Keep it Simple; Angle of Attack!

In recent blogs, we emphasized a “perfect picture” for each new student and also how and why it is critical to break the driving habit immediately. A good educator is eliminating obstacles and building solid habits while embedding actionable mental concepts. And now it is finally time to go flying.

Though the physics of lift thankfully works, it is unsettling for pilots at all levels that the best minds in science are still arguing about what actually makes it work. Most books present 2-3 conflicting theories with associated passion – and mathematical smoke and mirrors. It can all feel like childhood church stories – and even has the same Greek letters. We create even more confusion by over-emphasizing terms like “stall speed.” This concept is in all the books and even painted on the airspeed indicator. Imagine the confusion when we subsequently reveal “a wing can stall at any speed!” It is no wonder that pilots at all levels very quickly demonstrate this mental muddle on checkrides if you start to press this issue. Pilots need basic, actionable information when discussing what enables wing lift or even creates a basic turn.

To this end, I think the best starting point for discussing lift is “angle of attack” (AOA). The basics are deceptively simple; AOA is the angle of the chord line to the “relative wind.”  If you take the complicated lift equation (with the Greek letters) and remove all the constants, what you have left is the relationship between the speed and AOA. And as we know, we control AOA with elevator inputs.

Purists may chafe at this simplification but if flying requires calculus to be safe, we have bigger problems. Every airplane with a yoke (or stick) has a pretty good angle of attack indicator already installed – you don’t have to spend extra money or stare inside at LEDs. The more chrome you see showing on the yoke, the higher the angle of attack. If the yoke (or stick) is held all the way to the backstop, your plane is either stalled or at the highest (positive) angle of attack the manufacturer allowed by design.

“The position of the stick merely fixes the Angle of Attack and the airspeed at which the airplane flies as it descends.” Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

“Relative wind” and AOA are invisible to the pilot, so a major misconception that must be actively purged and continuously discouraged is equating flight attitude with the angle of attack. This misconception seems almost intuitive in our minds and is subconsciously reinforced by diagrams like the one above. As educators and pilots, we must continuously emphasize (and remember) that a higher nose is not necessarily a higher angle of attack, and the nose does not have to be up high to stall a wing. One creative way to demonstrate this on the ground with diagrams is to present the same angle of attack in different flight attitudes:

That is exactly what the classic Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators does in a less colorful diagram. And though pictures have great value on a cognitive level, it is essential to fly to the edges of the flight envelope and experience these configurations. These do not have to be terrifying and are easily accomplished in a standard trainer.

In early training CFIs emphasize a concept called “stall speed.” This number is in all the POHs and even marked on the airspeed indicator. Then in the next breath, we explain a wing can stall at “any speed and any flight attitude.” If we do not carefully and fully explain all this, it is no wonder most pilots are confused (as are the instructors). Questions on a flight-test, at any level regarding stalls or AOA can quickly go sideways with poor preparation and understanding. It can help to play a few revealing YouTubes (I call this one the “perfect stall.” How did an F-16 stall while pointed down at the earth?

Carefully chosen YouTubes (I call this one “the perfect stall”) can be very helpful in creating a better understanding for your pilot-in-training. First comes “cognitive dissonance: “How is it possible to stall an F-16 while pointed straight down at the earth?” Then comes understanding (hopefully). Damn physics!

Another way to empower understanding is by demonstrating different pitch attitudes with the same AOA, and then different AOA with the same pitch attitude. This kind of practice disconnects these two concepts and creates more complete understanding. Both airplanes depicted below are at the SAME AOA (and same yoke position) but very different flight attitudes and configurations.  This nose-high flight attitude (scary for many pilots) and also the nose-low (incorrectly assume  “safe/comfortable”) have the same AOA. Safety is achieved by understanding that both are just as close to a stall – which could occur with any more pull/backpressure/AOA in either case.

“A wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many important respects, a wing’s behavior is exactly contrary to common sense.”  Wolfgang Langewiesche Stick and Rudder , An Explanation of the Art of Flying.

Once your training with different pitch attitudes progresses into stall demonstration and practice, students will assume that to stall the nose has to be UP and that the wing has to be flying slow (both serious errors). During initial training, we create benign 1G stalls and this reinforces the dangerous misconception that the nose has to be high to stall and that stalls only happen when the wing gets slow. We need to fix this huge (mostly intuitive) misunderstanding, to get to increase aviation safety.

The best method to teach stalls is to select a “too high” nose attitude (hopefully with a cloud reference). At this point, your pilot-in-training should know the Vy/Vx pitch references, so have them set and maintain a “too high” pitch attitude precisely and maintain this as the airplane deaccelerates. This maneuver will demonstrate the yoke continually moving aft (increasing AOA) to maintain the picture and more usefully achieve a stall. This is much more effective than the usual (and less helpful) “pull to the sky technique.” (BTW, an airplane that has leveled off in ground effect for landing is elegantly transiting this exact same range of AOA – except while “low and level.” Notice the yoke continuously moving backward while “flaring” creating this same ever-increasing AOA for a soft touchdown).

As students become more comfortable with stalls and recovery, demonstrate a full stall and maintain the excessive AOA while the nose drops though the horizon. Throughout this maneuver, the yoke is held all the way back (same AOA/wing stalled) as the nose falls and the flight attitude changes. Recover only when the nose has fallen through the horizon. Secondary stalls are also a great way to kinesthetically reinforce the larger flight envelope and demonstrate the danger of “nose low” stalls (and possibly experience stalls at some higher G load). After these demonstrations, AOA will become more apparent. These essential demonstrations are not part of the normal flight training syllabus or required in any FAA ACS, but they are critical to creating a safe and confident pilot.

It takes some time and a caring relationship to introduce stalls correctly and not scare a pilot-in-training. If your student has not yet mastered coordinated flight (especially during climbs) it is too early to introduce stalls. The result will be predictable (and your fully scared student will probably drop out). A much better use of early flight time is demonstrating stability in the aircraft due to the clever aerodynamic design. Trim for an airspeed and raise the nose demonstrating how the plane will return to the trimmed speed/AOA. Trim a speed and add/reduce power demonstrating how the plane will seek that same speed/AOA. At least half of private pilot applicants are not aware the tail “lifts down” (and some CFIs do not know this either) providing dynamic stability for an aircraft in flight. Once pilots understand the nose is the “heavy end” and that recovery will take care of itself they have a greater sense of confidence and understanding of the physics involved. Planes don’t stall capriciously, *pilots* stall planes! Just because a plane *can* stall in any flight attitude does not mean that it *will.*

All of these concepts are a huge load to assimilate during early flight training, so patience and meaningful repetition is essential to successfully navigate this rush of information and new experiences. I would guess of the 80% of pilots who drop out during flight training, more than half would identify being scared of stalls (introduced inappropriately and too early) as the primary cause. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and immediately get great benefits. 1/3 off ForeFlight. This savings more than pays for your membership and simultaneously supports our SAFE mission of increasing aviation safety.  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).


How to “Sell” Safety to Pilots!

For GA, the FAA is permissive with “regulatory minimums.” Flight in Class G airspace only requires “1 SM, clear of clouds” – way low but “legal.” And for creating pilots, the FAA mandates only 40 hours to obtain a pilot certificate, another potentially scary number. This is only dangerous if it becomes a target for every “budget shopper” looking to be a pilot – and creates unrealistic expectations. If this person manages a 70% on their knowledge test and “lucks out” with a 70% effort on their flight test (mediocre on everything), they will “pass their private,” (and the FAA rules require the DPE to write a temporary). But their future safety is usually seriously in question. (see Dr. Bill Rhodes “Scary Pilot” Slideshare.) They are essentially jumping out of a plane at altitude with the “budget parachute!” They bought the cheapest, crappiest rig off the shelf (with no reserve) and are trusting their life to it. When you frame their choice in this manner, it clearly is not a wise buying decision – if you value your life and also your friends and family.

Obviously on a movie theme today…

Though this “budget shopper” received the same paper temporary as the person who worked much harder (and paid more), our “minimum pilot” is not receiving the same value as a properly prepared pilot. They numerically lack about 1/3 of the FAA recommended skill and knowledge and they are literally gambling with their life. I have been lucky enough to create a few amazing pilots with only 35 total hours in a 141 school. These are exceptionally rare people (3 in 25 years) and all the circumstances of weather and equipment worked out (lucky). The important point is regulatory minimums are not a goal to pursue in flight training, they are a bare regulatory minimum. If you are a pilot seeking training or an educator providing it, quality and safety are the goals to aim at. If a pilot persists in seeking faster/cheaper/easier, they may not be suited for this business of flying?

I was recently at Boca Raton with five corporate jets waiting to go due to the Christmas rush. All were holding for IFR releases into the saturated airspace. A locally-based pilot in a fancy piston twin was approved for a VFR take-off and entering the runway at an intersection behind the jets. He was instructed to “back taxi full length for take-off due to wake turbulence.” This guy needed five increasingly careful instructions to fully understand and execute this clearance. Quite possibly this pilot started out as our 70% pilot and never got any better. And this pilot was not a beginner but probably had been frustrating controllers and embarrassing his fellow pilots for at least 25 years…

There seem to be these two schools of thought throughout all of aviation: a passionate pursuit of excellence and the baser impulse of acquiring all the certificates and ratings as fast as possible for the least money. I know from comments that the readers of this blog are in the quality camp (as is SAFE) but “selling safety” is a huge challenge in our modern culture and we all face this challenge every day. Every FaceBook forum seems to be full of advice encouraging short-term thinking that powers this “race for minimums.” Framing this choice as an “investment in personal safety” (and the safety of your family) makes “selling safety” a lot more comprehensible to most reasonable “budget shoppers.”

Anyway, this leads up to a problem related to this “minimum training mindset” that is encountered increasingly during flight tests. How little can a pilot fly and legally comply with the “long student pilot cross-country” required in 61.109. If you “Google this” (as everyone these days does…) and interpret this regulation verbatim without proper background (the “budget CFI rating ?”) I guarantee you will get it wrong! The reg. from the CFR reads the same.

“Long” X-C for private in 14 CFR 61.109(a)5(ii)

If our student pilot took off and flew 40nm straight north and landed; then 80nm straight south over the starting point (and landed); then finally back home all with 3 full-stop landings  (a neglected detail) would this flight qualify for 14 CFR 61.109(a)5(iii)? And the answer is NO. The hidden problem is in the definition of “cross-country.” For a student pilot, 14 CFR 61.1(b)3 requires a landing >50nm from the starting airport or this flight is *not* a “cross-country” (for a student pilot). As soon as a reg says “cross-country” in the training world, >50nm is required. Read the Keller Letter of Interpretation for a full explanation. This requirement seems to be increasingly fuzzy throughout the industry (three DPEs I called got it wrong). The bottom line though is “why cut corners in training? Pursuing “flight training minimums is a “race to the bottom.”

When I see the absolute minimum time on an application, I want to ask “do you really like to fly?” I might be “pissing into the wind” here but what about making really fully competent pilots, prepared even beyond the minimums on the ACS test – people who can really fly? In an amazing seminar I once attended, Greg Brown (yes that one, the first Master CFI) called this approach “fantasy flight training” but not in a pejorative way. He “sold” this idea as a reasonable approach for some people. For others, some level of “better” is the best sales pitch because these people want to be better and safer! Don’t you think this approach would improve our GA accident rate and the quality of our whole industry? Please share the “budget parachute” analogy with your next “budget shopper” and LMK if that helps? Maybe a large Terminator poster with a big gun advising “buy quality training if you wish to live?” We’ll get back to “Lesson #3” next week and talk about the AOA indicator that *every* plane has. Fly SAFE out there (and often)!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. 1/3 off ForeFlight more than pays for your membership and supports the SAFE 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).

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).

“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 above, 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.

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. Those large, 2-mile downwind and four-mile final legs to lose altitude, are the primary reason I see 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 parenthetically (seat belts tight, door cracked, emergency call and shut down) because 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).  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).

Teaching “Average” Prevents Effective Learning

Good aviation education is not a process of standardizing *people* but *procedures*. It is critical to remember that every person walking in the door to learn to fly is a unique individual and there are many pathways to achieve the necessary skill, knowledge and judgment we need to be safe. Teaching to an “average learner” is a huge mistake, often caused by lack of imagination and laziness (we all get jaded after a couple thousand hours…), but standardization of everything is also how our human brain works. We process our diverse sensory input by stereotyping (predictive perception). But to be an effective educator we need to force ourselves to see and appreciate the unique differences in every learner. This requires effort and imagination every day to succeed. Our build-in impulse to “teach average” is a huge reason for our 80% drop out rate in aviation. This happens in all our educational pursuits. High schools lose 1.2 million people every year (sound familiar?)  Of these high school dropouts, 4% are known to be “intellectually gifted!”

Todd Rose was a high school drop out and eventually went on to be a Harvard professor. His Ted Talk uses the original Air Force human factors adaptability studies of Gilbert Daniels. He rated pilots on 10 dimensions and discover “there is no such thing as an average pilot.” I think every aviation educator should watch this important Ted talk:

Once these and other design solutions were put into place, pilot performance soared, and the U.S. air force became the most dominant air force on the planet.

I hope this inspires a new way to think of your everyday educational challenges. Create excitement and challenge in your daily instructional life! Fly safely out there (and often)!

  Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! 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).

10 Essential Rules for New CFI!

Congratulations and welcome to this new world! I hope you enjoy your profession as an aviation educator. Here is what I can tell you that you may want to ‘file away.’  I started out as you did: an “Independent CFI” in a state clear across the country from where I had done all my training and with absolutely no friends, contacts, ‘network,’ or anything like that to give me a ‘leg up’ in my new ‘Home State.’ Ready for take-off?

1) Don’t Fly Junk! By this, I mean that if you find that the Owner/Operator of said aircraft seems to have either a cavalier attitude about maintenance or is reluctant to take your ‘squawks’ on necessary repairs/fixes/equipment troubles/etc. seriously and address them pronto or tends to do maintenance ‘on the cheap’ or appears to be skirting or flouting the regs…walk away. There are other good, honest, flight operations out there.

2) Your time is valuable. Don’t ‘give it away.’ Flight Instruction is worth whatever you charge & ground Instruction is too. Establish that early on. Ergo, if you charge $50/Hr & have a typical 2 Hr block booked & WX precludes you getting ‘air time’ with your Student, have a 2 Hr Ground Session instead & it is not a ‘Loss’ for either of you.

3) Don’t be timid about establishing your PIC authority;  when you say, “I have the Controls!” or “My Aircraft!” your Student’s feet & hands must IMMEDIATELY come off the controls. This needs to be established before you ever set foot in the plane. Accept No ARGUMENTS here‼️ A lot of these students today are well-heeled execs, Business Owners, Doctors, Lawyers, etc. and some have a tendency to regard you as their “inferior” as if you are merely a Doorman, Barista, or Valet. Squelch that Attitude politely but firmly very early on, or it can become a Nightmare for you. Any trouble with a prospect who prefers to take his/her Grandiose Delusions into the air with you…’cut them loose’ to go find someone else to fly with & ‘Don’t let the door hit ‘em’ in the ass on the way out.

4) Always show up early & fully prepared for each lesson. Dress, speak and conduct yourself as a professional. Respect yourself, & treat others with respect. Observe the Golden Rule.


5) DO NOT discuss Politics. Half your Students will be ‘on the other side’ – in some places that will be more like 80 or 90%. Too bad. Not your problem. Just be yourself & don’t get drawn into the ‘Vortex’ where there are No Winners.

6) Your first Student to ‘Solo’ will be ready before you are‼️😅 No problem. It’s pretty much true with all of us… that ‘second-guessing’ & thinking 🤔 💭 ‘Did I cover EVERYTHING?!’ Don’t worry about it. In time & with greater Experience you will know when the Student finally ‘clicks’ & clearly is ready for ‘three times around the patch!’ Just be aware that in the beginning, you will feel pretty anguished standing there on the sidelines watching your fledgling out there on his/her own for the first time. Make sure to ‘Celebrate’ afterward! This is a ‘Big Deal!’ for all concerned‼️

7) Try to have the Student feel good about SOMETHING after the completion of each flight. What do I mean? Example: the student is having trouble with Steep Turns. Okay…break it off and do ‘Turns Around a Point’ or practice ‘Slips!’ Give your student an opportunity to feel ‘Wow! I DID IT‼️’ instead of returning to the field dejected because they ‘failed’ at one particular task.

8) Don’t be too eager to ‘jump on the controls’ (or the radio) with every deviation from ‘perfection.’ You weren’t perfect either when you were starting out. Try to just get them to be aware of things they can do to help themselves, instead, like say releasing that ‘Death Grip’ on the yoke & holding it instead like a Stradivarius violin 🎻 or a beautiful romantic partner. Use some gentle humor in the cockpit to de-stress the situation. Leave them room to discover, learn, and grow.

9) Beware ‘Experienced Pilots’ who need a Flight Review or who are ‘Rusty’ They will surprise you with Totally Mondo Bizarro behaviors and techniques that defy any expectation! (Pilots get weird with added hours and no dual…)

10) NEVER become Complacent in the Cockpit! It can kill you.

(Send us your list of “10 Rules” you live by as a CFI…we might publish it!)

Your SAFE membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

Surprising Gaps in FAA Requirements

It is shocking that the FAA instructor, who might be teaching your child or significant other to fly, is only required to have a total of 200 hours and 5 hours alone in a plane. And how comfortable are you learning from an “instrument instructor” when they might never have done what they are teaching  – flown in a cloud (NOT required)?  A “senior instructor,” is able to train a new CFI with only 200 hours teaching and 2 years experience required (and there is great pressure from the industry to soften these requirements). I see both good and bad versions of this system at work every day in flight schools I visit and work with. But safety demands higher personal standards *not* FAA minimums!

It is an understatement to say the FAA certification system has some “shocking minimums.” Even the flight rules allowing “one mile clear of clouds” clearly put true safety directly in the hands of pilots, trusting their judgment and integrity. Safety also requires professional organizations like SAFE to define, inspire, and build higher professional standards for pilots and educators.  Look at the significant change – ACS – our Pilot Reform Symposium fostered in the FAA training and testing system. We are YOUR organization, and appreciate YOUR support. SAFE achieved 3000 members last month and also the WINGS survey results placing us #1 as your “trusted knowledge provider” (our humble gratitude for such success!) But the votes of support are just the launching pad for much greater programs soon to come.

Both CFI-PRO™ and Checkride Ready! are very new programs that will grow into significant educational platforms as gatherings are again permitted and our industry picks up full speed after COVID. You can help by spreading our SAFE brand to flying friends in your area (that 1/3 off ForeFlight is an attractive incentive) please spread the word. Wear our SAFE branded apparel and share these posts. Get in touch to become a regional SAFE Ambassador. If you are already a member, Step-Up to a supporting level or provide a tax-deductible gift this “giving season” (SAFE is an educational not-for-profit 501-C-3). We also need volunteers for programs and committees as we grow. Stay SAFE and fly often, thanks for your help in growing SAFE.

Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App  has all 61.65 endorsements, experience requirements and the new ACS codes right on your smartphone. Join SAFE and receive other great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) Flying Mag, GA News.

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

Fixing “Slow Motion” Accidents!

We have amazing technology in most of our airplanes these days. We navigate with satellites and have omniscient weather mapping on board. But despite all these tools, pilots continue to fly into terrible weather and kill themselves. These “slow-motion” accidents involve a series of bad decisions over time – starting with the launch – that increasingly restrict options like a funnel to a  (seemingly inevitable) wreck. “VFR into IMC” and IFR into convective or icing accidents are 90% fatal.  “What was the pilot thinking?” Let’s have a look.

The question “How can humans learn efficiently to make decisions in a complex, dynamic, and uncertain environment” is still a very open question.

It is first essential to understand – and confess – our human weakness in the “thinking” part. We crash planes because our human brain is not rational by design. We are “optimizers”  and proceed by “satisficing,” a term coined by AI pioneer Herbert Simon. We achieve “good enough” and push optimistically forward, with resilience and flexibility. This attribute has led to our incredible success in populating every diverse environment on the planet and launching rockets to the moon. As decision-makers, we have adapted to be optimistic and aggressive (92% of drivers think they are “better than average!”) For years economists predicated human behavior based on the Renaissance “Rational Man Model.”  But both Herbert Simon and later Daniel Kahneman won Nobel prizes in “Behavioral Economics” by demonstrating how “predictably irrational” humans are when making decisions.

The smartest people in America were fooled (twice) by “normalizing deviance” and people died as a result.

We do not perceive reality precisely. Every individual senses and assembles a different world through a personal lens of need and intention; “predictive perception.” Then we stereotype that input data into pre-existing categories relying on past experiences (which we recreate like impressionistic painters) to create a personal understanding; “magical thinking.” Decisions are then often colored with our many cognitive biases and emotional needs developing procedures based on “successes” rather than objective standards; “normalizing deviance.” If we thought accurately and decided rationally no person would ever buy another lottery ticket and we would all aggressively leverage compound interest like Warren Buffet. But in a totally rational world, there would be no incredible optimism and energy creating innovation and growth (and probably no art, fashion or culture). Our “magical thinking” motivates human success in many fields but sucks for facts, science and statistics (and sometimes flying).

We have to apply the discipline of P-A-V-E and 3P to be safe in flying. We have to stick to know standards and consult experts when we are unsure of our own judgment. There is no room for rosy optimism or complacency in flying (I personally go hard on people who count on “luck” too) Decision making has to be systematic and conform to reality (gravity never sleeps). To be safe we have to visualize and account for the worst outcomes and surprises; “what if?” And this “evil agent viewpoint” is something every good flight instructor must encourage and *always* be helping their pilot-in-training to understand. (Though not for the first five hours please – that is all “sunshine and light” – building “confidence and comfort”). During X-C planning, I also encourage the 3D rule for X-C planning; “Delay, Divert, Drive” as a simple impediment to “launching with doubt.” Moving the timeline is one of the most successful strategies for flight safety; later or tomorrow? And few people in the GPS (“Going Perfectly Straight”) world realize the huge benefit of “rubber-banding” a planned course even a little to gain better alternate options below (and the time penalty is surprisingly minimal). If there is doubt about the take-off or plan it probably needs “3D” modification and maybe a scrub. “A pilot in motion tends to stay in motion…”

Once en route, the “3R rule of alternates” is a huge benefit to encourage wise options and defeat the “mission mentality” we see so often in the “accident chain.” A good alternate must be psychologically desirable. It should have a good Restaurant, Radar (ATC resources), and Rental Cars. If an alternate is somewhere you *want* to go, there will be less “get there itis”  pushing the flight down that fatal accident funnel. There will be no sense of personal failure in this diversion; you already want to end up there (and the passengers will enjoy it too)! Share the 3Ds and 3Rs with your flight students and people you mentor and see if it doesn’t help keep planes out of the trees? Defeat human “magical thinking” and apply disciplined decision making to your flying. Be safe out there!

Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App  has all 61.65 endorsements, experience requirements and the new ACS codes right on your smartphone. Join SAFE and receive other great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) Flying Mag, GA News.

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”on the toolkit app prevents “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

Building Awareness With the “Cooper Code”

Colonel “Jeff” Cooper, developed the “Color Code of Awareness” for the military to inspire self-assessment and vigilance. Warfighters know that situational awareness is just as important for success as physical skill or conditioning. A tuned-up awareness is critical for pilot safety too. “Fat, dumb and happy” is no way to fly safely. Unfortunately, we *do* see this attitude with lots of flying where the purpose is solely enjoyment when there is no obvious threat. It is only self-discipline that enforces a higher level of awareness and keeps us re-engaging our “what if” thinking for critical phases of flight. Awareness is something we can practice every day and in every situation- we don’t have to be flying.

Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully cultivate. You want to get to the point that it’s just something you do without having to think about it. To get to that point, you have to practice it regularly…Don’t be paranoid, just mindful.

IMG_2439Code White in this system represents total relaxation, the basic “fat, dumb and happy” where a person is not on guard or self-aware. This level is appropriate for viewing NFL with a beer, but a highly vulnerable awareness state inappropriate for any complex or demanding task. Code white is the most common human mental state;  “human screen-saver” mode. Psychologists call this the “default mode” as is most often internally focused and characterized by “mind wandering.” Psychologists estimate we spend 70% or more of our time on “autopilot.”

Code Yellow is “relaxed aware;” scanning and vigilant. Awareness in Code Yellow is wide-ranging but not specifically directed, kind of like ATC radar. Once we focus on a specific threat (“I smell smoke”) the mind moves to Code Orange – target acquisition. This state is “game on” with a higher attention level and a more narrow focus. This “specific alert” gathers more data but introduces some vulnerability because some global awareness is lost with focus. Code Red is characterized by intention – a plan is generated and action is taken. This is where the aviation paradigm “Perceive-Process-Perform” can be integrated. Aeronautical decision making is the best option within the constraints of time, equipment and processing power. Remember, “the perfect can be the enemy of the good.” Time to do that “pilot stuff.”

Code Black was added by the Marine Combat Warrior Program and is a state of too much stimulation or panic. This is a natural neurological state driven by instinct to assure the survival of the body when we are overwhelmed and panic. This state automatically prioritizes survival circuits like breathing and muscle activity (shutting down digestion, narrowing the focus etc). Unfortunately, here the brain is swamped with cortisol and adrenalin preventing consciously-directed action: “immobilized by panic” or “overwhelmed by fear.” We are consciously out of the game at this point.

As you can see, for a pilot engaged in flying, awareness at the Code White or Code Black level is inappropriate and harmful. Unfortunately, the fatigue of long hours or just boredom forces the mind down into the Code White level of awareness. The human neurological system needs novelty and surprise to remain alert; hours of “sameness” dulls the senses. Here is where self-discipline is critical to keep awareness in the yellow.

At the Code Black level, a pilot is overwhelmed by the “startle response.” Ideally, a perfect scan repeatedly switches from code yellow to orange “macro/micro scan” attending to details, tasks, and investigating hypothetical or potential problems (what if). It is essential to continuously shift back to “the big picture” about every two to three seconds. Remember “landmark accidents” like Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 where exclusive focus on a small problem led to loss of all situational awareness.

This is a good time to explain that the human mind really cannot “multi-task.” We only seems to do this by ‘task-switching.” It is a maddening fact of life that whenever we engage with fixing some detail, we get blind-sided by a surprise in the environment we missed due to our narrow focus on a problem (texting and driving). In flying, we best accomplish multiple tasks by switching “micro to macro,” in a very disciplined manner; tune a radio, then wide view for control, then back to the next specific task.

I personally add “meta” to my scan to add the time-line into the scanning process. “What’s next?” is always important since we are always moving and the most important thing after control is the next thing; “micro/macro/meta (timeline)”.

If all the ducks are mercifully walking in a row and I have a few extra neurons to spare I also personally add self-analyzing and looking for “blind-spots or counterfactuals” to my scan. This is actively challenging the plan in action to see if I missed something.  This is Don Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns.” This actively scans for “did I miss anything here?” and “am I thinking straight?” In a crewed environment, this might be an actual verbal question if it is a critical planning item. How many times do we fool ourselves by engaging in a plan and it either is on totally the wrong track or there was something important that was neglected that might change the whole situation (no fuel available at that destination I diverted to…) So “how can this go wrong” without being too paranoid is a good question to ponder occasionally. But conscious competence is a whole different blog. Practice your awareness and stay safe out there!

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).


Ready to React? “Reflexive Skills!”

Any fan of action sports, whether it’s football or air racing, knows that the greatest moves and memorable moments are not in the huddle (reflective) but during time-critical (reflexive *1) action. These “snapshot moments” are automatically deployed (but previously trained) skills that occur in a few microseconds. The reflective, thoughtful mind is not even in gear. We certainly should make plans (prebrief) on the sidelines or in the huddle, but the amazing moments come when the surprise blitz occurs and we must respond reflexively. This is true for pilots as well as in sports.

A fastball at 90mph takes only 4/10ths of a second (400 milliseconds) to reach the batter. It takes more than half that time, 250 milliseconds, just to make a decision whether to swing or not and execute that action perfectly. Psychologists still do not totally understand this subconscious process but some insights are available and important for pilots with time-critical challenges.

The neural circuit that makes this “snap judgment” to swing (or not) and tunes the response correctly, is not reflective and language-based. There is no time for this “slow thought.” Reflexive action is immediate and subconscious and comes only from hours of practice and rehearsal. These tuned-up brain circuits are developed through careful practice that is then myelinated for immediate, appropriate response. These memories are even stored in a different part of the brain (and this too requires a time investment). Though the practice and development occur as a methodical, conscious process, the resulting “immediate action capability” is then stored like books on a shelf ready to go with the correct triggers from the environment. Scenario flight training can develop judgment for the “when” but drill and repetition are essential to sharpen these reflexive pilot reactions.

Our action timeline for pilot decisions varies considerably depending on the challenge of the day.  In most operations, we have time to research, plan, and adapt a fairly predictable flight. And most challenges we face allow time to consider and decide a plan of action. But there are definitely moments in flying that require immediate, reflexive action that must be both appropriate and accurate to assure safety. These challenges require confidence and an appropriate “automatic” trained response.

In aviation the times that require “reflexive action” are usually during take-off and landing or when “surprises” like loss of control inflight occur. These are time-critical and the brain circuit at work here is not the reflective (language) part, but the embedded, trained reflexive part. Not surprisingly, this is also where most accidents happen. (We spend only 5% of our time in the pattern, but 60-70% of accidents occur here.) Similarly, startle and loss of control require immediate and appropriate reactions, but this is the primary cause of fatal accidents. In both areas, drill and repetition practice is required to build the necessary basic skills for “immediate action” responses and safety. Without this practice, we are stepping up to the plate for a fastball and complacently capable of only a slow pitch game.

Many researchers talk about “cognitive unavailability” when analyzing LOC-I or landing accidents. But cognitive (reflective) brain function is not involved here at all.  During time-critical reactions, especially with “startle incapacitation“, it is the “reflexive,” immediate action brain circuits that must respond appropriately to save us. These deeply-trained “reflexes” are either honed sharp from appropriate and recent practice, or we fail and crash (see “startle response“)

To be clear, cognitive “rehearsal” before every expected challenge is valuable to prepare for potential surprises (e.g. pre-take-off briefing) This highly effective technique improves pilot response by creating an alert state of mind (“code yellow“). But the kinetic skills in time-critical maneuvering must be automatic and appropriate, ready to deploy. Any “out-of-the-blue” surprise is going to require the subconscious implicit brain domain not “cognition.” There is a lot more to examine and explain in this area of operation – especially tips for the instructors who need to build these skills. We will examine those in future articles.

Please visit our “WIngs Up” YouTubes from Gold Seal this week and enjoy some aviation learning and FUN during the CV-19 lockdown. We’ll be flying more soon!*1) “reflexive” is used herein as “subconscious, habitual and unthinking behavior, not subject to conscious reflection or review”

SAFECFI-PRO™ workshop is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?) June10/11 at Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! 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).