The Few. The Proud. The New Student Pilots

By Scott Spangler on February 27th, 2017

only-commitments-2On the road to our favorite brewpub for date night I noticed a new billboard for the U.S. Marine Corps: “We don’t accept applications. Only commitments.” The smallest member of America’s armed forces, it meets its recruitment goals by challenging volunteers to meet the Corps’ uncompromising standards. In other words: Not everyone can be a Marine. Becoming one is not easy. Do you have what it takes? Can you sustain your commitment when the rigorous training seems beyond your capabilities? Reflecting on my experience with the Corps during my naval service and after it, the Marines steadfast challenge to meet its standards might work equally well in recruiting new student pilots.

As the declining trend of student pilot starts suggests, and the roughly 80 percent who decide to pursue a less challenging activity before they solo or earn a certificate confirms, becoming a pilot is not for everyone. History suggests that making the training easier by eliminating its more challenging aspects—spin training and the recent amendment of how to teach slow flight come to mind—perhaps taking a lesson from the Marines will reduce the number who quit before certification. And in the process it might improve efforts to reduce accidents resulting from loss of control.

Posing this challenge will affect students and their instructors because the latter will have to change the way they teach.

Teaching maneuvers separately and with a rote by-the-numbers setup and recovery does not prepare students for real world situations. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this, and I had the good fortune to fly with teachers who employed several of them. One of the most effective was to discuss a situation on the ground, say a spin resulting from an uncoordinated turn from base to final, and then to make the point in the airplane. What made it effective was the true point of the teacher’s demonstration.

Image result for fly the cessna 172At a safe altitude, with a hard deck at 3,000 feet, my instructor asked me to sit, hands in my lap, feet on the floor, and to describe, out loud, his every move, what he was doing and why. I’d like to say that I recognized why that first demonstration ended in a spin, but I can’t. So we did it again.

Because I was not distracted by thinking about flying the plane, my concentration was totally focused on what the airplane was doing, what I was seeing out the windows, and the kinesthetic cues in the seat of my pants. And I started to see, and call out corrections, for his treacherous control inputs. To reinforce the lesson, throughout my training, when I was practicing his maneuver and others like it at a safe altitude, he would subtlety un-coordinate a turn, for example, and chastise me when I did not immediately correct it. “You are the pilot in command,” he’d say. “Regardless the cause, FLY THE AIRPLANE! Move stuff until the picture and the feeling in your butt is right.”

It soon became a challenging game I eagerly anticipated because I never knew when he was going to play it. Meeting the challenge was a certainty during lessons in vertigo and unusual attitudes. I never knew what I’d see when I opened my eyes, raised my head, and took the controls. And in time, he upped the challenge by including a safe landing at a predetermined heading on the hard deck to the recovery. And aborting any attempt at making that simulated landing when the desired outcome was not assured was an essential part of the game.

Image result for slow flight cessna 172He made similar challenges in his slow-flight scenarios. And he was specific down to the pitch of the stall warning in our Cessna 172, which became evermore shrill as its wing approached the critical angle of attack. (“Keep it the same when you add or retract flaps,” he challenged.) What made the challenge enjoyable is that every scenario was different; their common denominator was the outcome of not adequately meeting the challenge. Combined, these challenges made a lasting impression that has kept me safe on all of my subsequent flights (so far). And that includes the three instances when I’ve corrected or taken the controls when other CFI demonstrations were surely bound for unhappy outcomes with terra firma, not a hard deck.

I share this not to suggest that I’m the aeronautical offspring of Bob Hoover. I’m not. Not even close. Rather, the point is that I was blessed to learn from instructors who challenged me well beyond the FAA’s minimum certification requirements. They made it clear that achieving my certification goals were not guaranteed, and that if I wanted to be one of the few, the proud, the general aviation pilots, I would have to meet their uncompromising standards. And that was a lesson in itself. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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