These are normal emotions we all feel when learning a new skill. You hear the instructor, read the book, do the work. But sometimes it feels like nothing is clicking. It could be because until you get more experience, it’s all noise. Everything seems equally important, equally critical to your success or failure. But it’s not.
Learning to fly requires a commitment to learn a staggering amount of information. When you’re lost, in a rut, and don’t know how to proceed, sometimes it can help to simply focus on the important things. Focus first on what matters most and you can get on the right path to success. Everyone’s list is probably a little bit different, but these four things are a good place to start.
Proficiency at stall recovery is important, but not as important as the ability to predict when a stall will happen. Old-school instructors probably won’t agree, but the FAA’s recent focus on stall recognition at the supposed expense of stall recovery is a good thing. Stall recovery is a drill. It’s a muscle memory exercise designed to help the pilot escape the worst. Other than aerobatics, its use is limited strictly to what happens after you’ve screwed up, hopefully keeping you from a terrible outcome. That’s about the limit of its usefulness.
Stall recognition is much more important. A normal flight isn’t a success if we inadvertently stall and then recover. It’s a success if we never stall in the first place. And the best way to learn when you might stall is to practice a wide variety of stall exercises, focusing on the lead-up to the stall, and not necessarily the recovery. A student who can predict an impending stall, know how to control the wing to avoid the stall, and fly on the edge prior to a stall is much more advanced than one whose skill is limited to not losing 100 feet on the recovery.
That goes for the knowledge portion of the drill as well. Hopefully most students could correctly answer that an airplane can stall at any airspeed and any attitude. But do they know that? Do they understand the implications? The accident data would say pilots don’t. Whether it’s caused by poor decision making before the flight begins, or because of poor stall recognition, the alarmingly high number of stalls during landing, and especially takeoff (see “Surprising Stalls,” p. 24), makes it clear that most pilots don’t grasp the concept. Learn how and why airplanes stall and feel what it’s like to fly on the edge in all sorts of different scenarios, and you’ll be a considerably safer pilot.
Knowing how an aircraft works, why it does what it does, and how the pilot can effect change is useful in all phases of flight, not just emergencies. Most of our system study focuses on emergencies, and rightly so. But having a broader knowledge of systems will make you a better pilot on a day-to-day basis.
Everything comes down to systems. Something simple like the carburetor is a good example. Think about the variety of applications to knowing that applying carburetor heat reduces power. You know that warm air is less dense, which helps correlate to true airspeed and density altitude calculations. It means knowing that you will lose about 100 rpm when you apply carb heat for the descent, which helps to target the power for the approach. And that when going around, a slightly shallower climb calls for a quick check of the carb heat lever. The list goes on.
Getting deep into systems helps free up your focus at busy times of the flight by letting you focus less on airplane configurations and more on flying and air traffic control. It also leads to efficient flows, which reduces head-down time and distractions from unnecessarily referencing the checklist. Having better systems knowledge might not help you fly a better steep turn, but it will help give you more confidence in the airplane, and that leads to less stress and the ability to focus on the training.
Steep turns are grossly underappreciated. Students don’t seem to enjoy them, instructors are lazy about how they teach them, and really, who cares about flying in a big circle anyway, right?
I submit that the humble steep turn is the most important of the pre-solo maneuvers. Let’s start with the obvious. Every flight requires turns. Shallow or steep, long or short, level or climbing or descending, we’re always turning. Like a batter warming up with two bats in the on-deck circle, steep turns represent a step beyond the normal that is a great way to get comfortable and prepared for the normal. Yet if that’s all steep turns offered, you could throw them in with the rest of the maneuvers as just another box to check. But they are so much more.
Steep turns are a perfect way to practice and perfect aircraft control. Things are happening quickly, so precise aircraft control is important. Mistakes require an advanced level of knowledge to fix, and they quickly reveal problems with fixation.
Starting even before the yoke turns, you must pick out a spot on the horizon and fly toward it, which reminds us to use outside visual references as our primary navigational tool. Rolling into the turn is a complicated mix of all three primary flight controls. Maintaining the turn within limits requires quick checks of attitude and airspeed. It’s an opportunity to feel increased load factors in training. Erring on altitude affects bank and vice versa. Finally, we have to constantly be looking for the outside starting reference to come by the windshield and know when to start rolling out of the bank. That’s a lot of bang for your training buck.
Fly with an experienced pilot and you can quickly judge their stick-and-rudder skills with a steep turn. If they can nail a steep turn, it’s a safe bet their entire range of aircraft control skills will be good as well. A well-executed steep turn is a great foundation for everything to follow.
Are your landings all over the place? Start with better speed control. It’s probably easier said than done, but good speed control for a pilot is like good balance for a gymnast. It’s a foundational skill that will improve all facets of your flying.
New pilots are often befuddled by landings. Some landings are good, many are poor, and worst of all, new pilots don’t know why some work and others don’t. They bounce, smack down on runways, float, and make every kind of mistake there is. Often the problem comes down to poor speed control. It’s extremely challenging as a beginner to make consistently good landings without being on the glideslope and on speed. Nailing the airspeed is the first step in that journey. Once you can consistently hit the proper airspeed, staying on glideslope will come soon after.
Learn how and why airplanes stall and feel what it’s like to fly on the edge in all sorts of different scenarios, and you’ll be a considerably safer pilot.Flying a consistent airspeed down final and across the runway threshold is maybe 75 percent of the ingredients of a good landing. Flying on speed eliminates floating, cuts down on ballooning, and takes away the most important variable when it comes to timing the roundout and flare.
But landings aren’t the only time that speed matters. Those takeoff stalls we talked about earlier? Nailing the best angle or best rate of climb speed gives the airplane the best chance of clearing the obstacle. It helps to avoid stalls on go-arounds, another common problem. And it is the basis of good aircraft control in climbs and descents.
If you are 15 or 20 hours into training and still struggling with landings, it can be beneficial to back up and focus on the basics. An hour spent practicing basic climbs, turns, and descents at constant rates and constant airspeeds with different configurations will translate directly to the traffic pattern. And that will transfer straight to better landings.
Flight training is hard; the skills, confusing. By focusing first on the areas that have an outsized influence, you can make quick progress that will help you build confidence and free up your attention for more advanced tasks.