight Screening (IFS) of potential military pilots before the prospects can go into full military flight training. Both categories are in need of instructors and both are very busy.

    Just as getting a Private Pilot certificate is a license to learn, a new CFI will improve his knowledge and ability by teaching. Sure, young CFIs are leaving for much better paying jobs flying better equipment, etc. Can you blame them? The flight schools will never be able to match what a good paying regional airline is paying these days.

    The “mentorship and continuity” has to come from Examiners, DPEs and flight school management/leadership. The new CFI ACS is one way of inducing and enforcing an emphasis on attitude flying.

    1. I would love to see a healthy, sharing community of mentors; CFI/DPE cooperation. I was fortunate to have this kind of opportunity as a new CFI. Too much of modern aviation seems to be the “blind leading the blind” in very silo-ed academies. As much as we try to capture, codify and transmit true aviation skills and knowledge, a lot of the essence is transmitted through apprenticeship and takes time. Canada has a more thoughtful CFI system with 4 separate levels with graduated privileges.

  2. Totally in agreement with the comments about attitude flying and that the leaning toward a technological solution for the answer to the loss of control problem probably won’t do much. I suspect there’s a link also to loss of situational awareness in LOC accidents that’s not getting discussed or emphasized. As for your reference to AOPA’s “Essential Aerodynamics”, I consider it a piece of crap and don’t recommend it to my students. It actually doesn’t get the physics right and introduces confusing references to surfboards (which stay afloat as a result of buoyancy if they stop moving, something an airplane doesn’t do). The recent changes to the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Knowledge are just as bad.

    1. Thanks for contributing Andy. I agree “Essential Aerodynamics” tries to be “simple” and is occasionally is “simple-minded” but the level of ignorance in our pilots (and even CFIs) is astounding and any improvement is worthwhile. (When we poll pilots usually 70% do not know lift is equal on the wings in a coordinated turn or that the tail of a standard Part 23 A/C is providing downward force) This ignorance has consequences, most pilots fear any turn past 30 degrees, and will not slip (they claim it’s dangerous?) Universally, pilots chase the (lagging) airspeed needle instead of flying attitude as primary.

      1. If you’re teaching the wrong thing, I don’t see how that rates as any improvement. There is always a way to teach a difficult technical concept correctly. Too may times, I see folks in trying to be “simple” make something “incorrect”.

  3. This article is as if it had been copied from a multitude of other articles about this subject. Everyone is writing about what they think is wrong but no one is providing a solution. In reality, to provide a solution there needs to be definition of the problem. In this case there needs to be definition of several specific problems.
    What are we trying to do? We are convinced aircraft control is a problem. What is that? The airplane was designed and built to fly. In fact there are many times in the past when they have been started and took off all by themselves. Is that a failure of understanding aerodynamics?
    Maybe we should look at letting the airplane fly. I have flown many times from cranking engine to landing roundout without touching the control wheel. Setting the elevator trim to approximate Vx, steering with rudder and controlling altitude with changes of thrust.
    With an initial Student, the very first flight is when they establish in their minds how things work. Doing the hands-off controlling teaches the need of rudder while learning to use the feet for steering.
    All the elevator ever does is set an angle-of-attack for flight at a specific indicated-airspeed. A small reduction of angle-of-attack allows a small increase of indicated-airspeed and a small increase allows a small decrease. Any time, if manually holding elevator input, upon releasing it, the angle-of-attack returns immediately to that as set with the trim.
    Change of altitude with thrust seems quite normal as thrust change is a basic lift change procedure. Though the current system keeps telling everyone to pull the control wheel to start climb, merely adding thrust does the same thing. There is nothing in any text I have ever found discussing thrust lifting.
    Thrust component-lift is from the angle thrust is occurring at the engine above the direction of motion. At Vy the thrust component-lift will be 6 to 8 degrees above the direction of motion. Sine of 6 degrees is .1 so one-tenth of the thrust will be component-lift. A small aircraft of 2,000 lbs. will have approximately 600-700 lbs. of thrust at sea level. That means there will be 60-70 lbs. of lift occurring at the engine attachment. This will be around ten feet forward of the center of lift so is contributing 600-700 ft.-lbs. of the total lift.
    This means when making level turns, instead of teaching a student to pull the control wheel to remain level, just coordinate increased thrust.
    This is just the beginning of learning aircraft control. There is much more that needs to be added to the curriculums. It is not going to happen until the experienced and expert Instructors decide what it takes to teach safe flight. We can continue to blame the newly trained Instructors but who are those teaching them?
    I have written an e-book explaining all this which I share with anyone wanting it. Just email bob@safe-flight.net.

    1. Simple problem; pilots trying to control airplanes with the wrong primary reference (often chasing needles/gyros inside instead of looking outside to establish attitude). The CFI must know the correct primary reference (actual flight attitude, not a proxy like airspeed) and teach it. This often requires guiding attention by covering inappropriate distractions. Pitch+power=performance. This flows perfectly into later instrument work.

  4. With hands-off techniques, the aircraft establishes its own attitude. Visual flight is controlling direction at a point toward the horizon and keeping it unmoving relative a spot on the windshield. For level turn with coordinated increased thrust the spot is kept level with the horizon. For descents keeping the desired destination unmoving relative the spot will cause arriving at a VFR destination at about 1,000 ft. above the ground 1-2 miles out. On an approach the end of the runway kept unmoving will cause touchdown to occur within a few hundred feet of the runway end. Thee physiology of hands-off technique is described very well in the 2014 Mar/Apr FAA Safety-Bulletin.

    Stall occurs when exceeding the critical angle-of-attack. The only way a normally balanced aircraft can attain such an attitude is by holding the control wheel aft to cause it to happen. The pilot causes all stall.

    An unintended consequence of the changes made in the 1960’s to extend landing patterns to make powered approaches rather than the previous use of idle power approaches was they didn’t require PPL to demonstrate idle power landing. Today 75% of engine-out off-field landings touchdown midfield or beyond the chosen landing site. Maybe we should teach the idle power approaches initially as in the olden days and if deemed necessary only with an Instructor on board. This would also reduce the pattern time for initial training. Once proficient in idle-power landing, the powered approach is simple for a Student.

    An Instructor I worked with using these techniques has Students proficient for PPL in 1/2 the time than the national average.

  5. I too watched the NTSB round table discussion on LOC-I. Looking at the NTSB “defining events” for accidents (fatal and other) it’s clear that LOC-I is a big deal. In 2015 (the most recent year that the NTSB published those stats) LOC-I was second to system malfunction – powerplant… and my read of accident reports suggests some pilots are poorly equipped to deal with loss of power (for ANY reason) – and thus contribute to higher LOC-I numbers. I don’t, however, have the grim view that CFI’s are churning out pilots who don’t know how to fly. Since 2014 I’ve collected over 1000 survey responses from pilots who fly fixed wing SE aircraft. An amazing number of these pilots (about 20%) reported having experienced a complete loss of thrust . Just 1/5 of those who lost all power reported the outcome as an NTSB 830 reportable accident. Another 20% reported an incident, and the vast majority of those who dealt with loss of power (60% of respondents) handled it without accident or incident. So, why did pilots lose control? Perhaps it’s an inadequate S&R skill set. I think there’s more to the problem. A quick read of the NTSB accident db brings up lots of very high time, highly experienced pilots who made incredibly poor decisions. LOC-I because a high time pilot decided to fly with a known mechanical deficiency isn’t uncommon. Nor is it unusual for over confident pilots to engage in low level flight. While poor decisions don’t necessarily lead to bad outcomes, I think most of us would agree bad decisions nearly always margins and make a bad outcome more likely and possibly much worse. While I agree that low time CFI’s may not have the experience that goes with many hours of dual, I’ve found the newly minted to be both conscientious and, for the most part, open minded. The sad reality is that it’s unlikely we can create a teaching cadre of MCFI caliber educators. Many of the techno fixes discussed during the round table share the same problem with demanding every CFI be minted at the Master level: The cost of getting into the game – and then staying there – rapidly outpaces the ability of prospective students to engage in aviation and discourages current pilots & aircraft owners to remain in the game. Improving decision making and the art of teaching it, teaching good Stick & Rudder skills, and unfortunately – the freedom to learn from our own mistakes all seem to me to be necessary if we want a robust GA pilot community in the future.

    1. Hi John, thanks for commenting. It *is* shocking how many accidents and incidents go unreported. Our stats would be *much* worse if all those were in the data set. Another good point you made is that experience does not lead necessarily to better safety; complacency and rust can cause a marked *decrease* in safety with increasing hours! I agree we cannot require MCFI level standards for beginners but we do need mentoring or oversight to assure CFI growth and continuity. The “attitude as primary” mantra (avoid the tech initially) seems to be universally recommended. (Sporty’s and AOPA remanufactured trainers…) We also need to incentivize (and legally protect) senior aviators to get them back into teaching…somehow!?

      1. George:

        I certainly agree that some (unknown number) of accidents and incidents go unreported. Based upon narrative information also offered by responding pilots such as “…engine seized on C206 during cruise & landed on road…” it doesn’t appear that reportable NTSB 830 accidents were buried in the data set in great numbers. However, the data I discussed above do relate to NON-accident/NON-incident events where pilots successfully negotiated the problem without bending metal. FWIW, unlike the NTSB 830 definition of “accident”, an “incident” can be much more amorphous and ambiguous. For example, landing on a highway (no damage to aircraft nor other property, no injuries to any occupant nor to any person on the ground) may or MAY NOT be called an incident according to the individual inspector’s opinion. I don’t consider either the large numbers of ‘unreported’ successful management of engine failures “shocking”, but rather heartening. It’s a GOOD thing that pilots by and large manage a very serious issue so the outcome is either a non-event (i.e. no accident) or a minor inconvenience (i.e. just an ‘incident’). I think that alone is a significant indication that by and large, pilots are competent and that instructors are likewise doing a good job of instilling necessary skills and judgement. IOW, I discount assertions that the sky is falling (bad intentional pun) and that a wholesale re-think of what it means to be a CFI is warranted by the data.

        Based on the steady decline in accidents over the past several decades it’s clear that we’ve benefited from systemic improvements that likely come from technology, culture changes, AND instruction. Given the significant number of LOC-I that follow other inflight exigencies (i.e. non- LOC-I defining events) some at-the-margins change in instruction seems necessary. But overall, absent both increased recurrent training in several key areas (risk assessment, S & R skills, decision making, EP, familiarity with increasingly complex avionics, etc.) and proficiency from recent flight experience — all of which come with associated costs that directly impact the population of active and new pilots — it doesn’t appear we’re chasing an attainable goal. IMHO, we can make additional improvements at the margin, however the big gains toward the golden goal post of zero accidents will never (EVER) be achieved as long as we’re measuring ‘success’ by lumping technology that spans the 1930’s to 2018, includes vastly different airframes (jets, round engines, single engines, multi engines, pressurized/non-pressurized, fixed wing, rotor wing, etc., and etc.) and vastly different crew configurations/knowledge & proficiency levels… all operated by fallible human pilots.

  6. If you go back to the annual NTSB conferences the past few years they are just a repeat of how to fix LOC.
    When are they going to decide to define the problems so they can be fixed. Their conferences have all dwelt only on stall and added instruments.
    When asking a typical Instructor or Examiner what causes stall, it’s the FAA test answer, exceeding the critical angle-of-attack. Much discussion of teaching stalls and stall recovery and how low altitude stall often cannot be recovered. No mention of how not to stall in the first place.
    Other ways LOC occurs are not even mentioned. Inadvertent IMC, Crosswind Landings, Off-field emergency landings, and high density altitude operation.

    1. Thank-you all for the comments, a rich conversation. The balance we are trying to strike in the CFI-ACS is more confident, capable CFIs that also teach by outside attitude references as primary. I continue to get applicants for flight tests who have never done a stall in a turn (though it is in the ACS and an examiner can ask for it) and one reason is their CFI is also uncomfortable performing this maneuver. Basic knowledge and proficiency so they can safely educate the next generation.

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