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Safety Pilot: Only using the hammerto train?

Maybe there’s a better tool

There’s a consensus that much of the flight training system is broken, and has been for decades. It takes too long, costs too much, and the results are “irregular”—to put it charitably. The national average completion rate for private pilot certificates is about 20 percent.

Could it be we’re using the wrong tool, among other things? When the only flight-training tool is a hammer—an aircraft—the world takes on a distinctly nail-like appearance. But aircraft are acknowledged as the world’s worst classrooms. They’re noisy, hot, cold, bumpy, sometimes dangerous—all of which is detrimental to learning. Aircraft are essential, of course, but maybe there’s a better tool.

The airlines, the military, most colleges and universities, and many corporate flight operators use simulation, in addition to aircraft. Why? Because their objective is to accomplish the best, most consistent outcome in the least amount of time with the least money spent—by using the right tool for the job.

Often, the flight school’s motivation for keeping training aircraft aloft is financial. Aircraft are a big investment and, if not flying, the bills don’t get paid. New CFIs looking for professional career advancement need the flight hours to jump to the airlines, and many aren’t thrilled about spending time in a simulator or flight training device. Who’s looking out for the student pilot’s interests—to become certificated with the best flight education, completed as efficiently as possible?

For a flight lesson to happen, three things are needed every time: Student and instructor schedules must mesh; the aircraft must be available; and the weather must be suitable—that’s the wild card. With simulation, the weather is irrelevant and it’s conceivable that, for some lessons, once the student has a basic understanding the CFI might not be required, either.

An hour in a ground trainer (this doesn’t require a megabucks simulator) can be more efficient than an hour in the aircraft. Typically, figure about a three-to-one ratio by eliminating preflight, taxi, any delays before departure, flight to the practice area, and repositioning time for multiple approaches—if that’s what’s in the plan. Is the actual aircraft needed to teach engine start, taxi, run-up procedures, basic communications with ATC, basic VFR and instrument maneuvers, emergencies, traffic pattern entries, checklist use, many emergencies, and the use of electronic navigation equipment? If the device has a visual system and reasonably replicates the training aircraft in panel layout and performance, my experience is “no.” When ground trainers are used smartly, the average person might finish in 40 to 50 hours of flight time, rather than the 75 to 80 hours that is the national average. Even with added simulation expenses, significant time and money are saved.

It takes time to gain knowledge of glass cockpits. The aircraft alternator, powered by avgas and supported by the airframe, is the most expensive power supply that could be used to run the avionics suite. Even on the ground, when the aircraft is plugged in for “simulation” mode, it’s wasting an expensive resource.

Which brings me to the other side of the argument: using aircraft for what they do best. Many lament the loss of basic flying skills, and aircraft should be used to teach those. More cross-country experience is needed, both dual and solo, with more time spent perfecting crosswind takeoff and landings when there’s a real crosswind. Learning weather, flight planning, diversions, and gaining initial operating experience requires actual flight to develop those higher-order skills.

Simulation is getting better as microprocessor speed and visual systems improve, but it’s not perfect—these devices are not aircraft. They will, however, help to build the early neural pathways to prep new pilots to develop the skill-to-apply in the aircraft.

Remember the adage that for every hour spent in a college lecture, one should spend at least four hours of prep? That applies to flight training—learn it on the ground, practice in the air. Use of online tools, available from the AOPA Air Safety Institute and commercial providers, means less instructional time is required. That frees up CFIs to do what they like to do best, which is fly.

The focus is not about student starts, the CFI’s career goals, or the flight schools’ desire to generate flight hours. It’s about pilot completions. It’s about getting and keeping customers by providing quality, effective, and affordable training. The professionals use ground trainers and simulators as much as possible, with exceptional results. Maybe GA should consider a different approach. What do you think?


ASI Staff
Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor

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