Air Safety Institute Hangar Talk
How real do you want it?
CFIs gathered around the coffee pot in the ASF Instructor Lounge as fall took hold, cradling steaming cups of hot black comfort. The subject du jour was weather. Specifically, what's the best way to teach it?
This month's hot topic
What's keeping your students from taking advantage of free safety education via the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online courses? Thousands of successful participants give the courses very high marks, but nearly the entire cheering section consists of already-certificated pilots. Any good ideas for encouraging better use of these free resources among student pilots? Give us your best thoughts. Please keep your comments short and to the point, and include your name and the city and state where you instruct. E-mail your opinions (firstname.lastname@example.org) or mail them to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, "ASF Hangar Talk," 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701. Remember, there are more than 80,000 CFIs in this lounge. Make your insights stand out.
This month's discussion was even more interesting because two of the participants had innocently allowed their students to accompany them to the otherwise-sacrosanct instructor lounge. The opening salvo was fired by one of the non-CFIs.
"There is nothing like seeing real weather!" declared Jeff Williams of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "My vote is, it should be required."
CFII Frank F. Sherman of Lincoln, Rhode Island, broke the silence to agree with Williams. "Here in Rhode Island, we are fortunate to have four seasons," he told the group. "Students can be exposed to ice, snow, strong gusty winds, fog, low ceilings, poor visibility caused by haze, thunderstorms, and all the variables Mother Nature sees fit to create. [It's an ideal situation to set up a] go/no-go decision that can be made by the student and evaluated by the instructor." He added that all students should know what basic weather situations like VFR, marginal VFR (MVFR), and instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) look like from the pilot's seat.
"Just go out on the field and take a poll of the next 10 pilots you see, and see how many can actually tell you what MVFR means," said CFII Colin T. Murphy of Austin, Texas. (As used in National Weather Service reports and forecasts, it means a ceiling between 1,000 and 3,000 feet and/or visibilities between three and five miles.)
CFII Kim Edward Barnes of Denver, Colorado, said that pulling a METAR before each and every flight helps the student to develop correlation between reports, forecasts, and the view outside. "I even pull a report if we don't fly, especially because of marginal weather, just to show the student the comparison between what they see outside and what they read on the report. Once a pilot understands that although the METAR may read 1,500 feet overcast and visibility three miles in haze, knowing what that looks like when they're in the pattern brings a whole new appreciation for what may be legal VFR and what is safe VFR."
CFI Barry Baxter, from Brea, California, averred that he "takes my primary students into the lousiest legal weather I can find, especially wind and turbulence. [But] when I sign my students off for their solo and cross-country flights, there are few limitations. My guys have been there, done that. They have respect for weather, but they don't have to fear it."
"A good briefing followed by real in-flight handling of weather is the best way to learn," argued CFI Donnie Todd of Pell City, Alabama. "While I would never let a student get too close to hazardous weather, I do feel that dealing with [actual weather] helps the student compare preflight briefings to the real world and how to deal with it when things get tough. Of course, thunderstorms, icing, and low ceilings are absolute 'givens' when teaching avoidance."
One small group of instructors in the lounge twisted uncomfortably in their chairs at the last comment. "You mean you'd just give an instrument student academic instruction on how to get out of icing conditions, rather than letting him experience it under controlled conditions?" asked one, incredulously.
"Absolutely," Todd replied. "Taking a student into 'controlled' icing is similar to practicing bleeding. It isn't really controlled, and flirting with icing is crazy. I would never do it. Any instructor who would intentionally venture into icing conditions in a single and most light twins is an idiot."
CFII Chuck Berry of Melbourne, Florida, said he makes sure instrument students understand "that you don't dare play with icing conditions unless you can cheat, by having an MEA [minimum en-route altitude] or MOCA [minimum obstruction clearance altitude] well beneath the freezing level, and then watching the outside air temperature like a hawk while climbing. Or, alternatively, having a solid clear sky on top and absolute knowledge that you can reach it even if you encounter icing in the gunk at lower altitudes."
Not everyone agreed with instructors who advocate getting up close and personal with real weather. "In my opinion there is a conflict regarding teaching judgment if I were to go up in an isolated thunderstorm weather situation," volunteered CFI Benjamin B. Lefton, who instructs in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. "I do, however, show students how to interpret what they look like and how to measure severity by having them look at the Nexrad radar/satellite imagery, as displayed for example on WSI or the FSS radar displaying terminals. This is about as close as I want to get with them."
All the CFIs agreed that serious weather training beyond just theory is absolutely imperative. "I did take a student into four or five miles' visibility in haze to show the errors of his thought process in choosing checkpoints along his pilotage route," said CFI Leo H. LeBoeuf of Canton, Connecticut. "He missed a large lake that was seven miles north of course, lost heading control, and headed for the Boston Class B airspace. This made a lasting impression on him."
Long-time CFII John Mahany of Long Beach, California, recalled the days when airline pilots learned the finer points of aviation by sitting at the side of experienced captains. "To learn weather," he said, "you need to fly with a more experienced pilot who has some weather savvy. Many people new to flying today do not want to take the time to really study weather. They want a short, simple yes-or-no answer to the question, 'Can I fly today?' without some understanding of the analysis required to reach that decision."
Kevin D. Murphy is vice president of safety education for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. He has been an instructor for more than 30 years and has logged more than 5,000 accident-free hours.