“Conventional wisdom” is the phrase used to describe beliefs that have been so deeply ingrained for so long that few stop to question their validity, or whether they still apply as widely as once assumed.
Aviation has at least its fair share of conventional wisdom. Some is amply supported by empirical evidence—the inadvisability of blundering into clouds without proper equipment and training, for example, and the need to measure fuel consumption in hours rather than miles. But some long-standing practices in flight instruction may be overdue for re-examination.
The early first solo: The first phase of fixed-wing instruction has traditionally been geared toward having the student fly solo as quickly as possible. Published commercial curriculums such as Jeppesen’s make this goal explicit. Why? Who knows? Documentary evidence is scarce, but we believe it’s a vestige of military training programs that early flight schools adapted for civilian use. But the incentives of a military service, especially in wartime, are nothing like those of a civilian academy. The former needs to minimize expense by identifying and washing out unsuitable candidates at the earliest indication, while the latter seeks to retain and teach every student with the capacity and motivation to learn—even those who need to follow a different route.
We found cause to question the wisdom of this approach when we learned that helicopter students suffer far fewer accidents on solo flights than students flying airplanes. It’s maybe not a coincidence that the popularity of Robinsons as training platforms combined with the requirements of SFAR 73 mean that a high proportion of helicopter students will have the benefit of at least 20 hours of dual instruction before they’re signed off to handle the machine on their own.
But reduced accident risk is only one potential benefit of varying and broadening the presolo curriculum. Students who get stuck on some problem area (usually landing) may get frustrated continuing to bang away at it. Shelving that problem to concentrate on the first dual cross-country can restore a sense of excitement and mastery and help remind the student why (s)he wanted to learn to fly in the first place. Sure, every successful student must fly solo, and doing so requires learning to land. But students whose solos were postponed until they’d acquired a wider range of flying experience report feeling more confident in their ability to handle the airplane and better able to deal with inaccurate forecasts, changing runway assignments, and other unexpected contingencies.
Stall avoidance versus recovery: It has always seemed backward that candidates for private pilot certificates have to provoke stalls to full break before recovering, while commercial candidates are supposed to recover at the first indication. Given that the Airman Certification Standards read as they do, the full-stall demonstration isn’t going away, and it’s probably good for new pilots to know how to react when the nose drops unexpectedly. Still, there’s something perverse about training the least experienced pilots to react to the stall warning by continuing to haul back on the yoke—particularly since the stalls that kill people generally aren’t those entered with wings level at 3,000 feet agl. It might be better if the private curriculum also stressed recognition and avoidance of impending stalls, treating the full-break demonstration as one of those artificial constructs required for the testing situation. Chances are few designated pilot examiners would fail a student for saying, “Now, this is where I’d add power and lower the nose in real life…but since we need to demonstrate a full stall…”
The VMC demonstration: This is another academic construct that must still be demonstrated on the checkride but should perhaps be eliminated from flight reviews and checkouts (and approached with the greatest caution in initial multiengine training). It calls for putting the aircraft into its least controllable configuration—the critical engine windmilling with the other at full thrust—and then deliberately eroding control authority by slowing the airplane until it’s impossible to keep the nose straight. Done correctly, the maneuver still nibbles at the edge of a complete loss of aircraft control, and a suspicious number of flight reviews and transition lessons in light twins have ended in unrecoverable spins. Instructors who insist on practicing this maneuver should consider limiting rudder travel to simulate VMC prior to reaching the aerodynamic limit. Experienced MEIs we’ve consulted agree that the best practice is to drill students never to allow airspeed to drop below blue line until landing is assured on final.
These aren’t the only conventional training practices that might be called into question. Stay tuned for a sequel.