SAFE CFI-PRO™: Scenarios, Maneuvers, or Both?

This is one in a series of posts by special guest authors about SAFE's new CFI-PROficiency Initiative™ (aka SAFE CFI-PRO™). The goal of the initiative is to make good aviation educators great!

Rich Stowell authored many articles in the early 2000s on “The Problem with Flight Instruction” that helped precipitate the SAFE Pilot Training Reform Symposium in Atlanta. That SAFE initiative spawned the current FAA ACS. Now the focus is on raising the level of excellence among aviation educators with the new SAFE CFI-PRO Initiative.

Top instructors and examiners continually debate and lament the state of stick and rudder flying skills. The FAA flight training pendulum has swung from the traditional WWII maneuvers-based training (MBT) to the newer scenario-based training (SBT) standard. And though SBT is a vital part of risk management training and testing, inflight loss of control (LOC-I) continues to top the list of fatal accident categories. The number two occurrence category isn’t even close.

Should we resign ourselves to accepting LOC-I as inevitable? Or maybe the current focus on scenarios is as short-sighted as the focus on maneuvers once was? Perhaps aviation educators need to adopt a more balanced approach.

…what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. – Wilbur Wright

Flight instructors teach in the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective domains. Maneuvers-based training falls in the psychomotor domain. It’s where pilots learn stick and rudder skills (aka manual flying skills). Scenario-based training overlaps the cognitive and affective domains. It’s where pilots learn aeronautical decision making skills.

Most anyone can learn specific patterns of movement. For instance, a person can follow steps laid out on the floor without ever looking in a mirror, getting a critique from a dance teacher, or listening to a beat. Does that make the person a dancer? Similarly, most anyone can learn how to apply a solution model to a scenario. A baseball fanatic with a grasp of analytics can choose statistically better options without having played the game. Is the fan a baseball player?

What does it take to train pilots capable of integrating body, mind, and emotion so the successful outcome of a flight is never in doubt? Memorizing a series of control movements without context, purpose, or rhythm won’t do that. As cognitive load increases, performance deteriorates and inputs become more spastic. Tackling complex scenarios without a solid foundation of stick and rudder skills won’t do it, either. Preoccupation with the mechanics of flying deflects mental focus from aeronautical decision making.

The psychomotor domain is the bridge to the other domains. We entice potential customers into aviation through the physical act of intro flights. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate is our most repeated mantra, with “fly the airplane” our default rule. The Aviation Instructor’s Handbook puts “Acquiring Skill Knowledge” several sections ahead of “Scenario-Based Training.” If word count is an indication, the skill section has nearly 40 percent more words than the scenario-based one. The handbook says skill acquisition is “the ability to instinctively perform certain maneuvers or tasks that require manual dexterity and precision [allowing] more time to concentrate on other essential duties such as navigation, communications with ATC facilities, and visual scanning for other aircraft.”

Developing competence in manual flying skills breeds confidence; injecting realistic scenarios counters overconfidence and develops better judgment. A path to follow to improve stick and rudder competency includes:

• Building from fundamental movements of the controls to skilled movements;
• Practicing manual skills often and with clear educational intention for growth; and,
• Striving to be able to do complex patterns of actions skillfully and automatically. [More here]

Could more technology be the answer to LOC-I? Is the purpose of technology to help well-trained pilots achieve peak performance with greater precision, or to conceal deficiencies in piloting skills?

Blue Threat author Tony Kern advises: “Error control will never be engineered out of existence with technology.” In fact, manual flying errors have increased because of overreliance on technology. This compelled the FAA to remind pilots to hand fly their aircraft more often in SAFO 13002 and SAFO 17007

Advisory Circulars 120-109A and 120-111 include templates for recovering from stalls and nose high and nose low attitudes. The first action listed in each case? Disengage the automation. The next steps in the procedures require (deeply ingrained) manual flying skills. And only greater proficiency and envelope expansion will give pilots fluid and immediate access to these often counterintuitive skills.

While the above ACs primarily target air carrier operations, they provide sound advice for general aviation pilots, too. When the time comes to prevent or recover from upsets that could lead to LOC-I, our lives, the lives of our trainees, and the lives of others will boil down to what the pilot does with the flight controls.

Stick and rudder skills will be relevant as long as flying involves pilots touching controls. Pilots interact with instructors throughout their flying careers; thus, improving the manual flying skills of instructors—and their ability to pass those skills on to others—is essential to reduce loss of control. This is why instructors are at the heart of the SAFE CFI-PRO Initiative.


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Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

SAFE CFI-PRO®; Good to Great!

At the heart of flight safety is the aviation educator. Our cadre of professional instructors interact and wrestle with flight training and proficiency on a daily basis – we are on the front lines of safety. By elevating the level of skill and professionalism of the aviation educator, we exponentially improve every pilot and reduce loss of control accidents. At SAFE, inspiring and enabling aviation excellence is our core mission. We not only do this on a daily basis with resources,  tools and advocacy, but now have a great new program rolling out to enhance your learning; CFI-PRO (more soon!) What qualities/skills/aptitudes make a truly great aviation educator? And are these skills and secrets currently taught, or is that kind of education even possible – born not made? Let’s look at this together.

Our current FAA system for pilot (and CFI) certification is only designed to guarantee “good enough” (if everything is done correctly in training and testing). We work very hard and often only achieve a “minimum viable product.” Though some applicants are a lot better than the minimum, as DPEs we are counseled to assure each applicant that “perfection is not the standard.” Our FAA system assures that every new pilot achieves the ACS minimum level of safe, smart and skillful. And though I fought with this idea initially to raise the regulatory standards, would we really want a harder, more comprehensive CFI intitial? The process of achieving excellence and exceeding the standards is voluntary. This responsibility for continued improvement falls not only on the pilot but also directly on the educators. It is our responsibility to model excellence and to inspire, motivate and educate our aviators as they continue  to grow from “good to great.” With your FAA 8o60-4 (temporary), the learning has just begun!

So the challenge to every caring pilot and commited, safe educator is to exceed the minimum FAA standard and commit to lifetime learning and continued growth. Our aviation world is changing and growing daily and we need to adapt and grow to stay safe. Our job is also motivating and inspiring continuous improvement in our clients as we simultaneously persue excellence in our own careers. And though the Master Instructor is the obvious target for many CFIs, of the 101,000 FAA-certificated CFIs in the United States, fewer than 800 of them have successfully earned Master CFI accreditation.  For many part-time CFIs, full MCFI accreditation is a daunting challenge. But SAFE membership and commitment to CFI professionalism is worthy path to excellence.

There are two very different domains evaluated to become a flight instructor through the FAA system and each is a worthy target for improvement. The technical flying skill – piloting – is based on physical talent, training and experience. And for initial certification, a basic level is almost assumed here since every applicant has climbed the aviation ladder through at least the commercial level to apply for CFI. The new and challenging domain evaluated on the CFI test is mastering and demonstrating effective communication and teaching ability (on the white board and while simultaneously flying). And the term “flight instructor” is badly flawed because this person is actually an aviation educator, motivator, and coach all rolled into one. A great deal of “flight instruction” is more properly education that happens not just in flight but on the ground, online, in a simulator…etc.

For both newly certificated pilot and aviation educator, growing the flying skills requires pursuing more “exciting” flying – getting out of your “comfort zone” – to expand your personal flight envelope. This also keeps us motivated and charged up as educators combatting “right seat rust.” I personally think every flight instructor should be upside down a bit (because planes can go there). And the one or two spins required for CFI certification are an embarrassing minimum for CFI competence that should be continually refreshed. If you never go to the edge of the envelope you are vulnerable when suddenly tested by an “instructional surprise” (it might happen). I also personally think every pilot should try a tailwheel or a glider to experience the wonders of adverse yaw and the necessity for real rudder control. These opportunities are everywhere (and less expensive than you might think).

For the CFI we have many wonderful maneuvers that are perfectly legal in Part 23 trainers, that will expand your personal skills and be a great challenge for your clients. These include turning stalls (which are in the ACS and available to be tested at the private pilot level) rudder boxing, dutch rolls and steep turn reversals at 180 and 90 degrees of turn. If you don’t know what these are, find a CFI that is proficient and get some practice. Each of these maneuvers is a tool in the experienced instructors palette to enhance the safety of their clients. Surplus proficiency (margin) defeats LOC-I.

Free online as pdf or html

A second area to grow for your CFI abilities is in the human interaction world of communicating and teaching. Consider digging further into learning theory and the many wonderful books available free online. Refresh your perfunctory FAA exposure to learning theory with a good review here. Then dig deeper into the amazing new texts and courses to expand your technique and improve your effectiveness. A large part of aviation education improvement has nothing to do with flying but requires a keener understanding of human psychology and motivation. Working with youth groups like Young Eagles or the Aviation Explorers will expand your abilities and challenge your educator skills. And watch for our CFI-PRO clinic coming up this fall.

A third domain never trained or tested by the FAA but essential to success in aviation education is leveraging your emotional intelligence (a foreign world for many pilots). Though “failure to establish and maintain a strong student/instructor relationship” is repeatedly listed as the primary reason for the loss of instructional effectiveness and failure in training, there is no FAA training for emotional intelligence, compassion or empathy. And these are the qualities most often listed in surveys as the marks of a great flight instructor. But how do you teach passion and caring? The only way to develop and maintain this elusive quality is to invest daily and completely in what you are doing. Being a “people person” does not come naturally to many pilots. You need to truly like your job and socialize be a good CFI in the community. Staying excited about flying keeps you motivated and fresh for teaching – all the repetition requires variety to avoid burn out (again, try to fly other aircraft and missions as much as possible). The ultimate secret is to realize that every lesson is the first time for your unique client. Making that very personal focus your primary awareness helps grow better pilots one individual at a time. Fly safely (and often)!


Apple or Android versions.

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).