Frugal Flyer: Backseat learning

The backseat can really be the best seat—and certainly the least expensive.

December 1, 2009

Almost all of the flight training aircraft at my local airport have four seats, and the rear two are usually empty. That’s a shame because those vacant seats represent valuable learning opportunities missed.

Flight students, and sometimes their instructors, seem to assume that learning only takes place in the left seat. It’s true that a student can only log the flight time spent manipulating the aircraft controls. But logging and learning can be two different things. And a backseat student unburdened by mundane concerns such as holding a heading and altitude can observe and retain more from his or her remote perch than anywhere else in the airplane.

The backseat can really be the best seat—and certainly the least expensive.

Some flight schools and instructors allow students to ride along (as long as they’re willing to reciprocate when they’re filling the left seat), charge reduced fees, or simply allow the GIB (guy/gal in back) to pick up the post-flight lunch tab.

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Backseat observation is especially valuable for instrument flight students where complex new topics such as IFR navigation, advanced avionics, and radio procedures are being introduced. With so much information to absorb, it’s a real luxury to concentrate on one area and not have to devote brain cells to flying the airplane. The same is true for other ratings, although the chandelles, lazy eights, turns on pylons, and other maneuvers required for commercial certificates can make the backseaters feel like they’re on a devilish carnival ride.

And rather than being a burden on the left-seat student, a conscientious backseat rider can be a blessing. Most training aircraft fly differently with weight in the back, much as they will when a student moves on and takes passengers flying in the future. Elevator forces are lighter with the center of gravity farther aft. Stalls feel different and so, to a lesser extent, do takeoffs and landings.

A third person’s presence can get flight students accustomed to being observed in the cockpit and make them less nervous when their time comes to fly with an FAA examiner. Another set of eyes to spot traffic can be welcome, too. And for the backseat student, watching the way other students and instructors interact can be extremely beneficial. Seeing professional, productive student/instructor relationships can help backseat students better manage their own flight instructor interactions.

Flight students and schools are using in-cockpit video more and more. A backseat student can help record images for review. If a backseat student is allowed to take part in a post-flight debrief, hearing the explanations can be illuminating. If asked, a back-seater’s observations can be useful, too.

Students can pair up with study buddies who will act as sounding boards and provide motivation throughout the flight training process, and beyond. If you’re fortunate enough to find a training partner, schedule consecutive flights whenever possible and take turns riding in back. Your cross-country trips will involve twice the learning at half the cost. Each student will log less pilot-in-command time, but they’ll have more flight experience, and that can be much more valuable in the long run than stick time.

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.