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Recurring Flight Training Fallacies!

Aside from new technology, flight training has not changed much since the days of Civilian Pilot Training in WWII; we operate with the same educational assumptions. Year after year, we teach flying with identical methods and get the same 80% dropout rate, alienating a huge potential pilot market. Ignoring 70 years of pedagogical experience and psychological progress, we embrace educational fallacies which are intuitively attractive – they seem like they should work – but have been proven repeatedly to be erroneous.

Here are some suggestions from a paper for the Office of Naval Research. These are educational fallacies we all can easily fall into. Aviation is by nature resistant to change (we cannot afford to “fail fast” to learn lessons). But “the way we have always done it” is equally unproductive. Experiment and innovate in your training and avoid these proven educational fallacies.  Our failures in flight training are often counted in future lives lost.

Training programs for developing high-performance skills are often based on assumptions that may be appropriate for simple skills [but] fallacious when extended to high performance skills. All of these fallacies have some truth [but] when taken to extremes, they often produce inefficient training programs.

Practice makes perfect

This fallacy assumes that simple repetition will magically cause improvement. (Monkey see, monkey do, do, do…) Unfortunately, repetitive practice of complex tasks often only creates frustration. Though simple tasks can usually be mastered with simple repetition, extrapolating this technique to complex activities simply does not work. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that practicing a variety of related skills, or interleaving unique challenges are dramatically more effective at building solid skills and reaching a final performance goal. Deconstruction and variety (see below)  create greater flexibility and resilience in a learner’s performance and achieve a superior result in a shorter time.

Training of the Total Skill

This fallacy assumes that it is best to train a complex skill in its final form. This is continuously demonstrated at every flight school practicing very early stalls or touch and goes. To be effectively taught, complex and variable maneuvers like these must be deconstructed into their meaningful parts which are instructed separately first.  Watching repetitive “crash and goes” with no improvement (or even basic airspeed control) is the most obvious example of this myth. This is just an example of flight instructors turning time and money into frustration. There is a whole field of research called “Cognitive Task Analysis” that dissembles master performance into individual teachable components.

Skill learning is intrinsically enjoyable

This fallacy assumes that skill training is inherently fun and motivating. As a result, many educators forget to build accomplishment and a sense of mastery into training. Extrinsic rewards, variety, and fun are essential to keep learners excited, motivated, and moving forward. This is especially true in a complex, time-consuming skill like flying, where the goalposts are often out of sight. Use creativity and incremental mastery to motivate your learners.

Early focus on perfection

This fallacy assumes the primary goal of training is to achieve initial perfection. Though we all strive for high accuracy in aviation, setting unrealistically high initial goals (and perfectionism itself) is a trap that demotivates learners. Educators need to set achievable goals and incrementally raise the bar for higher achievement as skills improve. E.g. pre-solo +/-200 ft, moving to +/- 100 before solo X-C, then +/- 50 before the flight test?

Initial performance predicts eventual outcome and success

This fallacy assumes we can measure the final product from a very limited early exposure; “I can tell a good pilot in the first hour!” This has been repeatedly proven incorrect, though negativity and “self-fulfilling prophesies” often create failures that “validate” early predictions. Flying is appropriate to a wide variety of beginners, and each learner has unique and very different abilities. There is no way to predict their final level of achievement at the start.

CONCEPtual understanding will translate directly into proficiency

This fallacy assumes that presenting considerable information in the classroom precludes the necessity for hands-on practice (“I told them that”). Thinking and doing are very different activities (and also different parts of the brain). Classroom preparation and mental simulation (e.g. “chair flying”) are very valuable but no substitute for actual “hands-on” flying activity.

We have a very unique challenge as aviation educators. Our success is often measured in lives lost. We have a critical responsibility to be professional and create the best and safest pilots possible; we can’t afford to “fail fast” in aviation. The FAA Aviation Instructor’s Handbook provides only the very basic starter kit for a serious educator. The National Academies Press’s “How People Learn” is free to read online or download as a pdf. It is by far the best educator reference. Here are some great mass-market books for educators on the learning process:

And here is a great (free) guide for students (and we all are students aren’t we?) Fly safe out there (and often)!

A growing body of research is making it clear that learners are made, not born. Through the deliberate use of practice and dedicated strategies to improve our ability to learn, we can all develop expertise faster and more effectively. In short, we can all get better at getting better.


Join SAFE and enjoy 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 all 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). #flySAFE

Author: David St. George

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

26 thoughts on “Recurring Flight Training Fallacies!”

  1. Stop right there (cue up Meat Loaf, if you will)

    Can we make this an ongoing never ending discussion of how to make all of us better teachers/learners. Lots of great references and meat to chew on here. Thank you again for presenting a very thought provoking subject.

    1. Thanks Michael, your blog is next brother…let’s keep the discussion going!

  2. First of all, now I have that Meatloaf song in my head! I see tat repetition in the pattern just creates frustration, I’ve seen it too many times, I break it up, go to nearby airports, enter the pattern , do a soft field landing in one, then a short field, then back to home base and a couple circuits, students seem to get it a bit better without the same ole same ole .

  3. This has me more confused as ever. What does correct instruction look like? Is the key to determine how people learn and learn how to be a better educator?

    1. So sorry to confuse you. (Are you a CFI or student?) Correct instruction can largely be summed up as “compassionate coaching.” A great educator is knowledgeable and skilled but also caring and personally involved. The FAA Instructor Handbook is a very comprehensive introduction and the books mentioned in the blog carry these skills further.

  4. Excellent post. It actually argues against the current emphasis on scenario-based training (“Training the Total Skill”) from the very beginning of lessons, I liken flying to playing in an orchestra. Before you are ready for a concert you need to spend a lot of time practicing scales and tempos. In flying we call it “building muscle memory.” Just as the blog reminds us of the need to use a building block approach to maneuvers, we need to use a building block approach to prepare pilots for the concerts, er, scenarios that follow once they know the basics.

    I wonder: do we KNOW the 80% of student starts that reportedly do not complete at least a Private certificate do so because if the way we teach? Are we sure that many or most do NOT quit because of the cost or because they find out it’s a lot more study and work than they expected? I know it took me four different starts before I stuck with it through the Private, and three of the stops we because I ran out of money.

    Back to the essay: The trouble is that before most instructors will teach the way we are thinking they should teach, the Practical Test requirements would have to reflect the new way of thinking. The ACS was a big step in that direction, but it is not there yet. Another obstacle is if we instructors take the extra time to teach beyond the ACS we get accused of “milking” students (learners) by charging for lessons “they don’t need” because the FAA says they don’t.

    Again, thought-provoking essay. We should delve into each of the major topics of this blog and see what we can learn and act upon. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments, Tom. These educational fallacies are found in all high-performance, complex skills. I applied them here to our world of flight training, but the science supports them (as does my personal experience). The application of scenarios should be judicious. Their use should vary according to training level (certainly currently over-emphasized in early flight training – drill and repetition). They become essential in higher level training (once the basics are mastered) and also for testing at a correlative level.

      During initial training and skill mastery, drill and repetition are necessary (those scales and Hannon when learning to play piano). Scenarios are of limited value here – and many educational studies support this point. Only after some learner mastery is acquired (fluid execution) do scenarios become valuable. After skills and patterns become fully scripted and natural – then there is free brainpower to consider novel challenges and apply those skills. During any early exposure to a new skill, or environment, full scenarios are more confusing than helpful.

      Regarding the 80% dropout and the “why?,” the very best data on this was collected by AOPA in their 2010 study: https://bit.ly/AOPA-FT The primary reason people left training was not cost per se, but *VALUE.* Learners had no problem paying provided they had (what they perceived to be) caring and competent educators; well prepared and professional. If their primary educator seemed unprepared, aloof and unprofessional, they were wasting their money and left. The CFI was both the primary reason people stayed (good ones) or left (the bad ones)! Trust and caring (soft skills) were critical elements in learner satisfaction.

      Mike McCurdy teaches all initial skills in a Redbird Simulator to a level of comfort and mastery…only then do people go to the plane to “practice.” They are already comfortable, confident and prepared *before* the aircraft experience; and most of this is totally drill and repetition. The no-threat environment and ability to instantly stop and repeat makes this method very effective; fewer hours and less frustration. His drop-out rate is <55% and he has become the biggest flight school in SC: https://youtu.be/Lcjz_SxCjiM

  5. A big contributor to the problem of quality instruction and retention is the lack of standards and key performance indicators. The ACS has really moved the needle in defining the standards for student testing. But where are the formal standards and key performance indicators for instructors, by which we can determine ‘this instructor is good’ and ‘this one needs more training’? That doesn’t exist. Part 141 programs are a factory for terrible instructors. Part 61 is better because there you find instructors who stick with it because they enjoy it. But even part 61 is the Wild Wild West. Instructors can use whatever methods they want and the students have no clue if they’re getting value or not. Students have to invest several hundred dollars and then ask around to other students and CFIs before they discover their instructor sucks.

    There are some quality metrics that are easy to identify, such as use of a syllabus, recency of instruction, students load, etc. But other metrics are subjective and individual and impossible to measure, like interpersonal skills, creativity, adaptability. No one is teaching those.

    The qualitative aspect of instruction is hard. Hard to define, hard to measure, and hard to teach. And no one is driving that forward. We can identify the problems, the fallacies, like you’ve done here. But we’re not doing enough to improve quality. Until we do, we will continue to see lots of sucky instructors at our local airfields.

    My hat is off to all the really great instructors out there. I know a bunch of them. I hope my students think I’m one of them..

    1. Have you qualified as a Master Instructor? That is precisely why we created this program in 1997! The FAA has no continuing education program for aviation educators. As you wisely observe, there is no way for an “aviation consumer” to rate their provider either. http://masterinstructors.org (25 years!)

  6. Good blog!
    I read this and saw multiple approaches to teaching skills. I think it’s important to emphasize that there are different tools for teaching, and they can be as varied as the types of students. There is really no single sure-fire training method that applies to the job of teaching skills. A mechanic must have multiple tools at the ready to face a variety of challenges, so does the CFI. Some students need stuff broken down, some don’t. Use both as needed. Repetition is proper to observe minor changes in application of technique, however repetition can backfire because it can also reinforce bad habits.

    It’s up to the CFI to recognize and apply the solution. The danger is seeing one technique work for 5 students but then assume it applies to the 6th.

    This is a great blog article to highlight some of these issues. I believe the hardest part, however, is assessing and identifying your student’s needs and selecting the best tool from your kit for them. Thanks for the read!

    1. I agree Matt; the *unique* aspect of each individual learner is underappreciated (and don’t you like the flight training emphasis on “standardizing?) A CFI who learns the appropriate style for each particular learner will always be much more effective (and appreciated). But what do we do in initial CFI training? Construct a set of boilerplate lesson plans that (supposedly) are applied “one size fits all.” These fallacies are backed up by comprehensive replicated studies; some things really just don’t work (but we keep repeating them expecting different results).

      1. I think the FAA, and we CFIs, often don’t do enough to simplify the training aspects so the student (I’m having trouble with the new term “learner,” can correlate training to something they already understand. By this, I don’t mean “dumb it down,” I mean teach it on a way folks can understand. Take for instance, the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook fig 2-15 effectively uses 10 words (“use down aileron on right hand wing and down elevator”) to say “Dive Away.” Lift is taught for engineers, but what a pilot really needs to know is the pilot controls lift with nothing more than angle of attack (yoke position) and KIAS/KCAS. Angle of attack is the difference between where the aircraft “points” and where it “goes”m etc.

      2. Clear communication is definitely essential and words are our tools! I agree this is often poorly done by imitating stilted verbiage in manuals. My favorite example of poor CFI communication is the standard advice for pilots trying to land “PULL!” Wouldn’t it be better to say something like “add more back pressure on the yoke to put the cowling visually on the end of the runway and maintain that picture?” Just PULL (really??)

  7. Regarding dropout rates student course completion percentage and who takes the blame. Even the best CFI’s can have drop out students for one reason or another…..
    My experience as a CFI is that the students who were good learners, studied a lot more than the ones who were lazy with theory.
    This observation is irrelevant to written tests.
    I paid special attention to all of my students and encouraged them as well as prepared them for the unknown, so the fear factor was almost absent early on. The more I cared for my students the better the bond between us and the focus for professionalism.
    Encouragement is a must but honesty on evaluation goes even further. I took the time to explain that I do not teach for just passing a test, but for making safe pilots. That took out all the speculation of how much time they need on the log book and focused on the safety of flight.
    All of my students were intelligent and understood what the training was all about, seeing fellow students complete a course gave them something to work for….I will be there next !!!
    Finally, training is a partnership and will only succeed with everyone giving 120% at all times on the ground and in the air. I refrain from blaming the CFI or the student, if I do that I lose the power to change and grow better for the good of my students and aviation in general.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments regarding tailoring a different approach for every individual learner. I love this term, we are all learners.

    Thanks !!!

    1. Thanks Chris. The depressing drop-out rate in aviation means there is plenty of room for improvement! The “AOPA Flight Training Experience Survey” clearly identified the CFI as the major “influencer” in aviation. Their professionalism (or lack of it) largely determines the success or failure (drop-out rate) of learners. (See http://bit.ly/AOPA-FT ) The CFI is guided (mentored?) by their school or chief pilot (or not) so the supervisors share some blame (or credit) here and are responsible for the “culture.” Are they “customer-centered” and encouraging?

      Money is often focused on as the primary cause of drop-outs, but the cause isn’t direct “expense,” but rather “value.” Learners are glad to pay if it is worth it. Is the CFI knowledgeable, prepared and personally engaged – offering full value or is the CFI a careless, self-absorbed “hour-builder?” Some schools have gotten their drop-out rate down below 50% with customer-centric, compassionate educational practices (it works)!

      1. Agree, value is paramount and students can see it as they go home after every lesson. They learn and come back for more, learning can be a euphoria and a great motivator.
        The market takes care of the bad apples while the value travels fast, students hear about the good CFI’s and I personally see no need to “police” any failed instructors.
        Having said that, let us enforce the existing ” roles & responsibilities” no need to punish good teachers because someone shouts for it.
        My personal drop out rate was very minimal, not even 5% as I recall.
        Screening of primary students played a very important role for me from the very first phone call. Asking questions, casting vision for success and being truthful about financial mental physical sacrifices.
        I had to explain to some students who did not show up on time or failed to study that, I had many good students trying to schedule lessons and for fairness to them I will not waste time. I refrained from telling them that I will drop them from my list but in very few cases I did so.
        One of the few wasted a whole year and lots of money / time…came back begging to give him ME rating, I did accept him with pre conditions…gladly he did well !!!
        The word goes around, positive and negative alike….
        I know of bad teachers, some will say anything to students even lies to cover ignorance.
        They should have never been able to slip through the initial safety nets.
        As far as the only survey / sampling mentioned, I am aware of it but I have doubts about it’s accuracy.

        Thanks again for the opportunity to express my views and experiences.

        Your platform is excellent, please keep up the good work !!!!

        Chris.

      2. I disagree that learners detect defective instructors. New learners actually worship any CFI despite being mishandled and abused (I see this every day!) “The CFI is god,” despite incomplete and erroneous educational services. This is saddest (continuing) story in aviation because those initial attitudes and ideas are almost impossible to fix! We need better “BS detectors!”

  8. Sorry David, where did I suggest that “learners detect defective instructors” ?

    The big picture can be detected by reaching out to other aviators in the community.

  9. I’m not sure I agree that even “simple” tasks improve merely from repetition. I frequently compare flight training to learning a musical instrument, as I’ve experience in both. It is a surprisingly accurate and far reaching analogy, even touching things like currency, mental state, and practice scenarios.

    If I have a student with a pinching embouchure, no amount of repetition is going to fix it. It has to be deconstructed, and the student has to be educated about what a good tone sounds like, and how it is generated. Repetition can serve a purpose in improving endurance, but that’s more like the common flight instructor admonition that too-infrequent flight is detrimental to progress. It can be used to *fine tune* performance, but not to learn it in the first place.

    1. I also frequently use the analogy between learning aviation and a musical instrument. This parallel argues *against* the over-application of scenarios we see in aviation. Initial students in both aviation and music need some basic rote to develop “muscle memory” and context before scenarios are valuable. Even deconstructing into smaller events requires practice (repetition) of proper skill sequence before attempting complex operations (Hannon before Chopin?)

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