It was a simple job. I was mowing a small meadow on our ranch, clipping away weeds to improve the stand of forage. All it required was putting the tractor in gear and turning left at the ever-diminishing corners. Like a lot of life’s chores, I could take time to do it well, or I could rush it through in a sloppy manner. The area was a half-mile away from any eyes, so no one but me would know if I left a few weeds standing or skipped a corner.
Thus it is with teaching flying skills. When introducing new subjects of study, the instructor can teach them well or poorly, as he or she wishes. No one will know except the CFIs themselves, at least for now. It’s possible to cut corners in training, leaving some lessons untaught, to be filled in later by the student’s in-flight experiences.
One of my students from 25 years ago came by to see me the other day. He lives half a continent away and is now flying pressurized twins, but he still remembers how he started out, and he told me we were the best instructors he ever had. That he has survived his career through unpredictable skies is evidence that he was started right.
Beyond Bare-Bones Training
It’s easy enough to simply teach the test standards, and certainly the CFI has to go over these expected tasks to make sure the student is capable. But the standards are a bare-bones framework of things to be taught, nothing else. Life in the cockpit has so much more it can throw at a pilot. If we conduct all the training in a long winter of cool, stable air, the student may finish the course without ever knowing what summer turbulence and convective build-ups are like. And students who learn in a warm climate may have never seen an engine that has to be coaxed into starting. Theory is fine, but application is better. Ground school alone can’t substitute for real flight training.
Starting Out Right
As I swung around the meadow’s perimeter on my initial cut, I took care to make the corners smooth, because each subsequent pass had to follow them. Thus it would be with a student’s first hours of initial training. What he learns from them will be the foundation upon which the rest of the curriculum will rest. Do it well, and your job as a teacher will be easier in the future. Make it sloppy, and it will require cover-up corrections later.
I drove the mowing machinery in a left-hand pattern, just as regulations require at a standard non-towered airport, because the discharge sweeps a windrow to the left side of my cut. Each pass mulches the windrow into the previous cutting, leaving the meadow clear of weed piles that could kill new grass. In the same way, we incorporate what we learn in each previous period of training into new material introduced in today’s class. Rather than tossing it aside untouched, we put it to use, dispersing its lessons through our body of knowledge.
The field looks so big when I begin, yet I know it will go faster after some of the longest rows are done. The task of learning how to bring an airplane into the air and safely back again also looks immense at the beginning. It has to be taken one period at a time, occasionally looking back to see how far we’ve come. Progress in training is seldom as regular and even as chopping down swaths of weeds, but neither can it happen without steady practice on a regular schedule.
I once had to abandon a pasture-mowing job because rain moved in, and I couldn’t get back to it because my travels took me out of the country. This allowed the weeds to pop back up. When I revisited the half-clipped field a month later, I had no choice but to start over. I have also had students drop away and come back after a year’s absence, and it was evident that we had to start over, from the very beginning. If the job is to look finished at the end, we have to make sure everything is covered to the same depth.
Curiosity Is Key
The important goal is flight training isn’t just to teach procedures and pass a check, but to inculcate into the student a desire to keep learning. It isn’t enough to finish a course by filling in boxes. If the student has healthy respect for the environment and machine, he’ll research a subject that is unfamiliar and find out if safety is affected by the challenge ahead. To want to learn is the way to live life productively, not just endure it.
As with the job of mowing the meadow, I start students without worrying about how long it will take to get them done. Hopefully, I’ll make the burden of flight training seem light, and they’ll comment about how short the lessons seem. The best students want to keep on going past the scheduled time, staying perhaps another 15 or 30 minutes for questions and answers. More is not always better, of course. When fatigue sets in, it’s best to cap their enthusiasm with a break from strenuous study. Then we can start fresh next time.
The uncut portion of the meadow shrinks as the sides of my rectangle become smaller with each round. Tempted to rush, I must resist and actually gear down to keep the mower’s speed up through the turn’s slowdown. When flight training gets to advanced stages, we need to raise our expectations to hone skills even sharper. Landing anywhere on the runway is no longer good enough; we must pick a runway marker and give ourselves a narrow window in which to plant the wheels.
As the short rows come into view, we’ll change our mowing technique, cutting only two sides instead of four because there isn’t time to swing around the narrow ends. I revert to swathing like an aerial applicator spraying crops, turning 30 degrees to the right, then making a teardrop back to the left to line up with a minimum of effort. Efficiency demands innovation, in flight training as well as weed-whacking. That’s how we reduce wasted motion and move to the finish more quickly. A good syllabus will have the student working on the next thing next, blending in new work without repeating aimlessly.
Having a plan makes any important job go smoother. I drove into the pasture knowing what I wanted to do. Had I never seen it before, I would have studied the hazards and taken the first cuts more slowly than usual. Occasionally, non-typical students show up, often inherited from other instructors needing a second opinion on their work. Physical limitations, apprehension and prior failures may require a slower start. The plan’s outcome can’t be altered, but we can try different methods to meet the goals.
I stop to take a look at the pasture – the whole pasture. Some of the turns caught me dozing and I see sprigs of survivor weeds still standing. I’ll plan a clean-up pass to knock them down. We need to take stock of each student in the class near the end of the training to make sure we didn’t forget to cover a vital detail. This is where a second opinion from a fellow instructor can be valuable, looking for things we didn’t see.
Sooner than we thought, the job is done. We can take satisfaction in looking back at what we’ve done, leaving the world a little nicer than when we found it. If we put one more mortal on his personal path to the stars, giving them the opportunity to guide a set of wings wherever they wish to go, it’s a job well done. Other fields await, but we can take a moment to savor the clean look of the one we’ve just done.