Safety Publications/Articles

Foundation Perspective

Back to basics

Laying the proper groundwork

As a flight instructor teaching primary students, how many times have you said, "Watch your airspeed, watch your altitude, add power, pull up!"? While teaching the basics of power, pitch, and trim, we are reminded that it takes a great deal of effort and practice to understand the complex relationship between control input and aircraft response. It's one of the most subtle -- and most difficult -- things for primary students to master.

Now, how many times have you had to re-teach those basics to an instrument student? More than once, I'll bet. For all its importance, those fundamentals of aircraft control somehow get forgotten after the student passes his private pilot checkride. Until, of course, that pilot shows up on your doorstep, ready to work on his instrument rating.

Maybe it's because, as flight instructors, you're constantly reminded that when power is decreased, you need to increase back-pressure on the yoke to maintain altitude. Your new instrument student may remember that too, or maybe he won't, or maybe even (horror of horrors!) he never really knew the basics at all. If that's the case, his lack of understanding will likely show itself during the very first hour of instrument instruction. Your new student's basic hood work is OK, requiring some polish, but acceptable. Then comes the landing -- it's not the correct airspeed (fast or slow, you choose); full flaps suddenly applied on very short final, causing the airplane to balloon; and the airplane floats halfway down the runway to what ends up as a flat landing. The student is embarrassed to end the first flight with a bad landing, and you can't help but wonder who had tried to teach this person to fly an airplane.

I take this landing as a sign of a more fundamental problem, and I start to question my new student's understanding of the interconnection of each control input. Most often they can feed back -- almost by rote -- some answers: I was too fast, I added flaps too late, etc. It's when asked how to correct the problem for the next landing that their answers reveal their lack of basic knowledge. They either have forgotten or are unable to articulate that each change they make to the airplane will affect other aspects of the airplane. Their answer is never complete: I should bring the power back sooner, put the flaps in earlier, and apply more back-pressure during the flare so my landing is not flat.

Sometimes you can get clues to a student's skill level before the landing, giving you some time to work on the problem before you start descending. For example, a student swore to me that we could not fly our Cessna 172 around at 2,000 rpm and maintain altitude. Needless to say we spent some time in the air proving him wrong, flying to and from the practice area at 2,000 rpm while maintaining a perfect 4,500 feet. After a few such trips at less than full power, he conceded that I was right, but I wanted him to understand why. When decreasing power we can choose to descend, lose airspeed, or both. Before getting into serious instrument training, he needed to understand and create these results himself.

If his only goal was a controlled crash, this might not be as big an issue. But, after that first landing, my new instrument student wanted desperately to shoot a perfect approach, or at least an approach that he could land from. In order to do this he needed to be re-taught some of the basics.

So while my slow flight exercise may have seemed gratuitous, it was in fact an exercise in a basic skill of instrument flying. While we practiced slow flight I began to wonder what he thought of the slow flight he practiced as a student pilot. Did he know its purpose? Was it ever explained? How did he slow to sequence behind slower traffic? (Don't laugh; there are actually many airplanes slower than a 172.) How did he negotiate the airspeed-altitude relationship on landing? Considering the great number of things that must be learned in order to be a competent instrument pilot, the answers to these questions and these basic skills need to be second nature.

As flight instructors of primary students, we must teach not only enough to allow them to pass the private pilot practical test, but also enough to be pilots. This means quality stick-and-rudder skills -- the relationship between what the pilot does with the controls and how the aircraft reacts. I can't help but wonder if my instrument student's primary flight instructor failed to stress these critical skills, or whether my student simply forgot. Nonetheless, I had my work cut out for me.

The next time your initial student is struggling with the pitch/power relationship, remember that you are laying the groundwork for the rest of their training -- not to mention what their next instructor thinks of you.

Leisha Bell is a safety program developer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, she is a CFII and MEI with more than 2,000 hours.

By Leisha Bell

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports