Learning to Fly — Without An Instructor?

Posted by in Instructing

Just how important is the instructor when it comes to learning to fly? That might be a surprising question for an CFI to ask, but the longer I teach, the more cognizant I become of the many ways in which an instructor can function as a barrier to the student’s progress. And apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Last month, Paul Bertorelli penned (keyed?) an editorial about simulator maven Redbird stepping into the training void created by Cessna’s shift away from the piston market. What caught my eye about the piece was this line:

When I was instructing primary students, I always felt that with the right resources, any reasonably able person could largely teach himself to fly, with the instructor intervening only as a problem solver and coach.

Obviously it’s possible to learn to fly without an instructor. The Wrights did it well over a century ago, along with dozens of other aviation pioneers who had no other way of acquiring the requisite skills and knowledge except through experimentation. But Bertorelli is the first person I’ve encountered who proffered the idea of learning that way today.

I can cite several modern examples of people teaching themselves to fly, from impatient ultralight pilots flying off a dry lake bed to those in bona fide four-place GA aircraft. I’ve met two people from foreign countries with no general aviation market to speak of who were very much like the Wright brothers. There were no instructors to turn to. These guys either taught themselves to fly or simply stayed on the ground. One of them even had to engineer his own aircraft out of random parts. A real-life Flight of the Phoenix!

It gets better: a few years ago, I had a Pitts transition student with whom I flew in the S-2C for a half dozen hours before learning that not only did he lack a pilot certificate, but he actually taught himself to fly in a Cardinal that his family owned when he lived in the Midwest as a kid. The most surprising aspect? His self-education was so solid that nothing seemed out of place or abnormal about his skills or knowledge when we jumped into the Pitts. As anyone who’s flown one will tell you, the Pitts is an extremely demanding aircraft, even by tailwheel standards.

Likewise, I’ve seen many examples of instructors who, despite the best of intentions, actually impeded their student’s progress. With the cost of flying spiraling upward, that sort of thing will wash a potential aviator out faster than ever before. Then there are the inevitable scheduling conflicts, personality mismatches, and CFIs who leave for that low-paying airline gig in mid-stride.

When you consider all the above, and think about the amazing simulators, computer-based training courses, and interactive electronic training aids — things aviation pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could have only dreamt of — the question isn’t whether one can learn to fly without a CFI. It was done a hundred years ago and it’s still being done today. In fact, we self-teach every day when we fly, don’t we? That’s why the a pilot certificate is often referred to as a “license to learn”.

No, it seems to me the real question is how effective our current methods are. And one of the best ways to determine that is to have something to compare them to. I don’t mean to discount the many vital functions that an instructor plays. For one thing, aviation is an unforgiving activity and some mistakes — a low-altitude stall/spin, for example — simply cannot be made if one hopes to live a long life. But over time I’ve come to realize that there is a lot more to learn than any instructor could hope to teach, even during the formal student pilot period.

That’s why I feel a major part of being an instructor is simply keeping the student from hurting themselves or the airplane while they learn how to fly. This isn’t to say I don’t “teach”, but rather that I’m open to the many different ways in which people learn.

I had one student who couldn’t land the airplane well if I was talking during the process. Once I shut up, he did fine. It doesn’t exactly stroke the ego to admit that sometimes the best way to help is to just get out of the way, but after thinking about it a bit more, I realized that’s what many of my favorite CFIs did. Sometimes less really is more. When they did speak, it was always something concise and well-considered. Efficient. Compact.

It would be interesting to see a study commissioned where traditional methods of teaching primary students would be compared with using the Bertorelli method. I’m not convinced that the time required to reach Practical Test Standards proficiency would be much greater.