A fellow CFI recently asked my thoughts on whether instrument flying is more art or science. Long story short, I’m of the opinion that it’s a bit of both. While ruminating on our conversation later that day, I stumbled upon this post by John Zimmerman, where he declared it to be the former and asked an interesting question:
Why do we insist on a robotic approach when it comes to teaching instrument flying?
I’ve heard that about many things in the world of flight training: “It’s too robotic/regimented/boring/skills-driven/etc.” There’s a good reason for that. Learning to fly is like learning just about any highly complex activity, whether it’s ballroom dancing or open heart surgery: by using a proven and well-structured “building-block” approach. Individual skills are taught, demonstrated, critiqued, and practiced until they become second nature. Then they are added to and combined in order to allow the final activity to be performed reliably within the requisite standards.
Are there other ways to learn how to fly? Of course. The variety of strategies for accomplishing the task are as numerous as stars in the sky. They range from literally militant (in the armed forces) to so freeform that there is, for all intents and purposes, no structure whatsoever.
I’ve previously theorized that not only could a person learn to fly without a “robotic approach”, they could learn to fly without an instructor at all. The Wrights did it. Even today in the United States, there are places where people teach themselves to fly. One of those pilots later became a student of mine, and he flew beautifully. On the other hand, I don’t think that was a typical example. But it shows that there are countless ways of achieving the goal of teaching someone to fly, whether on instruments or visually.
When it comes to flying, I would add that we’re not only searching for the most efficient (and therefore least expensive) method, but also the one which creates a safe pilot. Primacy of learning dictates that students be taught the proper way to fly by instruments from their first attempt, lest they later fall back on unsafe methods when under stress. This is something we as teachers have known since Edward Thorndike developed the first “laws of learning” a century ago.
I don’t mean to dump on Zimmerman’s post. On the contrary, he provides some excellent suggestions. The “essential profiles” tip is, in my experience, one of the big keys to success in instrument flying.
You should memorize the key power/flap/gear/airspeed configurations for each airplane you fly, including max climb, initial approach, and final approach. For example, if you know that 20 inches of manifold pressure and 10 degrees of flaps will deliver 100 knots in level flight, set that configuration outside the final approach fix and get back to flying. Then, as you approach glideslope intercept, you can fine tune it if needed. It’s a great way to reduce workload at critical times, and can also bail you out in an emergency.
Once you’ve got power settings memorized for level cruise, precision descent, and non-precision descent, it makes flying so much easier. This is especially true when flying approach procedures, which is where the most precise flying is required. You set the power and the plane does what you want without all the usual jockeying of throttle, pitch attitudes, and so on. Once you’ve got the airplane on speed in level flight, you set the power and the airplane maintains the trimmed airspeed without any further ado. Memorizing power settings is one of the very first things I have an instrument student do. If that sounds a lot like what you’d do if teaching someone to fly in VMC rather than IMC, you’re on the right track.
I’m continually amazed at the number of instrument-rated pilots who never learned the profiles for their aircraft. It takes me about two minutes flying with them in actual or simulated IMC to notice it. I don’t understand how anyone can reliably fly within the PTS/ACS standards without knowing those numbers. Oh, they may stay on, say, the localizer and glideslope. But the airspeed will almost certainly be all over the place.
Even in a large cabin business jet like the Gulfstream IVSP, I know EPR numbers and/or fuel flow ranges for various configurations and scenarios. I say “ranges” because the airplane is much different at 49,000 lbs than it is at 75,000 lbs and the settings will vary accordingly. Likewise, for any aircraft — even the lightest of instrument trainers — the power required to fly a precision glidepath at a constant speed will vary somewhat due to the effect of wind on the aircraft’s groundspeed.
Teaching instrument flying got a lot easier for me once I realized that you do the same things you’d do with a VFR student pilot – and in much the same order, too. Would it makes sense to start a neophyte off on his or her first lesson by working on landings? Of course not. But that’s what instructors often do with instrument students, flying instrument approaches on day one. Why? I’ve heard answers ranging from “because it’s more interesting for them” to “it’s the most critical skill so they need more time working on it”. The truth is you’re asking them to perform open heart surgery without any medical training.
A better (and admittedly more “robotic”) strategy would be to begin with basic aircraft control: level flight, climbs, descents, and turns. Once that’s mastered, combine them with more complex instructions involving climbs and turns, level offs at odd altitudes (3,650’) and unusual headings (“237 degrees, please”). Challenge their skill level by introducing an alternate scan via partial panel. They got that down pat? Add in constant rate climbs and descents. This is where I personally drill the power settings until they’re second nature. Then I have them start handling the radio. After that it’s on to basic navigation skills like TITO, tracking and intercepting courses, and copying simulated ATC instructions while flying. Then holds. And THEN they might be ready to start working on instrument approach procedures. The skills are finally — and firmly — in place.
If a scattershot approach to flight training was the most efficient method, we’d probably know it by now.