Teaching Maneuvering – The Hardest Job in Aviation!

Tradition seems to dictate that the first couple of flight lessons are relegated to the newest, least experienced flight instructors. This mistake probably comes from the theory that these are the “safest lessons” (?) where nothing can go too far wrong. In reality, the first exposure to flight is the most difficult and complex educational experience to manage properly. Early lessons require endless patience and an astute ability to read and react to different problems and personalities. Most CFIs with more than 500 hours have become too frustrated and have lost their ability to cope with the glacial pace of initial learning. Ironically, this original exposure to flight control is the most vital learning experience. These lessons require the most experienced and careful educator to succeed. Older CFIs who are parents are often the best people for these first lessons (emotional intelligence). The missing component here is usually patience and empathy. The “type A” go-go pilot personality is actually poison to successful pilot education. And if this initial exposure goes wrong, your new flight student will either quit (common) or they will learn incorrectly and be forever a klutz (uncoordinated). As a result, many pilots fly with incomplete understanding and control, sometimes contributing to our LOC-I statistics. These early flight lessons are where an educator has the greatest opportunity to make a difference and move the needle on safety, but it is also the hardest job in aviation.

A brand-new person learning to fly is in a completely alien and frightening environment. As adult learners, they are competent in other pursuits but are suddenly a klutzy beginner in a potentially dangerous new world; exciting and scary all at once. The educator must understand and commiserate with this new pilot-in-training and create a bond of trust to succeed. This process needs to go slowly; exploring and adjusting expectations to this new (and potentially frightening) world of flight. Flight students will seldom admit to their fear, but instead carefully mask it as an adult learner. Every person taking flight training has some expectations of what this experience will be like, but just about every person needs to recalibrate, and psychologically adjust as they slowly assume some control of the airplane and assimilate this new learning experience. Every new student has the burden of negative transfer from driving and also the “naive rendition” (established false beliefs) to unlearn and overcome.

There is nothing intuitive about aircraft control. The only paradigm most pilots-in-training have from life is driving experience. And this is a totally negative transfer. Not only do we not control and “point” the airplane with the “steering wheel” alone but a driver is accepting of the force of yaw from sliding in a car seat for years. A pilot has to sense and cancel yaw from lesson one. It is vital to explain and eliminate any similarity with driving, right from the beginning.

The first required task in flying, a straight-ahead climb away from the runway, is like starting a course in mathematics at calculus – one of the most difficult maneuvers to understand and master. A straight climb requires a lot of explanation to understand the required canceling of yaw and maintaining wings level.  Though most educators do a passable job of explaining the “why” of the left-turning tendencies, very few explain that rudder application also creates roll while aileron application creates yaw. Pilots need to understand the interrelationship between aileron and rudder right from the start. As a result, most pilots climb out (occasionally) coordinated but seldom wings level. It takes aileron against the rudder (cross-coordinated) to climb level. This effect largely masked in low-wing trainers, especially the “marshmallow” PA-28 series. For this reason, the ideal platform for teaching pilots these effects is a high wing or tailwheel aircraft. If you have ever taught a young glider pilot who has mastered cross-coordination spiraling in thermals, you will understand how alien this skill is to a new pilot-in-training.

When level at altitude, the first essential demonstration after stability and straight and level, is the “ugly turn” demonstrating adverse yaw from the ailerons. Demonstrating a turn with just ailerons results in the nauseous swinging of the nose opposite from the intended turn direction due to adverse yaw (eyes outside directly over the nose). We see this mistake in rated pilots flying high-performance planes all the time; they never learned coordination! Most pilots bring the driving habit with them and are at first looking in the direction of the turn and never see (or feel) the adverse yaw caused by aileron. Make sure your pilot is looking straight ahead when rolling. Rolling back and forth on a point with eyes outside, straight ahead, is a great practice to feel the rudder aileron harmony (but not too much or airsickness can result).

Also essential in these early demonstrations is ensuring your pilot-in-training has their back against the seat and is sitting straight up. It is essential to fly straight up in the seat, not leaning to compensate for yaw. A critical takeaway from these early lessons is “sensing yaw.” It is amazing how accepting we are of yaw from driving and sliding sideways in the car seat.  We cannot “accept yaw” in controlled flight – we need to cancel it for efficiency and safety.

Next, demonstrate how sudden power application or firm pitch up both cause a force to the left. Then your pilot will understand the challenge of the initial climb from the runway. You should combine these in a straight climb  with enough rudder to cancel the yaw force and also some opposite aileron to fly wings level (cross-coordinated). “Patterns at altitude” are essential to master all the basics of control away from the busy runway pattern. This drill and repetition will take several hours to achieve a reliable imprint. Usually, for the first lesson, straight, coordinated climbs and descents is enough. The turning climb would usually be added and refined in the second lesson.

It is an unfortunate fact that just about every pilot skids around the left-hand traffic pattern. Few pilots understand that right rudder is essential to achieve a stabilized left climbing turn (many pilots never realize this until they attempt the more aggressive chandelles). In your second lesson, you need to fly lots of climbing turns emphasizing this counter-intuitive requirement. It is perfectly OK to just keep turning in a spiral to give your pilot-in training time to achieve and feel the benefit of coordination (evident in performance as well)

It is also surprising to new pilots that a stabilized right climbing turn (with right rudder) necessitates left aileron to avoid over-banking (again the combined effect of the ailerons and rudders). Pilots will naturally assume that the same control pressures that work turning left can be applied to the right – NOT! At the heart of all the confusion is the inter-related control effects, the fact that the P-factor and spiraling slipstream always pull left. In a stabilized turn in either direction, lift is equal on the wings and the left pulling force is at work creating yaw. A non-symmetrical pilot action is required and “cross-coordinated” is seldom explained fully.

To a flight instructor, all this early control practice can seem tedious and boring, but it is absolutely essential that pilots achieve early control coordination or they will forever be a dangerous pilot. Actively empathizing with the challenge helps keep these early lessons exciting. Celebrate each step toward mastery and true control, but do not accept incorrect procedures. If you proceed to stalls too early – before coordination is natural – the result will be some ugly and scary experiences for your pilot-in-training (where most people quit!). Get enough sleep and breathe slowly, early lessons are absolutely the hardest (for both you and your client). Good “parental patience” (with a dose of compassion) makes this work. Fly safely out there (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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