Safety Publications/Articles

Professionally Speaking

Ground school evolution

Helping to bring change

When I studied for my private certificate in the 1960s, ground school was conducted in a classroom or via an electromechanical device that combined phonograph records (yes, I really am that old) for the audio narration and projected still pictures for the visuals. The student clicked forward to the next picture each time the record beeped. This was a horrid contraption, and I hated it. The info thus derived came excruciatingly slowly, so I played the 33-1/3 rpm record at 78 rpm. The voice went up a few octaves, the bleeps came fast and furious, and people stuck their heads into the room to see what the heck I was doing.

In the 1970s, Piper brought out a new video ground school. This was long before we played videos on computers. Indeed, we didn't even have computers. I worked for a Piper distributor at the time, and it was my job to introduce the new ground school to Piper Flight Centers throughout Alabama. We carried a huge Betamax (yes, I am also that old) video player, a television, and the large tape itself. If the equipment was exposed to humid air -- not wet, just humid -- we had to let it dry for an hour or so before it would work. All of this was the very latest in technology!

The equipment, however, wasn't our biggest problem. The real problem was that many old-time CFIs truly believed the new video program to be the work of the devil. No machine, they told us, could teach ground school as well as they could teach it. Many of them had flown in World War II and every year thereafter, so it was hard to argue with them.

We pointed out that the ground school could take over the drudgery of teaching, leaving them to teach the finer points of flying -- the video never got bored; never forgot anything; never lost patience; never had a headache (though it did cause a few headaches); never had a head cold or a bad day; and always remained enthusiastic. They were not impressed.

Finally, I hit on a way to entice the instructors to watch the video with some interest. "I will bet you a dollar," said I, "that the video will cover at least one thing that you are not teaching your students." They jumped at the chance to beat me at my own game, and we sat down to watch the video.

Invariably, they got somewhat interested in the video -- which really did do a great job -- and forgot our bet. Ten minutes into the program, the video pointed out that Piper's Cherokee airplanes had an air vent built into the fuel cap of each wing. At that point, a veteran CFI would blurt out, "I didn't know that!" Then he realized what he had said, looked around at my triumphantly grinning face, and groaned. He had lost the bet, and my point had been made.

Today's computer-based training programs bear little resemblance to that old program. The benefits, however, remain much the same. Perhaps the most important benefit is still the fact that when the student finishes a lesson or the entire course, the CFI knows exactly what the student has seen. The course never varies in content, enthusiasm, or presentation.

Perhaps the biggest change is that today's CFIs accept the programs and use them well. That's a good change, and we all benefit. I like to remember that I once had a small part in bringing that change to the industry.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has amassed more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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