Buffering “FAA Minimums” Aim For Excellence!

The FAA only specifies the absolute minimums (limitations) in their regulations and these are not recommended operating specifications.  This might sound silly to many pilots, but some people have not gotten this memo.  As one example, “one mile visibility and clear of clouds” in Class G airspace is an absolute legal minimum. All of aviation safety involves building (and maintaining) a personal margin above these FAA bare minimums. Minimum weather, fuel requirements, and even hours for pilot certification should have a margin applied to be safe and build better pilots.

I have been giving a lot of private checkrides lately and obviously a private pilot applicant must know Class G airspace and the basic legal weather minimums. But if they tell me they would go flying in this scary weather, they are not adequately managing risk. Similarly, FAA minimum flight instrumentation (day and night) requires only an airpseed indicator, altimeter (not even adjustable) and a compass. Again, every pilot should know this legal minimum, but should also be aware such primitive guidance is not adequate for most flights (especially at night). Building a margin by requiring more complete instrumentation, equipment, preparation and suitable weather is the basis for managing risk and building safety.

This paradigm of “FAA minimums vs safety margin” is an excellent method to understand (and teach) a risk management system (required in the FAA testing standards). Although a pilot applicant at any level must know the FAA minimums, they must also clearly define their personal “safety margin” for their  level of experience in a particular plane, environment and with unique external pressures of the situation. What examiners want to hear is “my thinking and safety margin in this situation is…”

The ACS defines specific areas to be considered when managing risk. This was developed straight out of the military’s “man, machine and mission” formula and is expanded and elucidated in the FAA Risk Management Handbook. P-A-V-E identifies the Pilot, Aircraft, EnVironment, and External Pressures that interact dynamically to cause (or mitigate) risk factors. Unfortunately, this subject is still given prefuctory coverage by many CFIs as they initially educate pilots or prepare them to take flight tests. In my opinion, this paradigm should be the primary vehicle used right from “day one” to expose new pilots to aviation. (Instead of a rarely mentioned “nice to know” addition “don’t forget risk management”)  Much of our aviation education system is still mired in the 1940s military curriculum of lesson planning. We need a cultural change that puts risk management as more central in our aviation education. P-A-V-E is an amazing safety tool for your personal flying and instructional focus.

And speaking of minimums, the current “rush to ratings” clearly is eliminating any “extras” and fun in the flight training experience. The required 5 hours of solo X-C for the private pilots now seems to often only involve one long flight on a very nice day. When I see a pilot applications with absolute minimum hours all I can think is “don’t you like flying?” Can’t we add a little more than the absolute minimum experience and build a margin of safety here too? Exposing students to more than one X-C flight or working with  more crosswind allows them to experience and internalize different weather, expand personal capacities and enhance their skills for a greater safety margin. They are going to need these hours and experience in the future anyway.

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The “minimums trap” seems to be increasingly common in pilot testing too, where applicants just just aim to pass with a minimum grade rather than striving for excellence. A 70% seems to make people happy and “mediocre” is too common in the current rush for ratings. But as proud safe pilots, our whole system of superior safety and professionalism is built on trying harder and striving for the best we can be. There is real safety value and satisfaction in exceeding the minimums and pursuing more comprehensive knowledge and skill when we aim for excellence. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the whole extended envelope catalog and application to both initial and recurrent training. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to combat the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Extend Your Skills! 60/90 Turns, Triple A Stalls

This blog presents some challenging flight maneuvers that build greater pilot proficiency, confidence and flight safety. It is essential to break out of our daily “comfort zone” or we will react incorrectly  – with the well documented “startle response” – when forced into an unusual attitude by surprise circumstances. Accident statistics reveal that unprepared pilots are vulnerable to the persistent Loss of Control in Flight (LOC-I) accident. If you are a CFI this is the CFI-PRO™ toolkit from the savvy veteran instructors that result in superior pilot performance and safety.

Professional aviators are now required to practice “envelope extension maneuvers” by regulation. GA will benefit greatly from a similar commitment to advanced proficiency. This training is not  aerobatic and can be flown in any GA plane at your home field. Similar to “day one” in upset courses,  these maneuvers are extensions of familar flight training (“push the envelope” a little).  If these are presented correctly by a professional educator in a challenging but non-threatening method, pilots enjoy these new maneuvers and thrive on the increased proficiency. These maneuvers are the historical tools of savvy educators and made available again through SAFE CFI-PRO™ This is territory where straight-up “scenario-based training” never ventures.

An earlier blog described effective maneuvers for initial flight training; specifically to build yaw-canceling skills with the rudder. These are a good warm-up to “tune up” and get the feet moving if your skills have atrophied. For the more proficient pilot, this blog will present some more stimulating “envelope extension” maneuvers to build (or restore) advanced skills and expand a pilot’s “comfort zone.”

When I ran a flight school, I often used “steep turn reversals” for pilots who had just completed instrument training and were beginning commercial maneuvers. After 40+ hours of instrument reference and “standard rate/smooth” it was necessary to get the eyes outside and “yank and bank” to restore lost pilot skills. The “Triple A Stalls” prove basic physics to pilots and are useful for building up confidence and control skills. These maneuvers not only build LOC-I protection through “envelope extension,” they are also “aerodynamically educational.” They should only be flown dual with an experienced, PRO-fessional CFI.

“Steep turn reversals” begin with the simple well known private pilot steep turn at 45 degrees of bank maintaining altitude and airspeed with a crisp rollout on a defined outside reference. I encourage pilots to fly this maneuver without trimming so they can feel the load “lifting” their plane through the turn. Once this is proficient,  roll in 60 degrees of bank for 360 degrees of turn and reverse on the starting point into a 720 degree commercial maneuver. Then progressively shorten the turn duration to only 180 degrees and eventually 90 degrees of turn. To make these work, full deflection of the ailerons (and lots of rudder) make a very crisp maneuver. And thought his is entirely non-aerobatic by definition, it is a maneuver many Upset Training Programs utilize on “Day One” with the stated purpose of waking up the feet and restoring aggressive pilot in command control.

Another very useful (and aerodynamically educational) maneuver is alternating, turning power off stalls with “angle of attack recoveries” (“Triple A stalls”). Pilots flying this maneuver will benefit greatly from a “chalk talk” to understand (and trust) that lift in a coordinated turn is equal on the wings. Flying the maneuver demonstrates the applied physics from the chalk talk.

To perform “Triple A stalls”, climb to a safe altitude, bank 30 degrees, and increase AOA into a power off stall . Recover with only AOA reduction (unload pitch – no added power). Continue this through alternating right and left turns, building the muscle memory (and confidence) to unload the wing recovering the turning stalls with just pitch. Once alternating AOA is proficient, try a more aggressive secondary stall on a couple recoveries (it will stall with the nose much lower) and recover just with pitch reduction (very low attitude). All of these should make a true believer out of your client that a plane can stall at any speed or attitude; priceless!

Pilots who embrace these “extended envelope” maneuvers are less likely to be surprised (and become LOC-I statistics) if they are ever forced out of the “7% comfort zone” by weather or turnbulence (no startle/freeze-up). More to come on this next week as we roll out more of the CFI-PRO™ workshop extended maneuver catalog. Fly safely (and often)! Please comment and contribute your favorite maneuvers?


Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the whole extended envelope catalog and application to both initial and recurrent training. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to combat the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

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 by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

WANTED: Angle of Attack Managers

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!

Aviators, airmen, aviatrices—a few of the other words used to describe pilots. Yet none of these words reflect what we really do. Ultimately, pilots are angle of attack managers. Let’s have another look at AOA.

As David St. George notes in “Invisible Angle of Attack,” AOA is the difference between where the airplane is pointing and where it is going. Wolfgang Langewiesche describes the importance of AOA thus:

“If you had only 2 hours in which to explain the airplane to a student pilot, [AOA] is what you would have to explain. It is almost literally all there is to flight. It explains all about the climb, the glide, and level flight; much about the turn; practically all about the ordinary stall, the power stall, the spin. It takes the puzzlement out of such maneuvers as the nose-high power approach; it is the story of the landing.”

AOA implies two things: wind and an object around which the wind is flowing. Most everyone has played with AOA before. Remember sticking your hand out of the car window when you were a kid? What happened when you tilted your hand into the oncoming wind? “It went up!” is the common response. Reflect more deeply on the experience, however, and you’ll notice that your hand actually moved upward and backward. If we want to get technical about it, we could call the “up” part Lift and the “back” part Drag.

We’ve all seen examples of unusual things being forced to fly, too. For example, tornado-strength winds can cause even the most reluctant Holstein to go airborne.

A high velocity jet of air precisely aimed at a Snap-on screwdriver can cause it to hover (courtesy of SAFE member Shane Vande Voort—please don’t try this at home!).

And though we might describe a wing as having a “top” and a “bottom,” Lift- and Drag-producing AOAs are possible on either side.

AOA is discussed primarily in the context of the airplane’s main wing. But at the correlation level of learning, we see the entire airplane as an assembly of wings all of which are subject to the principles of AOA. The propeller, for instance, is a rotating wing. Main and jury struts are often symmetrical wings streamlined to minimize drag. “Aileron” is French for “little wing.” And our primary flight controls are AOA controls. The elevator controls the AOA of the main wing (aka pitch control).

Ailerons control local AOAs (typically the outboard part of the wings, aka roll control).
Rudder controls the AOA of the fuselage (aka yaw control).

Our job as instructors is to teach our trainees how to manage these AOAs to achieve desired performance outcomes. Although AOA itself may be invisible, changes in AOA can be sensed and its trend interpreted. In the visual flight environment, this means coupling aeronautical knowledge with sight, sound, and feel to manage our controllable AOAs.

Before we climb into the airplane, for example, we know that the combination of a high power setting and a slow airspeed during the takeoff phase will yaw the airplane. But we want coordinated flight during this particular takeoff. That will require a certain amount of rudder to manage the AOA of the fuselage to cancel the yaw. What does yawed flight look like during takeoff? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? What does it look and feel like if we try to use aileron to correct for the yaw instead of rudder? All of these questions can be explored in the practice area without staring at the slip/skid ball. The lessons learned can be applied during subsequent takeoffs.

Whether it’s pitch, roll, or yaw, changes in AOA manifest as changes in one or more of the following: attitude, G-load, control pressure, control displacement, and often sound. In the case of elevator inputs, add airspeed to the list of cues.

For fun, test your understanding of AOA with the following thought experiments. Imagine you are at an airshow watching a competent aerobatic pilot fly a capable aerobatic airplane.

1. The airplane makes a knife-edge pass from your right to your left at precisely 90 degrees angle of bank.
a. Where is the nose of the airplane pointing relative to its flightpath, and how is the pilot making that happen?
b. What is the pilot doing with the elevator to make the airplane fly down the runway?
c. What is the AOA of the main wing?
d. What is the pilot feeling?

2. The airplane climbs along a perfect vertical line.
a. In order to remain on the upline before pivoting in a Hammerhead, what is the pilot doing with the elevator?
b. Ultimately, what is the AOA of the main wing during the upline?

Want to learn more ways to push learning to the correlation level? Attend SAFE’s inaugural CFI-PRO™ workshop in Frederick, MD on October 2–3, 2019!

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).

Reflect and Redirect; “Double Loop” Learning!

Pilots are a “different breed of cat” as you well know. As a personality type we are confident, higher than average in intelligence, tend toward dominance and are almost never wrong about anything! (ask my wife…) “Never wrong” is “sort of” a joke but you know our tribe; pretty self-assured and assertive, with perfectionist tendencies. And though it takes confidence to pilot effectively, pilots also hate to admit to errors (as do most professionals in all fields). This very feature makes pilots and other high-performance professionals remarkably bad at learning. And as experience and hours pile up this problem gets worse not better; success becomes an impediment to further learning. This is a well-known problem in the “C-suite” of business too. Read Teaching Smart People How to Learn by Chris Argyris (a Harvard Business Review Classic) for a great analysis of this problem. Experts and professionals are remarkably good at problem solving but amazingly bad at learning.

Double loop learning is part of action science — the study of how we act in difficult situations. Individuals and organizations need to learn if they want to succeed (or even survive). But few of us pay much attention to exactly how we learn and how we can optimize the process.

Even smart, well-educated people can struggle to learn from experience. We all know someone who’s been at the office for 20 years and claims to have 20 years of experience, but they really have one year repeated 20 times.

Finding and trapping errors is only the first basic feedback loop where we analyze, correct and revise our plans or techniques. This “problem-solving” level is characteristically directed outward, largely analytical, and psychologically painless. Creating and following SOPs or regulations is part of this process. Compensating for changing conditions and  “re-trimming” our activies back to the desired flow is all part of a normal day.

Real progress and improvement (learning and not just problem-solving) occurs at a higher level and involves tweaking the mental models and preventing the error in the first place. This requires time to reflect critically on our own behavior and failings, solving deeper thinking/scripting problems. Level two or “double loop” learning freely admits to errors and fixes our inner OS that is usually the root cause. Every error should be viewed as a “double loop opportunity” to dig deeper and reflect on our assumptions and test the validity of our hypotheses. Only though “reflective learning” can we access and correct our normally invisible implicit level of learning.

For professionals, inward directed reflection can be initially psychologically painful. Professionals and expert performers are used to being “competent and correct” but “double loop learning” requires we admit, accept and correct personal failings. In addition, this is often only the first step. Accepting instruction, taking wise counsel humbly (and happily) is the key to real and rapid improvement. So we need to soften that pilot wall of confidence a bit and admit to personal failure to achieve growth. Learning happens at the “double loop” reflective level. A sure sign of this is when a good pilot say “thank-you” when an error is pointed out, and in the debrief not only makes a “note to self” to correct the obvious goof going forward but also resolves the deeper assumption/hypothesis that was the root cause.

     Highly skilled professionals are frequently very good at single loop learning. After all, they have spent much of their lives acquiring academic credentials, mastering one or a number of intellectual disciplines, and applying those disciplines to solve real-world problems. But ironically, this very fact helps explain why professionals are often so bad at double-loop learning.
     Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

As humans, evolving over millions of years, we are internally hardwired with all kinds of implicit reactions and biases that serve us amazingly well in survival against primordial threats and historical environmental challenges. Unfortunately, this deep imprinted learning is subconscious and only becomes visible in action. We need to reflect, accept, adapt and rewire these internal systems with double loop learning if we want to function accurately under pressure in each specific aviation environment.

As aviation educators, it is also essential to develop these”double loop” corrective abilities in our clients. Once they are competent and approaching independent flight, it’s necessary (and initially excrutiating) to allow our these pilots the time and opportunity to discover (struggle) and correct their own errors! The #1 beginner CFI mistake is to immediately intervene and correct every mistake and not allow a “learning opportunity” (genius in the right seat). Your pilot will never develp the metacognitive capacity to self-correct and improve ; they will need a CFI forever. Our educational goal should be to create confident, independent, lifetime learners in every pilot.

And as educational professionals, we all need to continually learn and improve. Join us for the CFI-PRO™ workshop on October 2-3, 2019 at AOPA (KFDK) Pursue personal improvement and excellence in your flying (and teaching), we have your back! See you at AOPA-Fly-In TN (get a free Sporty’s FIRC with sign-up) and enjoy 1/3 off Foreflight (member benefit) which more than pays your annual dues. Fly safely (and often!)


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

New Science: “Overlearning” Locks In Skills!

How many times have you accomplished a new level with your pilot-in-training and heard “got it” on first completion – as if you could immediately lock it up and move on? (Don’t do it; it’s not locked in…) Have you had a new student think they can immediately solo just because they get hit their first good landings? Intuitively, as savvy educators, we know progress is great and motivating but consistency and reinforcement are also necessary. This same situation occurs on a meta-level also when a pilot passes their flight test but stops flying. We intuitively know they must “use it (continually) or lose it.” But there is a brain process that explains all these touch and goes (and IFR practicing) we do as pilots – we finally have an explaination why.

Neuroscience is starting to understand the details of this learning process. It is now proven in studies that unless we immediately reinforce a new skill and put it to use, much is lost right away. Skill mastery requires us to “overtrain” and reinforce every new learning level for retention before we move further. As aviation educators, we need to emphasize repetition, application and elaboration of each skill to be safe as aviators.

Once we have successfully accomplished any new behavioral repertoire, it is neurologically essential to “stabilize” it by continued training well past the point of simple proficiency; “got it and onward” is not enough. Scientists call this technique “overlearning” and have observed it in every field where human skill mastery is critical; from first violin to martial arts. A recent study reveals that “overlearning” reinforces a skill and embeds it in a different part of the brain, installing it chemically in an entirely different way so it will not be overwritten by new learning. Critical piloting skills must be impervious to forgetting (and this is also why the initial imprint must be accurate) and fluidly and immediately available. This new study shows that if you stop training a skill as soon as it is first successful, the brain stays in its “ready-to-learn state” and the new skill is highly perishable. Reinforcement changes your actual brain state and chemistry. The study shows that repetitive training beyond the point of proficiency will “hyperstabilize” the skill and prevents”retrograde interference” from newer inputs.

Similar research from a different angle at MIT studies habits and decision-making behaviors; specifically how we develop and store them (also the secret behind obsessive behaviors and addictions). Dr. Ann Greybeil at MIT is an amazingly prolific and passionate brain researcher (Fortunately she left Florida as a young girl when the only “science” a young woman could study was home economics). She has documented how early skills are reinforced and transformed into habits in an ancient brain area called the basal ganglia/striatum. Once habits and skills are formulated, they are stored, almost like books in a library, in a totally different part of the brain for fluid and rapid recall in action. (This is what we do everyday as pilots) If skills and habits are not fully formed and recoded into the forebrain repertoire, they will be available for fluid recall. The time and effort required for serious practice are the necessary elements for skill retention and future aviation safety. Knowing and enforcing this practice is important for all educators. Fly safely (and practice often).


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).