Safer Pilots; “Instinctive” Flying!

This week's blog is by Ken Wittekiend and previously published in Flight Training Magazine. Ken is a 7X Master CFI, and a DPE with the FAA - until earlier this fall when he was "terminated with cause." (This FAA action is being contested by Ken and supporters around the country).

At the risk of being considered a cranky old instructor, I do believe we have a growing problem with basic airplane control. Too often, I fly with pilots who don’t have an inherent feel for the airplane. They struggle to make coordinated turns, particularly while climbing or during slow flight; have a justifiable fear of crosswinds; and have difficulty making precise and consistent landings. Recently, a student expressed her frustration this way: “I seem to be working way too hard trying to keep up with everything, and there is no time to relax and enjoy the experience.”

As a pilot examiner, I see this manifest in applicants who cannot fly basic maneuvers smoothly, have trouble with coordination, are frightened of slow flight and stalls, and fail to look outside the airplane. Several applicants failed the checkride when I had to intervene to stop an inadvertent spin following a power-on stall.

Some pilots realize this shortcoming. A few enlightened souls seek out additional instruction, often in tailwheel aircraft, helicopters, aerobatics, or sailplanes. Others either attempt to avoid any flight that feels uncomfortable or try to substitute instrument references, assuming that technology will offer a better answer. Visual cues from glass-panel displays don’t really replace the seat-of-the-pants feeling and the audible cues that help us know the energy state of the airplane.

As a tailwheel instructor in a Piper Super Cub, I often hear pilots ask, “Where is the VSI?” (there isn’t one) or “What speed do you use on short final?” (this is no time to be looking at the airspeed indicator). They require a mental gear shift to learn that not only is it possible, but easy, to fly without all the usual instrument references.

Sooner or later, conditions require us to put the airplane right there, on centerline and on speed. A short or soft runway, a stronger-than-expected crosswind, or a bounced landing can put unusual demands on a pilot. Often the result is unsatisfactory. Less dramatic, but more common, is a failure to appreciate the joy of being truly connected to the aircraft.

The solution starts with an increased awareness of the need for instinctive flying skills. Pilots also need access to training providers who can help them succeed. The concepts are not difficult, and the equipment requirements are not exotic. All it takes is an instructor who understands the basics and who can structure the lessons in a way that the student feels secure—and has an opportunity to experience the joy of instinctive flight.

There are many creative ways to help the pilot learn. A favorite of mine involves covering the flight instruments with a small towel, forcing the pilot to look outside. Point out how we can use the bottom of the wing against the horizon to judge angle of attack in cruise flight. Have the student fly several patterns, including takeoff and landing, with the towel in place. The instructor should handle the radio during this training so the client can focus on flying.

Two different cognitive domains; we need BOTH!

The CFI should point out the proper pitch, power, and configurations required. Set the power by sound, trim so the stick or yoke is light in hand, and resist the tendency to pull back in the turns and on short final. Stress the importance of feeling the load on the wing through the controls and the seat. Build the student’s confidence in her ability to know what the airplane is doing through sight, sound, and feel.

Introduce stalls with gentle recoveries by reducing pitch slightly as the airplane stalls. Reinforce the idea that it is this reduction in angle of attack that fixes the problem, not the addition of power. Practice raising the pitch with no rudder input to see the yaw and roll begin, and then practice keeping the nose straight with rudder while slowly increasing pitch until the stall occurs. Teach the concept of “unloading the controls” any time things feel, look, or sound weird.

When practicing landings, ask the student to fly down the runway while holding the airplane just above the surface. At first, the instructor likely will have to control the throttle so there is just enough power to remain in ground effect while the student learns the control inputs needed to stabilize the airplane as the speed decreases. If the airplane is stable, simply reduce the power while encouraging the student to keep the airplane flying. As he or she raises the pitch attitude, the airplane slows, requiring more inputs to remain stabilized.

As the student controls drift, heading, and altitude using the proper inputs, simply reduce the power further and allow the airplane to land. As skill increases, introduce nonstandard patterns, simulated forced landings, and extreme slow flight to help the student set a new personal low-speed record. Make it fun, keep it simple, and let the student learn.

The instructor must be able to demonstrate the skills of instinctive flying. If he or she is not proficient and totally engaged in the process, there is an increase

in risk. The CFI also must be able to manage the scenario, control the student’s workload, direct the student’s focus, and maintain a safe environment. The benefit for the instructor is a happier, safer, more competent pilot who enjoys flying more—simply for the joy that comes from doing something well and making it look easy.


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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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