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Professional CFI: Real-World Lessons

Pancake fly-ins and other important lessons

"Turn base! I think there's a spot for us after the fifth plane on final."

"But I can't see the airport anymore!"

"Turn anyway; we'll follow the others." We bank steeply in our Cessna Skyhawk, craning our necks in search of traffic. Radio chatter is so dense we can't keep track of everybody.

"Watch that twin over to the west; looks like he's gonna try to cut in front of us!"

"I've got him."

There's a pause in the noise and Bruce keys the mic. "Show Low Traffic: Cessna-One-Eight, number six on final, Runway Two-Four, Show Low."

We're inbound for landing this morning at Show Low Municipal Airport in Show Low, Arizona, for the annual pancake breakfast fly-in. For a short time today, the little White Mountain town hosts one of the busiest airports in the state. But unlike other busy airports, there's no control tower here. Nor are there towers at most fly-in airports, for that matter. It's every pilot for himself.

Bruce bounces the airplane once, then squeaks onto the tarmac for a landing. "Can I log both those landings?" he asks, with a smile. We exit the runway and follow men with blue ball caps to parking. "Whew!" says Bruce. "I sure didn't learn about that in my flying lessons!"

Lessons. When you think about it that word has many meanings. Tops among flight instructor priorities are the programmed, planned lessons used to prepare our students to pass the pilot knowledge and practical tests. Objectives for those lessons are clearly spelled out by federal regulations in the form of written examinations, required aeronautical knowledge, and practical test standards. Our teaching methods are pretty well defined too, via syllabus, convention, and tradition. But life offers plenty of opportunities for less formal instruction. Such real-life lessons, both good and bad, are at least as educational as flight school. Most CFIs would agree that lessons learned through practical experience are as important as those acquired through formal training. But few instructors incorporate real-life lessons along with those found in the book. That's unfortunate, because by not sharing enough real-life lessons with our students, we force them to later experience risky situations and make difficult decisions for the first time without our help.

The lessons I'm talking about here are real situations beyond any syllabus, but which most pilots ultimately face - battling a gusty crosswind to touch down on a 20-foot-wide landing strip, dodging swarms of traffic on the first flight to an air show, the first VFR encounter with potential IFR conditions, vertigo induced by snow swirling around a spinning propeller, takeoff with a heavy load at high-density altitude, and, for a few, losing an engine and landing safely without power. The list of potentially dangerous real-life flying lessons goes on and on, and no flight instructor can cover it all.

We can, however, treat our students to a good deal more learning than the minimums spelled out in the syllabus for each rating. The more real-life lessons we share, the greater the confidence we impart for dealing with unexpected situations. Just as importantly, real-life training offers opportunities for a good deal of adventure and fun. That is why we fly, isn't it?

What hard-knocks lessons should we teach? Start with situations you know most pilots will eventually face, but which you'd never allow a student to tackle alone.

Challenging weather conditions are a good example. Every primary flight student deserves at least one session with their instructor tackling maximum-crosswind landings with lots of turbulence. Once pilots overcome fear and learn that they can handle the hard stuff, they no longer balk at a seven-knot crosswind. Encounters with IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) are obviously not safe for students to attempt alone, yet it's within our power to introduce that, too. For example, most CFIs don't allow students to fly under minimum VFR visibility conditions, but showing them what it's about is literally an eye-opener. Best to first experience one-mile visibility with an instructor, wouldn't you say?

To go a step further, schedule a properly equipped airplane on a marginal VFR day, and request local IFR clearance to VFR-on-top conditions. Assign your student a few turns on the climb through the deck and you'll instill a healthy respect for clouds, including why it's so important to avoid IFR conditions, how to maintain control, and the urgency of finding a way out of those conditions. Now they know what all that hood work is for! At the same time, your students will never forget the thrill of climbing to sunlight on top for the first time. Along with being of practical educational value to the private pilot student, this flight whets the appetite for the future adventure of instrument training.

Another situation that is rarely approved for solo-student practice appears on the private pilot test -simulated engine failures and emergency landings. How many private pilot applicants have actually completed at least one simulated power-off landing to a full stop? Well, until they've done it once, they never know for sure that they can do it in an emergency.

For my own students, at an appropriate point in training I arrange a power-to-idle simulated engine failure over some unfamiliar airport, with a power-off approach from 4,000 feet above ground level all the way to touchdown. (Be sure to clear the engine a few times on the way down.) It's amazing to see the student's surge of confidence from completing a power-off landing, not to mention the thrill of being able to say, "I can do it!"

Another source of great lessons is to answer in flight, whenever possible, the "what if" questions arising during every student's training. "What's it like to climb to service ceiling?" Don't just talk about it - load the ol' 152 to gross weight and show 'em! While you're at it, take advantage of the long, slow climb to demonstrate the effects of density altitude, by simulating takeoff and climb at several altitudes along the way.

Another good question to answer in the air: "Is it safe to fly in the rain?" Take 'em up in precip and demonstrate how to separate threatening conditions of low visibility and convective activity from those that pose no hazard. "Can't see through it" Don't fly through it!"

Difficult classroom concepts can also be illuminated in the air. Some students, for example, are slow to grasp the concept of flying through a moving mass of air - one symptom is difficulty understanding the differences between true airspeed and groundspeed. To get them thinking, ask, "Ever fly backwards?" Then pick a day with strong winds aloft, climb to altitude, slow to minimum controllable airspeed, and demonstrate it. It's yet another lesson that really makes the point, while yielding a cool experience students never forget. Fun plus learning, that's what we're after!

Sometimes real-life lessons fit nicely into the training syllabus, but often they do not. It may mean extra lessons, but our objective should be to produce sharp pilots, not just meet the minimums. That's no problem, because our students want to be great pilots; within reason they'll happily invest in additional learning experiences. When you see the opportunity for a great extra lesson, offer the option to your student.

Most students are delighted when you offer such lessons. Not only do they like the idea of mastering something new, but they enjoy exposure to special knowledge or experiences not shared by their peers.

To be successful instructors we must transfer both learning and adventure -either one alone makes for a less-than-satisfactory training experience. While the need for learning is obvious, perhaps not so clear is the immeasurable ability of fun and adventure to make learning meaningful, and therefore more complete. In short, the better we connect lessons to stimulating real-life experiences, the more successful our teaching. And with fun as a motivator, learning is easy.

Which brings us back to pancake breakfast fly-ins. Collision-avoidance is another tough lesson to teach, especially in less-congested locations where students may consider it largely a theoretical exercise.

So, for a really great collision-avoidance lesson, schedule a flight to a pancake breakfast fly-in. No flight school would allow a student to fly solo cross-country to such a busy event. Even for a dual lesson you might have to persuade the chief flight instructor. But how should your student first learn about collision avoidance? As pilot-in-command with family and friends?

Use adventure to make your students' learning more complete, and offer special real-life lessons whenever you get the chance. Your students will be safer and more enthusiastic pilots as a result, and you'll have that much more fun instructing.

"Hey, Greg, check out the line waiting for takeoff!"

"You're not kidding, Bruce. Seems wisest to take our time and check out the cool airplanes on the flight line, don't you think?"

"Yeah, it sure does. Say! Since we have a little time maybe you could answer a few questions about magnetos."

"Be glad to. Pass the maple syrup, would you?"

By Greg Brown

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