Tuesday, February 17, 2009
When pilots talk of stick and rudder skills they tend to downplay fancy instruments, instead emphasizing courage and seat-of-the-pants flying skills using the primary flight controls. In fact, I recently heard a claim that the advent of glass cockpit training aircraft is resulting in a new breed of pilots who aren't adept at physically controlling their aircraft. This out-of-hand argument against glass panel aircraft rings hollow to me because the important part of the training equation has always been the pilot and the instructor, not so much the aircraft.
Some instructors tend to emphasize the parts of training they personally find enjoyable or challenging. Precision landings, slips, stalls, pilotage and dead reckoning are just a few examples of possible fixations that can eclipse other important training. It's easy to imagine that some instructors might want to focus on the intricacies of G1000 operations just as it's easy to imagine an instructor spending too much time on power-off approaches to landing. Training fixations can be more directly related to the instructor's biases (or career goals) than to the training aircraft or the student. Professional instructors should strive to provide a well-rounded training experience and that means taking inventory of one's own biases and how they might be affecting the pilots you're training.
Instructors who suffered through the Fundamentals of Instruction remember the Law of Primacy, which states that a student pilot's early experiences will make a strong and memorable impression. A related concept is the Law of Intensity, which posits that vivid experiences are more easily retained and remembered than boring, tedious experiences. Put these two concepts together and it's easy to see why early training tends to shape the way a pilot will fly for the rest of their life, for better or for worse.
I often fly with pilots whose aircraft control is unrefined and this is not because they are incapable of flying smoothly, it is because they were never taught to do so. I believe poor aircraft control can often be traced to a sink-or-swim style of flight instruction: The instructor sits in the right seat and may give directions, offer suggestions, or shout orders, but basically refuses to touch the controls unless the plane and its occupants are in imminent danger. I guess the intent behind this approach is that it will build the student's confidence and self-reliance, but the reality is that there is no single way to successfully teach someone to fly. What the student actually learns in the sink-or-swim environment is pretty much limited by the student's personality, values, and their reaction to the training because a crucial item is missing: The instructor is failing to model desirable piloting behavior and technique, which are two important components of the adult learning process.
I remember taking on a student pilot with a susceptibility to motion sickness. His previous instructor's approach to dealing with this was a seemingly never-ending diet of slow flight, stalls, and even spins. The brute force approach had actually made things worse and this pilot was on the verge of abandoning aviation altogether. We spent many hours in the air and on the ground discussing techniques for dealing with adverse reactions to flight and (gasp!) talking about his feelings and emotions during different aspects of training. A testament to this pilot's determination and courage was that he stuck with aviation, found creative solutions to his roadblocks, and ultimately passed his check ride.
Instructors are pilots, too, and we are not immune to the profound effects of our own initial training: Many instructors teach flying exactly the way they were taught. My own decision to become an instructor was precisely the result of some of the hideous training I endured. Not all the instruction I received was bad, but I felt it was possible to do better. Later, I was fortunate to fly with pilots, many of who weren't even instructors, who had considerably more flight and life experience and who provided excellent examples of airmanship. Learning from other pilots is actually quite easy provided you pay attention, watch what they do, ask questions, and then have a chance to model their behavior. Monkey see, monkey do. It sounds crude, but it can be a very effective way to learn and is a cornerstone of adult learning.
Training aircraft with glass panels are a relatively new phenomenon and many instructors out there learned to fly with steam gauges or maybe in an aircraft that didn't even have any radios at all. Learning new technology can be a challenge for these instructors since they have to overcome their own initial training and (I'm going to be brutally honest here) their own fear of equipment they don't understand. Furthermore, the complexity of these glass panel aircraft requires a more sophisticated and academic approach to training than the old sink-or-swim or monkey-see-monkey-do techniques. Like it or not, we are heading squarely into an age where average, run-of-the-mill aircraft are going to be equipped with GPS, autopilots, and more.
The FAA has long recognized the need for a standardized way to evaluate piloting skill, which is why there is a set of Pratical Test Standards. These standards are used by Designated Pilot Examiners when they administer a practical test for a certificate or rating. No system of standards can cover every eventuality, but the FAA's set work pretty darn well. Some argue (correctly, I think) that the PTS defines a minimum set of standards. An accomplished pilot should eventually be able to perform beyond those standards, whether the aircraft has a glass panel or steam gauges.
Training to proficiency, improving one's skills, and deepening one's mastery of the aircraft doesn't happen overnight, it should be a life-long goal. Instructors play an important role in this on-going process as does continuing education for pilots and instructors alike. Glass panels don't make or break the pilot, but a thorough, proficient, and technologically savvy instructor can.