Learning to Fly

In my last blog, I discussed the basic argument for using any kind of training device to assist in pilot training. Over the course of my

Learn in the sim, practice in the airplane

Learn in the sim, practice in the airplane

next blogs, I went to discuss training information more specifically. We’ve been using a full-motion AATD (which we refer to as our “simulator”) for approximately 18 months now, and we’ve learned quite a bit. One of the main things that we learned is, there is a lot more to learn.

One of the important things in learning any new skill is to be able to routinely complete the same actions correctly without having to think about them. In other words, develop good habits. Bad habits can kill us; good habits can save our lives. If you’re a pilot, think about all the things you do routinely just entering the traffic pattern. You have probably reduced your power, descended to traffic pattern altitude, lined up on your downwind leg while correcting for any wind drift, all the while listening to the radio and keeping a sharp eye outside the cockpit for other aircraft. Each one of these actions is important, but you’ve done them so often that you don’t have to put a whole lot of thought into each task.

Of course, when you were first learning how to fly, you had to consciously work out each process and often found yourself way behind the airplane. It was only after several hours in the traffic pattern that you finally got to the point where you would achieve all these tasks routinely. This isn’t unique to flying – all tasks must be practiced to be done efficiently. The problem with flying is the cost involved in practicing the tasks often enough until they become routine. That’s the beauty of a flight training device: it allows you to practice the same task over and over until becomes ingrained in your memory. How much easier would it be for you in your flight training if you have already developed the muscle memory necessary to complete each task?

What we are learning with our own AATD is that our only limit is our imagination. Every day, a flight student or flight instructor shows me something new, something I haven’t thought about. For example, the owner of one of our local flight schools had a student who was about to do his first solo cross-country into an airport that had noise abatement procedures, based on local waterways. Her brilliant idea was to have him do some landings and takeoffs in the simulator at that airport, so he could visually see and follow the different creeks and waterways necessarily to fly legally into and out of that particular airport. It worked wonderfully – when he took off for his cross-country trip, he was confident in his preparation, which was reflected in his successful flight.

Another example is showing a flight student the importance of taking off and landing into the wind. While the concept is fairly simple to explain, nothing brings it home faster than a visual aid. We demonstrate the concept by starting the student on an aircraft carrier with no wind. While the Cessna 172 does make a successful takeoff, the student has reached the end of the flight deck before they get to rotation speed. Then we add a 30 knot headwind so they can see the difference. When the airplane rotates halfway down the deck, they get it. Then, just for fun, they try a takeoff with a 30 knot tailwind and end up plunging off the end of the deck. This whole lesson takes less than five minutes but it’s one they’ll never forget. If a picture is worth a thousand words, when our students topple over the end of the flight deck with their nose pointed down towards the ocean, they get the picture. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s cheap. And of course, that’s one scenario we could not replicate in the airplane, no matter how hard we tried.

It’s equally important that the flight instructor recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of the training device. We occasionally have instructors using the simulator for an airplane lesson, which is not the best use of the sim. The simulator works best when it’s used for what it is designed for: breaking down each task into individual pieces and repeating each piece until the entire task can be done routinely and efficiently. We use a syllabus that has been developed specifically for the simulator. By the time our student gets into the airplane for the first time, they know how to start up the airplane, taxi, do the run-up, take off, climb, turn, fly level, and then descend again. They don’t learn that in the airplane – they learn it in the simulator and then they practice it in the airplane. In the process, they save hundreds of dollars in just that first stage of the syllabus. Our syllabus will take the student from zero time to their first solo flight in minimum time. Overall, between their first lesson and their checkride, they will spend thousands of dollars less than the traditional way of learning everything in the airplane.

This is not to say that the airplane is not important. In fact, the airplane is the most important link in our training process, but it’s also the most expensive and the least efficient way to learn how to fly. There are some flight schools and some flight instructors who are dismayed about this development in flight training. But there’s a bigger picture, and I’m confident that this simple fact will be obvious to everybody in general aviation at some time the near future: Happier students mean more students. More students mean a healthier general aviation. And a healthier general aviation means more students.