CFI-PRO: “Perfect Picture” from Lesson One!

Pilot positioning is critical to aircraft control!

When I get into a plane to perform a flight test and I look at the applicant in the other seat, I sometimes see their sightline is significantly lower than mine. From this simple cue, I am almost sure of two things immediately. First, they were not blessed with an experienced flight instructor and second, they are probably still struggling to achieve a consistent, confident landing. They basically can’t see enough to fly well. A “perfect picture” leads to accurate and confident aircraft control. If you can’t see, it is pretty tough to fly and land. All this could have been prevented by getting the pilot initially “fitted” correctly to the airplane, eliminating a huge amount of frustration and wasted money training.  This might seem like a “little problem” but in fact the effects are HUGE – like hand mike to headsets – it effects everything!

Many large aircraft have pilot positioning devices; “perfect picture” every time!

The Air Force faced an overwhelming exposure to exactly this issue in the 1940s and fixed it with extensive human engineering studies and cockpit modifications. Unfortunately, awareness (and equipment) have lagged way behind in GA flying.

“In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes… After multiple inquiries ended with no answers, officials turned their attention to the design of the cockpit itself…the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot.

[After testing] 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fit within the average range. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one…Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared.”

So the US Air Force spent a huge amount of research and design money to fix the “pilot fitting” problem but through this investment, solved their aircraft control problem. They designed seats to be finely adjustable in every direction. Modern jets also have a parallax sight device to precisely locate the pilot laterally and vertically perfectly in the cockpit. The Air Force realized proper visual cues and cockpit fit are the basis for all aircraft control. It is essential for every pilot you fly with to know what their proper position in the plane should look and feel like (and later also how all the controls and power applications change this outside picture – future blog).

PIlot sightline set with parallax gauge

Experienced instructors usually detect any “fitting problems” immediately, and quite frankly sometimes this makes us seem like magicians. I have had airplane *owners* come to me intensely frustrated that their landings are inconsistent or borderline scary. They are usually embarrassed and in the quiet “confessional” mode. Remarkably, we can often fix their landings in a lesson or two by just adjusting their seat and their view picture (just like the Air Force) Aircraft seating is *that* important. These poor pilots never were taught what cues the *must* see to control their aircraft.

So step one for every new pilot “meeting” a new airplane is “fitting.” You should ensure they know what they should be seeing since they have no idea what is correct. Start with the seat all the way up and lower it gradually so they have a view over the glare shield. Ideally, they should see some of the cowling for pitch reference. Secondarily, make sure they can move the rudders to their stops and still have some flexion in their knees. Otherwise, they are stretching to use the rudders and using the hip muscles rather than the finer control of the calf muscles (also painful and tiring). Sometimes the seats don’t adjust enough and you need cushions. I recommend your pilot buy their own so their fit is exactly the same every time.

This simple, but critical, seating guidance makes all the difference for faster, consistent student progress. Some additional human factors advice for “fitting” a pilot to the controls should also be considered. Have your pilot move all the controls and demonstrate the use of fine muscle usage (wrist and fingers) for operating the controls. Gross motor control from the large muscles of the hip and shoulder makes pilots fly like gorillas (no PC police please).  Demonstrate the trim (a mystery to every new pilot) and emphasize avoiding excessive control pressures with proper trim. How many times do we see even experienced pilots “fighting” with the plane instead of operating it smoothly and instinctively (see this earlier blog). For the throttle in a Cessna, using the palm of the hand, calibrated  with the index finger, allows precise power application.  Again, pilots operating from the shoulder fly poorly with coarse motor control.

One last tip on the fitting and introduction to the cockpit. This is a great opportunity (without the pressure of an engine running) to practice with all the switches – especially getting the feel for how the mag switch works. This will help with their next challenge of performing a run-up. How many times have you had a student turn off *both* mags creating that dreaded backfire? This can be eliminated with some simple “switch practice” while sitting calm and quiet (master off). With no psychological pressure of a running engine (noise and confusion) learning the movement of the key is much easier. It is also a great time to teach thoroughly the danger of a hot mag. Solve these simple problems and save hours of frustration by getting your student correctly situated and comfortable in their new “office.” Fly safely out there (and often).


Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and 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).

Have a Wonderful Holiday; Grateful and Present!

One thing that has kept me in aviation all these years is hanging out with such an amazing group of talented people. Pilots are less than 1% of our population and as you progressively raise the bar to Commercial, ATP, CFI and master levels, you get into some rarified air of outstanding performance. Pilots are resilient and motivated; definitely hard-chargers – and certainly the “movers and shakers” of the world. But there is also an unfortunate tendency to live for the next achievement and miss out on the glory of everyday life. For the holidays, I wish you all some rest and gratitude during this holiday season. I hope you escape the 24-hour news cycle that makes us all crazy and enjoy some calm family time. Though it has been a challenging year, we all experience wonderful gifts in our lives to be grateful for. Piloting itself is an incredibly rare skill we too often take for granted.

I was particularly struck by the driven nature of pilots watching a video about, Cpt. Lindsey Danilack. What an amazing person. Her ascent to SOAR Mission Commander in five years was nothing less than breathtaking.

She was chosen Cadet First Captain at West Point (in addition to being captain of her track team),  attended Ft. Rucker and successfully bid for Apaches on her first deployment (and served as platoon leader). She then assessed with the 160th S.O.A R and became the first female mission commander in AH-6 “Little Birds.” Talk about full-speed ahead achievement! And though I appreciate her service to country and stand in awe of her drive, it certainly makes me hyperventilate watching her speed through life. As pilots, we all share this genetic make-up. So wishing you all some time to stand down and relax so you enjoy and appreciate this holiday. Fly SAFE (and often!)


Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and Jeppesen plates FREE if you step up to Performance Pro (offer ends 12/25)! This 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).

 

“Fired” By the FAA!

At a time when we expect our institutions to operate with transparency and act in a just manner when dealing with their stakeholders, we should demand the same accountability from the FAA FSDOs. Although the majority of the Aviation Safety Inspectors are hard-working, honest and dedicated employees, there continue to be egregious examples of unfair DPE terminations, cronyism, and corruption because there is almost no accountability and certainly no unbiased appeal process. Basically, if an FAA Inspector can get concurrence from the Manager, he or she can act with impunity, knowing there is almost nothing to fear from within the Agency. The only actions which hold any possibility of forcing proper behavior are legal proceedings or political pressure. This is simply and fundamentally wrong. 

The Designated Pilot Examiners are the FAA’s direct connection to the General Aviation community. These are the gatekeepers who make sure that aspiring pilots have the essential skills, knowledge, and judgment to operate safely in the National Airspace System. The DPEs also serve as mentors to aviation educators who are training pilots, many of whom go on to become the airline officers and captains of the future. When questions arise, the DPE is usually one of the subject matter experts that the community depends on for advice and answers. They are truly the “face” of the local FAA office. Many DPEs are also active in presenting safety programs for the FAA, appearing at fly-ins, seminars, and events where they are role models for the community. When pilots run afoul of a regulation or have an accident, the FAA often requires remedial training from a trusted DPE. The entire FAA training and testing process rests on a foundation of trust in the professionalism and integrity of the examiner cadre.

The unintended consequences of arbitrary and capricious sanctions and terminations of DPEs have a serious and chilling effect on this outreach. Many DPEs, seeing such firings taking place are increasingly unwilling to risk their appointment by participating in seminars and training activities for fear of inadvertently saying something that upsets their Managing Specialist or another FAA employee. Leaders in the aviation community are reluctant to serve as DPEs for the same reasons. Many DPEs are unwilling to condemn unprofessional conduct or unfair practices by their local FSDO for fear of jeopardizing their ability to make a living.

So, when the local FSDO chooses to sanction or terminate one of these people “for cause,” it should only do so for significant and proper justification, and it should be required to substantiate this decision. There needs to be an independent appeals board, made up by both qualified FAA personnel from outside the local FAA office and by selected senior members of the examiner community who would review the evidence and make a final determination. Establishing such a mechanism is simple, inexpensive, and urgent.

If we hope to restore and maintain trust in the regulators and managers who are charged with the critical responsibilities of promoting and maintaining aviation safety, this should happen now.”

Ken is a charter member of SAFE and served on the board of directors. His integrity and professionalism are highly respected in our industry and beyond question. The reasons cited for his "termination with cause" relate to his participation in a voluntary FAASTeam seminar, and have nothing to do with his DPE service (see the linked YouTube for details). This case clearly illustrates the need for systemic change in the DPE program. 
SAFE, as a CFI professional organization representing almost 3500 members (and 100 DPEs), advocates for a more fair and transparent system for managing perceived DPE infractions or violations to insure a more secure and professional DPE system. (There is no "Bill of Rights" for DPEs, they "serve at the pleasure" and can be summarily terminated). We support Ken's DPE reinstatement and refer this larger issue to the currently empanneled DPE Reforms Working Group for careful consideration in their report.

Safer Pilots; “Instinctive” Flying!

This week's blog is by Ken Wittekiend and previously published in Flight Training Magazine. Ken is a 7X Master CFI, and a DPE with the FAA - until earlier this fall when he was "terminated with cause." (This FAA action is being contested by Ken and supporters around the country).

At the risk of being considered a cranky old instructor, I do believe we have a growing problem with basic airplane control. Too often, I fly with pilots who don’t have an inherent feel for the airplane. They struggle to make coordinated turns, particularly while climbing or during slow flight; have a justifiable fear of crosswinds; and have difficulty making precise and consistent landings. Recently, a student expressed her frustration this way: “I seem to be working way too hard trying to keep up with everything, and there is no time to relax and enjoy the experience.”

As a pilot examiner, I see this manifest in applicants who cannot fly basic maneuvers smoothly, have trouble with coordination, are frightened of slow flight and stalls, and fail to look outside the airplane. Several applicants failed the checkride when I had to intervene to stop an inadvertent spin following a power-on stall.

Some pilots realize this shortcoming. A few enlightened souls seek out additional instruction, often in tailwheel aircraft, helicopters, aerobatics, or sailplanes. Others either attempt to avoid any flight that feels uncomfortable or try to substitute instrument references, assuming that technology will offer a better answer. Visual cues from glass-panel displays don’t really replace the seat-of-the-pants feeling and the audible cues that help us know the energy state of the airplane.

As a tailwheel instructor in a Piper Super Cub, I often hear pilots ask, “Where is the VSI?” (there isn’t one) or “What speed do you use on short final?” (this is no time to be looking at the airspeed indicator). They require a mental gear shift to learn that not only is it possible, but easy, to fly without all the usual instrument references.

Sooner or later, conditions require us to put the airplane right there, on centerline and on speed. A short or soft runway, a stronger-than-expected crosswind, or a bounced landing can put unusual demands on a pilot. Often the result is unsatisfactory. Less dramatic, but more common, is a failure to appreciate the joy of being truly connected to the aircraft.

The solution starts with an increased awareness of the need for instinctive flying skills. Pilots also need access to training providers who can help them succeed. The concepts are not difficult, and the equipment requirements are not exotic. All it takes is an instructor who understands the basics and who can structure the lessons in a way that the student feels secure—and has an opportunity to experience the joy of instinctive flight.

There are many creative ways to help the pilot learn. A favorite of mine involves covering the flight instruments with a small towel, forcing the pilot to look outside. Point out how we can use the bottom of the wing against the horizon to judge angle of attack in cruise flight. Have the student fly several patterns, including takeoff and landing, with the towel in place. The instructor should handle the radio during this training so the client can focus on flying.

Two different cognitive domains; we need BOTH!

The CFI should point out the proper pitch, power, and configurations required. Set the power by sound, trim so the stick or yoke is light in hand, and resist the tendency to pull back in the turns and on short final. Stress the importance of feeling the load on the wing through the controls and the seat. Build the student’s confidence in her ability to know what the airplane is doing through sight, sound, and feel.

Introduce stalls with gentle recoveries by reducing pitch slightly as the airplane stalls. Reinforce the idea that it is this reduction in angle of attack that fixes the problem, not the addition of power. Practice raising the pitch with no rudder input to see the yaw and roll begin, and then practice keeping the nose straight with rudder while slowly increasing pitch until the stall occurs. Teach the concept of “unloading the controls” any time things feel, look, or sound weird.

When practicing landings, ask the student to fly down the runway while holding the airplane just above the surface. At first, the instructor likely will have to control the throttle so there is just enough power to remain in ground effect while the student learns the control inputs needed to stabilize the airplane as the speed decreases. If the airplane is stable, simply reduce the power while encouraging the student to keep the airplane flying. As he or she raises the pitch attitude, the airplane slows, requiring more inputs to remain stabilized.

As the student controls drift, heading, and altitude using the proper inputs, simply reduce the power further and allow the airplane to land. As skill increases, introduce nonstandard patterns, simulated forced landings, and extreme slow flight to help the student set a new personal low-speed record. Make it fun, keep it simple, and let the student learn.

The instructor must be able to demonstrate the skills of instinctive flying. If he or she is not proficient and totally engaged in the process, there is an increase

in risk. The CFI also must be able to manage the scenario, control the student’s workload, direct the student’s focus, and maintain a safe environment. The benefit for the instructor is a happier, safer, more competent pilot who enjoys flying more—simply for the joy that comes from doing something well and making it look easy.


Join SAFE and get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) This 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).

“Crash-Proof Piloting” – Always Ready!

All three occupants luckily escaped with minor injuries…

 

To be safe, every pilot needs more frequent and realistic training to cope with engine-out emergencies.  This process of “crash-proofing” assures every pilot has the skills and is psychologically ready, to safely return to earth from any phase of every flight. This seems axiomatic but is amazingly rare. In training, once the initial fear of flight diminishes, we assume the power is going to always be there (or we would be continually terrified). Reawakening a little concern and suspicion is essential for safety; “Where would I land right now?” (Engine failure is the third most common cause of fatal accidents)

The easiest return is from altitude, where time and energy are available. But as you can see from the accident stats, many pilots fail this test even when great fields are readily available. The first problem is psychological – overcoming the startle response and lock-up when the “simulation becomes real.” Fear inoculation and actual emergency practice are necessary to handle any emergency. Since you cannot “surprise yourself,” a good CFI with some “shock and awe” training is required to build implicit learning that will be available to the pilot under serious stress – the difference between target shooting and real combat. Getting time in a real glider (or even a rating) is highly recommended for power pilots. Practicing field selection and glide control embeds “implicit learning” – subconscious/automatic – that operates even during emergency situations.

To become “crash-proof”, first find and memorize your power-off glide attitude and trim for control. Get comfortable with this glide “look and feel” and be able to achieve it immediately (from Vy climb you have only about three seconds to get there).  Once there, most pilots fail to trim and squander precious moments chasing a misbehaving aircraft. From 1000 feet you have only 2 minutes and you will be on the ground…hopefully in a big field. This is one chance (no replay) and failure is not an option.

In most piston planes putting the wing cord level with the horizon while looking out at the wing, will give you the best glide within 5 knots. Then practice flying the plane from an abeam position in the pattern to the runway in a glide. Manage the flare and landing power off and remember to aim toward the middle of the field initially. In every emergency, we want to allow a margin for “partial pilot incapacitation” from a shaky, nervous performance. Your plane is not going to roll far on a rough surface and we absolutely do not want to miss the field. Once that landing spot is assured on a stabilized final, optimize the approach with flaps and/or a slip to pick the best touchdown point (only when stabilized on a final). Again practice in a glider getting precise glide control is very valuable. Energy management is the key.

Once you have this “abeam point to touchdown” portion of the process worked out, work on the “high-key to abeam” glide management. When an engine fails at altitude and a field is selected, go directly to the selected landing field and dissipate altitude directly over the intended landing point. This not only assures success with the glide, but it also allows the pilot ample opportunity to observe potential hazards on the surface and optimize a touchdown point. To survive the off-field landing, you need to dissipate your speed over the greatest distance for survivability.

Once at normal pattern altitude, enter your normal abeam position as practiced. Avoid those large, 2-mile downwind and four-mile final legs to lose altitude. These are the primary reason I see (in pilot evaluations) for off-field failure.  The familiar/reliable downwind to landing procedure from a pre-practiced abeam position is essential for a pilot hyped up on adrenaline. All those other important items have to be handled simultaneously (seat belts tight, door cracked, emergency call and shut down). Remember, if you miss the field entirely (the usual case) all that other prep is largely wasted.

Once all these basics are in place, it is essential to practice assiduously to build solid implicit (subconscious) patterning so you can perform an emergency landing accurately and comfortably from anywhere in the pattern. This skill is a huge confidence-builder and all these abilities transfer to normal patterns and make any pilot much sharper for the days when emergencies are “canceled for today.”

Good resources are the emergency training video from AOPA: Engine Failure from Trouble to Touchdown. This is an excellent program worth watching several times. A classic non-nonsense book is How To Crash an Airplane (and Survive!) by crash investigator Mick Wilson. Kai Gertsen’s classic “Off Airport Landings” is FREE in the SAFE library (he has 169 successful off-airport landings).  Energy management is essential. Actual time spent in a glider is also very valuable for all kinds of reasons. Practicing glides all the way from altitude to landing “for real” focuses the mind and embeds airspeed and pattern control. Remember though, glide ratio and flight attitude will be dramatically different in a draggy piston plane. Fly safe out there, and be ready to land safely from any part of every flight!


Join SAFE and get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) This 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).