Learning to Fly — Without An Instructor?


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.

Breaking the Rules: Teaching Snap Rolls

Pitts S-2B

Every instructor knows that airplanes make poor classrooms. The noise, vibration, cramped space, communication challenges, interruptions from ATC, and the need to watch for traffic while monitoring location, airspace, and aircraft systems all conspire to prevent effective learning. Oh, and let’s not forget the exorbitant cost of operating this aluminum schoolroom.

Well if it’s true for the docile trainer, imagine the high-performance aerobatic airplane. They’re even worse than a standard aircraft because aerobatic steeds are designed for performance above all else. Those creature comforts you’re used to in a typical GA airplane? All gone.

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To Pull or Not to Pull

Garmin G1000 panel

It’s hard to believe a full decade has elapsed since the launch of the GA glass panel revolution. But as I recall, the first relatively high-volume GA aircraft with a fully integrated glass cockpit was the 2003 edition of the Cirrus SR22. That was the same year that Diamond brought the Garmin G1000 suite to their DA-40. The race was on, and we haven’t looked back since.

While this technology is a blessing, it’s also more complex than traditional analog gauges. Each product line has it’s own failure modes and redundancies, it’s pluses and minuses. Those are the things which dictate how partial panel scenarios should be simulated. It ought to be based on the way failures are expected to occur in real life, right?

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Preventing Stall/Spin Accidents

Phantom arrested landing

I’ve touched on this subject before (see Aviation Myth #14), but for some reason the idea that limiting bank angle will prevent stall/spin accidents keeps rearing it’s ugly head.

It doesn’t. It can’t. It won’t.

Angle-of-bank limitations have been suggested by flight instructors, alphabet groups, pundits, and most recently by Richard Collins of all people. In an Air Facts article last month, he wrote:

The pilot of a Mooney stalled and spun in, apparently while making a steep turn to try to patch up an overshoot of the turn to final. This happens and is easily addressed by never exceeding 30 degrees of bank below 2,000 feet. When the decision is made to “bend” an airplane around at low altitude it is likely to be bent, literally. The moment the pilot decides to try to salvage a bad approach is when risk peaks.

I’m sure Collins is well aware that stalls and spins have no relation to bank angle. You can stall an aircraft in level flight. In fact, that’s how most intentional stalls and spins are performed. The only requirement is that the airfoil be made to exceed the critical angle-of-attack. The same is true with spins: they are not related to aircraft attitude whatsoever. It is only necessary that the aircraft be uncoordinated when the wing is stalled.

An arbitrary bank angle limitation does not make a stall/spin scenario less likely. It does the exact opposite, forcing a pilot to skid the aircraft rather than make a steeper (yet properly coordinated) turn when necessary.

And it will be necessary at some point, due in large part to that very same bank limitation. How’s that for a chicken-and-egg scenario? Lower bank angles mean larger radius turns. The larger the radius, the more skill and precision one must exhibit in order to intercept a specified ground track, as a pilot must do prior to landing. It would be like trying to fly the pattern on autopilot. Oh, you could probably do it, but it would be clumsy, difficult, and you’d be limited to one of those gargantuan, bomber-sized patterns which takes you far from the airport at low altitude — unsafe in its own right — while simultaneously annoying folks both on the ground and in the air.

Many pilots don't know the difference between a slip and a skid and lack an appreciation for the distinction.

Many pilots don’t know the difference between a slip and a skid and lack an appreciation for the distinction.

Some of these bank limits would make landing at certain airports nearly impossible. Kern Valley Airport (L05), with it’s tight downwind adjacent to steep terrain, comes to mind. Collins must know this; he’s been aviating almost since the airplane was invented. That’s what makes his stance so mystifying. When we encounter birds or a traffic conflict in the pattern, are we to stick with, say, a 20 degree bank and accept the collision? What about a moderate over- or undershoot on final? I know, “just go around”. But when bank angles are limited, even that may not be enough.

Two years ago, I recounted the story of what happens when these kinds of limits are placed on a student pilot. It’s something that would have fit right in with Collins’ “Risky Moments” article:

I was at an uncontrolled airport one day watching pilots do their thing, when a student pilot entered the pattern and announced her intention to land on runway 25. On her first attempt her Cherokee blew through the final approach course and she wisely went around. The next time she did the same thing. The third attempt was a larger pattern with an earlier turn to final which resulted in an undershoot. Trying to fix that, she allowed her glidepath to get too high. Another go-around.

By this point the student was pretty rattled and, I’m sure, more that a little embarrassed by her inability to land. You could hear it in her voice as she made various radio calls. After four or five attempts someone had to talk her down via the radio.

What the heck had happened, I wondered? Was there an abnormally high wind aloft just pushing her through the final? Was she turned loose by her instructor with insufficient training? Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane. Was the traffic on the CTAF too distracting? Maybe she was from a quiet country airport (as if we have any of those in Southern California…).

Further investigation revealed that her CFI had taught her not to exceed some arbitrary bank angle in the pattern. I don’t remember if it was 20 degrees or 30. Maybe it was 15. The exact figure is not important. This poor lady’s instructor had told her that the way to avoid an inadvertent spin in the pattern was to limit her bank angle.

Student pilots often demonstrate a lower (though still adequate) level of performance at cross country airfields than at their home airport due to higher workload. Unfamiliar surroundings, dealing with a CTAF instead of a controller (or vice-versa), different runway numbers and pattern altitudes, etc. That’s when mistakes are more likely to be made.

Saddling the student with a hard limit on bank angle is just asking for a stall/spin situation. That’s my real objection. It’s not simply that angle-of-bank limits don’t work. It’s that they create the very situation proponents claim they’ll prevent.

It would be far easier and safer for pilots to simply learn proper coordination and angle-of-attack awareness. Instead, we try to make due with one crutch after another: angle-of-attack computers, stall warning devices, mechanical rudder limiters, elimination of spin training, curtailing full-stall exposure. And now, of course, bank angle limits. It reaches the point where pilots get so wrapped around the axle about how load factors increase with bank angle that they forget this is only true while maintaining a constant altitude. It’s a rote response, the very lowest level of learning.

Sure, highly specialized flight operations might call for high-tech solutions. If you need to stop a 50,000 pound swept-wing fighter on a pitching carrier deck within 340 feet, flying an exacting angle-of-attack is, if you’ll pardon the pun, critical. By all means, use that AOA gauge. But most of us are putting an aircraft weighing 90% less on a runway that’s 1,500% longer. These programmed, mechanical solutions to basic flying scenarios are not an adequate substitute.

Angle-of-attack awareness and proper coordination are “Flying 101″ tasks which are literally taught in the first few lessons of a student pilot’s career. If anyone holding an airman certificate lacks these rudimentary skills, aren’t they acting as pilot-in-command without really knowing how to fly?

Vintage Flying

Forget the pressurized aluminum tube.  This is flying.

Do you ever get the feeling that you were born in the wrong era? I do. It’s ironic because I have a natural affinity for computerized devices, web development, coding, glass panel avionics, and other high-tech elements. Nevertheless, they don’t hold a candle to the mechanical brilliance and timeless design ethos of vintage aircraft. I love ‘em.

A student of mine owns a fully-restored 1928 Travel Air 4000, an aircraft that turned heads 85 years ago and still does the same thing today wherever it goes. For all the advances we’ve made since the Roaring 20s, I sincerely doubt my automobile, cell phone, computer, furniture, or other belongings will be around in the year 2098, let alone looking as good as this “old” airplane.

An aircraft like this is all about the details.  For example, the leather grain and embroidery in this rear seat headrest.

An aircraft like this is all about the details. For example, the leather grain and embroidery in this rear seat headrest.

A Travel Air Primer

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Travel Air Manufacturing Company name, you might recognize people who founded it in 1925: Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman. Travel Air was one of the companies that first put Wichita on the map as the “Air Capital of the World”. The firm only lasted a few years, building about 1,800 biplanes before the company was absorbed by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation (which still exists) in 1929.

Among antique biplanes, the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman represents the bulk of the existing fleet — no surprise given that about 10,000 of them were built. Waco biplanes are less common, although they have the advantage of being in active production. If you’ve got the wherewithal (ie. $500,000 or so), a new Waco YMF-5 can be yours. There’s one at John Wayne Airport with a full IFR-certified Garmin avionics suite. Imagine it: a 1930’s tube-and-fabric biplane with a 21st century WAAS-approach capable panel.

An open-cockpit biplane with a glass panel?  Yep.

An open-cockpit biplane with a glass panel? Yep.

Anyway, a Travel Air — one that actually flies, at least — is rare. Relatively few were built, and those that were manufactured were rolled out in an era when preserving aircraft wasn’t as much of a priority. Aviation was fairly new and all eyes were on the future. The past… well, there wasn’t much of a “history” to really worry about. In addition, after the first World War there were plenty of used Curtiss JN-4 and JN-6 series “Jenny” biplanes to be had at a fraction of the $6,000 price Travel Air wanted for their product.

By the time World War II ended, there were tens of thousands of trained and experienced pilots, aircraft were being sold off as cheap surplus, and biplanes made ideal cropdusters, trainers, and personal airplanes. So the Stearman seems to have fared better in terms of survival. You’ll even see the effect on other biplanes, as many Travel Airs have had their landing gear and powerplants converted to the Stearman equivalent because those parts are in better supply.

Today, the FAA has 248 Travel Airs in their active registry, but I doubt anywhere near that many are in airworthy condition. This aircraft was built just about in the middle of the Travel Air’s production run: it’s number 849 and the surviving documentation goes all the way back to the day it was manufactured. The bill of sale was signed by Walter Beech.

This Continental W-670 radial engine is not original.  Most commonly found on the Boeing Stearman, it replaced the factory-standard Wright “Whirlwind” J-6 five-cylinder powerplant.

This Continental W-670 radial engine is not original. Most commonly found on the Boeing Stearman, it replaced the factory-standard Wright “Whirlwind” J-6 five-cylinder powerplant.

The Travel Air has some interesting design characteristics. Like the Waco, Travel Airs were three-place aircraft: two seats in the front and one in the back. The airplane’s landing gear was especially rugged for the day, being built with large tires and strong rubber shock cords on the main landing gear. The wing itself is a historic artifact as well, featuring an undercambered shape. This was common at the time but went out of style pretty quickly thereafter. Also, the Travel Air airframe was designed to allow for different wing designs to be attached. I’m not sure if this was a marketing idea or a cost-saving one.

Flying History

We launched early in the day for some pattern work. His three-point and wheel landings were quite good, so I threw a curve at my student by heading to a much narrower runway where there wouldn’t be as many sight cues to work with. Narrow runways also encourage rounding out too low because of a visual illusion which leads the pilot to believe he’s higher above the ground that he actually is. Result? Bounced landings and some difficulty determining where the edges of the pavement are. But those are mistakes you only make a few times before the proper sight pictures are committed to memory and things fall into place.

The best way to see Orange County:  through a maze of wires, struts, tubes, and javelins.

The best way to see Orange County: through a maze of wires, struts, tubes, and javelins.

After that, we spent some time on wingovers, stalls, steep turns, and teaching techniques in a local practice area before departing on a tour of the L.A. basin. My student is in the process of establishing a sightseeing business with the Travel Air, and we’d been thinking about some routes he could fly which would cater to the Travel Air’s strengths. SkyThrills already does this with great success using one of the “new” Waco YMF-5 biplanes, although they’ve really gone the extra mile in achieving a Part 135 charter certificate with the airplane.

Our basin tour started with an inspection of the Santa Ana mountains while enroute to Dana Point, whereupon we descended to 1,000 feet before proceeding up the coast toward Long Beach and the Queen Mary. Then we made some Class D airspace transitions through Long Beach, Los Alamitos, and Fullerton enroute to a smooth landing at Chino. After a few days of gusty Santa Ana winds and the accompanying crystal clear skies, the prototypical Southern California haze was just starting to return. Catalina and San Clemente Islands were clearly beckoned in the distance. If only this biplane had amphibious floats…

Aircraft like the Travel Air are extremely weather-dependent, even by aviation standards. It’s a flying convertible, albeit one that moves at 100 mph. That’s a pivotal part of the experience — you feel every change of temperature or humidity, you breathe unfiltered air, and the roar of the exhaust stack is so close you can literally reach out and touch it. At night, those metal tubes glow with a hot flame which extends out the back of the pipe. On a good weather day it’s a glorious experience. If it’s cold and rainy? Not so much.

The Travel Air looks good from any angle.  What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in panache.

The Travel Air looks good from any angle. What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in panache.

Just the act of getting into the front seat of the Travel Air is an event. For one thing, it’s got a 15 inch tall mini-door which swings out in gallant style. Once you’re in the front cockpit, the leather-wrapped bench seat is wide enough for two but has only a single, extra wide seatbelt without a shoulder harness. Keep in mind, I’m used to having a 5-point harness in the Gulfstream, airbags in the Diamond, and a beefy, secondary lap belt in aerobatic airplanes with a parachute on top of it all. In other words, yeah, I was strapped in safely — by 1928 standards.

My student was kind enough to play passenger for a few minutes while I made a few circuits. I’ve never been a fan of flying from the front cockpit. I do it all the time, but it’s not ideal, because in many tandem airplanes the front hole is more-or-less co-located with the center of gravity, so it’s hard to feel the yawing motion. You’re sitting closer to the engine, so it’s considerably louder. And in this particular aircraft, the front cockpit also lacks brakes, push-to-talk, and instruments.

I can see a modern pilot moaning about the lack of a stall warning horn, angle-of-attack indicator, or GPS. Grrr — don’t get me started.

I’m used to flying with very limited instrumentation while instructing, but this airplane has absolutely nothing up front beyond a stick, rudder pedals, and throttle. Not even an airspeed indicator or altimeter. I had a paper chart, too — but it wasn’t sepia toned or black-and-white, so no style points for that!

Of course, gauges are not necessary to fly. I didn’t even miss them, really. I’d make an occasional query with my student about altitude or airspeed, but for the most part you can judge altitude by looking at the ground and airspeed by wind noise. Close enough for government work, as they say. But it was weird having a huge, beautiful wood panel in front of me containing absolutely nothing. When I first climbed into this airplane a few years ago, I giggled about it for a second and then asked my student if he could check me out on the front seat instruments before we cranked up. He got all the way out of his seat before realizing that I’d pulled a fast one on him.

As is becoming my custom, I hauled out the iPhone 5 every so often and came up with a few photos which I trust you’ll enjoy.