Essential Skills Missed in Pilot Training!

Using the ACS testing standard as a training manual leads to many missed opportunities in primary pilot training. Essential skills like fueling or tying down a plane are critical to safety but often ignored in the “rush for the rating” – teaching to the test. How exactly can you be a pilot if you don’t know how to add the “blue juice” that makes a plane go or secure the aircraft after a flight? Here are 10 ideas developed by the SAFE Faculty Lounge – please add your comments below!

"The First 50 Hours" by Budd Davisson offers a syllalbus on how to safely expand your skills as a new pilot; the "Missing Manual!"

1) Every pilot needs to know how to fuel a plane and also correctly operate a self-serve fuel pump – this is a safety-of-flight issue! But since many pilots learn at larger academies, there is often no opportunity to gain this essential skill. Fly to a local non-tower field and work with the local line crew to learn this skill (tips and donuts accepted!) Flying with friends at a local club or EAA chapter is a great method to learn skills like this (and also experience some different planes!)

2) Every pilot should be able to tie down an aircraft securely (and apply the chocks). The basic knots are simple, and most super-fun fly-outs (like SnF, OSH) require this skill. Once you “leave home” as a pilot this is usually *your* job.

3) Taking off and landing on real grass runways (dual first please) is an exciting and skill-expanding experience. Suddenly a whole world of new airports is available for learning and exploration. And every new experience as a pilot improves all your other flying and makes a safer pilot. Remember, survivable emergency off-field landings require these skills with obstacles, terrain and surface conditions. Grass fields are also the first step toward a tailwheel signoff or a seaplane rating.

4) Grab a competent CFI and build skill with crosswinds and wind gusts. Every pilot should be able to comfortably handle a 10K crosswind and most initial training never gets this far. Every pilot will experience this as soon as they are “out in the world” – guaranteed. And 60% of accidents happen here so better wind skills are required immediately.

5) If you learned at a tower field, it is necessary to build your non-tower chops. If you are only comfortable with unicom, go practice in a Delta until you are comfortable. We are all victims of our initial training and it limits our capabilities for safe flight in the larger world. Master flight following and get comfortable with ATC services for safety.

6) Keep building the skills above by working up to a busy airport in Class C or B airspace. Taking an experienced friend or knowledgable CFI is a good idea to make this a fun “learning experience” (not terror). Many pilots never even fly in these airspaces. Until a pilot develops the skills and confidence to handle busy airspace with traffic and ATC, they are handicapped as a pilot. Pretty quickly, the rapid pace and busy comm. become second nature. This is a critical step toward an instrument rating and allows access to more airports safely and comfortably.

7) Master stalls with ballistic recovery (no power) straight ahead and turning. You will have to find a CFI who is comfortable with this area of flight, but once you see how easy recovery is (unload) a lot of fear melts away and all your flying will improve dramatically with the confidence at the edges of the envelope.

8) Following on the above, practice dead stick landings (no power) from various points in the traffic pattern – you should always be able to get back safely from the pattern (and in emergencies, just figure out how to get to your custom “pattern.”) This used to be considered “essential knowledge” in every basic flying guide but is rare in pilots today. Your energy management will improve dramatically (as will all your flying). Common flight test failure is is applicants flying a huge pattern and long final (go to the field first then descend). Some training in a glider or tailwheel aircraft will help these same skills.

9) Fine-tune your pitch and power management so you can minimize pitch and power changes transitioning from climb to cruise to descent. Study and memorize all the standard configurations and “know your numbers.” Aim for greater precision in all your flying. All smooth flying is a series of increasingly smaller corrections to the desired performance.

10) Fly in some “Ugly VFR” that would be “personally unacceptable” weather so you can calibrate how lousy 1sm really is to fly in. (Do this safely with an IFR current CFI and IFR-legal plane) Then bore some holes in real clouds on a clearance without a hood and see what real clouds look like. It is truly valuable to experience real “VFR into IMC.”  Currency with real cloud flying will prevent panic and save your life.  Local ATC can usually approve block airspace for maneuvering.

Finally, put all these skills together, flying with flight following to a field >50nm away. Fuel and tie down the plane, and learn how to borrow the crew car. Maybe get some IFR on the way back home and buy lunch for your CFI. Thank this important person for showing you all the diverse and fun ways to use aviation and to continue learning. Pilot certification is just the beginning, we learn every day in aviation. Fly safe out there (and often!)

Thanks to all the participants in the SAFE Faculty Lounge for the ideas in this blog. If you are a reader here check out this (tightly curated) FB group.

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) 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 SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

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

17 thoughts on “Essential Skills Missed in Pilot Training!”

  1. You know, David, we COULD put together a better syllabus for primary flight training and not just cover the ACS. For example, when I do transition training, especially for someone getting their first airplane, I spend a LOT of ground time on understanding aircraft systems AND basic maintenance that the owner-pilot can legally do. And, yes, that includes fueling.

    The latter was brought home to me when my neighbor, USAF instructor pilot on the T37, T38, F15, F16, and then later the B777, went flying with me and “helped” me fuel the airplane. He never removed the plastic cap on the end of the nozzle so it went into the tank. It never dawned on me that someone with such obvious experience had never fueled an airplane before. So we can’t take any of this for granted.

    Last point, it is often the CFI that needs this training. The part 141-trained CFI is almost certainly woefully lacking in the areas you mention. So not only do we need to do this for the primary student, we should offer the “CFI Polish Course” to help these CFIs round out their skill-set.

    1. Good points Brian. In our modern training environment, a new pilot might be a CFI in another few months and still never gotten any “real-world experience” so totally naive CFIs are not uncommon in the aviation training system! Most larger schools have a BootCamp to standardize new CFIs and (mostly) fill in the gaps. This is also the mission of SAFE CFI-PRO™: traveling to flight schools and university programs to do in-house training of new instructors.

    2. I just went to recurrant (yearly 61.58) and learned a lot! The key is having an open attitude; there is *always* more.

  2. Great set of “Tasks” that are often overlooked, but which can save aircraft and lives. Good job!

  3. Agree completely – very good list. It’s embarrassing what can be omitted. A few years ago my flying buddy and I had a very frustrating experience. The towbar for the airplane we used for $100 hamburger flights was bent out of shape by the previous pilot so badly it was unusable. You wonder how that could possibly happen, but it does.

  4. The funamental point here is that “aviators (all of us, left or right seat) have a life long license to LEARN!”

  5. Interesting. I had a recent student who passed his check ride ask me about parking at unfamiliar airports and how to self fuel. Made me realize I need to include that in training beyond only talking about it. Usually on student XCs I have them taxi in to the FBO, shut down, and go inside. Stalls done as you mention I’ve always done when introducing them the first few times along with “falling leaf” stalls.

  6. Had to do a bit of recent flying with a CFI for a Navy Flying Club. He pointed out a few things I had been weak on and always knew it but, was never pointed out to be before. It just never made my remedial list.

    One was transitions from enroute to traffic patterns to both towered and un-towered airports. Way too often, I’d be on the wrong down wind, never really learned to use my heading indicator to understand runway direction, while I’m looking at it. That is something taken care of with an IFR approach, but crossing mid field for R pattern on Rwy xyz on the fly was too often a 50/50 proposition.

    I also had never really learned my descent as described in the AIM, I had always started descent about mid field, which kind of worked on a 3500 ft runway but, left me making a lot of last minute power adjustments on final at a 6000 ft runway.

    Also, thinking about training aids and analog indicators, I wonder if memorizing numbers makes the best use of what the analog indicator has to offer. Rather we should be looking at the needles relative position in the green or white arc and understanding the picture as the needle moves from Vr to Vx or Vy against the arc. Converting to numbers is probably harder on the brain.

    Just my 2 cents anyway.

    1. Great ideas Bruce. That skill of orienting correctly with the heading indicator is seldom taught now that GPS is everywhere (and digital displays)! And planning descents properly eliminates a whole chain of potential problems – thank you👍🙏

  7. If you have a home PC Simulator some late night after you’ve been up all day start an IFR flight that’s been preloaded and make it over an hour in duration with low weather requiring a missed approach. See how fatigue affects abilities and decision making. See how difficult back-side of the clock flying can be and let your “never gonna do that again” happen in your den rather than in a plane.

    1. Thanks Randy, that is a great “learning tool!” Overconfidence is a historic pilot problem even when the body and mind are *not* fatigued!

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