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The Holistic Instructor

Teach Them To Fly, Not Pass The Test

Learning to fly is such an incredible can of worms. The same thing applies to teaching people to fly. There is a seemingly endless variety of ways any given thing can be done in an airplane. From landings to takeoffs to trundling along on cross-countries, everyone has their own way of doing things. And then there is the FAA and the way it likes applicants to do things on the private pilot checkride. The FAA very definitely has its own definition of "right." Fortunately, however, most of the horror stories about what happens on a checkride are just that ¿ stories - because all examiners operate within the constraints of the FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS). For that reason, if you skim through the PTS, you have a pretty good idea what they are going to hit the hapless private pilot candidate with.

The good news is that the student knows exactly what he or she is going to be expected to know and what tasks he or she will be expected to accomplish. The bad news is that the CFI knows the same thing. On the one hand the PTS gives the student and the CFI a guide for the checkride. On the other hand, it's really easy to think in terms of what has to be accomplished on the checkride and use that as instructing criteria. With the PTS in hand, we could easily forget that our goal, both as instructors and students, is to learn to fly, not pass a test. Passing the test should be nothing more than the happy byproduct of well-rounded instruction.

Many old-time instructors lament that we're spending too much time worrying about checkrides and not enough worrying about developing basic flying skills. One of the trends they see is a general degradation of basic stick-and-rudder piloting skills. Another is the significant increase in the amount of time it takes a student to earn the coveted private pilot certificate.

The claim of degrading skills is a subjective judgment based upon what these instructors have seen over the years, coupled with accidents that simply should not have happened. The increase in training time is, to a partial extent at least, explainable: Today's students are bombarded with more and more FAA-required "must know" information, which includes new kinds of navigation, FARs, airspace, etc. Over four decades the increase in this extracurricular stuff (which contributes nothing to actual stick-and rudder-skills) has helped to drive the average time for a student to learn to fly from around 42 hours to well over 60 hours.

The upward trend in the numbers of hours it takes to get the private certificate runs counter to the changes in training aircraft - even though the trainers are much easier to fly, it's taking longer to get pilots into the air. Back in the "good old days" when flight schools depended on taildraggers like Champs and Cubs, it generally took about eight hours to solo a student and 40 to 45 hours to get his certificate. Some were certificated at 35 hours in an approved school. Today it is rare that a student solos in eight hours, and they almost never get their certificate at the legal minimum. Some of this increase is due to the additional FAA experience requirements. However, you would think that since it's taking 50 percent longer for pilots to get their certificates that today's pilots would be better, when some claim just the reverse is true.

The statement has been made that the general pilot population has not been learning some of the more important basic skills and that is what is hurting their stick-and-rudder flying. Note, we didn't say they weren't being taught those skills, but that they aren't learning them. In other words, the basics aren't being emphasized enough to make them stick. The instructor may point out the correct way to handle coordination or speed control at the beginning but doesn't keep hammering on it throughout the training process, so it doesn't become ingrained in the student's flying personality.

The emphasis appears to have shifted to the black-and-white, easy-to-ask questions likely to show up during the private pilot checkride because a practical test is more likely to be busted by not knowing facts than by not keeping the ball centered or landing a little long. It is universally recognized that to pass a checkride, it's helpful if the student is able to quote the federal aviation regulations, among other things, by chapter and verse. It is just as recognized that as long as the student doesn't do something overtly stupid while flying, chances are he or she will pass the flight portion of the exam. Of course, this runs counter to common sense - it should be the other way around. When a pilot is on short final in a hard, gusty crosswind, book knowledge isn't much help. When flying an airplane, the only thing that truly counts is actually being able to fly the airplane. All the rest is window dressing. And this brings us back to the PTS. It is necessary for the instructor and the student to agree that the PTS is a guide to be used for the checkride only. It lays out the bare minimums, and no one wants to - or should - learn just the minimum. We want to make sure that no thought like "that's good enough to get you past the checkride, so don't worry about it" ever surfaces.

The PTS is a surprisingly complete outline of what a pilot should know about flying an airplane, but it obviously can't go into great detail in each area. That's where interpretation by both the examiner and the instructor come into play. The reality is that if an examiner were to get hard-nosed and press home the specifics of each part of the PTS and test each applicant for each section and everyone knew that would be the case, the PTS actually would be a good instructional guide. Even if that were the case, however, there are a lot of specifics left out of the PTS, and to use it as a guide to provide truly well-rounded instruction, the instructor has to insert some of his or her own requirements between the lines. Also, the PTS establishes some standards of performance - in approach speeds, for instance - that are simply too loose and shouldn't be taught as being acceptable.

Rule one as a CFI reviewing the PTS guide: Don't look at what it says; look for what it doesn't say. It is, of necessity, brief in its explanations of maneuvers and loose in the required testing standards. The instructor must flesh out the regulatory skeleton to bring it to life as a useful guideline for CFI and student alike.

Let's look at a few random specifics within the PTS that are open to interpretation or which establish standards that might be improved upon. In the traffic pattern section, for example, it says that the objective is "to determine that the applicant...establishes an appropriate distance from the runway, considering the possibility of an engine failure."

This is a terrific piece of advice, and even the old-timers would buy into it - especially the part about considering engine failure. The question of what is an "appropriate" distance, of course, needs some interpretation. However, when that is tied with the engine failure phrase, our interpretation is that "you don't go anywhere in the pattern where you absolutely need the engine to make the runway." This is old-fashioned common sense, but is this the way the FAA conducts the checkride? Of course not. Is this the way most instructors instruct? Of course not. The interpretation of that phrase has apparently been changed to mean, "don't kill the engine until you have the runway made," not "stay close enough to the runway to glide to it from any position."

As an instructor, you should be asking yourself which makes more sense - drive it out away from the runway at low level under power or keep it in fairly tight so you can always glide to the runway. Power-on approaches don't teach the judgment required to make emergency landings, they extend the overall pattern too much, and they instill an assumption in the student that you can always use power to make up for a lack of judgment. This is not sound instruction.

In the PTS landing section, it says the applicant should hold the approach speed within a minus-5, plus-10 kt range. That's allowing a variation of 15 kt on final! So, in an approach at 55 kt we're willing to let them be 10 percent slow and nearly 20 percent fast. What kind of precision is that? It's one thing to have the airspeed vary accidentally while trying to hold it to a given number. It is something entirely different to make a 15-kt spread an official FAA policy that is deemed acceptable. The acceptable margins should be a third of that, and lots of guilt should be laid on the student when he exceeds those margins. The concept of precise airspeed (also known as nose attitude) control is one that haunts aviation and, from day one, the student should be doing his or her level best to keep it within a few knots of the prescribed number.

The takeoff section has another of the loose parameters coupled with a possibly controversial bit of advice. It says, "Objective. To determine that the applicant...rotates at the recommended airspeed, lifts off, and accelerates to VY." This is a sore point for some instructors because, if taken literally, it breeds the concept of "yank it off" takeoffs. It does not address the fact that "the recommended airspeed" itself is open to discussion because load, environment, and wind conditions can change it and a student or low-time pilot can't be expect to know the exact differences. This is where a knowing instructor interjects training about establishing a slightly nose-high attitude while running on the mains so the airplane seeks its own liftoff speed that compensates for all factors (load, density altitude, etc.). The discussion and training are coupled with admonitions about gust factors and crosswinds. This, however, is another of those areas where some old-school instructors differ with new ways of thinking that say, pick a high enough speed, yank it off, and it will always fly (they hope). The difference is one of understanding and finesse.

The same paragraph says "Establishes the pitch attitude for VY and maintains VY, +10/-5 knots, during the climb." The obvious glitch here is that VY for a given airplane isn't a range; it is a specific number, and any speed either side of it is going to degrade climb efficiency. If a student is led to believe that it's OK to let the climb speed vary as much as 15 kt, then he or she doesn't understand that maximum climb efficiency only occurs at the single number recommended in the pilot's operating handbook. These kinds of speed margins may make it easier for a sloppy student to pass the flight test, but using them as any kind of an instructional guide is dead wrong.

The FAA Practical Test Standards can be both good news and bad news and provide only the roughest of guidelines for flight training. To develop worthwhile skills and good habits that will last a lifetime, both the student and the instructor should forget about the checkride and concentrate on actually learning to fly. A smooth student who truly understands the airplane and can make it do his bidding will impress even the most hard-nosed examiner. The old axiom about emergencies that says, "Fly the airplane, fly the airplane, fly the airplane," applies to every single aspect of aviation - and especially the checkride. So, the marching orders for all instructors and students are "Learn to fly the airplane." Everything else is secondary.

By Budd Davisson

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