Philosophy and Flight Training

As the owner of a flight school I have an opportunity to hire flight instructors with a variety of backgrounds.  Some received their training from university programs and others from freelance instructors at a small airport.  Their method of teaching provides a clear picture of the training they received as most instructors naturally replicate their experiences.  The trend I have observed over the years is that as an industry we are producing many pilots but few Aviators.  By this I mean pilots are becoming certified using measurable standards but we are missing something in the process.  Few pilots become quality Aviators with deep understanding and intuition when operating an aircraft.

 In his book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, Robert Pirsig attempts to quantify the nature of quality.  Ultimately undefinable, it becomes evident that quality neatly splits the halves of classic and romantic thought.  Classic thought being the basis of logic and romantic thought describing aesthetics and feeling.  According to classical logic, everything can be broken down into components and sub components until you identify the building blocks of an object.  But those components can be assembled in a variety of ways.  Some resulting in an object of beauty or useful and others ugly or useless.  The difference being the quality in which the components are assembled.  Anyone with the proper tools and guidance can create a table from a stack of wood but a carpenter can use the same wood and tools to create a beautiful piece of furniture.  It is very subjective and impossible to define yet we all intuitively know Quality when we see it.

 The same philosophy can be applied to flight training.  We are masters at classical instruction.  Course outlines and syllabi neatly organize specific tasks, objectives and completion standards in a concise and logical building-block learning approach.  The ACS and PTS itemize the components of a curriculum and we, as instructors, organize them in various ways in an attempt to meet standards in an efficient manner.  The FAA places high value in this approach through encouraging standardized curriculum.  Those who do this well can submit to the FAA and be rewarded with Part 141 credentials.   But something is lacking.  Even if all tasks are performed to ACS standards within a very structured and thorough curriculum, can we say that is quality training?  I am sure you will agree there is something more that cannot be defined by standards alone.

 Instead of looking at training from a purely classic perspective, let’s take a subjective angle and ask ourselves “What kind of training produces not just a pilot but an Aviator?”  One could argue the qualities of an Aviator include attention to detail, judgement, smoothness, anticipating risks and situational awareness.  These are very difficult concepts to measure though the FAA makes a valiant effort.  If we create a list of favorable qualities we can work backwards and create lessons that result in something more than merely meeting tolerances.  Is there a way to preserve the Art of Aviating in a structured and standardized method?  I believe there is through a Quality approach combining both classic and romantic philosophies.

 Scenario-based training remains controversial but has proven to be most effective when used properly.  When introducing a maneuver through a solely classical approach such as the Demonstration-Performance Method, the student learns the procedure and physical manipulation of the controls but misses deeper values.  Instead, we must allow the student to experience the maneuver in context of a scenario to apply qualities such as judgement, situational awareness and energy management.

 Let’s use an example of teaching stalls.  The classical approach would be to brief the maneuver on the ground applying aerodynamic knowledge and procedural sequence followed by demonstration and repetition until standards are met.  Does this accomplish our goal of making an Aviator?  It may produce a pilot very capable of stall recovery but what about anticipating stall situations, intuitively feeling the energy of the plane and smoothness of recovery?

 What we must do instead is present a scenario which will result in a stall condition.  Conduct a preflight briefing using NTSB reports and discuss the factors involved that led to a stall and loss of aircraft control.  Mirror those conditions in the air (at a safe altitude of course) and drive home the law of intensity.  Allow the student to recognize how the condition develops and recover.  Repeat a variety of scenarios such as approach to landing, departure and turning.  Once the student has developed the feel of the airplane in a stalled condition you can hone the smoothness and recovery tolerances, as well as incorporating modern resources such as AOA indicators.  Bypassing the scenario and moving directly to execution deprives the student of the experience and qualities we are trying to instill!

 Another seemingly benign task is checklist usage.  Most pilots can follow a checklist in a read-do manner and correctly perform all the functions to obtain the desired result.  But what about instilling attention to detail?  When the switch was moved per the checklist, did the student verify the system responded appropriately?  How about asking why that checklist item is necessary and the underlying purpose of that action?  I can tell these fundamental questions were never addressed every time I hear a student frustrated from not being able to start the engine.

 When developing lesson plans and curriculum keep this philosophy in mind and continually ask yourself “Does this lesson produce a pilot or an Aviator?”  Only when answering an Aviator can you say the true objectives are met.  It will take some extra effort to identify training aids and update lessons plans, but you will find implementing this philosophy is far more effective and even fun!  If we are able to adopt this philosophy on a national level we can create a paradigm shift as instructors begin teaching the way they were taught.  The survival of Aviators depends on it.

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One Response to Philosophy and Flight Training

  1. Kelsey W. says:

    I think a lot of the “smoothness” that comes with doing anything with quality comes from knowing something really well, repetition, and being confident with it. A lot more of flight training, especially situation based training, could be accomplished and DRILLED to a high level of competency on the ground in a lower stress environment. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of an instructor for PPL drilling checklist memory items to make sure they are actually memorized- or getting into a simulator and simulating emergencies/failures to get people to troubleshoot. It’s not practical to just go over something once or twice with someone on the ground and then expect they will instantly remember it when the time comes in the air. Flight training seems to be so biased toward flying time, probably also because instructors are trying to rack up hours, but with everything else going on in the air, that seems like wrong place to be learn knowledge that should be memorized. It makes more sense to drill people repeatedly on things on the ground, so that by the time you are in the air it’s second nature. I think I wasted a lot of time in the air because I would be doing something wrong and the instructor wouldn’t notice because they are trying to pay attention to a bunch of things too, instead of focusing on just one task until it is right- so then I would have to spend more time relearning. All through my 100 hours of PPL training I never had an instructor even suggest that I do simulator time- and in fact actually suggested against it. That is a shame, since there are a lot more opportunities to make mistakes, which leads to learning, in a low stress environment where the stakes aren’t so high. Flight schools (and hopefully instructors too) would also make more money by focusing more on ground training since it’s lower overhead- instructors may not be as happy about spending more time on the ground, but I think that should be a pre-requisite for getting their hours. As a flight school, someone should be able to say whether the primary goal is to produce aviators, or to get instructors the hours they need for the airlines. Sure, there are somethings that you absolutely need the feel of the plane to learn, but I think that to produce the best aviators, schools should focus much more time on the ground to reduce any time needed to THINK in the air, and instead build correct intuitions so that people just REACT.

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