An “engagement letter” is a simple statement of professional responsibilities, duties and expectations. Most often lawyers insist on these agreements as a first step before beginning any professional relationship. And that is because most lawyers have extensive experience with human suffering and “misunderstandings.” Start with the facts and expected outcome but also imagine what might go wrong.
The primary purpose of an engagement letteris to assure a clear understanding on both sides; standards and expectations. We know every person’s perspective is different several months into any relationship – but especially after lots of time, money and effort are invested. I think a document like this could go a long way toward curing the ridiculous 80% dropout rate in aviation training (it can provide protections on both sides if properly constructed). Better to start honest with defined terms and also a commitment toward a mutually agreeable outcome.
The flight training relationship is almost comically one-sided favoring the flight training provider. They have significant overhead and capital investment, bonded with a very thin margin in an unstable business environment. The over-eager flight student, usually ignorant of the true difficulties and hidden expenses can be an “easy mark.” Unfortunately, it is also easy to fool yourself (the provider), into believing you are helping an eager client by getting them flying immediately. But aviation is a long game, for everyone involved, and I recommend serious honest appraisal and planning at the start. Lay out the facts, but also sell the sizzle – we all became pilots and obviously still love it.
The whole aviation industry suffers when you promulgate the “big lie” of “faster/cheaper/easier.” People sold a bill of goods quit as quickly as they start and give our business a bad reputation. And sometimes blood gets shed when incomplete learning and lower standards lead to stupid accidents. Ultimately, educators do better with honesty – working with students who fully “buy in.” An honest relationship from the start builds clients who do their homework and ask for another hour to really master control. The good students accept responsibility and honestly want to be better (not just “get by”)! These are the people you actually like and want to fly with.
So “start honest” and reveal the wonderful opportunities; the challenge and adventure, the satisfaction of real achievement. Share the passion and some amazing experiences. But also reveal the facts; it costs a lot, takes real effort and the at times mother nature holds all the cards. Appeal to their sense of happy longevity and safety; it kinda sucks to suffer in a hospital bed.
In the final analysis, honesty is the essential ingredient for safe flying, for both yourself and others. Physics is not “bendable” or “forgiving.” Pilots who are sold a lie and succeed anyway often display “magical thinking” in their flying activities. These are the pilots who try to “stretch gas” and “cheat weather.” And we all know this only works for so long until the luck runs out -“what were they thinking?” They got sold a lie right from the beginning. Start honest with real numbers. It wasn’t easy, or cheap, but it was worth every penny. Fly safely out there (and often).
Get the FREE SAFE Toolkit App (FREE). This contains all the new ACS knowledge test codes plus all the required pilot endorsements and experience – right on your smartphone. Join SAFEand receive other great benefits(1/3 off ForeFlight is sweet!)
The SAFE App was created to facilitate CFI/DPE collaboration and ensure a smoother, less stressful check ride experience (and ultimately smarter, safer pilots). Better communication among all parties involved prevents unfortunate surprises on check-ride day where an applicant encounters a "hard stop" due to errors or misunderstanding - missing endorsements, insufficient experience, or inadequate skill/knowlege). Here are a couple common problem areas (some recently clarified by the FAA).
The “long” student cross country can be confusing due to the incomplete description in 61.109. This regulation does not “stand-alone” but depends upon 61.1 (definitions) which requires a “landing at a distance greater than 50nm” to count as cross-country when training. The “push toward minimums” encouraged by many schools, can leave pilot applicants unqualified for their certificate on test day (a bad surprise)! Another subtlety in 61.109 is the requirement for “full-stop landings” in the regulation which also creates problems for unhappy applicants. Repeating expensive training due to a technical error is frustrating. CFIs and flight schools need to know these regulations and their subtlties.
It is not just students and CFIs who are confused by this regulation, there are DPEs who have been accepting the stand-alone description in the reg (with an insufficient cross country) as legal. That is why this subject is covered in the national DPE training for 2021.
Another recent check-ride “hard stop” involves confusion over logging the required instrument time for the commercial pilot certificate. DPEs have been advised to not simply accept an instrument rating as evidence of accomplishing the instrument training required in 61.129. Careful reading reveals unique flight elements and a different emphasis for commercial aircraft control vs original instrument flight training. CFIs should make sure the more comprehensive commercial training is correctly completed. Another legal problem is the CFI conducting the required instrument training in 61.129 (commercial) must possess a CFII. If completed by an airplane instructor it is invalic. At the end of this process, add the 61.129 endorsement to the original instrument training endorsement or add the additionally logged hours to satisfy the tegulation. The original guidance in the Hartzell Letter of Interpretation has been clarified in a more recent 2018 Letter of Interpretation to the AOPA.
The lack of a 61.39 “meta-endorsement” is another problem that will stop a flight test before it gets started. This required endorsement verifies that that the recommending flight instructor has flown the required time in preparation for the checkride (usually 3 hours in the last 2 calendar months). Also in 61.39 is the (required) assurance that the CFI corrected the items found to be deficient on the knowledge test.
Failure to log required ground training is often a “hard stop” that will prevent a checkride from proceeding. All ratings and certificates specify some ground and flight training. This should logged and available for the examiner on test day. There is no specified number of hours in part 61 training, but the areas to be covered are listed and some recorded ground instruction (varies with the DPE) needs to be part of the application package. A ground school graduation is a perfect example, but part 61 training is often conducted one-on one. PDF formatted tables for logging ground time are available on the SAFE Toolkit App.
All these “gotchas” are also essentials for every CFI preparing for their initial check-ride. Aviation educators are supposed to know all these nuances (and much more) so they correctly prepare their applicants for flight tests.
In addition to the above cautions, SAFE has created a stand-alone (more comprehensive) product to clear up check-ride confusion called “Checkride Ready!™”available on the SAFE App. This material was also published in the blog for VFR and IFR (more on the way!) Fly safely out there (and often)!
Get the FREE SAFE Toolkit App (FREE). This contains all the new ACS codes plus required pilot endorsements and experience right on your smartphone. Join SAFEand receive other great benefits(1/3 off ForeFlight!) Flying Mag
Commercial-level pilot maneuvers provide a wonderful challenge and new skills for every pilot. These are not only fun but teach correct rudder usage when flown properly. Many pilots at the private level do not understand or apply correct rudder inputs. “Rudder deficit” is a primary reason for LOC-I. Search out a qualified instructor and take your flying to a higher level of proficiency with some commercial maneuvers. Learning new skills and extending your flight envelopecreates greater flight safety and is also great fun! These maneuvers are a gateway to an upset recovery course and aerobatics – but these should be mastered first to get full value from this kind of advanced training.
Mastering commercial maneuvers requires an eyes-out aggressive flying style at the edge of the flight envelope. This begins with a thorough aerodynamic knowledge of the forces at work. The heart of all the commercial maneuvers is a concept called “cross-coordinated.” When you are climbing in a chandelle or navigating your way through a lazy eight you are often applying “crossed controls” to create coordinated flight. The control inputs and forces at work are not initially intuitive. Mastery requires study and practice to internalize a solid “feel” for the airplane during this more aggressive commercial-level maneuvering. And though all these maneuvers are “non-operational,” but you will be rewarded with much more precise (and safer) flying skills as well as a greater sense of confidence and control.
Step one in discovering commercial maneuvers is getting the eyes outside and rediscovering aggressive VFR flying; “yank and bank.” Most pilots in a normal flight training progression just completed an instrument rating (smooth standard rate turns with reference to their trusted instruments). Commercial training can come as a shock, requiring outside visual references and a “tuned up butt” to properly sense and correct yaw. Try some private pilot steep turns at 45 degrees and work up to 60 degrees. Then reverse at 180 degrees of turn and work up to “60/90s” (reversing a 60-degree banked steep turn after 90 degrees of turn). This is “old school” flying – find a good instructor to help you. This will get a little sweat going as well as demonstrate the need for an outside sight reference and positive control usage.
Step two is serpentine climbing 30 degree turns right and left with full power and a Vx attitude. This will quickly demonstrate the need for right rudder while climbing in a left turn and left aileron while climbing in a right turn. Initially, this feels “unnatural” for many private pilots, but this is the beginning of understanding “cross-coordination” and will progress into chandelles. Your pattern crosswind turns will be immediately safer with your newly-mastered “cross-coordination.”
A series of climbing and descending (coordinated) wingovers – working toward a lazy eight – will demonstrate the need for quick and accurate rudder usage as the wing loads and unloads. Suddenly pilots are “flying again” after 40 hours of instrument standard rate turns (or years of rope-a-doping around the pattern); fun! These climbs and descents also illustrate the changing yoke forces necessary to maintain specific flight attitudes as the speed of the aircraft changes the effectiveness of the flight controls.
The last step in this introduction to commercial flight maneuvers is some slow flight and stalls first straight ahead, then turning. Flight training is an opportunity to fly at minimum control speed with the horn blaring (just don’t do it on a flight test – the FAA is sensitive about this). Bank 30 degrees right and left aggressively at the edge of a stall. Coordination is essential and LOTS of rudder is required to pivot left and right on the edge of a stall. Then demonstrate an old-style power off stall recovery letting the nose fall through the horizon with the yoke all the way back (stay stalled till the nose is down). As an instructor, when your pilot-in-training sees this dramatic nose-down attitude (while still feeling the stall) some understanding of angle of attack will be immediately built. (The angle of attack indicator in every plane is how much chrome is showing on the control yoke shaft).
Turning stalls recovered without power (just releasing AOA) are the last maneuver in this sortie as you descend turning right and left while stalling and recovering. This again shows the need for coordination and the power of AOA for recovery. Turning stalls are part of the Private Pilot ACS and often missed during initial training. Engage a qualified instructor and master some commercial maneuvers. Soon you will add finesse, safety (and FUN) to your regular flying. Fly safe out there (and often)!
In early childhood development, there are surprising “windows of opportunity” where languages can be learned rapidly and perfectly in a manner that is forever lost to adults. This “opportunity lost” is a result of sensory striatum deprivation. A cat will remain forever blind if kept in the dark during the first months of life even with perfectly functioning eyes – use it or lose it! Rudder usage follows this same pattern in pilots. If it is not learned and mastered very early, it seems to be forever a mystery (see early maneuvering blog). This deficit creates a pilot that will always be struggling to achieve positive control in the aircraft.
Fortunately, there is an easy (and fun) solution to “rudder deficit” for pilots. The rudder can be mastered in a new environment if approached with an open attitude of exploration and excitement. Tailwheel flying is exactly this opportunity for pilots. This fun training corrects “rudder deficit” while putting a smile on your face. This “awakening” is as exciting as flying aerobatics for the first time – suddenly the world becomes fully three-dimensional. We are no longer in Kansas and the world immediately turns from black and white to color; worth it! Rudder aptitude is critical in all phases of flying, right up into professionalmulti-engine operations. (Watch new jet pilots struggle with V1 cuts in Level D simulators)
If you have not taken some dual in a tailwheel aircraft, you really have not experienced flying as it could be. This experience will truly open your eyes to full aircraft control in three dimensions. Many pilots are still regrettably two dimensional and are frankly missing a lot of fun (and “rudder deficit” is also “control deficit”).
If you haven’t flown tailwheel(yet) there is a whole world of exciting flying ahead of you – opportunity found. Most low-power tailwheel airplanes are very affordable on an hourly basis, the real difficulty is finding a good instructor. Check out the SAFE directory for a tailwheel specialist in your area. (and CFIs, make sure your data in this directory is current). After that, the next step is full 3-axis maneuvering. Fly safe out there (and often!)
GA pilots tend to regard *all* CFIs with godlike respect – which is gratifying (as a CFI) but often undeserved – and sometimes can even be dangerous. When the Corey Lidel accident happened in the East River Corridor, many people were incredulous this accident was even possible “with a CFI on board” ( misplaced trust?) The FAA has no standard for CFI excellence, just minimum standards for initial certification and a 16-hour online course every two years! “Gold Seal” is certainly busy, but no high bar. There has been some discussion of CFI standards and oversight by the NTSB after the recent horrific accident in Hawaii.
A brand new CFI may only have only 5 hours of total real solo time under their belt (not “ride-along”) and may never have even fueled an airplane (or been in a cloud or on a grass strip). Other blogs have enumerated the consequences of FAA minimum training. New CFIs (in the US) also have no required mentoring or supervision when they start teaching. They are essentially “student teaching” on the job (often with the newest students). Other flight instructors may have been teaching for years and unfortunately never improved past this entry-level of skill and knowledge (except getting grumpier?) AGold Sealis a good one-time “busy CFI” honor (only specifying an 80% pass rate – the industry average) and is certainly a great sign for a student shopping for a pro. But it is also “one and done” renewing with your CFI forever. True professionalism in aviation is only achieved through continuous personal commitment and defined by voluntary industry accreditation standards; Master Instructor Certification. Instructor professionalism was one of the critical necessary safety pillars emphasized for aviation improvement in the SAFE Pilot Reform report– professional CFIs “raise all boats” – planes!
It is not uncommon for new academy CFI graduates to lack even the most basic “real life” skills like aircraft fueling or tie-down knots – it is not in the “shake and bake” syllabus. Some new CFIs have been pilots for less than a year; no seasoning or cultural acquisition here. Think of what else they might not know. Current FAA statistics reveal that 2/3 of active FAA CFIs have taught less than a year. And this is a steady-state condition in our aviation industry as new CFIs continually build hours and move on to professional careers.
It is a bigger mistake to assume that some age or gray hair is an indicator of quality since many people now retire young and get all their ratings “while senior” (gray-haired and brand new!) Some of these senior retired CFIs are the scariest I have seen since they bring an “implied aviation gravitas” from their mastery in another profession. Surprisingly, there are only an estimated 2,500 professional, continuously full-time, CFIs in the US. How does a flight student or pilot seeking an excellent instructor determine the “masters” of flight education?
One way to find a veteran aviation educator and access that valuable wealth of experience is to select a “Master Instructor.” The original Master Instructor Program was created by Sandy and JoAnn Hill of Colorado in 1997. Both lifelong professional educators and CFIs, they saw the need for a voluntary industry accreditation program to raise the professional standards for aviation educators. The flight instructor’s Model Code of Conduct lays out the aspirational goals for every flight instructor seeking to become better. This AeroNews podcast interviews the Hills in 2011 and explains in detail the CFI industry problems and solutions.
Now celebrating 24 years and thousands of designations, the Master Instructors accreditation program represents what former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey called “the best the right seat has to offer” in aviation. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called the assembled Master Instructors at the GAS “the movers and shakers of the flight training community.” The Master Instructor Continuing Education ProgramTM (MICEP) is now part of SAFE with a new website and simpler online accreditation form created and maintained by Submittable (going live on Monday).
Most experienced instructors probably already qualify for a Master designation! The major challenge is organizing their vast experience into the five required categories and digging up documentation for volunteer reviewers (worksheet). Less than half of 1% of all educators earn this honor. But not surprisingly, this illustrious group is overrepresented in professional activities and in earning FAA honors – 43% ofNational GA Award Winners are Master Instructors. Though voluntary industry improvement is the heart of this program, the vast majority of Master educators acknowledge that the program not only improved them by challenging them to become better educators, it dramatically increased their earnings from surveyed 10-40%. Several reported more than a 100% hike in their sustainable hourly rates. Additionally, several flight schools provide incentive packages to their Masters worth more than $8,000 annually. Some premier training facilities like Aviation Performance Solutions, require all their instructors to earn Master qualifications.
We are very pleased to now have the original Master Instructor Program as part of SAFE. The core values are entirely consistent with our SAFE mission of professionalism. Fly SAFE out there (and often) and get started on that Master certification!
You Probably Qualify Already! - Get Started!
For those with many years of teaching experience, you are probably already qualified for Master certification!Your major challenge is finding and submitting documentation of all your experiences and activities. You build an application online (through our Submitable portal) which organizes the validating evidence for the volunteer reviewers. There are five categories of experience: Educator (applicant as teacher), Service (applicant helping others in aviation activities), Creatorof Media, Continuing Education (applicant as learner), and Participant.(examples here)
Once you are through the process the first time, you learn to save all activity items and create a dedicated file (like taxes) that organize all the certificates and letters and makes the process much easier.
For newer educators (flight, ground, helicopter, aerobatic) knowing the categories allows you to direct your efforts into these areas and work toward a worthy goal, saving the documentation for each activity. For the aviation industry, Master Certification sets a known high bar of solid professionalism which truly inspires and rewards your achievement. The increased income from this recognition as well as savings on insurance easily pay for the application fee.
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 patienceand 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 forthon 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)!
Join SAFEand 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).
One of the major causes of cockpit chaos, and ultimately accidents, is simply a failure of time management. We often create our own problems as pilots by attempting too much – to the point of system failure. The essence of “pilot-in-command“ is the process of continuously defining and accomplishing the most important tasks – e.g. aircraft control and immediate flight path – while shutting out other “urgent” requests of all kinds that interfere with this mission. (“Mere Urgency Effect“) The essence of command authority is “psychological triage,” filtering, defining, and accomplishing what is critical and saying “no” to the rest. Learning this skill in aviation starts in VFR, but is even more critical in the less flexible IFR environment. Savvy time management makes smooth, safer pilots and allows the mind to function in the reflective rather than reactive mode.
The urge to accomplish everything and do it well gets some energy from the pilot ego; “I can hack it!” Managing workload is what we do. Unfortunately, we often bite off too much and fail to set limits. It is hard to recognize and admit to our incrementally degraded margin of safety as we load up our plate. Another pressure on the pilot is the negative connotation of “saying no” or slowing down because saving time is the essence of “aviation magic.” It is critical to remember that time pressure is usually the “grim reaper” present at every accident wreck.
To put a more positive spin on “psychological triage” consider the positive time-management philosophy which is “essentialism.” This viewpoint argues that high-quality professionalism comes from very intentional filtering and focus to prevent confusion and chaos.
The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” Greg McKeown “Essentialism“
If a request from ATC, your dispatch, or an important potentate in the back interferes with the primary mission of aircraft safety and control, the correct (but psychologically difficult) answer from the pilot must be “no” or “stand-by.” Shedding load or negotiating more time (physically and psychologically) creates focus and eliminates chaos. Too often the person in charge of the mission, the PIC, is hijacked by workload and driven to distraction by too many tasks and requests. Remember, it really is impossible to “multitask,” we only “timeshare” important tasks (and usually do them badly). So the first essential task is deciding what is truly important, triaging the rest and accomplishing the essential in the proper order; eliminate the chaos. The word “triage” (to sort) came from war-time medical emergencies. Trying to save *every* life led to a greater total loss of life. On the battlefield, some cases just have to be written off as “not going to happen” for the greater good of all. Similarly, in flight, saying “no” to urgent but unnecessary tasks keeps the plane on track and at the proper altitude (and the pilot calmer).
Triage in various forms is obviously good advice in life too. The primary difference in flying is the airplane continuously in motion and the clock does not stop. Additionally, aviation is primarily sold as a “time saver” so there is pressure on every pilot to get there faster and more efficiently. The critical switch to throw is mental though: say “too much” and start to ‘load shed” just like a good computer program. Too many processes trying to run at once will cause even the best machine to fail.
So slow down the process using your command authority to prioritize and triage tasks. If necessary, ask for a reroute to create more time. Ignore and offload the “urgent” and accomplish what is truly “important;” aircraft control and direction. The sage advice, often repeated, comes to the rescue here; aviate first – fly the plane accurately, legally, and safely. Get on the correct course at the proper altitude (navigate) and then take care of the requests from ATC (communicate). It is so easy to lose touch with this time-honored order of priorities. Read this month’s NASA Callback and you will see how even the most experienced pilots fall prey to “the urgent” and lose touch with the truly “important;” fly the plane and be SAFE out there!
“What were they thinking?” (In most senses of the word, they weren’t!) If you read accident reports, you have often encountered seemingly smart pilots facing an obvious threat they “never saw.” How does this happen? There is a simple explanation and it is a process common to all of us – and totally “natural” (beware)!
Risk hides in the familiarbecause our human perception defaults to “autopilot” by necessity to save mental effort in daily life. Our incoming data flow is filtered by our senses and again at the cognitive level to be manageable and useful. Our primary filter scans the environment (very rapidly) for “threats” and once that is satisfied, we largely “stereotype our world” and automatically transform it into patterns we have learned from experience. This is a sad commentary on appreciation and “living to the fullest” but a surprising 90% of our daily activities are only barely at the level of awareness. Common daily activities are largely relegated to automatic processing. These stone-age systems often miss subtle “technological threats” – it was designed for more obvious saber-tooth tigers ready to eat us!
“We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it. Unexpected and unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.” Charles Perrow; “Normal Accidents“
As an example of the world’s complexity and our amazing automatic processor, watch how many discrete pieces of information are presented in this film just to drive. As humans, our amazing human brains handle all these activities rapidly and automatically below the level of consciousness. Think of how many processes we employ in a “normal” day.
We all know that some people have a continuously higher level of awareness and we ourselves vary in awareness based on distraction and fatigue. The key to success in efficiently handling life and its challenges is twofold. First, we need to apply the correct level of awareness appropriate to every situation – and also consciously turn up awareness during potentially threatening or demanding situations. The second coping mechanism is embedding accurate, automatic scripts for common high-danger situations so they deploy automatically (reflexively) in cases of surprise or startle. The first skill is “situational awareness” and the second requires “skill and emergency training.” In flying, this “reserve capacity” requires lots of accurate and repetitive “overtraining” until reactions become easily accessible and “totally natural.” Without this essential “reserve skill capacity” we have no margin of safety when “Plan A” goes to pieces.
Take the example of driving in “automatic mode” when a child runs out into traffic and surprises us. Hopefully, our reactions are available appropriate, and immediate (trained/embedded/reflexive). We apply the brakes or swerve before we even know what happened.Immediate action like this is too quick for our thoughtful/critical mind to engage and react. In retrospect, you are often surprised at the accuracy and speed of the reaction. Most sports and high-stakes activities operate almost entirely at this level of “over-training.”
In these “surprise situations,” the heart rate also picks up and we are suddenly aware and alive, critically processing. Too much excitement in this direction brings us to the “startle” (a common failure mode). Continuous awareness at the higher level is exhausting (and inappropriate) so our awareness soon degrades back into “automatic.”If however, the thoughtful brain overrides this saying “we are in a schoolyard, we better stay alert” (situational awareness) we maintain the higher level of threat processing. This parallel processing has been on board since we were hunting sabertooth lions on the savannah, but the unique threats of technology can be subtle and overwhelm this amazing system – it is just a needle above the redline?
Psychologists call these two united brain modes a “dual-processor system.” The workhorse, automatically running everything from breathing to digestion and driving, is called “System One” by Nobel scientist Daniel Kahneman(Thinking Fast and Slow) and handles all routine daily activities. And yes, we do pilot a lot in this mode, it is faster and energy-efficient. During critical, time-challenged events the automatic scripts we embed during training enable immediate and appropriate pilot action.” System two” (Kahneman) is the aware and analytical mode of thought, actively scanning for threats and also projecting possible outcomes (and potentially changing the plan). “System two” is slower and deliberate and requires more time and energy so we continuously default to less expensive “system one.” The essence of safety is consciously engaging “system two” during critical phases of flight and maintaining “situational awareness.” (A similar formulation of X and C systems: Daniel Lieberman: “What Zomies Can’t Do“)
Teaching situational awareness requires providing “continuous surprises” to shake up the “comfortable world.” As soon as a “pilot-in-training” is comfortable with an operation, a good educator is “changing the world” and preventing complacency. Hide a plastic snake in the “lightening holes” of the wing before pre-flight; are they “really looking?” By nature, we all miss “really seeing” because we think we know what is there; the human condition!
During cruise flight (on a good day) events are often non-threatening and it is easy to lapse into complacency and fatigue. It is absolutely essential for safety to consciously power-up “system two” and scan for threats periodically (see “Code Yellow“). If both the plane and the brain are on autopilot, we are “cruising on luck.” I personally try to run through all the gauges and indicators and review the flight progress – expectations vs. actual – after every radio check-in. A SA scan every 5-10 minutes helps avoid being blindsided by slow or subtle changes that can ruin your day. As the night or the flight get longer, more active interventions are necessary to combat fatigue.
But it would be wrong to paint the slower, analytical, “system two” mode as always the hero. The reflexive “heuristics” of “system one” are the heart of all excellent athletic (and aviation) performance. This is how the batter hits the fastball or the aerobatic pilot performs their unlimited freestyle. This appropriate/automatic “reflexive” mode is required for the fluid and immediate actions in time-critical situations. This is why we train so hard to embed “muscle memory” into the implicit memory of “reflexive system one.” (And this is what you are testing when you pull the throttle on your student).
The thoughtful and analytical “system two” is not always the desired mode of operation. We all have had situations where we “over-think” an operation and ruin the fluid/automatic flow of a procedure. “Inappropriate analytical intervention” is also the root cause of the common phenomenon we call “choking” in any performance activity. Though exclusive dominance of either system at the wrong time can ruin effectiveness, the “90% automatic” statistic almost ensures that the most common failure mode is when the “threat radar” of “system two” is not engaged. We do not perceive and are “asleep” at the switch!
I am currently doing FAA-required retraining for a very current 20K hour pilot who landed without clearance at a Charlie-level airport. How does this happen? What was he thinking? (he wasn’t). This guy was way “too comfortable” (complacent) during this critical phase of flight. What if an airliner was cleared onto the runway while he was floating down final (in “auto-mode”)? Risk hides in the familiar and it takes a disciplined pilot to switch modes correctly and force proper vigilance.
It is the job of a good CFI to provide appropriate “surprises” once their pilot-in-training is getting “comfortable,” both to “sell” the idea of vigilance and also test the embedded emergency scripts. Remember, both creativity and restraint are essential here or your student will become like a dog with a shock collar – always on the edge of panic. As an example of creativity, consider a partial power loss (not on the test but more realistic). This failure mode engages both the requirement for immediate action items but also requires thoughtful/analytical brain functions. “Creative surprises” are even more essential for rusty rated pilots.
Technology and high-workload environments provide unique threats and surprises that our stone age brain circuits were never optimized to handle. Get a good CFI and surprise yourselfregularly (until you “expect” the surprises) In charter flying, we go suffer (train) every six months. Fly safely out there (and often)!
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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 liftor 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.
“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 Aviatorsdoes 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.
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 stallsare 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 SAFEand immediately get great benefits.1/3 off ForeFlight. This savings more than pays for your membership and simultaneously supports our SAFEmissionof 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).
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.
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 valueas 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.
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)3requires 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 SAFEand get great benefits.1/3 off ForeFlight more than pays for your membership and supports the SAFEmissionof 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).