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Lessons From Your Students

A New Way To Teach Unusual Attitudes

At an airshow this year, I talked to the first student I ever trained for a private pilot certificate. His name is Ken Dixon, and after earning his certificate, he continued on to become a CFII who instructs regularly. One of the real joys of being a flight instructor is to see a person who you introduced to flying earn additional ratings and certificates and become a successful mentor to other fledgling aviators.

Ken and I discussed the John F. Kennedy Jr. tragedy and ways in which pilots could be trained to cope with night or low-visibility VFR flight without outside references. He told me of a technique that he has been using to teach unusual attitudes. Instead of the traditional method of having the student look at the floor while the instructor places the aircraft into an unusual attitude, Ken has the student get into the unusual attitude on his or her own. The student is told to read a sectional chart in his lap. Then, still looking at the chart, the student is directed to try to keep the aircraft straight and level based on the sensations he feels as he reads the chart. If the moving shadows from the sun are providing the student with cues, he is asked to place his right hand over his eyes. In a short time, the aircraft begins to deviate from its previous attitude, usually entering a spiral that becomes steeper with time.

After a few seconds, Ken asks the student to look at the instruments and recover from the unusual attitude. After recovery, Ken asks the student whether he knew the aircraft was turning and descending. Most students tell him that they thought the aircraft was turning in the opposite direction from what it actually was and that they were attempting to correct for it. That's how they got into the spiral.

Once the airplane is again flying straight and level, Ken and the student discuss what just happened, emphasizing that pilots can't rely on their senses to fly the airplane when they have no outside references. The senses are usually wrong, and distractions such as fixating on a sectional chart or reaching into the back seat for something will quickly lead to an unusual attitude. The instruments are all the pilot has to maintain straight-and-level flight.

After leaving the airshow, I tried Ken's technique during my next several instructional flights. It worked like a charm, usually resulting in a steep spiral to the right in less than 30 seconds. The students, without exception, expressed shock at how their senses had misled them and how easy it is for the airplane to go out of control when you don't have outside references or instruments. The verbal response when they looked up at the instruments was usually, "Wow," or something unprintable.

Some 20 years after his first lesson, my first student taught me a technique that has made me a better instructor. It proves the adage that you learn as much from your students as they learn from you.

By Richard Hiner

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