CFI to CFI
Can we push too hard for perfection?
It has been said that some of us instructors are placing entirely too much emphasis on perfection, and in demanding our students get everything as perfect as possible, we are setting the student up for failure and frustration. One of the documents used to prove that perfection isn't necessary is the ever-present Practical Test Standards (PTS) guide. The argument is that, if something is in the PTS, that is the only way it should be done and, if it isn't included in the PTS, it's not kosher.
Those who say the FAA doesn't necessarily push perfection base their arguments on the way the PTS is written. For instance, the PTS says it's OK to be a hundred feet above or below the prescribed downwind altitude. It also says you can be five knots below the recommended approach speed to 10 knots above it and still pass your checkride. Similar ranges are applied in other areas. The PTS is setting an easily achievable window for each parameter, and you only need be somewhere in that window to pass.
It does not, however, address the concept of exactitude. Only the ranges are mentioned, but that doesn't mean stressing precision isn't applauded--or encouraged--by the FAA.
The concept of perfection is at odds with the concept of instructing to the PTS, which establishes fairly loose ranges. The truth is that because of the ranges involved, teaching only to pass the checkride encourages an attitude of approximation. Instructing to specific numbers and positions guarantees that a pilot will be well within the outer boundaries set by the PTS ranges, and it breeds an attitude that "good enough" really isn't good enough. To even the casual observer, the PTS is a "good enough" document. But, do we want to instruct to those kinds of standards? No.
If we're going to discuss the advantage of teaching to more exact standards, we must recognize that this kind of instruction has to be approached very carefully. It is easy to come across as if we're nagging or harping at a student ("You're 20 feet high! Can't you get anything right?"). If we nag, we will be doing more harm than good. We will be discouraging students by demanding too much of them too soon, and demeaning them because they aren't getting it right. There are, however, ways to approach this subject that accomplish our purpose but don't overload the student. It is necessary, for instance, to make sure that the student understands what we're trying to accomplish when we stress much narrower ranges that border on perfection.
What we're trying to create with these super-narrow ranges--or single parameters--is a bulls-eye mentality. When a marksman puts a target in his sights, it is a given that he/she is trying to put the bullet right in the X ring. No one shoots for eights. A marksmanship instructor's job isn't to encourage an attitude in which every shot is meant to hit the middle, because students know that's why they are at the range in the first place. During flight instruction, however, trying for exactitude isn't automatically assumed, for several reasons. The first is that flying isn't, and can't be, scored the same as target shooting, so the need isn't as apparent as in target shooting. On top of that, the PTS unintentionally makes it sound as if it's OK to be out in the eight ring, and bulls-eyes are neither necessary nor rewarded.
To sell students on the concept of striving for perfection, they have to understand why that's necessary and how it benefits them. That can be tough to explain, particularly since the PTS doesn't appear to bolster the argument. What's more, today's training airplanes make it difficult to demonstrate how exactitude benefits a student. If they are climbing out in a Cessna 172, for instance, and the ball is a little off center, they can see no disadvantage to the situation. The airplane is so well designed that the differences between coordinated and uncoordinated flight are subtle. The airplane is still climbing, and centering the ball doesn't appear to make that much difference. If the climb speed is off, the differences are a little easier to point out, because the vertical speed indicator will show a different rate of climb at 70 knots, for instance, than it will at 74 knots.
How can the concept of "flying as well as you can possibly fly" be measured? That's where the exactitude can be brought to bear because there are numbers that can be used as a way of judging a person's skill level. On downwind, for instance, is the student 50 or 20 feet off (a very achievable goal)? Or is he spot on? Any of the foregoing fit the letter of the PTS law, but only one of them is the actual number.
Here's a method in which an instructor can convince a student of the benefits of nailing down the parameters. You will fly three power-off approaches. On the first approach, the student does his best to hold exactly the POH speed and tries hard to put it right on the thousand-foot markers. On the second approach, he comes in five knots under the correct speed, and on the third, he's 10 knots over. This should, at the very least, show the difference in the way the airplane behaves in ground effect when carrying different speeds across the numbers.
For the concept of precision to work, we can't just mention it a couple of times and then go on to other tasks. We need to make it part of everything we do throughout the entire instructional experience. Every time a student does something, point out the standard we're trying to match and encourage them to match it. We do so in a pleasant, nonthreatening tone of voice.
If we're widening the margin to make it "easier" to learn to fly, can we argue that in so doing, we are actually not benefiting aviation? It's a controversial thought, and just my opinion, but do we really want to make flying that easy? Flying is an endeavor that involves a certain amount of risk. So, if by encouraging precision, we discourage a student who doesn't want to work hard enough to get it right and he quits, is that really a bad thing? It's heresy to think such a thing, but not everyone was made to fly. So, by putting someone into the cockpit who doesn't meet a slightly stricter standard, aren't we putting the well being of all those around him at risk? Controversial? Absolutely! Worth thinking about? Some instructors think so.
Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.
By Budd Davisson