Teaching Maneuvering – The Hardest Job in Aviation!

Why are newest, inexperienced CFIs usually tasked with teaching the most vital lessons on basic aircraft control? Loss of Control is the leading fatal accident causal factor - maybe we should rethink this? The status quo in aviation education is unacceptable!

Tradition seems to dictate that the first couple of flight lessons are relegated to the newest, least experienced flight instructors. This mistake probably comes from the theory that these are the “safest lessons” (?) where nothing can go too far wrong. In reality, this first exposure to flight is the most difficult and complex educational experience to manage properly. Early lessons require endless patience and an astute ability to read and react to different problems and personalities. Most CFIs with more than 500 hours have become too frustrated and have lost their ability to cope with the glacial pace of initial learning. Ironically, this original exposure to flight control is the most vital learning experience. These lessons require the most experienced and careful educator to succeed. Older CFIs who are parents are often the best people for these first lessons (emotional intelligence). The missing elements they supply are patience and empathy. The “type A” go-go pilot personality is actually poison to successful pilot education.

If this initial instruction goes wrong, your new flight student will either quit (common) or they will learn incorrectly and forever be uncoordinated and unsafe. As a result, many pilots fly with incomplete understanding and control, sometimes contributing to our LOC-I statistics. These early flight lessons are where an educator has the greatest opportunity to make a difference and move the needle on safety, but it is also the hardest job in aviation.

A brand-new person learning to fly is in a completely alien and frightening environment. As adult learners, they are competent in other pursuits but are suddenly an awkward beginner in a potentially dangerous new world; exciting and scary all at once. The educator must understand this and commiserate with this new pilot-in-training to create a bond of trust. This process needs to go slowly; exploring and adjusting expectations to this new (and potentially frightening) world of flight. Adult students will seldom admit to their fear, but instead carefully mask their emotions. Every person taking flight training has some expectations of what this experience will be like, but just about every person also needs to recalibrate, and psychologically adjust as they assume control of the airplane and assimilate these new experiences. Every new student also has the burden of negative transfer from driving and “naive rendition” (established false beliefs) to unlearn and overcome.

There is nothing intuitive about aircraft control. The only paradigm most pilots-in-training have from life is their driving experience and this is a totally negative transfer. Not only do we not control or “point” the airplane with the “steering wheel” but a driver is numb to the force of yaw from sliding in a car seat for years. A pilot has to learn to sense and cancel yaw from lesson one. It is vital for any careful and caring flight educator to explain and eliminate any similarity with driving, right from the beginning.

The first required task in flying, a straight-ahead climb away from the runway, is like starting a course in mathematics at calculus – one of the most difficult maneuvers to understand and master is first. A straight climb requires a lot of explanation to understand the required canceling of yaw and maintaining wings level.  Though most educators do a passable job of explaining the “why” of the left-turning tendencies, very few explain that rudder application also creates roll just as aileron application creates yaw. Pilots need to understand this interrelationship right from the start. Most pilots with incomplete understanding and training, climb out (occasionally) coordinated but seldom with wings level. It takes aileron against the rudder (cross-coordinated) to climb level. This effect is largely masked in low-wing trainers, especially the “marshmallow” PA-28 series. For this reason, the ideal platform for teaching pilots coordination is a high wing or tailwheel aircraft. If you have ever taught power transition to a  glider pilot who has mastered cross-coordination spiraling in thermals, you will understand how valuable this skill is to a new pilot-in-training.

When level at altitude, the first essential lesson is stability and trim. Nervous new pilots strangle the yoke (or stick) in their nervousness and need to learn to relax and learn to trust the airplane. Demonstrate straight and level, all trimmed up and then also a 30 degree banked turn all trimmed hands-off (arms folded). A good trainer will happily maintain a constant bank, hands off, until the plane runs out of fuel. This demonstration is a real relief for most new pilots.

Next up is the “ugly turn.” Demonstrating a turn with no rudders (driving) results in the nauseous swinging of the nose opposite from the intended direction due to adverse yaw (eyes outside directly over the nose). We all see this mistake even in rated pilots flying high-performance planes – they never learned coordination! Most pilots bring the driving habit with them and are at first looking in the direction of the turn and never see (or feel) the adverse yaw caused by aileron. Make sure your pilot is looking straight ahead when initiating any turn. Rolling back and forth on a point with eyes straight ahead, outside, is a great practice to develop a sense of rudder and aileron harmony.

Also essential in these early demonstrations is ensuring your pilot-in-training has their back against the seat and is sitting straight up, not leaning to compensate for yaw. A critical takeaway from these early lessons is “sensing yaw.” It is amazing how accepting we can be of yaw from driving and sliding sideways in the car seat.  We cannot “accept yaw” in controlled flight – we need to cancel it for efficiency and safety.

Next, demonstrate how sudden power application or firm pitch up both cause a force to the left. Your new pilot will now begin to understand the challenge of the initial climb off the runway. You should combine these in a straight climb with enough rudder to cancel the yaw force and also some opposite aileron to fly wings level (cross-coordinated). “Patterns at altitude” are essential to master all the basics of control away from stress of a busy runway pattern. This drill and repetition will take several hours to achieve a reliable imprint. Usually, for the first lesson, straight, coordinated climbs and descents is enough. The turning climb would usually be added and refined in the second lesson.

It is an unfortunate fact that just about every pilot skids around the left-hand traffic pattern. Few pilots understand that right rudder is essential to achieve a stabilized left climbing turn – many pilots never realize this until they attempt the more aggressive chandelles. In your second lesson, you need to fly lots of climbing turns emphasizing this counter-intuitive requirement for right rudder. It is perfectly OK to just keep turning in a spiral to give your pilot-in-training time to achieve and feel the benefit of coordination (evident in performance as well).

It is also surprising to new pilots that a stabilized climbing turn to the right (with right rudder) will overbank and require aileron to the left (again the integrated effect of the ailerons and rudders). Pilots will naturally assume that the same control pressures that work turning left can be applied to the right – NOT! At the heart of all the confusion is the inter-related control effects, the fact that the P-factor and spiraling slipstream always pull left. In a stabilized turn in either direction, lift is equal on the wings and the left pulling force is at work creating yaw. A non-symmetrical pilot action is required and “cross-coordinated” is seldom explained fully.

To a flight instructor, all this early control practice can seem tedious and boring, but it is absolutely essential that pilots achieve full understanding and coordination or they will forever be a dangerous pilot. Actively empathizing with the challenge helps keep these early lessons exciting. Celebrate each step toward mastery and true control, but do not accept incorrect procedures or a rushed syllabus. If you proceed too quickly into stalls – before coordination is natural – the result will be some ugly and scary experiences for your pilot-in-training (where most people quit!). Get enough sleep and breathe slowly; early lessons are absolutely the hardest – for both CFI andpilot-in-training. Good “parental patience” – with a dose of compassion – makes this work. Fly safely out there (and often)!


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Author: David St. George

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

6 thoughts on “Teaching Maneuvering – The Hardest Job in Aviation!”

  1. David,
    Well – Once again you and I are in complete agreement, sort of. And it’s frustrating to hear what you are saying here. Let me explain. As you know I have been a vocal advocate of attitude based control concepts (the word attitude surfaces repeatedly in your article). And I agree wholeheartedly that these first lessons are “the golden ten hours” which forge the skill and understanding that determine the future competency and safety the pilot will embody for the rest of his or her flying career. In fact, when I was a new board member of SAFE, I proposed that SAFE draw a line in the sand, so to speak; promote a code of conduct if you will, that we should expect from SAFE instructors. This would include the understanding and application of attitude based control concepts; yes, the very things that you write so passionately about now. At the time, my push to adopt such a “code” for SAFE CFI members was rejected firmly, on the grounds that this was not in the best interests of SAFE. Out of respect for the outstanding work and time you have devoted to make SAFE a success, I stopped making these proposals after several attempts, and spent most of my three year term on the board listening instead.

    I disagree completely that new instructors cannot teach these “golden hours” effectively. As I have stated many times, the problem with new instructors is not that they are new, but that they themselves have often had incorrect instruction. I wrote a long piece to the CFI ACS workgroup imploring them to change the focus of the CFI practical test to include the requirement that an applicant be able to demonstrate outside visual reference attitude based concepts and techniques while teaching every maneuver. My suggestions were ignored (again) by the group. In the past, my efforts to communicate about these issues with the FAA brain trust has resulted in condescending replies and suggestions to read thirty year old studies based on fifty year old data. Fact is, that if the FAA had seen the wisdom in requiring CFI applicants to REALLY understand and demonstrate competency in the very things you propose here, and that I have been proposing for years, we could have reversed many negative trends in pilot proficiency. The LOC pandemic could be reversed within one or two generations of pilot – becomes flight instructor.

    New flight instructors can do an outstanding job teaching aircraft control if they have been instructed properly themselves. I’ve seen it, and I imagine that you have too.

    So what’s the answer? I recall Patty Wagstaff’s reply to Mr. Sumwalt during the day-long NTSB LOC conference a few years back. He asked her what new content in training syllabi she thought might help fix the unacceptable high percentage of LOC accidents. She said something like; Well, I don’t really think you need anything new – in fact if you go back and read the 1941 civil pilots training manual, everything we need is in there…… I managed to download a copy and read it, and she is right. But we don’t need to teach spins and Cuban Eights at the private pilot level to regain higher levels of competency in our airmen and airwomen. What we need is a CFI ACS that requires demonstration of the kinds of instruction you have described. And the feature you may have omitted in your excellent and passionate piece here, is that this kind of flying, correct attitude based – outside reference aircraft control, is actually pretty easy once you understand it. Pretty simple to do and teach once you’ve done it, and certainly easier to get across to a student than the ill-informed paradigms promoted by the FAA in the past, to include FITS and the Integrated Method!

    I am no longer on the board of SAFE, but I just renewed my membership and I believe in the mission more than ever. I think you should use your influence and connections in the FAA and the industry to push a radical re-think of what is most important for a CFI to understand and demonstrate on the required practical test. And I volunteer to do whatever I can to move this mission forward. Connect me with the people who can make these changes happen; if they are sincere in their desire to really improve pilot training, competency, and safety, I can convince them to do the right thing.

    Change the CFI ACS to reflect the values we understand to be important – no, crucial, to pilot development, and everything will get better. Safety will improve. Training throughput and profitability for training providers will increase. Pilots will be better pilots, and so we will create a self replicating culture of excellence in aircraft control. Let’s do it!

  2. Excellent article, David. I think you are one of the very few individuals today writing with such wisdom on this subject. I’ve always thought that we don’t have a problem attracting people to aviation. Instead, we have a problem retaining the people that we attract to aviation. So many people are driven out of aviation at the primary level because of basic-flight-training malpractice. Some instructors either scare the hell out of their students or diminish the joy of flight training by simply being “themselves” instead of aspiring toward a professional standard of conduct. All you have to do is read my blog on “Bad Instructors” to see the damage done by these individuals. So sad. And that is why I have nothing but the highest praise for those instructors that aspire to teach well and always put their students’ interest first.

    Rod Machado

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