3-5 Hours In; “Half Solo!”

The greatest gift an educator can provide after presenting the basics is creating a safe place for the learner to independently make and correct small errors; “flub it up and fix it.” This is the famous “learning opportunity.” Humans learn by doing, trying, experimenting. Once you have put the puzzle pieces on the table, your learner needs to move them around and assemble them for themselves. This has to be handled artfully in aviation but the masterful CFI consciously avoids helping too much once the learner has achieved a level of basic competence. The CFI is there to coach and assist; guiding the learning situation with a velvet glove. Remember our ultimate goal in flight training is to get out of the plane – and we can’t do that if we micro-manage and create dependence instead.

From the AOPA FIRC

All pilots tend toward perfectionism and CFIs can fall easily fall into the micro-management habit. It takes conscious effort and commitment to overcome this tendency but these become the truly great educators. The new and scared CFIs most commonly exhibit “over-control” and never releases the yoke (or the mic) for any “experimentation.” They can create an oppressive environment and also never stop talking long enough for a learner to process and assemble imformation. The result of a nervous new CFI is usually is a pathetically nervous and dependent pilot with no “command authority” or true skills – a “mouse in a maze.”

I personally advocate putting pilots in training totally in charge as early as possible. I call this exercise the “half solo” and it should happen as soon as a learner has command of the basics. This challenge is carefully briefed and designed to be fun and diagnostic – for both parties involved. This experience validates the training and immensely empowers the student. If the CFI is a micro-manager they squirm and suffer in the right seat but often discover some new personal strengths also – trust takes time.

Rod Machado’s archive of “Bad CFI” stories

By 3-5 hours in the air, most eager learners can accomplish a weather and risk analysis, preflight, run-up, take off and mostly fly safely out of the pattern and level-off in cruise.  Briefing and accomplishing this “half solo” is amazingly empowering and educational for the learner. They immediately see the result of their espended time and efforts (let them debrief their own performance after the flight). The larger process at work here is “incremental mastery” and should continue right up until the check ride. Moving forward, every time the learner exhibits competence in a maneuver or area of flight, they “own” it and command the process – “show me your stall series.” Of course polish and correction can be added to tighten accuracy and enhance understanding later but it is vital to have your student “in command” as early as possible.

By the time a pilot in training departs later, fully alone for “solo landings,” they are more confident, skilled and a lot less nervous. These pilots already know they can climb, turn, descend accurately because they have already demonstrated this component of the flight. For “solo landings” is just another incremental challenge in the proess of becoming a pilot (fully) in command.

More ideas and techniques will be part of our  SAFE CFI-PRO™ Workshop at AOPA, October 2&3. More details on the way soon. Fly safely (and often)!


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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