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.


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

8 thoughts on “Safer Pilots; “Instinctive” Flying!”

  1. Thank you for this timeless article Ken. Every pilot needs to pursue that “instinctive level” of aircraft control – a core awareness and aptitude for safer flying!

  2. The ability to know what the airplane is doing through sight, sound, and feel should be the goal of every pilot. When you have achieved this you become a true pilot. The airplane becomes an extension of your senses and the beauty of flight becomes ever more satisfying.
    Thank you David and Ken, keep up the excellent writing and instruction.

  3. Distraction! – The biggest impediment to students and beyond recognizing and understanding the basic operation of their aircraft, is the amount of electronic distractions that have been brought into their cockpits creating unnecessary distractions to basic airmanship.

    iPads and the like are unnecessarily distracting pilots attention, blocking views of important aircraft instruments, and in many cases even blocking the view out the window. Additionally, the tangled web of wires and plugs that dangle around everyone’s feet has become all too acceptable to too many! . While many of these devices can and do offer valuable information to pilots, more often than not, they too often have become distractions and crutches that get in the way more than they help. Too much time is spent with the pilots heads down tapping on a screen instead of looking out the window and flying the airplane these days.

    When my son was learning how to fly, I took the GPS out of our airplane, handed him a map and told him after he learned and become proficient at basics only then would he be allowed to start using a GPS. That, in my opinion, has helped him become the great pilot he is today, who first and foremost gives his attention to flying the aircraft and using only the information from the electronics he needs when he needs it.

    In my years in aviation, the one thing that has become very clear is that “One Distraction” may be the only thing that separates a successful flight from an accident report. One of the best things the flying community could do, in my opinion, is to get back to the importance of basic airmanship rather than buying another electronic “distraction” device to hang off the panel.

    Best Regards,

    Ron Hunt

  4. Automation is useful, provided the pilot is aways ahead of the airplane, has access to redundant information, and understands limitations and critical risk indicators for each source redunancy.

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