IFR teaching tactics
Wisdom is more difficult to instill
A television commercial from a few years ago seems a fine analogy for the differences between a good instrument pilot and a wise instrument pilot. In the TV spot, a rookie basketball player comes to the big city to play for a pro team. Arriving at the arena, he tells a veteran teammate that he left his hot new car with the valet parking folks. The veteran informs him that there is no valet parking here. Welcome to the city, kid.
You have been approached by a similar green "rookie," a seeker of instrument-flying privileges. From experience you know the skills that must be taught, the regulations, and the standards that the applicant will have to meet. But let's take the training process a step further: Is there an overall philosophy about IFR that you follow when teaching instrument skills-one that will protect the newcomer from the phony valet parking?
Testable skills that measure instrument flying abilities are easy enough to study, practice, and master with diligence, but wise instrument pilots are made of stronger stuff than that. We often preach that being able to pass the checkride is only the beginning-you know, the time-honored "license-to-learn" sermon. But nowhere in the practical test standards or training texts is there a formula for instilling wisdom. If anything, teaching those demanding but mechanical skills known collectively as "flying instruments" in the en route environment, holding, or in the approach phase consumes huge amounts of training energy and can even divert an instructor's attention from the bigger question of why we must fly IFR in the first place. The wise CFII seeks to provide that extra level of insight that helps the newcomer to become more street smart. And he or she sleeps more soundly knowing that the lessons have been learned.
One of the most important steps is dispelling the notion that an instrument rating makes a pilot weatherproof. Ample case histories exist to prove that many pilots missed this important point at their peril. Why not show such case histories to those who will benefit from them? IFR privileges don't give a pilot the right to suspend judgment about whether to go flying. IFR demands better judgment because the privilege allows you to take on more complicated flying conditions and demands more precise performance.
How well prepared is the pilot to evaluate those conditions? An instrument rating is not a degree in meteorology. Nor is it a history lesson about how the early aviators acquired the insights that we now hold as gospel about flying in weather. But that history is important to know and appreciate. One thing the pioneers discovered is that a pilot who can read weather reports and forecasts may still have trouble diagnosing the big-picture implications of the data. But even to this day, the Practical Test Standards make no heavy demands in this area; after all, you can give instrument training without ever flying in a cloud.
There's nothing like some bumpy "actual," or the loss of a counted-on alternate, or the frightful treachery of unforecast icing, to get you thinking about the why of things, especially if the ATC can't find you a change of altitude right away and the "E" word is forming on your lips when the clearance finally comes. Fortunately, most students are eager to hear about the experiences of their instructors and can incorporate the benefits of your hair-raising moments without duplicating thrills.
Working ATC to your advantage, or to enhance safety or comfort, is another skill too often learned the hard way, and it is one that can make your students safer pilots-even if it does not earn the checkride points. It's the rare neophyte who disposes easily of the notion acquired during previous nibbling at the ATC margins under VFR that he or she remains an "outsider" to the system. Even now, in the soup and on a clearance, he or she tends to defer to more authoritative-sounding voices. You, the CFII, may be the only person this pilot ever encounters who encourages him to assert his rights, diplomatically if firmly.
With the face and capabilities of electronic navigation changing so fast that a mere few months away from flying can create holes in a pilot's technological awareness, you and your student may end up learning some lessons together while sampling the benefits of the new wares. This, too, is good, for it serves as a reminder that earning the rating is not the end of a training program, but the beginning of a lifelong learning process that professionally minded pilots accept as their responsibility-at the same time incorporating the new procedures and capabilities into their growing bank of skills.
Need help in keeping up?
It's no secret that a CFI's front office is changing. Sophisticated panel-mount avionics are becoming the norm in training aircraft, challenging CFIs. Are you keeping up? A new two-hour block on the pleasures and perils of today's sophisticated GPS units has been added to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's live Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics nationwide, and a similar new unit will debut later this year in the ASF-Jeppesen Online FIRC. Full information about both in-person and online FIRCs is available at AOPA Online.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot for 19 years and an instructor for 13, he resides in Maine.
By Dan Namowitz