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Buffering “FAA Minimums” Aim For Excellence!

The FAA only specifies the absolute minimums (limitations) in their regulations and these are not recommended operating specifications.  This might sound silly to many pilots, but some people have not gotten this memo.  As one example, “one mile visibility and clear of clouds” in Class G airspace is an absolute legal minimum. All of aviation safety involves building (and maintaining) a personal margin above these FAA bare minimums. Minimum weather, fuel requirements, and even hours for pilot certification should have a margin applied to be safe and build better pilots.

I have been giving a lot of private checkrides lately and obviously a private pilot applicant must know Class G airspace and the basic legal weather minimums. But if they tell me they would go flying in this scary weather, they are not adequately managing risk. Similarly, FAA minimum flight instrumentation (day and night) requires only an airpseed indicator, altimeter (not even adjustable) and a compass. Again, every pilot should know this legal minimum, but should also be aware such primitive guidance is not adequate for most flights (especially at night). Building a margin by requiring more complete instrumentation, equipment, preparation and suitable weather is the basis for managing risk and building safety.

This paradigm of “FAA minimums vs safety margin” is an excellent method to understand (and teach) a risk management system (required in the FAA testing standards). Although a pilot applicant at any level must know the FAA minimums, they must also clearly define their personal “safety margin” for their  level of experience in a particular plane, environment and with unique external pressures of the situation. What examiners want to hear is “my thinking and safety margin in this situation is…”

The ACS defines specific areas to be considered when managing risk. This was developed straight out of the military’s “man, machine and mission” formula and is expanded and elucidated in the FAA Risk Management Handbook. P-A-V-E identifies the Pilot, Aircraft, EnVironment, and External Pressures that interact dynamically to cause (or mitigate) risk factors. Unfortunately, this subject is still given prefuctory coverage by many CFIs as they initially educate pilots or prepare them to take flight tests. In my opinion, this paradigm should be the primary vehicle used right from “day one” to expose new pilots to aviation. (Instead of a rarely mentioned “nice to know” addition “don’t forget risk management”)  Much of our aviation education system is still mired in the 1940s military curriculum of lesson planning. We need a cultural change that puts risk management as more central in our aviation education. P-A-V-E is an amazing safety tool for your personal flying and instructional focus.

And speaking of minimums, the current “rush to ratings” clearly is eliminating any “extras” and fun in the flight training experience. The required 5 hours of solo X-C for the private pilots now seems to often only involve one long flight on a very nice day. When I see a pilot applications with absolute minimum hours all I can think is “don’t you like flying?” Can’t we add a little more than the absolute minimum experience and build a margin of safety here too? Exposing students to more than one X-C flight or working with  more crosswind allows them to experience and internalize different weather, expand personal capacities and enhance their skills for a greater safety margin. They are going to need these hours and experience in the future anyway.

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The “minimums trap” seems to be increasingly common in pilot testing too, where applicants just just aim to pass with a minimum grade rather than striving for excellence. A 70% seems to make people happy and “mediocre” is too common in the current rush for ratings. But as proud safe pilots, our whole system of superior safety and professionalism is built on trying harder and striving for the best we can be. There is real safety value and satisfaction in exceeding the minimums and pursuing more comprehensive knowledge and skill when we aim for excellence. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the whole extended envelope catalog and application to both initial and recurrent training. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to combat the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

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 facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Practice in Ground Effect: “Centerline Slow Flight!”

A recent YouTube highlighted the difficulty pilots experienced flying in ground effect at #OSH22. Control in ground effect is definitely a weak area in pilot proficiency. Even in normal operations, 80% of accidents happen in the take-off and landing phase; low and slow (often with a crosswind too). Practice "centerline slow flight" for increased safety; dual please!

I recently spent a beautiful evening watching students in the pattern challenging their young instructors and abusing their aircraft. Almost every approach was clearly defective long before getting anywhere near the runway; inconsistent configuration, altitudes or ground track; and poor airspeed control with “lucky line-up.” Despite all these obvious problems they all continued to an “arrival” that also kept the lawn mowing crew nervously looking over their shoulders. Without any mastery of the critical sub-components necessary for landing they continued grinding out (and reinforcing) more errors all the while beating up the equipment and hoping for some kind of magical improvement – remember that definition of insanity? And 58% of accidents occur on landing – where we spend only 5% of our time. This lunacy also discourages and drives away many students with an assault on their self-worth and sanity. There is an easy remedy here and it is not complicated. It does however require a “culture change” (which can be difficult). We need to teach landings later  in training – and only after full mastery of the required basics. And instead of only teaching landing in their final form, try some “centerline slowflight.”

The common joke among flight instructors is that the only maneuver we actually teach is landing. This is partly because (if we are honest) most pilots are unable to consistently land well (except me?) But this joke is also true because “landing well” incorporates almost every aircraft control skill – plus judgement and risk management- with time pressure, low altitude and ego. Ironically, the critical importance and focus on landing also results in landings being taught very poorly during initial training.

Most schools and instructors teach landings way too early and only in their final form. They begin landing before the individual components have been mastered by the pilot in training. Usually this is a misguided attempt to motivate the pilot in training and demonstrate “fast progress” and success. But many times there is a worse motivator;  an ego-boost for the instructor or image-builder for the school demonstrating low-hour “success” (scare quotes because the specious low standard).  Unfortunately what usually happens is that the new duty of the CFI becomes “protecting the plane” while the student “figures it out” with a series of frustrating “hints and near misses” that I was witnessing. Is it any surprise young CFIs run for the airlines? Is it any surprise 80% of students drop out?

Dishonesty in teaching landing often starts on the first flight (and with the best intentions).  We have all heard (or said) “You landed on that Discovery Flight – See how simple that was?” (I once thought this was helpful myself- duh!) This dishonesty actually seriously damages the total process of learning to fly and results in many problems later. It can actually be a major cause of students quitting; “If it is simple why can’t I get it? – I must really suck at this!” It is so much better to begin the flight training relationship by honestly stating “learning to fly well requires hard work and commitment but the satisfaction and payback are incredibly worth the effort. Landing well is neither simple nor easy and pilots will probably spend the rest of their life mastering and refining this skill set.” We humans actually love challenges but only if there are clear, manageable steps and the results are demonstrably worthwhile (they *are* in flying). With proper guidance, students master landing more easily – in less time and ultimately more thoroughly – if they start later with “incremental mastery.

To start correctly, it is essential to carefully define and demonstrate what the objective of a “safe landing” looks like – on speed, on point in the proper landing configuration, etc. It is necessary to burn the media hype of “the greaser” and all that associated crap. Aim instead for a manageable, safe, landing with consistent, attainable, goals. A full explanation of all the skills and components gives motivation for working hard and incrementally mastering ground tracking, speed control and configuration changes when you are practicing together out of the pattern. Only after your pilot in training takes over all these essential components (see incremental mastery) are you are ready to begin “pattern work.” Your pilot in training must earn landing practice by demonstrating mastery (not just because the clouds are low on the third lesson and the CFI has to pay rent). A relationship of trust in essential in this process because if your student imports all the crap they see on YouTube they will make this process longer and qeven more “exciting.”

Once in the pattern, I enforce the “rule of three”  – and transfer this to students as a necessary tool. This is simply calibrating the evaluation skills every good CFI already possesses. To be successful (and safe) the learner must see and remedy “high/low, fast/slow, not configured”  and terminate their attempt with a go-around if necessary. The pilot in training must develop evaluation skills too. There is absolutely no advantage to continuing with a “salvage job” or accepting the substandard landings I was watching. Even though the CFI is (usually) able to do salvage most landing attempts, we are guilty of fixing way too many ugly landings for students and thus setting a bad example (land at all costs). Whenever there are consistent deficiencies with basic aircraft control these issues need to be resolved before attempting further landings (otherwise we are practicing and reinforcing errors). It is essential to disassemble the bigger process (final form) into manageable elements that can be mastered safely at altitude then reassembled for success; e.g. once airspeed and ground track are functioning we can continue in the pattern productively.

Pilots in training master aircraft control at altitude first and progressively gain confidence and control at increasingly lower altitudes. Once slow flight has been mastered at altitude, bring it into normal pattern practice by flying down a long runway ground effect at approach speed. This is remarkably helpful and should occur before any landing practice with the specific goal of precise centerline control at progressively lower altitudes. In a few passes most students can track right down the line at 3-5 feet in ground effect (a skill that is still lacking after endless touch and goes) Achieving this kind of control through “centerline slowflight” is a trick used by every experienced aviation educator I know. Unfortunately, they usually only bring it out for “tough cases” as a “method of last resort.” You will be surprised how effective it is for every student (before landing practice).

Every CFI needs to be comfortable with centerline slow flight and it should be part of every normal student syllabus. This maneuver builds confidence in your learner and overcomes “ground fear” for new pilots in training. It also builds the subtle control feel and visual cues for the buoyancy of ground effect that contain 90% of the secret to effective landings. One huge psychological advantage to centerline slow flight is removing the expectation of landing that seems to be built into every pilot. Flying a series of low passes builds mastery of the go-around as a viable and safe “escape option.” This maneuver also saves wear and tear on the training aircraft and makes the subsequent teaching of a full landing a snap.

Once centerline slowflight is mastered, it is almost magical to train landing from a slow flight a lesson on a longer runway. Simply slowly reduce power as your pilot in training holds their sight picture in ground effect. Surprisingly your student has landed before they know it; tracking straight on the centerline without even expecting it. All you have to do is fully reduce power on touchdown (a crutch you obviously want to later remove). It is simple to adapt and adjust this procedure to become a normal approach and landing. The steps now to landing are easy because all the necessary skills are there; no semi-crashes and “protecting the airplane” arrivals. How many pilots screw up landings because they are uncomfortable in ground effect or trying to “make it land” rather than “waiting for the touchdown” with the perfect set-up? This and more useful techniques are part of our SAFE CFI-PRO™ Curriculum. In-person meetings canceled due to COVID (stand-by…soon!) Fly safely (and often)!

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The First Fifty Hours; Laying the Foundation

So, there you are, sitting in the FBO office. The flight examiner has just walked out the door and you feel just a little light headed: the still-drying examiner’s signature on the piece of paper in your hand makes it official: you are now a pilot. Zowie! Then a thought invades your reverie. “Okay, so I’m a pilot. Now what?”

It was probably your daydreams of being able to disappear from sight while headed in any direction that got you into flying in the first place, but with that piece of paper in your hand, your daydreams are now a reality. And to some, this can be just a little unsettling. You’re on your own. Every decision is yours and there’s no one to back you up if your decision is questionable. The world is literally your oyster, but it is a very, very big oyster and you’re a little intimidated. And this is as it should be.

As a newby, you intuitively know that in a fifty or a hundred hours you’ll know much more than you do now. So, it helps if you look at that first fifty hours as a settling-in period where you’re not only going to get comfortable in your role of nouveau aviator, but you’ll work at ensuring that what you were taught has actually become instinctive and not a shallow skill of which you barely have command. As you’re doing this, you’ll be gradually working up to that long trip you’ve always wanted to make.

The easiest way to both get comfortable and hone your skills is to put what you’ve learned into action by getting to know what the airports that are scattered around your local area have to offer. If you intentionally make each of your local forays educational, you’ll learn something that moves you closer to being ready for the “big trip” every time you leave the airport.

Before we do anything, however, we want to dedicate ten hours to a post graduate course in aviating: find your favorite, hard working CFI and you and he go out and find the nastiest crosswinds you can find. Then spend no less than four hours being deadly serious about overcoming aviation’s bogeyman, the crosswind. Then spend three or four hours doing nothing but landing on the shortest strip you can find. 2000 feet would be maximum. Shorter would be better. That eight or ten hours of graduate work will be the most important in your flying career. Then it’s time to start poking around outlying airports to see what we can see.

First of all, there’s something about flying into a never-before-visited airport that makes us all feel like explorers. It’s someplace we’ve never been before and, besides being a new runway in a new location, each airport, especially small ones, have a distinct personality all their own. None is like the other and it’s a little like a treasure hunt because we never know what we’ll find. Soon, even when on an airliner, you’ll look down and see airports you’ve never visited and wonder what there is to be found down there. There’s no more pleasant way to spend a leisurely afternoon than exploring new airports and there are few ways better suited to improving your flying skill.

Since we’re going to combine education with fun, we need to have specific goals we want to accomplish while we’re satisfying our urge to see what’s hiding in the next run-down hangar. The first of those goals is to become more comfortable landing on strange airports. Even though our PPL cross countries got us started on that goal, the more airports we land at, the better we’ll be at handling different approaches, wind patterns that are affected by unusual topography or buildings, and runways of different sizes and configurations. For instance, there’s something about turning final to a strange runway that has a severe drop-off at the approach end to make us apprehensive and tempts us to change our approach. The same thing holds for runways that aren’t level: uphill and downhill runways demand slightly different techniques, all of which we’ll learn by landing on them.

Another of our goals is to sharpen our cross-country skills by repeatedly leaving our home area (our comfort zone) and challenging ourselves to find the other airports. If, however, we have a lot of local airports to chose from, pick the closest ones for your first flights as a new PPL, simply because you’ll know where they are and can deal with the “strange runway” syndrome without having to deal with the cross country aspect of finding them at the same time.

A side benefit to this kind of airport hopping is that we’ll soon find airports that you like to visit simply because they have some sort of cool factor. Maybe it’s the smell of a runway that’s surrounded by pine forests, or a local pilot population that leans toward unusual airplanes, e.g. aerobatics, warbirds, antiques, etc. Maybe it has a great restaurant or you can walk to the beach from the ramp. All of the flights will be worthwhile, but some will terminate at someplace special.

Step One in getting your flights of discovery under way would be to identify and inventory the airports in the surrounding area. We could actually make a game out of this, if we wanted, by putting a sectional on a cork bulletin board. Then we draw concentric circles around our airport with 50, 100, and 150-mile radii. Yellow pushpins would be poked into each airport and, as we visit them, the yellow pin is replaced with a red one. There are bound to be some airports we can’t drop into, the private, “circle-R” fields, but we can get into all the others.

The second step would be to investigate those airports via an airport guide such as AOPA’s Airport Directory. The sectional will give us the basics: hard surface or grass/dirt, length and altitude, but the guide will let us know if it’s unusually narrow, or has obstacles or has any other characteristics that might make us want to avoid it until we’re a little more experienced. Those that appear to present too much of a challenge will be considered “B” airports and we’ll visit them later.

One of the most important factors to come out of the paper investigations of the airports would be whether they have restaurant/café or not. This information might be redundant, however, because all we have to do is ask any pilot on our airport for the best local airport restaurants and they’ll immediately give us book and verse on every hamburger joint within range.

Planning the flights may seem a little overkill for an airport that is nearly in sight from pattern altitude at our home airport. However, getting more proficient in both planning the flight and then flying the plan is one of the major goals of this endeavor. Ideally, we’ll want to pick airports in all directions from our home field so we learn more about our area. Then we have to decide whether we’re going to make round-robin flights involving two or more airports or whether we’re going to make them simple out-and-back jaunts. The round-robins will teach more, but to keep the planning and sweat factor to a minimum, let’s make the first few such flights out-and-back.

When planning the flights, we’ll draw lines on the sectional, pick check points, develop compass headings, make up trip cards and do everything we’d do on a major trip. That’s all part of the training. We won’t just fire up the GPS and go.

Also, in the interest of keeping thing simple, we’ll make the first few flights short enough that a single tank of gas gets us back home with at least a third of a tank left rather than fueling at the other end. We’ll leave that until we’re a further into this game.

When we finally do start flying the plan, we have to do it with the same mindset we’d have if we were flying to Aunt Edna’s house a thousand miles away: we want to take the short flights seriously. Even though we’re barely out of sight of home, we can get just as lost as we could a thousand miles away and lost is lost regardless of where we are at the time. Besides, we’re trying to sharpen our cross-country skills.

If our destination airport is close, we’ll know pretty much where it is, which is cheating, but we’ll ignore that and concentrate on holding headings and reading the sectional on the way making believe we’re on the first leg of a much longer flight. Learning to identify checkpoints is an important skill that experience helps develop and doing it on these short flights will go a long way toward keeping us from getting lost on the long ones. In truth, regardless of how long a cross country may be, it can be flown as a series of short ones that stretch only from check point to check point.

When we’ve found our airport, we have to figure out how to approach it. If it’s a towered field, they’ll obviously tell us what to do, but a small country field on the edges of the boondocks is a different matter. For one thing, in terms of traffic, the smaller fields can be more dangerous because they often don’t have Unicom and they sometimes have a “relaxed” attitude about what constitutes a traffic pattern. Plus, since they often have a small volume of traffic it’s easy for them, and us, to let our guard down.

If we can’t raise anyone on Unicom then it’s up to us to determine the wind direction and the active runway. So, we’ll cross over the airport at least 500 feet above pattern altitude so we can get a good look at the sock. This will also give us a better view to see who else is in the pattern. Then we go back out away from the field to come back in on a forty-five to the downwind. Since no one is talking at small fields, it’s a see and be seen situation and is really a good way to develop the awareness required for flying in general. If we used airplanes for nothing more than airport hopping, the effort would be with it.

The smaller airports in almost any part of the country are like thumb prints, with each one of them being highly individualized and a reflection of those who base there. It’s really fun to land on a rural grass runway and find ourselves parked between a couple of Cubs while watching a Champ or a sailplane land.

One of the universal characteristics of rural airports in all parts of the country is a more laid back attitude in which the new birdman can expect to be warmly welcomed. It’s not difficult to find yourself sitting in the sun in conversation with an aviation veteran where you pick up tidbits of information that you will use for the rest of your life.

Grassroots airports, which seem to circle every population center a respectful distance out, are also populated with a wider variety of airplanes than the bigger fields, so, while we’re becoming comfortable with the concept of flying and developing our skills, we’re also being exposed to a wider spectrum of aviation. It’s through airport hopping that we realize aviation is much wider and more diverse than we ever imagined. The sooner we learn that simple fact, the sooner we will realize that this new skill we are developing opens doors into so many different areas that the long distance flight that we had dreamed about from the beginning becomes just one of many dreams.

It’s during that first fifty hours after the check ride that we have the opportunity to stretch our legs, our interests and our skills and lay the foundation for the new life we are about to enter. It’s an important time in a new pilot’s life. Cherish it, as it only happens once.


Thanks to Budd Davisson for letting us republish this classic article. More great stories: http://www.airbum.com/

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