Proficient Pilot

Creative instructing

August 1, 2010

There are two basic kinds of flight instructors. The first comprise the majority, those who instruct by rote, the do-as-I-demonstrate types.

They get the job done but often not as effectively as the second type, flight teachers who use imaginative methods to make lasting and positive impressions on their students. In my April column, “3 in 1,” I solicited creative training methods used by flight instructors. It was gratifying to have received so many, and I regret not having the space here to acknowledge all of them.

R. David Copes wrote about how his flight instructor (also his father) would pull the landing-gear circuit breaker while his student was distracted during the performance of maneuvers at altitude. Upon later returning to the traffic pattern, the senior Copes would determine if his student would detect the problem and how well he would cope with it. This invariably led to cranking down the landing gear (in a Beech Bonanza).

Creative instructors find ways to disable other aircraft systems (such as the flaps) to determine how well their students handle these problems. Bill Rimer writes about how he likes to fail cockpit lights during night flights in Alaska, which is most of the time during the winter. “If this doesn’t teach pilots to keep their flashlights immediately handy, nothing will,” he says.

All instructors simulate engine failures at altitude, but Dana Nickerson’s instructor, Paul Bertorelli, also presented him with simulated engine failures very shortly after liftoff. “Bertorelli taught me just how much forward push on the elevator is required to transition from a steep, full-power climb to a glide.” Such training eventually proved invaluable because of an actual engine failure he later experienced. “I could almost hear Bertorelli yelling, ‘Push, push, push.’”

Speaking of engine failures, Frank Sperandeo’s instructor used an unusual technique for presenting engine failures at altitude. “While we were cruising at 2,000 feet above the chicken houses and pig farms of Arkansas, my instructor simply turned off the ignition and threw the key out the side window. You cannot believe how startling that can be,” Sperandeo reports. “My instructor then asked, ‘Now what are you going to do?’” Sperandeo knew that this was no simulation and the adrenaline began to flow. This was for real, he thought, and quickly picked out the most suitable landing spot. At 500 feet agl, however, his instructor nonchalantly reached into his pocket, pulled out a duplicate key, and restarted the engine. Such simulated reality, however, carries with it a risk of unintended consequences.

Reinhard Metz describes how his instructor had an unorthodox method of teaching recoveries from unusual attitudes while flying instruments under the hood. His instructor, Verne Jobst, simply asked him to close his eyes and attempt to maintain straight-and-level flight using only the “seat of his pants.” This, of course, is impossible, but it allowed the student to unwittingly put himself into an unusual attitude at which point Jobst would ask him to open his eyes and recover. Another instructor, John Loughmiller, teaches VFR pilots the perils of flying inadvertently into IFR conditions by putting a sleeping mask over their eyes and asking them to attempt to fly straight and level using only visceral sensations. It does not take long for the aircraft to enter a perilous condition. He then removes the mask from his student’s head and asks him to recover. “This makes a lasting impression,” he reports.

Richard Wells describes an instructor who would hit the control wheel just as he was flaring for a landing. The airplane would bounce into the air with virtually no airspeed, and he was told to recover from the “botched” landing. I used to do something similar with my students before I allowed them to make their first solo flights. The only problem with this was that tower controllers observed what appeared as a horrendous landing that minutes later was followed by my announcing that I was releasing my student to make his first solo flight. I’m certain that they were preparing to call the crash trucks.

Another instructor wrote to advise that he never checks out anyone in a new airplane without first opening a cabin door during takeoff to see how he reacts to the sudden and startling noise. “It is important to me,” he says, “that they demonstrate a safely aborted takeoff or continue the departure without allowing the problem to become a dangerous distraction.”

Gregg Stockman has developed a landing-gear simulator, a portable device he uses to enable students to get into the habit of operating the landing gear in aircraft configured only with fixed gear. He also developed a small portable panel of engine instruments that he uses to simulate engine malfunctions in flight (such as high oil temperature, high cylinder-head temperature, or low oil pressure).

Several pilots wrote about how their instructors would “sabotage” their airplanes to determine how thoroughly they conducted preflight inspections. Such sabotage included missing screws from an inspection plate, a missing oil dipstick, and a rag stuffed in the engine cowling. Students failing to discover Scotch tape over the static ports or a plugged pitot tube often were allowed to take off and learn the hard way how to fly an airplane with malfunctioning pitot-static instruments.

Other suggested teaching methods, however, were either controversial or blatantly dangerous. Flight instructors need to temper their enthusiasm and not teach a lesson too well.

Barry Schiff is working on his new book, Basic Aviation Science.Visit the author’s Web site.