Safety Publications/Articles

Training future captains

These days, many flight students have aspirations of becoming commercial airline pilots. While pilot academies and some university programs specialize in training students for a career in professional aviation, there's no reason a local CFI can't give the same, high-quality training. What's more, the skills and techniques critical to teaching tomorrow's professional pilots translate well into teaching any new student.

The most important thing for CFIs to realize when training these airline-oriented students is they should be training to be captains, not co-pilots - a mindset that serves all beginning students well. As such, it is your responsibility to make them confident leaders capable of making appropriate decisions for any situation. Your students should also learn to interact with their instructors as if their instructor were their co-pilot. Captains earn the big bucks for having the final say whenever something unusual occurs. This is one of the few times where rank is important. But while captains generally have more experience in the airplane they are operating, it is assumed that captains and co-pilots are equally qualified to physically fly their airplane.

Like many, I had flown for decades before ever becoming a co-pilot. My first experience was in the right seat of a Hansa jet with a salty captain who truly believed he was God's gift to aviation. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this guy ragged on me from the moment we met until we were airborne passing through 20,000 feet. I knew nothing about leaving the landing lights on below 10,000 feet and the turnoff lights on below Flight Level 180, nor did I understand the pilot not flying's responsibility for talking on the radios or that the pilot flying dialed in the radio frequencies as a courtesy when in level flight above 10,000 feet. I was equally ignorant on how emergencies would be handled in a crew airplane, and oh, by the way, when our windshield cracked at Flight Level 350, what I should do when my trusty captain did nothing other than tighten his shoulder straps?

Pilots must work together in crew airplanes just as instructors and students must do on instructional flights. But it's also imperative to stress to students early on that being a confident pilot is an attitude that will serve them well in all situations.

Co-pilots must also realize that captains are not there to teach. While some captains may offer keen insights, others get upset if they have to explain things. This goes back to what I said earlier - co-pilots are presumed to be qualified. As such, every co-pilot is held accountable for knowing his airplane's systems, as well as all applicable operating rules and regulations. We should expect no less of every private pilot flying low and slow in a Cessna.

Every airline operates under an FAA-approved flight operations manual (FOM). By no coincidence, these FOMs mirror all applicable FARs. Flight instructors should teach the FARs in such a manner that students understand how they apply. Knowledge and discipline will enhance their decision-making abilities.

Another emphasis item is weather. Interpreting weather reports, understanding weather patterns, and knowing what conditions to expect as their flight progresses are all important skills students must learn. There is nothing more important than understanding aviation weather, and yet weather remains one of the least emphasized areas during initial pilot training. After all, checkrides are all about demonstrating pilot proficiency, right? Please don't shortchange your students by taking this attitude. They are counting on you to give them 100 percent while you're on the clock.

Proper radio communication is another area that must be emphasized. Since airline pilots are expected to sound professional, teach your students that every radio transmission should be clear and concise. No one outside your airplane will ever know how well you fly, but everyone - including your passengers - can hear how you sound on the radio. Teach them this from their first day and they will always sound like a professional.

For some reason, passengers always expect a smooth ride. This means that smoothness should be stressed on every flight, and this can only be achieved if the pilot is relaxed. To help your students achieve this quality, have them frequently release the flight controls to see what the airplane does. If releasing the controls changes the aircraft's attitude, then the aircraft was not in trim. This eye-popping technique quickly teaches the student to trim the aircraft, and a properly trimmed aircraft translates to smoother flight control inputs.

Checklist usage is critical to airline operations, but the procedures translate well to general aviation too. Remember that checklists are not "do" lists, but rather reminders to ensure everything has been accomplished. Airline operations require that the pilot flying calls for the checklist while the pilot not flying accomplishes the items and then reads the checklist. Since primary flight students are learning to fly solo, they must be able to read and accomplish the checklist items on their own, but the principle is the same - perform the checklist items and then read the checklist for verification.

I am always curious about my first officers' background. I've found those who come from regional jets are quite good because they already understand glass cockpits and advanced flight management systems. And while many military pilots have used heads-up displays, some may have been flying aircraft with steam gauges - so it may take a little longer for them to feel as confident.

I mention this because I had one first officer tell me he was "just a civilian pilot." His head was practically hanging when he admitted that. Having grown up as a civilian pilot before ever becoming a military pilot, I was blown away by his attitude. Whether civilian background or military, everyone paid their dues to get into an airline seat. Climbing the airline ladder is difficult at best, and every first officer deserves respect. I revere each of my co-pilots because I know what it took for them to earn that seat, and those who lack confidence have no place in this business. Flying is as much about attitude as it is skill. Cultivate it in your students.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark Danielson

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