Watch for this red flag
You do need to know that to learn to fly
In the course of providing flight training, I suppose I've developed a few odd quirks. However, I like to think that I've figured out "best practices" for imparting flying's most important concepts to a student.
Before beginning a course of flight training with a student, I explain the differences between procedure and technique and tell them that I will be teaching procedures and exposing them to technique. The procedures are "must learn" items, while techniques are personal habits or methods of accomplishing the procedures. Lest anyone think that technique is a negative thing, I assure you it is not. Think of the differences between technique and procedure next time you fly. You likely use both equally.
In the past year, I've had two students who taxed the limit of my abilities as a CFI. Both successfully completed their training, but not without adding to my collection of missing and gray hairs. In looking back at the difficulty I experienced with both of these students, I realized a common thread. Both had made the same statement at some point in their training: "I don't need to know that to learn to fly."
On the surface, it might seem like an innocent remark. After all, we often hear our students ask, "Why do I need to know that to learn to fly?" Each of these students was up against a learning block when they posed that question to me. After I answered their question, providing more than adequate explanation, they replied, "I don't need to know that to learn to fly"--which I now recognize as a red-flag response.
In the first case, the student--let's call her Mary--came to me for primary instruction toward her private pilot certificate. Don't ask me how, but somehow, she'd made it to her mid-forties without ever having learned her multiplication tables. When I raised an eyebrow at her inability to tell me what nine times nine was, she confidently informed me that she didn't need to know her multiplication tables to learn to fly. I pondered that one for a while and decided that maybe she was right. But as we progressed through her training, it was painful to see her rummage around for a calculator in her flight bag to solve a simple question such as, "If we burn eight gallons per hour for three hours, how much fuel have we burned?"
Mary displayed decidedly above-average stick-and-rudder skills, and I usually found no fault with her decision making. In the more than 100 hours she spent preparing for her practical test (she passed it on the first try), I had to wonder how much extra time was spent because of her inability to multiply. In retrospect, next time I will be a little more insistent that a student have that element of basic math committed to memory before beginning a course of flight training.
The next student--I'll call him Homer--was a little more bullheaded. Like Mary, Homer was a great stick, almost a natural (and I run across very few of those). His flight training progressed rapidly through the solo phase, but we hit a roadblock when it came to cross-country flight planning. I realized that he had a mental block when it came to figuring out reciprocal courses--for instance, where to set the omni-bearing selector (OBS) when proceeding inbound on the 288-degree radial. The first time I noticed it, we were airborne on his first dual cross-country flight. I was a little taken aback when I saw how much time Homer spent figuring out that 288 minus 180 equaled 108. I could see that it frustrated him as well.
During the debrief session, I recommended that he write down the numbers 1 through 18 vertically in a column on the left side of a piece of paper. After that, I had him write the numbers 19 through 36 in a second column directly opposite the first. I pointed out that now, by memorizing these combinations, he would know all his reciprocals. He shook his head, crumpled up the paper, and laughed, "I don't need to know that kind of stuff to learn to fly."
Needing a ground-wire check with some of my CFI colleagues, I was surprised to hear several had the same experience. I was amazed to learn how many pilots didn't intuitively know that Runway 13 and Runway 31 were a single piece of concrete, or that a Victor airway--a straight line between two VORs--was composed of the 101-degree radial from one and the 281-degree radial from the other.
After I watched Homer set the wrong radial in the OBS several times, and letting him get thoroughly lost one of those times, I'd finally had enough. I gave him an assignment to make himself up a set of flash cards, take them home, and have his wife and kids drill him. When he had the numbers down cold, we would resume his flight training. He did, and we did. I think we were both surprised at how much easier it was to discuss not only navigation concepts but also airport operations once he had learned his way around the compass rose.
I am all about trying to simplify the concepts of flying as much as possible, particularly when providing primary training, but there are some solid foundations that must not be overlooked. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation is always looking for new solutions in overcoming common obstacles in flight training. Drop us a line and share your experience with us. Send us an e-mail and put "Obstacles in Flight Training" in the subject line.
Jonathan J. Greenway is chief flight instructor for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Formerly a widebody captain and check airman with American Airlines, he has been an active CFI since 1980 and has more than 13,600 hours.
By Jonathan J. Greenway