New Pilot

The Easy-to-Train Student

January 1, 1996

An instructor's view of student pilot aptitudes

For every student pilot sizing up a flight instructor there is a flight instructor assessing the student's prospects of success.

Surprised that the sizing-up process could be a two-way street? Look at it this way: As a CFI gains experience and works with many different personalities over thousands of flight hours, certain traits emerge that provide early clues about whether training an individual prospect will be easy and fun or difficult and frustrating. You may also be surprised to know that a student's aptitude and intelligence are not necessarily the issues that will create the strongest impressions.

Before beginning a new training program, I ask myself and the student a few questions aimed at "screening out" the dreamers from the doers. Does the student have a realistic sense of whether flight training will fit into his life? Does he appear to possess sufficient independence to keep the momentum going with home study and extracurricular exposure to aviation and maintain interest when confronting delays? Is the student safety-minded or likely to start doing buzz jobs and other dumb stunts after the solo endorsement? (In other words, am I at risk?) If the student has already logged some time elsewhere, what were the reasons for his not having completed the training, and do those unfavorable conditions still exist? Why does the student want to fly?

All that may sound somewhat harsh, but only a small percentage of the prospective pilots I have encountered were rejected or "let go" as a result of this screening process, either before or during training. The good news is that of those who did teeter on the brink, several dramatic turnaround stories can be told. For an instructor, that is probably the most rewarding outcome of all.

Generalizations about personality types don't tell the whole story of why some students succeed while others with equal ability fade, but instructors reflecting on their experience or consulting a colleague for advice do find that certain inevitable truths appear with regularity. Here is a brief list, starting with warning signs and concluding with the more encouraging indications. Do any of these ring a bell with you?

  • The student with the self-destructing schedule heads the list of negatives. This person is well-intentioned but has never honestly faced the issue of whether flight training fits into his or her life. "Next week things will quiet down and I'll be able to fly more." Next week never comes, the written test and medical certificate expire, and the training program becomes sporadic repetitions of one step forward, two steps back.
  • "Lots of hours but doesn't know nothin'." This student is waiting for flying skills to accrue through osmosis. Can perform the "what" of flying without a clue as to the "why." A designated examiner seeking to boost his kill ratio would see this applicant coming miles away. "I'm not much of a book person," the student says when asked why he has 120 hours of flight time but can't describe for you a chord line or an angle of attack.
  • "I didn't know it would be this much work." Related to the above. You hear this one just before someone gives up. Often you hear it despite having vigorously laid out the training program before the student ever left the ground for the first flight.
  • The negative thinker. Has lots of reasons why he shouldn't get a weather briefing (it's nice out), preflight the airplane (you just flew it), or draw a line on the chart ("I didn't want to mess up a brand-new chart.") Rarely or never takes the initiative to do something beyond the necessary. Has elegant, well-thought-out rationales for this behavior, often explained with consummate charm.
  • Blames past instructors; plays the victim. Sometimes, of course, this is warranted, but if the student has done nothing independently to seek information beyond the inadequate instruction he or she may have received, the new CFI may simply be next in line for the scapegoat role.
  • Scared of flying, but hasn't admitted it. A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All smiles on the ground but grins through gritted teeth in the air. Hates it when the ground falls away on takeoff, hates it when the ground comes back on landings, hates bumps, dreads stalls, but still allegedly wants to fly. Explains, "I'm never going to do stalls or steep turns when I have my license anyway." Won't deal with the underlying fear — this is dangerous.
  • Thinks the whole training program is a joke; believes deep down that "real pilots" don't worry about all that briefing, planning, and weather stuff. He has lots of amusing tales about breaking the rules and wants to hear yours.
  • Thinks he already knows how to fly and wonders why CFIs are too dense to see it. (A variation on this one is the student or advanced rating applicant who never flies to standards but offers a fresh new explanation for each failure, denying that they are all linked by the common thread of lacking fundamental knowledge. When confronted with the lack-of-effort issue, the excuse is "Look, I'm too busy to study. Teach me. Isn't that what I'm paying you for?"
  • Problems of temperament. Wants everything to be perfect; treats every flight like a checkride, stress level included. Goes bananas and stops flying the airplane when things go wrong. (This is a danger flag to the wary CFI and an accident-waiting-to-happen setup to the unwary.)
  • Eager and energetic, but lacks judgment. "The wind was gusting to 35, but it was right down the runway, so I hauled out the taildragger...." Yes, Virginia, people do these things.

What traits do instructors love to see in their students?

  • Indefatigability. "You told me to read chapters one through three, but I kept going and now I have a question about something in chapter seven," said the voice on the telephone late one night.
  • The ability to accept criticism without feeling threatened or needing to make excuses. (This can also be a saving grace on a checkride.) "I have to go around; this short-field approach is not going to work out. Later you can tell me what I did wrong."
  • Participation as an equal in the training; suggesting things to review. "Before we go in and land, do we have time to practice some crosswind and no-flap landings today?"
  • General self-motivation. "I read the FARs and practiced with the weight-and-balance tables again last night for the checkride. What else can I do to prepare?"
  • Willingness to ask questions. "This may sound dumb, but...."
  • Learns from experience. "The next time the tower turns me onto a one-mile final ahead of a Gulfstream IV, I am going to reject the clearance and ask for different sequencing."

With few exceptions, students who complete their training in a timely fashion and excel on their checkrides exhibit most of the qualities in the second group and few — if any — of the traits in the first group. They are the kind of pilots you would want at the controls if your loved ones were seated in the aircraft. They are boundlessly pleasant companions to fly with; and when I have recommended such a pilot for a flight test on the morrow, I can still get a good night's sleep.

Fears of Flying: Captain Invulnerable

By Julie Boatman

Youthful naivete can be hazardous on its own, but there are many other things that can plague student pilots. The insidious Captain Invulnerable — an attitude I brought with me — rode on my shoulders with every flight; and until a real emergency grabbed me by the shirt, I had no idea he was there.

In the average of 72 hours we spend as student pilots, one real equipment malfunction during flight is about all we can expect. Under these conditions, not surprisingly, a student can be lulled into a false sense of security. Being a teenager, I was already in a state of happy ignorance that no real emergency would come my way. My last solo cross-country before my checkride found me with the same attitude.

The cross-country comprised a relatively short trip over familiar territory, and a beautiful day presented itself for the flight. Greencastle, my home base, was a private field about 10 miles south of the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport in eastern Iowa. My destination was Ottumwa, Iowa, about 65 miles to the southwest. I took off with everything I needed for a no-surprises trip: charts; navigation log; logbook; flight computer; full tanks; and a happy, smiling face. I took off with a flight plan form, too, but after a couple of half-hearted attempts to raise someone at flight service — and receiving no reply — I casually stowed the form in the well-worn pocket behind my seat. No real reason for it, I thought, and I didn't like talking on the radio much, anyway.

The FBO at Ottumwa was as down-home friendly as one might expect in a Midwestern town. While the airplane was being refueled, the amiable counter attendant asked me if I had a flight plan to close. I shrugged and said no. He looked a little concerned, like a father giving up his daughter to a guy in a revving red Mustang, but he didn't press me further. I paid for the fuel and went back out to the airplane. After giving the Cessna 150 a cursory walk-around, I merrily hopped back in and took off into blue skies.

At 2,500 feet msl, I cruised along, aimlessly singing tunes from the then-newly released "Phantom of the Opera." Singing in the airplane is like singing in your car, only better — no one pulls up next to you at a light to stare. About 15 minutes out of Greencastle, my amateur rendition of "Think of Me" was rudely interrupted by a loud "Clunk!" from under the cowling. I looked at the tachometer and watched it almost instantly drop from 2,400 to 1,900 revolutions per minute. My cruise altitude of 2,500 feet suddenly felt way too low; and in my confusion, I lost 700 feet before I realized that I needed to stabilize the airplane. At this new, reduced rpm, I found I could maintain an altitude of 1,800 feet above ground level by reducing the airspeed to 60 knots. Slow flight, I thought with a grim smile. I trimmed the airplane and went about trying to discover the origin of that horrendous noise.

By now my mind was in a strange state of clarity, and I followed the emergency checklist in a fairly ordered fashion. The addition of carburetor heat made the engine sound worse, as did the cycling of the magnetos left and right. The primer was locked, and the fuel selector valve sat in its familiar On position. My intuition told me that none of these items was the source of my problem; but I had time, so I dutifully checked each one. Nothing. Still the tach hovered between 1,900 and 2,000 rpm. I was about 10 minutes away from the airport, with no closer paved alternatives around. The stretch of farmland flowing between my position and Greencastle offered plenty of potential landing spots, particularly with the corn harvest in. However, the engine chugged along steadily — despite its decreased performance, the cacophony of rattling noises, and the ghost of fear that rode next to me — so I elected to head home.

Home was where I hoped to land; I had no flight plan activated. Although my instructor knew my route of flight and approximately when I would return, he had no inkling of the problem I faced. If I was forced to make an off-airport landing, it could leave me incapacitated. Farmhouses often lie miles apart, and it might take me an hour or so to get to a telephone, barring any injury. If I had raised flight service successfully at the beginning of my flight, I might have had someone to talk to during those tense 10 minutes at the end. The flight plan safety net seemed superfluous on a beautiful CAVU day, but in this case, blue skies had nothing to do with the troubles that I encountered.

Those next minutes were the longest of my life. Adrenaline kept me looking at fields and reassessing my options every 30 seconds. When I saw Greencastle's narrow blacktop runway appear through the trees just off the nose, I could hardly contain my desire to be on the ground — now.

I entered the pattern at 500 feet agl at midfield and limped around to the left at my now-quite-familiar 60 knots. Funny, but the speed felt a lot slower next to the ground. I landed with a bump and a little less directional control than usual, and I taxied up to the office. I don't remember making a radio call on the multicom, but my instructor later told me I sounded just fine. One can imagine his surprise when I stumbled in the door and told him, "I think there's something wrong with the 150's engine." It was quickly determined that the engine had thrown the exhaust valve on the number three cylinder. My instructor told me that I could have flown around all day on the disabled engine, but somehow that didn't make me feel much better.

Two days later, with the engine fixed and running as well as almost new, I flew to Iowa City Municipal Airport to take my private checkride. The exam seemed easy, and I attributed this to some newly found confidence. I knew that I could keep a clear head in an emergency and that all of my previous instruction had found its way into my memory. However, I was also aware that emergencies can happen, even to students.

Through most of my student-pilot days I felt invulnerable, but the blissful ignorance was shattered with that loud "Clunk!" There are times when the quiet drone of the engine and the rolling fields passing underneath can lull one into false confidence. For me, however, these feelings are short-lived. I recognize them as beguiling and possibly fatal. Captain Invulnerable may seem benign, sitting there on your shoulder, but once in a while, he'll lean over and smack you in the face.

Julie Boatman of Boulder, Colorado, is a CFI who has logged 900 hours in eight years of flying. She is also an active member of the Ninety-Nines.

Practice Area: Ground Effect

By William K. Kershner

Our carrier in 1954 had four F4U-5N Corsairs with five of us pilots plus a support crew of about 35 enlisted men as a night fighter team. There were about 90 day fighter pilots on board who didn't fly after dark; and we figured that during the period from sunset to dawn, their duties consisted of eating dinner in the wardroom, playing cards, watching the wardroom movie, and sleeping the sleep of the just.

One night I got to see the first half of a very bad movie about a carrier and its pilots during World War II. The squadron commander (in the movie) took off in one type of airplane, was flying in another, and landed in a third type. The use of bits of WWII newsreels was quite evident — but not accurate. The comments of the pilot-audience were much more entertaining than the movie. I had to go on deck to be catapulted into a two-hour patrol and didn't see the end of that movie until some years later on videotape. The second half was as bad as the first.

At night we were always catapulted; but in the daytime, deck runs were sometimes used, and that's the subject of this discussion.

The procedure was that the airplane was taxied up even with the island (allowing about a 380- to 400-foot run) to the flight deck officer, who would hold up a small flag and call for a "one-finger rev-up." (He used his index finger.) After ascertaining that the engine was running okay (mags, etc.), the two-finger rev-up was given, with much rotating of the small flag in the other hand.

In the case of the F4U, the full power of 64 inches manifold pressure (and 2,800 rpm) was not used when the airplane was sitting still for several reasons — not the least of which was that when the manifold pressure was greater than 44 inches and the flaps were down, the tail could not be held down, even with the stick full back. (The Navy frowned on chopping up the deck.) Also, on a painted wooden flight deck, the wheels started slipping above that power setting.

On the deck runs, if the deck was pitching up or down, the launching officer (the guy with the little flag) had to time the launch with the pitching of the ship so that the deck was going through level or slightly pitched up as the airplane lifted off. This could mean that at the initial part of the deck run with the deck pitched down, the pilot was sometimes looking ahead at green (or blue or gray) water.

This did not help to ease one's mind, and there was always the thought that, while the ship had been steadily and predictably pitching for several hours, this run would be the one during which the bow would stay pitched down and the aircraft would make like a submarine. However, on this day the sea was glassy smooth. It was the first launch of the morning and the flight deck was damp.

The one-finger and two-finger rev-ups were good, and the flag swung forward, giving the sign to go.

I released the brakes and, as the airplane started moving, opened the throttle all the way to get the desired 64 inches.

An unusual engine noise caused me to check the manifold pressure gauge just as the needle passed 75 inches (the max indicated). I'll swear the cowling was bulging, but know better. My friends who were in the island structure said later that the smoke and noise were indeed very noticeable.

Time marches on — quickly. I throttled back, attempting to get back to 64 inches, meanwhile also seeing the end of the deck coming up. Too late to try to stop.

Oops, 44 inches. Okay, throttle forward again. Again 75-plus inches. Back again.

At the end of the deck I saw 70 knots — not enough, but I had 60 feet of height before hitting the water.

I used every foot of it — and wished for a couple of hundred more. I pulled the gear up but left the flaps alone.

The people in the island said that the airplane disappeared below the bow for a few seconds and then came back into view cocked up, with the tail about a foot off the water and leaving a wake. I remember the thought that flashed through my mind as I dropped over the bow: "I wish that I could see this; it ought to be spectacular."

I knew I didn't want to pull the nose up any higher and didn't know the height of the airplane above the water.

I was told that when the airplane came back into view from the island and was dragging a wake, the captain ordered the ship turned because "we going to run over that boyah!" (He was from the South.)

I gradually gained altitude, much of the reason being that I was pulling upward on the stick and had raised myself up from the seat in order to lighten the airplane's weight. (Well, I figured that anything was worth a try.)

The ship, meanwhile, resumed its course and continued to launch other airplanes. I suggested that perhaps it would be a good idea for me to land right away, as the engine was acting somewhat erratically. It was patiently explained to me that with all those airplanes parked at the aft end of the flight deck, a landing at this time would be noisy and expensive, and I wouldn't want that, would I? The airplanes had to be moved later, and I could land in about an hour and a half.

Okay, but I assured the folks down there that whatever quirks and turns the carrier might take, I'd be right overhead — and I was.

The landing was an anticlimax, though I kept worrying throughout the approach that the engine would decide to pack it in and I would have to do what I had been dreading since my 16 weeks in remedial aquatics at Pensacola pre-flight — swim.

At the beginning of the deployment, I had informed the pilots of our four airplanes that we were not going to ditch, even if the engine quit, because I would rapidly fold and unfold the wings and use the ornithopter principle to get back to the boat. (Never mind the fact that if the engine were dead, there would be none of the hydraulic pressure necessary to fold and unfold the wings — I certainly wasn't going to mention that to the pilots.)

The engine problem was caused by an automatic engine control's (supercharger) deciding that the airplane was at 30,000 feet and so providing extra boost for that altitude, not sea level.

The factor that allowed me to avoid hitting the water was, to a great extent, "ground" effect and the fact that the ocean was glassy. In heavy wave conditions the airplane might have smacked into a wave — requiring my marginal water survival skills.

At high angles of attack (low airspeed) induced drag is the major factor of total drag (parasite plus induced). Ground (surface) effect reduces induced drag by nearly half in some heights and configurations by dissipating the strength of wingtip vortices, which reduces drag and increases lift. Induced drag is the major drag at higher angles of attack such as liftoff or landing, and the result can be the difference between flying or not.

Surface effect can be a friend or an enemy. Pilots of heavily loaded GA airplanes at high density altitudes (such as out West in the summer) have found that the airplane lifts off but cannot climb out of ground effect and so flies into some solid object off the departure end of the runway.

Another factor is that the airplane has more longitudinal stability in surface effect; that is, the downwash angle at the tail is reduced so that the airplane does not tend to pitch up as easily, and measurably more up-elevator is needed to land the airplane or to raise the nose at that point. In fact, the power-off condition in ground effect is usually the limiting (and controlling) factor for the maximum forward CG position allowed by the designer. Depending on the particular airplane, up to 15 degrees more up-elevator is required to land the airplane in ground effect than when practicing such attitudes at altitude.

Check this scenario: Joe and his family are leaving on vacation in his four-place airplane. The tail of the airplane (a tricycle-gear type) is practically touching the ground after the baggage has been loaded. One of the old-timers at the airport advises that he could have a stability and control problem after lift-off, but Joe has carefully thought it out, and he explains that he will hold the airplane down to a couple of feet and, if it feels OK, will climb and proceed on course.

He doesn't know that an airplane marginally stable in ground effect could be uncontrollable as altitude is gained. Ground effect usually is found up to about one-half of a wingspan of the airplane, so holding it down to a foot or two above the surface to "check its stability" won't tell the pilot what he might encounter at a greater altitude.

Accident reports have read, "The heavily loaded airplane was apparently forced into the air; and as it climbed, the nose pitched higher. The resulting stall and impact killed all aboard."

I was lucky in my near-ditching and, as many an old Navy chief petty officer has said, "God takes care of children and ensigns." Ground effect also helps.

William K. Kershner, AOPA 084901, a flight instructor and writer whose textbooks are published by Iowa State University Press, has been flying for more than 50 years, has taught 460 students aerobatics, and received the 1992 National Flight Instructor of the Year Award.


Babister, A. W. Aircraft Stability and Control, pages 56, 82, 641.

Etkin, Bernard. Dynamics of Flight, pages 76, 475.

Hurt, H. H. Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators, pages 379-383.

Kershner, W. K. Advanced Pilot's Flight Manual, pages 17-18, 44-45.

McCormick, B. W. Aerodynamics, Aeronautics and Flight Mechanics, pages 420, 523.

Perkins, C. D. and Robert E. Hage. Airplane Performance, Stability and Control, pages 256-257.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.