Learning to Fly — Without An Instructor?

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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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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?

The Third Rail

Student and instructor preflight an F-18 at Patuxent River

Let’s face it, nobody wants a lousy instructional experience when they seek out flight training. But one of the many sad statistics about general aviation today is that eighty percent of student pilots — four out of five — quit flying before they’ve reached their goal. Ask the industry wags why and they’ll most often point to 1) cost and 2) poor instructors as root causes, but I think there’s an equally important element that not many folks talk about: the student and their own attitude toward training.

The Usual Suspects

I’ve gone on record many times in stating my belief that cost is the major factor in washing people out. This comes from personal experience accrued during a decade and a half of verbally polling pilots about why they’ve quit.

But a more typical whipping boy is the lowly GA flight instructor, that individual who’s working a 60 hour week to bring home 20 hours of pay. And that’s on a good week, mind you. I marvel at individuals who can sustain that kind of punishment for years on end in an industry that accords them the compensation and prestige of a homeless man begging for spare change by a freeway off-ramp. Is it any wonder that the level of service and quality they provide may decline over time?

That’s why quality CFIs have always had my utmost respect. They work in the toughest segment of an already unforgiving business. It brings a smile to my face to see organizations like AOPA honoring the best of the best with their Flight Training Excellence program, or the FAA lifting the occasional CFI to elevated status with the General Aviation Awards. In the same vein are professional accreditations like the Master CFI, which recognizes instructors whose activities, education, experience, and volunteerism are a step above.

Sure, there are some terrible CFIs out there. You’ll find ones that don’t care, are in it for the wrong reasons, never learned to teach, have no talent for it, and even some who simply don’t fly well. But just as often, they are hard-working professionals who give their students every possible chance for success by coming in early, staying late, doing a little (or a lot of) extra hand-holding, and adapt lesson plans and teaching styles to accommodate their student’s needs. Some trainees are visual learners. Others are auditory and don’t do as well with written tasks. Still others are kinesthetic and need to get the “big picture” before they can focus on details. It’s not always easy coming up with solutions.

I’ve always sort of envied military instructors because their trainees must reach proficiency in a timely fashion or that seat in the cockpit will quickly morph into a permanent seat at some office desk. In the civilian realm, as long as a student has the financial resources to continue, they needn’t worry about washing out. That’s good for the student — it gives them every possible chance — but it can be tough on the CFI.

The FBO Barrier

Even if the instructor is top-shelf, the flight school itself can be a show-stopping impediment which keeps the customer from becoming a student at all. Andrew Hartley summed it up quite nicely:

Flight schools are generally NOT customer friendly. For such a social industry, I’m always a little amazed at the suspicion in which we hold people who don’t fly (yet). I imagine my students walking into a flight school or airport, knowing no one, knowing nothing about the industry or flight training at all, not really knowing what it is going to take to become a pilot, and not getting any help or greeting from the person at the “front desk.” They just get completely ignored.

And yet, they push through and get out of their comfort zone and ASK. Someone. Anyone. And at some point, they get to the right person, who sets them up with an instructor. And then the instructor meets them… maybe cordially, maybe not, and so it goes.

I’m beginning to think that aviation self-selects people who are decision-makers and risk-takers not because flying requires it (it does), but because people who do not have these qualities won’t make it past the front door! I know that I wouldn’t have, if I had not already had an aviation background.

But I’m disturbed and saddened by the HUGE number of people who possibly just need that one bit of information – the right person to talk to at the airport – to get into the left seat of a small plane and start the process of learning to fly. If they could just get that far… just take that ONE EXTRA LITTLE STEP and ask the question, this entire aviation world of wonder would open up for them! But they might be too shy or too afraid to step out of their comfort zone that one little extra bit. And it’s AVIATION’S loss, not just their own.

He’s right. Aviation is kind of like opera in that regard, a foreign and exotic world to those on the outside. It’s surprisingly easy to scare prospective students — even truly interested ones — away with a negative experience on their first visit to the airfield.

The Third Rail of Instruction

So far we’ve considered the expense, the instructor, and the school. There’s one element left: the student themselves.

One of the things I discovered after years of training — private, instrument, commercial, tailwheel, multi-engine, formation, aerobatic, turboprop, sea plane, glider, and jet type rating courses, plus regular recurrent training, of course — was that I needed to take charge of my own progress. And I eventually did. It’s empowering! A student has tremendous power to mold their learning experience into something that works for them, right down to changing instructors if necessary. Remember, they’re not just learners, but customers as well.

Learning to fly is much like being a medical patient. There are those who simply put themselves at the mercy of their physician and take whatever they’re told at face value, never questioning, researching, or double checking anything. That little voice in the back of your head that says something is wrong? Ignore it — the doctor said it’s nothing. Right?

I’ll tell you a story about that. My wife and I had a wonderful 93 year old neighbor who recently passed away from cancer. She was a real gem, loved by everyone in the neighborhood, and despite her age had a clear mind and the ability to get around. She even lived on her own. Anyway, for years she had been telling doctors that something didn’t feel right, and she was repeatedly brushed off by her physician as a hypochondriac. “Oh, it’s just normal aches and pains for someone your age,” they said. She also heard, “It’s just a side effect of your medication.” And the definitive-sounding proclamation that “You’re fine.”

It turns out she was right all along. And last year — on Mother’s Day, no less — she received a diagnosis of cancer in the exact spot that she had been complaining about. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they concluded by informing her that she was too old for any treatment and sent her away with nothing more than a reference for hospice care.

That’s a pretty harsh tale. But being a student pilot is quite similar. If you want to be successful you have become pilot-in-command of your own training, because as hard as a CFI might try, they will never know you as well as you know yourself. Your weaknesses, your strengths, your personality type. Likewise, just as instructors are taught to insist on proper performance from their students during maneuvers and tasks while flying, so the student must insist on quality service from those providing the training. It’s a two-way street, but in the presence of an authority figure, it’s human nature to assume they must know better than you do.

I recall the day a light bulb went off for me about this. During primary training, I was experiencing a great deal of frustration with my progress because runway construction, 100 hour inspections, maintenance issues, instructor schedules, aircraft availability, and weather kept getting in the way. Sound familiar? Then I realized that this is simply part of the game, and it was grating against a personality characteristic of mine which prefers to immerse myself with total focus until the goal is reached.

The solution was to book more lessons than required, because a certain percentage would always be scrubbed due to factors beyond my control. My new policy was to schedule three lessons for every one that I needed. It worked — I was able to fly more frequently, and cancellations didn’t stress me at all because I always had a back-up lesson planned. In fact, to this day it’s what I advise my own students to do if they want to reach the critical mass of recent flight experience necessary to make serious progress.

Taking charge of my own training also means never walking away at the end of a lesson without knowing what to read, memorize, or prepare for the next session. Showing up unprepared is one of the easiest ways to waste time and money. Any instructor worth their salt should provide a concise plan for the next flight without prompting. Does your CFI greet you by asking “So what are we doing today?” If so, you need to find a new instructor pronto.

Sometimes the hitch in a student’s giddy-up is not anyone’s fault, but just a consequence of clashing personalities. I don’t mind admitting that the very first primary student I ever taught ended up leaving me to fly with a different instructor who had a contrasting disposition. A bit of pride had to be swallowed, no doubt about it. But in the end, we were both better off. Today that guy is an active GA pilot rather than one of those who fell by the wayside. As the Templar Knight said, he chose wisely.

The dropout rate among rookies may be 80%, but I have to wonder how many of those failures could have ended with a checkride triumph if only the neophyte had taken a more active role in the instructor/student relationship. It’s not enough to merely show up for class. The engaged, proactive student represents the best prospect for beating the odds and joining the fraternity of aviators. The day I took on that responsibility remains one of my finest instructional moments.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Teaching a Spouse to Fly

Rapp-Vest Engagement Photos

Kristi and I have been married for more than three-and-a-half years, and while many parts of our lives are completely merged, there are also areas where our identities and roles have remained quite distinct. For example, she’s been the dancer and I’ve been the pilot. We both brought those avocations in from our pre-wedding days. Oh, I’ll step into her world for a spell or she into mine, but for the most part my domain is up in the clouds and hers has been on the parquet.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the challenge and artistry of competitive ballroom dance, but rather that I defer to her established history, training, and experience in this very demanding sport. In other words, she is the expert (and true talent, I might add!). When we’re aloft, the opposite tends to be true. Nothing earth-shattering so far, right?

Getting ready to depart for Catalina in a Cirrus SR22 to re-create our first date.

Getting ready to depart for Catalina in a Cirrus SR22 to re-create our first date.

But lately Kristi has been doing some of the stick-and-rudder work on our flights on her own initiative. She seems to have enjoyed it, to the point that she’s showing an interest in possibly learning on a more formal basis, and that’s got me noodling about whether I should be the one doing the teaching. There are plenty of arguments both for and against the do-it-yourself approach.

The Case For:

Let’s start with the money. Flying is expensive, and the fact that I’m an instructor means that we could get her trained at lower cost. She’s a quick study, but due to the airspace and complexities of operating here in Southern California, let’s assume it takes 55 hours of actual flying and another 40 of otherwise chargeable ground time. That’s 95 hours at, say, $65/hour. The savings: over $6,000. This is not pocket change!

It’d also be convenient from a scheduling perspective if I were her instructor. And it’s an enjoyable avocation that we could share. Learning to fly is a momentous time for the student — I’d hate to miss being there for the big breakthroughs and milestones that one often encounters during the journey, not to mention shepherding her through the inevitable plateaus and frustrations that are, unfortunately, also part of the experience.

A hot wife who likes to fly?  How did I get so lucky??

A hot wife who likes to fly? How did I get so lucky??

One of the great challenges for any instructor is figuring out how a student learns. You’d think it’d be easy to teach everybody the same stuff in the same way, but this is not a traditional classroom activity. It’s a one-on-one learning environment, and every individual proceeds at a different pace and encounters their own unique hurdles. For example, an aeronautical engineer might be someone I could speak “the language” to right off the bat, whereas someone who never finished high school might need to be taught remedial math or physics. As Kristi’s husband, I might have an advantage in knowing how to best approach specific subjects.

Finally, there’s an old saying: “if you want something done right, do it yourself”, and where my wife is concerned, I’d want to ensure nothing was overlooked or left to chance. And not just for safety reasons, although that’s certainly paramount. The dropout rate for student pilots is around 80%, and while most of that is undoubtedly due to financial concerns, it’s no secret that plenty of students are lost to scheduling difficulties, personality conflict, instructor apathy, or simply not having enough fun.

The Case Against:

Flying columnist Lane Wallace succinctly summarized the argument against establishing a student/instructor relationship with a spouse or “significant other” to fly when she asked quite plainly, “Is it possible to teach your spouse to fly and stay married?”

When put into that context, the $6,000 suddenly seems a lot less important, doesn’t it?

On more than one occasion, I’ve written that if there is an iron-clad piece of advice I’d offer to anyone, it would be that under no circumstances should ANYONE attempt to teach their boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other or spouse how to operate ANY piece of heavy machinery, let alone an airplane. And that people violate this dictum at their peril.

The reasons for this advice seem obvious. Intimate relationships entail so many loaded dynamics of power, acceptance and rejection, vulnerability and baggage that attempting to impose a teacher/student relationship on top of that — especially where performance is critical and misunderstandings can be catastrophic — is generally a really bad idea.

I've always thought this looked like an ad for a headset or sunglasses company.

I’ve always thought this looked like an ad for a headset or sunglasses company.

She makes a good argument, no doubt about it. There are times a CFI has to lay down the law on their padawan, and it’s easier to do that when the interpersonal relationship between the two is limited to student and instructor. Adding “husband” and “wife” can easily complicate things. Issues that are exclusive of aviation can find their way into the cockpit almost unbeknownst to either party.

Teaching Kristi to fly would also mean that I wouldn’t be fully available to her as a sounding board when she had frustrations or doubts about either her performance or that of her instructor. Being that “shoulder to lean on” can be awfully important. If either one of us ever changed our minds about the wisdom of teaching a spouse, making a break that wouldn’t hurt the other person’s feelings might be difficult.

On the other hand, the guy Lane interviewed for her Flying article did successfully teach his wife to fly and they seem to be better for the experience. But then, perhaps that’s what made it so noteworthy. I know quite a few people who met their significant other through aviation, but in cases where one taught the other to fly, every single one of them had the student/instructor relationship before they got involved on a personal level. That’s probably why this feels like uncharted territory.

Having a little fun at the Catalina Airport.  As I recall, we were sharing a cool popsicle on a very hot summer day.

Having a little fun at the Catalina Airport. As I recall, we were sharing a cool popsicle on a very hot summer day.

On the other hand, it seems quite common for a parent to teach a child or grandchild to fly. Again, this likely has to do with the nature of the relationship. The parent is already an authority figure over any younger member of the family, whereas with spouses it’s more of a — if you’ll pardon the pun — marriage of equals.

There’s one more potentially detrimental aspect to providing flight instruction to a member of the family: the temptation to interact with the student in a less than professional manner. Or perhaps I should say, to let some of the professional decorum that normally accompanies one’s interactions with a client fall by the wayside. I doubt this would ever be done out of intentional disrespect, but it’s an insidious tendency that I’ve personally witnessed with other instructors who have taught loved ones to fly.

For example, under normal circumstances a CFI wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) dream of showing up late, canceling on short notice, taking phone calls during a scheduled lesson, or treating a student with anything less than the utmost professionalism and high quality service. But if that student was a family member, the lack of formality in their everyday relationship might make its way into other aspects of the training.

That would be a huge mistake. An instructor needs to hold their student accountable for completing homework, assigned reading, and so on. Likewise, the student should expect that their instructor will be as timely, prepared, and professional with them as they would be with any third-party customer.

This was taken during a 1930's-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

This was taken during a 1930’s-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

Other Options

The start of Kristi’s training is not imminent, so we’ve got plenty of time to figure this out. At the moment, my inclination is to teach her myself, but with a clear understanding that if we encounter problems or it doesn’t seem to be working out, either one of us can suggest switching to a third-party instructor before any unpleasantness destroys her enthusiasm for flying. So often in this business, we forget that taking wing is supposed to be fun! If it’s not… well, then it’s time to take stock and figure out what’s wrong.

Another option might be to continue what we’ve already started: a slower, more informal training regime where a lesson is incorporated with our occasional travel by air. Her progress would be glacial in comparison to traditional methods, but it would have some advantages, too. Lower cost (we’d be flying for some other purpose anyway), less stress, and no pressure to “get it done”. This method might also preserve a lot of the fun since we’d rarely be droning around some practice area. If Kristi ever felt the desire to make faster progress toward solo or a private certificate, we could transition her into a formalized program.

How about you, dear readers? Have you ever taught a spouse to fly, or learned from one? Do you know anyone who has? I’d be interested in hearing your stories and opinions. One thing’s for sure: whether I’m the instructor or not, Kristi learning to fly would be quite an adventure for both of us!