Ground school has been—and always will be—the most important part of learning to fly any aircraft. Whether it’s a Skyhawk with steam gauges or a glass-packed Skycatcher, the flying machine itself is just a training aid, the training tool where students practice what they have learned in class.
Despite its importance, the quality of ground school instruction is the greatest variable in the flight training equation. Cessna has removed this variable (at least at its more than 280 Cessna Pilot Centers) with its new Part-141 approved Sport/Private Pilot Course, which went online late last year and delivers consistent, high quality education in a virtual classroom to students when they are in a mood to learn.
Cessna gave us a preview a little more than a year ago (see Next-Gen Challenge: Selling Aviation), but based on the online demo, the company heeded an essential aphorism of success: under promise and over deliver. Half the credit should go to the good folks at King Schools, Cessna’s educational partner, who developed and maintains (or so it seems, given the URL) the virtual classroom.
Ground school’s value is directly tied to the teacher, just as it is in any institution of learning: good teachers provide a good education and bad teachers are a waste of student time and money. Contributing to teacher effectiveness is the classroom and available teaching tools, which start at a chalkboard and crude airplane model and top out at a computer projection system. Finally, there is the student variable, a three-part equation of availability, attention, and attendance.
Cessna and King started to address these variables in the early 1990s when they launched the multimedia heavy ground school course taught at CPCs. Those were the days of dial-up, so most of the course was on CDs, which, in addition to the human variables, tethered schools and students to specific hardware and facility requirements.
Let’s be honest. Most CFIs are not good ground school instructors. They’d rather be flying, because most of them only get paid when they are in the air. At many Part-61 flight schools, the classroom could double for a storage area. The demands on a student’s time hasn’t gotten any better either. The new Cessna course addresses these concerns with its on-demand virtual classroom complete with needed tools, like a flight computer (so students can’t complain, “I forgot mine!).
Students can get to class from any Internet connection. The course is taught in three stages. Stage 1 five blocks take students to to solo; five blocks in Stage 2 take them to Stage 3, checkride prep. Each lesson is presented in PowerPoint fashion, a series of bullet-pointed slides packed with full-motion diagrams, videos, interactive quizzes that reinforce knowledge just taught, and end-of-lesson interactive exams. If students leave in the middle of a lesson, the program remembers where they left off.
CFIs are not totally out of the loop. A Phase Progress Report gives the date a student completed a Knowledge Group/Lesson and lists the questions missed and the number of tries the student made in answering it. It is the perfect guide for preflight discussions.
Lack of student preparation is a common gripe among all teachers. CFIs will be happy to hear that the new Cessna course addresses this with preflight scenarios, which instructors can customize for each student’s needs. Presented as a PDF that students print at home, these are, without a doubt, the coolest part of the course!
Each scenario is a lesson plan (another quality variable). It starts by giving the Objective, Where to Go, How to Get There, Planned Deviations, Planned Malfunctions, Purpose/Pressures (real or simulated), and Risks (real or simulated). Next it lists stuff that’s New This Scenario, followed by Improving Your Skills, stuff learned the previous lesson.
Not only do the scenarios prepare students and teachers for what they will practice the air, they lead the educational duo through the lesson by the hand, reducing the chances of forgetting something. Certainly, there are better teaching methods, but in the prosaic realm of Part-61 flight training, the teachers who who employ them are the exception, not the rule.
Cessna and the Kings have delivered a course perfect for today, a course that addresses the demands on students and instructors and schools and delivers a high-quality education no matter where they take to the air. Nicely done, and it will work, if students and CFIs use it correctly. –Scott Spangler