Pilot, Teach Thyself

Acting as your own instructor means understanding how you learn, and how you dont


Last month we looked at the philosophy of being your own CFI and emphasized how you could maintain your knowledge, skills and bankroll by approaching your flying as though you were both instructor and student.

This part continues the explanation of by using the tips, techniques and fundamentals from FAAs Advisory Circular 60-14, the Aviation Instructors Handbook. Application of these time-tested tips will help your flying to be more cost-efficient and much more enjoyable.

Learning has a few rules of the road. Learning is change in behavior, improvement in expertise or capability – getting better at what you do. But sometimes you hit learning plateaus or you cant seem to get something right no matter how much you practice.

Applying a little bit of learning theory can help smooth out the rough spots by helping you pinpoint why youre having trouble. Not in any specific order, the laws of learning are readiness, exercise, primacy, effect, intensity and recency.

If you havent flown in a long time, didnt review procedures in the pilots handbook, didnt get much sleep the previous night before your last flight and didnt get a weather briefing, chances are you werent ready to fly. If you went anyway, chances are you didnt learn very much, except perhaps how uncomfortable flying can be.

Lack of readiness shows up as apprehension, uncertainty, lack of confidence, lack of enjoyment and a host of other maladies. None of them contributes to a safe, productive flying experience.

If you arent ready to fly, how can you reasonably expect to have a good flight? Thats an example of some of the things you might think about in looking at the law of readiness. As your own instructor, the key is to ensure that your student is ready to fly when he or she shows up at the airport.

More than once in my 20-plus years of instructing, Ive looked into the eyes of my student at the start of a preflight briefing and said, Hey, why dont we just do some ground today. You dont much look like youre ready to fly today. Whats the problem? Usually it turned out to be a good move – and the reason for the lack of readiness was often significant.

A good ground session is the best way to ensure that the pilot is prepared. Think about it. Dont shortcut yourself. Be ready to fly. Cancel until you are.

If youre a golfer aspiring to the professional tour, you probably hit more practice shots in a day than the average golfer hits in a year. Swinging a golf club becomes as natural as taking a drink of water. By the time a tournament comes around, you can hit a good solid golf shot with your eyes closed.

Obviously, the same applies to flying. The more repetitions you do in running through a checklist – whether in the airplane or in your mind – the more proficient you get at doing the items on that checklist. The more landings you do in crosswinds, the better you land when the crosswind is blowing. The more instrument practice you have under the hood, the better your scan gets.

So, it should not be any wonder that you feel uncomfortable doing something you seldom do – and that you might have never practiced enough to learn well to begin with. If you think youre getting rusty at something, think back on how much you exercise that maneuver, skill or procedure. Then purposefully do something about it the next time you go flying.

This involves learning something the right way in the first place. If some maneuver or procedure is giving you trouble, take a look at how you learned to do it. Examine the way your instructor taught you to do whatever it is, then dig out an old text or other source and see how the experts say it should be done. If there are major differences, sort it out. Think and practice your way to proficiency – but do it the right way.

Dont accept shoddy performance from yourself, either. Re-learn the skill if you need to correct faults. When you practice, do it the right way every time, not just some of the time. For instance, if youre practicing under the hood, you want to fly your altitude and heading to strict tolerances. When you take off the hood and fly back home VFR, dont accept looser standards just because youre not under the watchful eye of the controller.

Consider this: The more you practice doing something the wrong way, the worse your performance will get.

I recently gave an instrument proficiency check flight to a very good pilot and a very good friend. I dont think I know a more conscientious and professionally oriented aviator. One problem I noticed, however, was that when he first started flying instruments, he was not taught to fly a constant airspeed. Instrument approaches were at whatever airspeed resulted from a reasonable throttle setting.

My friend owns his own airplane, knows it extremely well, it is very well equipped and he understands and uses all of the systems very well.

On an ILS approach, when both course and glideslope guidance are available, it really makes little difference whether the final approach airspeed is 90 or 125. The airplane will arrive at the missed approach point if the needles are kept centered. So airspeed is a minor consideration, assuming sufficient runway is available to safely land the airplane.

However, when the glideslope is inoperative or the only available instrument approach is non-precision, airspeed control is important. If you are unable to control airspeed – because you never learned that it was important – a timed approach is not possible. You have to avoid it, only go places where precision approaches are available or go back and learn how to fly a constant airspeed approach.

Every time you attempt a certain maneuver, remember the effect your technique has on the outcome. If the effect is consistently subpar, either your execution of the technique is flawed or perhaps your understanding of how to do it isnt right. You may be using the incorrect technique altogether. If things routinely dont work out, its human nature to tend to avoid that maneuver.

If its important – and you know it – go get yourself a CFI and work out the bugs if you cant sort through it yourself. Certain skills are critical. Dont knowingly allow yourself to avoid an area of weakness that you may someday need to rely on.

If you routinely visit a grass strip, for instance, you absolutely must be proficient in soft and short field takeoffs and landings. If you arent, do something about it. Dont feel as though youre taking your life in your hands every time you have to take off or land there.

Some pilots fly in perpetual fear because they have to do things theyve never done well. They are accidents waiting to happen.

The first time you fly an ILS to ATP standards and land so softly youre not sure youre on the ground, you know the meaning of having it wired. If, on the other hand, you consistently apologize to passengers for the rough landing, take action to get up to speed.

Do an experiment sometime. Close your eyes and try to feel yourself approaching a departure stall. Youre in takeoff configuration, climb power is set, youre holding back pressure. The nose is coming up. How does it smell? Can you hear the engine sound change? Do the controls feel any different as your airspeed dissipates and the angle of attack increases? What happens? Is the image vivid in your minds eye?

If the images are fresh, you know what to expect, and you know the concept behind the phenomenon, the law of intensity is on your side.

Try another one. Are the actions you have to perform at the final approach fix on an non-precision instrument approach familiar to you? Do you have a feel for lowering the landing gear, completing the before landing checklist, starting the stop watch, monitoring the approach aid and checking course alignment?

If your understanding and mental images of the required operations are intense enough, you can recall them during your preparation. If you have no feel for what you have to do, try to develop it.

Knowing that you could do something before doesnt hack it in flying. The next time has to be good enough, too. Consistency counts; guesses dont.

Regardless of how good you once were, if the last time you executed an NDB approach was five years ago, thats little satisfaction if thats what you need when the chips are down. How about handling an 18-knot crosswind in a high wing airplane when, for the last year, youve been flying Piper Arrows with the wind right down the centerline?

If you want to be able to reliably perform maneuvers when you must do them right, think about your recency of experience. Go beyond what the FARs say. Before you put yourself and your passengers on the line, ask yourself if you really want to count on being able to pull off something at which youre rusty.

The Levels of Learning
There is something to be said for learning to do something properly when you initially learn the skill. It follows, then, that you shouldnt go on to more complex tasks until you have mastered the simpler skills leading up to them.

It is also important that information and skills be learned together. It is little use, for example, to be able to quote page, chapter and verse of the FAA bible on how to make a crosswind landing if you cant apply it to an actual crosswind situation when you fly.

Rote learning doesnt count for much, unless its learning what the frequencies are for ground control, clearance, the tower, departure, etc., or learning the numbers for final approach airspeed under various flap conditions. These are necessary evils, of course, but they can just as easily be written on your clipboard or an instrument panel placard.

If you do things because thats what you were taught without knowing why youre doing them, you are relying on rote memorization. While this may work in a very basic fashion, its better to understand why things work as they do.

When you realize the why of turning at a certain point and understand why the ball needs to stay in the center on turns, youve advanced past rote memorization. Youve reached the level called understanding, and intellectually grasp the need for a turn to position the airplane on base leg, and that the turn should start over the apple tree by the river.

But knowing what to do is different than actually doing it. When the information in the head translates to action through the hands (or feet), you can apply the skills you have learned. Eye-hand relationships have developed and a proper turn to base can be made even after the apple tree is cut down. Wind corrections even work.

But the true test of learning is when you can associate a situation youve never been in before to known situations and come up with a way to handle the challenge. This is the ultimate level to which all pilots must strive – to be able to apply the knowledge, skills, judgment, training and experience to get the job done, regardless of what it is.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel out of your league, try to evaluate the level to which you have learned the operation that bothers you. It may be that you need to think more about it, get back into the books or just get some practice.

Forgetting About It
No matter how much you understand, however, there will be some things that you forget. If you fly multiple airplane types, its easy to forget certain seldom-used procedures in one of them, for example. The Aviation Instructors Handbook offers three reasons for forgetting. They can be remembered by the acronym R.I.D. In effect, we rid our brains of clutter through repression, interference, and disuse.

If you never really learned how to do something well, you might not be comfortable doing it. Because people tend to avoid doing things that make them uncomfortable, you may forget the skill that put you there. Although a minor factor, unconscious repression is responsible for the inability to remember certain aspects of flying that make you nervous.

The key to overcoming it is to really know what youre doing and then practice until the apprehension disappears. It works every time.

You can also forget things or mix up procedures through interference unless you take the time and trouble to really differentiate the differences between them. A tricycle pilot learning to land a taildragger, for example, has to unlearn some of the visual cues that make for good trike landings.

Some students have trouble sorting out the differences between short field and soft field operations, especially when you throw in the compounding factor of obstacle clearance. This is an example of interference.

There are some similarities between short and soft field scenarios, just as there are with the obstacle that may be present. But if you cant develop a clear picture of these various situations, they interfere with one another and everything is blurred.

The failure to really understand what youre doing can be caused by interference. It may help to jot down thumbnail procedures. Refer to them to keep straight what your student needs to know.

However, even the best information becomes useless if you dont use it. Its not surprising that if you havent made a landing in six months you probably arent going to make a very good one this time.

If you dont study emergency procedures every now and then, the odds are pretty good that, when the pressure is on, you arent going to remember much.

When it comes to keeping skills sharp, use em or lose em. The same applies to procedural, emergency and maneuver knowledge; a little study beforehand helps to keep info fresh, particularly if youll be grounded for a short time.

The Lesson Plan
Developing a lesson plan for when you fly helps prevent you from mindlessly boring holes in the sky and calling it practice. It focuses your thoughts – and your money – and helps you get the most out of your flying time.

Just as you probably wouldnt embark on a cross-country flight without doing a bit of flight planning, so too should you have some sense of what maneuvers youre going to do before you head out to the practice area or embark on a local flight for the practice.

Every time you fly, have a written plan, even if its only a few notes on your kneeboard.

One simple technique, even if your objective is just to go sightseeing, is to demand that your student do everything within the tolerances of the Practical Test Standard for the license you hold. That means holding heading, altitude and airspeed within the tolerances of the PTS. It means making proper radio calls with correct phraseology, using correct hemispheric altitudes, leaning properly, using the correct fuel management procedures, and practicing good collision avoidance strategies.

Each time you fly, meeting the standards becomes easier. Just having them there in the first place motivates you to pay attention, but they also help identify the areas where you might need more work.

After you land, do just what a flight instructor does. Critique the student. Talk to yourself about the flight, reminding yourself what you did right, what needed some work, and what things you should plan to do next time out.

In critiquing anything, but most importantly your own actions, make sure you can think about them objectively.

Objectivity demands that you have some standard against which to quantify performance, which is why its a good idea to use the Practical Test Standard. If heading is supposed to be plus or minus 10 degrees, airspeed within 5 knots and altitude within 100 feet of the desired, you either flew within those boundaries during the flight or you didnt. If you use that kind of objective standard to evaluate every maneuver on every phase of the flight, you can arrive at a pretty good idea of where the work needs to be done.

In order to be objective, however, you must know what the targets are and keep track of how well youve met them. This organized approach to flying will pay off on other flights as well, because it will be easier to monitor the flights progress.

In assessing your flight, dont just consider what you screwed up. Once youve decided what you have to work on next, you need to figure out how youre going to work on it. That means you have to understand enough about how to do it the right way that you can train yourself to do it. You may need to hit the POH and review emergency procedures or go back to your flight training manual to get more info on a specific technique.

In some cases, you may have to switch flight instructors and get someone in the right seat who can help you get over the hump.

Be specific in your assessment. Instead of thinking, My first instrument approach was better than my second approach, think about why and how is was better. Compare the maneuvers to the test standards rather than to each other.

Make sure your critique of the flight is comprehensive. Evaluate the flight thoroughly from start to finish, not just the points where you did well or poorly. Act as if you had to give a detailed description to someone else, and dont leave anything out.

Most of all, think about whether you enjoyed the flight. If not, consider what wasnt working. That will provide you with clues as to areas where you need to improve your performance. Putting the fun back into flying makes the money spent to fly seem more worth it. It also makes you safer because the enjoyment demonstrates that there are fewer hidden weak spots causing anxiety.

Once your analysis of the particulars of the flight is complete, look at the intangibles and the whole package. Think about your level of confidence, professionalism and apprehension. Think about how well, overall, you handled the procedures required, whether you had the right mental attitude, and if you were able to maintain the big picture. There are lots of factors involved. Deliberately thinking about these components of your flying on a very conscious basis will quantifiably help to improve it.

Playing the instructor role will help you examine your own flying more effectively. You can allow your skills to decay or you can make a conscious effort to maintain proficiency and improve on your flying. Bucking the trend of natural decline is definitely the choice your CFI would recommend.

One of the greatest pleasures you will ever have is to see your student make great strides in his or her flying ability. Be confident that you can have that feeling – and its a sure-fire way to save a lot of money throughout your career as a pilot.

All it takes is the application of a few principles.

-by Wally Miller

Wally Miller is a CFII and a Gold Seal CFI with more than 7,000 hours.


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