Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines and Editor at Large Dave Hirschman debate the merits of pilot education—old-school rules or new-school style?
By Thomas B. Haines
With the average person taking well more than 60 hours to earn a private pilot certificate—in what is meant to be a 40-hour-or-less curricula—perhaps it’s time we stop focusing on nineteenth-century navigation skills and allow students to focus time, effort, and energy on subjects that will make general aviation safer, more affordable, and more useful. When’s the last time you needed in flight to calculate the distance to a VOR by measuring the time it takes to move from one radial to another and then, using a formula that involves multiplication and division, calculate the time to the station?
Nearly 40 years after earning my private pilot certificate I’m delving back into such nuances while studying for a commercial certificate. If it seems ridiculous that we would put a private pilot candidate through such silly exercises, how about a commercial candidate? I’ve never seen a for-hire pilot using a plotter and a chart, or use a multi-step process to arrive at the compass heading for the flight.
Can we acknowledge that when it comes to actual navigation, every pilot immediately after the checkride switches to a more practical form of navigation planning and execution—one that probably involves a GPS?
There is a certain nostalgic charm for me in overlaying a sectional with pencil and plotter in hand on my dining room table. Last time I did this I lived with my parents.
If you want to learn the skill of dead reckoning—plotting on a chart, measuring time, distance, and fuel burn at check points every 15 miles—have at it. Next up is celestial navigation and dropping knotted ropes off the back of a ship. To require today’s pilots to wade through such esoteric nonsense is, well, nonsense.
This is where the purists begin writing letters about the importance of knowing such skills for when one suffers a complete electrical failure in flight. A competent pilot should be keeping track of his position as he flies—regardless of the electronic gear on his lap or in the panel—and should be able to navigate visually to a nearby landing, because after all, we are imposing these navigation methods on VFR students. IFR navigation is another matter.
The FAA and others in the industry have heard pilots’ gripes. AOPA chairs an FAA/industry committee that has developed new airman certification standards and deletes some no-longer relevant knowledge questions. For more information, visit the website.
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By Dave Hirschman
Flying is an art. And like any art form, doing it well requires study, dedication, and lots and lots practice.
There are no shortcuts.
The lapses in pilot skill and judgment that cause so much grief and consternation today can often be traced to our industry’s reflexive attempts to substitute new technology for pilot knowledge. So when experts say we should make flight training more “relevant,” look out. That’s code for dumbing down the foundational knowledge of what it takes to become a pilot. Going down that rabbit hole will only accelerate the erosion of the essential skills pilots must rely on when technology fails. And it does fail.
Roy Redman—a retired Boeing 747 captain and founder of Rare Aircraft, a Minnesota restoration firm—is no Luddite. Yet in a recent correspondence, he lamented that pilot skills “aren’t just dying, they are dead and buried. They have been slaughtered at the hands of electronics and digitization.”
The color screens that so seductively draw our eyes inside the cockpit and keep them there prevent us from focusing on the outside world. Over time, staring at screens degrades hand-eye coordination, stick-and-rudder flying skills, and even the wondrous sensations and natural beauty that attracted so many of us to aviation in the first place.
Redman fondly recounts transcontinental trips in vintage airplanes in which navigation consisted of comparing features on the “big map passing beneath you” with the “small map on your lap.” A salutary side effect of this antiquated form of flying is a vigilant traffic scan.
Rod Machado, whose insightful columns are an AOPA Pilot staple, tells the lamentable tale of an instructor who actually counsels his students to keep their feet off the rudder pedals in flight so that they can’t inadvertently cause the airplane to spin and crash.
“It would be funny,” humorist Machado said, “if it wasn’t so sad and pathetic.”
Focusing on flight fundamentals doesn’t mean doing without the superpowers of GPS navigation, in-cockpit weather, or terrain and traffic avoidance systems. Those are terrific, safety-enhancing tools, and learning their intricacies can be fun and rewarding.
But no amount of button-pushing prowess can substitute for actual airmanship. Pilot education should build on hard-won knowledge and flying skills, not water them down.
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