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.

  28 comments for “Learning to Fly — Without An Instructor?

  1. May 20, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Amazing timing, Ron, we’ve been experimenting with a shared cockpit capability on PilotEdge. The training opportunity is just massive. I’ve run a few experiments doing 2-crew operations (great for CRM training), primary training and instrument training. All 3 have worked out very well. Here’s a video of the first test of the capability in the recently release Bell 407 for X-Plane. I’m working the comms, the other guy (r/w Bell 206 pilot) is doing the flying. We depart SNA, transition the LAX Bravo via the Coastal Route, then request the ILS RWY 16R at VNY: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRDTGGMkYgs

    Later, we swapped roles and he gave me an excellent first lesson on flying helicopter. He had to take over a few times when I started losing it, which was all part of the experience. I have no doubt that this could be a new model for instruction, not to completely replace flight instruction, but to augment the training that takes place today and reduce the amount of time required in the airplane during the training process.

    ProFlight (Carlsbad, CA) provides their clients with opportunities to use their Level 6 FTD (Citation CJ3) without an instructor present or even a sim tech. They hit a few buttons on an Ipad and the sim fires up, and starts the scenario. Clients report that it’s a great way to get more comfortable in the airplane outside of the structured sim sessions. Free play can be powerful when it’s done right.

    We feel strongly about this capability and intend to launch it as a value-added service on PilotEdge, matching up pilots with instructors to promote remote coaching/instructing, as well as still encouraging plenty of solo flight. Get that balance right and you have a powerful new way of moving people along, to say nothing of the convenience factor. What can you do in a 90 minute block today with an airplane, door to door? Not much . With sims, home study and remote coaching, you can be productive for 85 of those 90 minutes and you can do it 24/7, regardless of the weather.

    • May 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      There’s no doubt that the sim world is moving ahead at the speed of computer technology. Still have quite a ways to go in order to simulate the sounds, motions, and everything else with 100% fidelity, but it’s getting there.

      I was referring more to flying in an actual aircraft. What if you put an instructor in the plane but let the student experiment after going through computer-based training on a specific lesson? How long would it take for them to achieve PTS-level proficiency?

      Sims are risk-free. If the student crashes the sim, so what? You can’t take that attitude into the air, so from a practical (as well as legal) standpoint you’ll have an instructor there. The question is, how much of the learning progression comes from the CFI and how much could the student achieve on their own?

      Let me put it another way: I’ve had students who finished in minimal time with minimal effort on my part. They made me look like a brilliant CFI. I’ve also had ones with whom I worked ten times as hard in order to achieve the same result. In those cases I seem to be a marginal instructor at best. It makes me wonder how much of the final product is the instructor’s work, and how much is the student learning more through guided experimentation than anything else.

  2. May 20, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    While I wasn’t an “impatient ultralight pilot flying off a dry lake bed,” I was an impatient 13-year-old who grew up on an airpark. I flew a Robertson B1-RD ultralight ( http://www.ultralightnews.com/antulbg/images/robertson_B1RD/Robertson_b1-rd-2.jpg ) up and down the runway at our airpark… always landing before the end of our 1,800′ runway. When it became unsafe for me to takeoff-climb-descend-land in the span of 1,800′, my parents relented and let me “take her around the patch.” The bulk of my instruction was flying with my non-CFI father in our J-3 Cub and C-172XP and his coaching from our front yard. So yeah, people can learn to fly without an instructor. I did…

    • May 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      The Pitts student who taught himself in the Cardinal told me he knew of many pilots in his neck of the woods who had no formal training. They’d learn on a grass or dirt strip carved out of the family farmland and spend decades flying with no certification of any kind. Not ultralights — I’m talking about full size, four place GA aircraft. He said they treated it like a car: just told him to stay over the their own private land.

      • May 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm

        Honestly… that is fantastic. Not for everyone to be sure, but fantastic nonetheless.

        • May 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

          I knew a guy like that when he came over to my FBO to get his private. He made sure to log the minimum required legal numbers and then took a checkride. He worked for either Aspen or Bendix-King and learned in his parents’ 172 on a ranch in Texas.

          • May 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm

            Between flying on the ranch and working a major avionics manufacturer, his aviation exposure was pretty significant even before he walked in the door at your FBO. In a way, he’d be “training” for many years!

  3. graeme
    May 20, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    This post makes you stop and think for a number of reasons.
    Before I hopped into the front seat of any aircraft, I had well over 2000 in simulators where I taught myself between books and trial and error. I knew about stalls, how to land, take off, navigate using VORs, NDBs, knew about night flight, runway lights and airport environment…including
    Traffic pattern. None of this I needed a CFI for.

    But I didn’t know how to use E6B or about stability (much) or weight and balance or engine operations. For this I relied on my CFI

    I am mid way through my CFI program. Now am I needed?

    I think learning how to fly with an instructor can only beneficial and safe. Your folks you mentioned
    Made it thus far but you know….som we maybe not as likely.

    • May 21, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      Yes, every student is different. An automotive engineer will learn the aircraft systems and mechanical components very quickly. A doctor, on the other hand, might not. But he’ll zip through aeromedical and physiological elements. An attorney wouldn’t need much instruction in the area of regulations and aviation law.

      Even if it was an option, self-guided learning isn’t for everyone. Some folks need a structured environment.

  4. BarboraS
    May 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Hey Ron, as being a PPL A trainee and an GA geek from Europe, this story sounds to me like a different universe. Incredible. Im now starting my own blog regarding the future of GA in the CEE region and refer to you for sure, because this is seriously something to think about in our conditions as well. Best regards

    • May 21, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Glad to hear it! Be sure to send the link to your blog — I (and others, I’m sure) would be interested in hearing about how things are over there.

  5. May 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    My first instructor was a Flying Farmer from Dawson County, Texas. Right after the war, (#2) ended he purchased a surplus PT-19 and hired an instructor. The first day they took off soon after sunup and flew until just before sundown. The instructor told the Farmer he was through for the day. All they had done was fly a couple of hours, refuel and go again. Besides, he was nervous about the number of sips the Farmer had taken from the half pint of whiskey he kept in the rear pockets of his khakis. The Farmer wasn’t through. As soon as the instructor left, he took off. Some twenty hours they found him in the wreckage, not a scratch, just drunk. He had only broken the center spar of his plywood airplane. Fast forward about two years. Now he had a J-3 Piper Cub and several Aeroncas. He had also opened a flying school for students on the GI Bill. I met him one Saturday afternoon just before my 14th birthday. I was admiring the J–3 when he walked up and offered me a ride. And what a ride! He even let me fly. After we landed he offered me a job as a line boy. I didn’t know what that meant but I was sure he would teach me. In exchange he would give me flying lessons. After we shook hands on the deal we went to the office where he helped me fill out a new logbook. Every time we flew he made a great show of filling out the log and signing it. By the time I had eight hours of dual, he said if I had been a few years older, he would let me solo. In the meantime I did all the flying except for a nip out of the every present bottle. We used to fly to a liquor store about 40 miles away, land in a pasture and fill the luggage compartment with booze…half pints. Many years later, after I had my private ticket, I ran in to a man who knew my farmer. He told me that the Farmer had never had anything but a Student ticket, never a CFI

    • May 21, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      Wow. When people talk about that era as a “different time”, they aren’t kidding.

      Reminds me of the old saying about the J-3. “The Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.” I guess that aphorism was borne out of alcoholic student-pilot-cum-instructor hijinks.

  6. Sonja
    May 20, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    “they treated it like a car” – yeah I think thats an important point. At all, I think an aircraft is not so different to a car. It’s a means of transport at all.
    I learned to fly before I learned to drive, but I learned to handle cars at the airport, without any instruction (they just gave me the key and told me to tow some glider out of the landing field). After I finally did my driving licence I was not a better driver than I was in those past days where I was driving around at the airfield. Actually the only goal at triving school was to satisfy the examiners. It was having my own car and being on the way for thousands of kilometres that made me something like good driver. So we accept things like that when we think about driving but never with flying because flying has the scent of something special, something dangerous. But why? There are more people dying in car accidents than in pane crashes, and there are more things around you can hit on earth if you temporarily cant control your car, than would be up in the air.

    I always envied those people who grew up with the opinion of flying being something normal, a part of their lives, just like driving. But in the well-regulated, not to say totally supervised aviation world of middle europe, there is simply no chance for that.

    (please excuse if some sentences sound strange. I am no english native speaker, but I try my best 🙂 )

    • May 21, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      While it’s true there are fewer fatalities in GA than on the highways, if you look at the accident rate, I think you’ll find automobiles fare better.

      Having said that, it’s interesting that Europeans are in awe of the freedom we have in the U.S. today, whereas modern Americans look back at flying in the 1940s in much the same way. Kind of gives you a (depressing) idea of where we are headed if things don’t change.

      I think we need to go back in time, but responsibly. Instead of drunk farmers masquerading as instructors, something less crazy. As I always say, look to the freedoms of the Experimental-Amateur Built category here in the U.S. That’s the spirit and the attitude which will revive aviation, whether it’s here in the U.S. or across the pond in Europe.

  7. Colin
    May 20, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I asked my primary instructor if there was ANYONE who solo’d at ten hours and took the exam at forty hours. He said there was ONE kid, and he never needed to say a word to him. He pre-flighted, got in, checklist, collected the ATIS, never one slip. Got it back on the ground after the first “get acquainted” flight and said he had flown Microsoft Simulator for over a thousand hours, thousands of landings, but it was his first time in a real plane.

  8. Graeme
    May 20, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I’ve seen and witnessed plenty a student, good ones at that, and good pilots now who have a 40 hour ticket. They learned in busy airspace such as AJO. The FAA has minimums, and sure, you don’t learn everything at 40 hours, but flying with some of these newly minted PPL, I have to say, they know their stuff and fly very safely

  9. May 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

    I still think that an instructor can save a ton of time. It is getting more pronounced as skills get more complex, because it requires time to experiment and sometimes thing happen too quick to take in. A part of it is that I’m an inept student, but I think I’m a valid case. If they invent a sim that makes suggestions for control inputs for an agreed-upon outcome, that might be something that dents CFI role as a coach, but probably not before that.

    One area I see underserved by CFIs is flying in weather after the first ticket (RP/SP/PP). I saw people fretting over TAFs because they cannot get the whole picture, people not flyng the weather and fighting winds. The whole area is a kingdom of self-paced learning and it shows. If sims free CFIs from the teaching of landings, maybe we can hire them for some weather flying. Cost is going to be staggering though. I once took a mountain flying seminar for $400 and not sure I want to do that again.

    • May 21, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Redbird has simulators that do that. It puts you through specific scenarios, analyzes your flying, and makes suggestions for improvement. It’s nascent technology at this point, but I expect it will advance rapidly since it’s a) computerized stuff, and b) essentially free of regulatory burden.

      I definitely agree with your comment on weather experience! I think that’s one of the weakest areas for new pilots. They do tend to rely on TAFs for forecast data, frequently ignoring the valuable synopsis and area forecasts. As a result, they get forecasts for an immediate area around airports without having the “big picture” of what’s happening with the weather along their route.

      I know one instructor — a meteorologist as well — who offered phone consultations with pilots before flight for a small fee. I thought that was a great idea. You want to make a flight but aren’t sure about the weather; why not make a 10 or 15 minute phone call to an experienced pilot who can help guide you to a logical, well-informed decision? Pilot/meteorologists could make a mint off something like that. Mike Busch’s Savvy Maintenance does the same thing for engine data: you upload it to their site, they analyze it, and make recommendations.

      Flight Service is supposed to serve the weather briefing role, but really what they do is read a briefing off a screen rather than provide an in-depth analysis. It’s not the same thing. There’s so much information out there… IF you know how to use it. How many pilots know to use a skew-T log-P chart, for example?

      • May 21, 2014 at 6:09 pm

        Scott from http://avwxworkshops.com used to work for the NWS if I’m not mistaken and is a CFII. He offers one to one weather briefings through a subscription service. I agree it’s a great value-added service.

        I bought his workshops on Skew-T log-P several years ago, they were fantastic. I’m not an expert, but I use it on every IFR flight to predict the thickness and temps of the layers that I’m likely to encounter enroute.

        • May 21, 2014 at 6:22 pm

          Scott is the very person I was referring to! His articles were my introduction to skew-T as well.

        • May 31, 2014 at 2:05 pm

          Yes, that would be me Keith. Just a clarification. I don’t offer “briefings” per se; I offer training. As a CFI-IA, the one-on-one training I do via GoToMeeting focuses on the process of how to do an effective preflight weather briefing. In other words, I’m not serving as a FSS specialist. Many of my customers (all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico) contact me when they are proposing a flight. So, we use that flight as the canvas for the lesson. Works out pretty well. I teach pilots how to use some of the newest weather guidance available from NOAA. I also teach them how to use the Skew-T diagram properly to identify cloud tops, icing levels, and turbulence potential just to name a few.

          • May 31, 2014 at 3:10 pm

            Thanks for the clarification Scott! I highly recommend your services and wish there were more out there who offered that level of knowledge. Weather plays a role in many aviation accidents and the average GA pilot’s weather knowledge could use some improvement.

          • June 1, 2014 at 5:01 am

            I remember my first solo cross country from Pearland to Victoria, Texas. The FBO also owned the GI Flight School and after reviewing the route, I asked about the weather. We were standing outside, he looked off in that direction and said, “Looks okay to me.” I was so hopped up to get this part of my training under way, I took his word for it. I was flying a Champ, no radio, only a whiskey compass. About forty miles in to the trip, I was in full IFR weather, could not see the prop. However, I looked over my shoulder and could just make out an airport near Houston. I made a 180, landed, got on the phone and gave him a piece of my mind. It sure made me check the weather from that day on.

  10. May 21, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    I love it Ron! I think if more instructors thought about training from a less is more standpoint we’d be better off in many cases. I have seen both sides of the coin as well.

    As for the simulators, I have always said my best students were sim and RC pilots. They just GOT IT. They progressed so fast as to blow away the classical student.

    You might be on to something!


    • May 21, 2014 at 6:31 pm

      Thanks Brent. I can see how sim and RC flying would build a better pilot. Especially the remote controlled aircraft; you needn’t worry about the realism of a sim’s modeling because you’re dealing with actual physics. Also, RC airplanes can crash and sustain damage just as their larger brethren do, so screw-ups have consequences.

      Now if we could only get the full-size Pitts and Extras to some of those amazing RC tricks…

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