Pilot or System Manager?

June 18, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

My friend, Rod Machado, in his July column in AOPA Pilot, thinks stick and rudder training is essential. Makes sense to me. In the past, I’ve greatly over-simplified my thoughts on the three parts to being a good pilot: the physical, the mental, and the judgment decision-making aspect. A sufficient deficiency in any one of these will eventually complicate your flying life and possibly end it. Seems like a lot of attention is being paid to the latter two, and the first one is so intuitively obvious that many schools and pilots in their rush to get to glass, instrument flying, or airline cockpits, overlook the most fundamental of skills. Conversations with several of my airline friends lament the fact that many of today’s first officers are not especially skilled at the physical aspect and hurry to the supposed safety of the autopilot. Don’t misunderstand–autopilots are essential in certain applications, but that’s another conversation.

In the early 1970s, my flight school had a guaranteed private pilot certificate program for $550. Relative to today’s cost, this seems laughable, but then so does the price of my first car. Students learned basics in a basic aircraft—the venerable Piper J-3 Cub. I soloed in 10 hours and then ventured into the world of cross-country with only a whiskey compass, sectional chart, and E6B computer. (How quaint all that stuff seems today, but it was cheap and it worked—what a concept!) After 24 hours and several cross-countries, I checked out in the “big” airplane—a Cessna 150—and went on to learn about gyro instruments, flaps, radios, and all the other items needed to become a private pilot.

It’s not essential for someone to learn in tailwheel aircraft—they are harder and more vulnerable to accidents—but physical aircraft handling skills and looking outside because we are teaching VFR seems like a great way to start. Let’s not overwhelm the student or ourselves with PFD and MFD complexity. It would be great if the manufacturers would start building some basic trainers again at a basic price. Very few people learn to drive in a fully equipped Lexus (my sons started in a low-end Pontiac and Honda Civic with the most basic equipment).

We’ve seen several very high profile airline accidents where all the latest technology did not save the day, but old fashioned piloting skill might well have. Rod notes that everybody seems to accept 20-plus hours to solo and 60-plus hours to private. Frankly, unless you’ve got huge delays getting off the runway and maintain a reasonable continuity in training, it shouldn’t take that long.  Aircraft still fly the same way and while everyone laments the complexity of airspace, it’s not appreciably worse than it was with the exception of security TFRs (and that’s still another topic).

One of my other passions besides flying is sailing, and 98% of all new sailors start off learning the ropes in a very basic boat. It’s cheap and quick—something that GA could use a lot more of. The U.S. Coast Guard insists that all its academy cadets and officers go on a three week training cruise on a square-rigged tall ship. They learn the essence of seamanship before learning “radarship.” Rod has it right—let’s teach airmanship first! The AOPA Flight Training Excellence Awards are where you can vote for a flight school that is doing an exceptional job.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Tony O’Brien

    I learned to fly in the Army, we had two choices, solo at 9 hours or be reassigned, my fear was the mess hall. In the 70’s flying was all about flying, there wasn’t much to get in the way.

    Today, I spend more time learning, studying and understanding not only all the regulations, airspace req., radio, GPS navigation etc. flying seems at times to get in the way. IFR single pilot, turn on the auto pilot and get to work. The burden of flying and meeting all the req. assignments are daunting.

    None the less I would have it no other way. The world moves forward so does our passion. I can tall you this. Pilots are one group of very smart people, we know and use more knowledge to get from Cleveland to Boston than anyone else.

  • Cris Simmons

    Awesome article Bruce!!

    I too, started in the early 70’s. After almost 21 years USN flying, and nearly 22 major airline, I have witnessed the fact that basic piloting skills have decreased across all experience levels. One of the big emphasis items in recurrent training these days is “Stick and Rudder” proficiency. It’s a great thing; and good that we start re-emphasizing at all levels of instruction/training.

  • Sharon Newman Stewart

    I learned to fly with the standard “6 pack”, paper sectional, and an old style E6B. Transitioned to glass and was amazed at the increased situational awareness. However, it is always in the back of mind that there could be PFD or MFD failure at any time. I am thankful that I learned to fly the old fashioned way. I think flight schools should emphasize actual “seat of the pants” flying skills before transitioning or even starting students on glass. It’s a scary thought that there are professional pilots out there with marginal actual flying skills.

  • http://AOPAePilot Ed Chappell

    I retired on the Airbus 330 after 35 years and six jet type ratings. I returned to GA with the purchase of a Piper Archer two years after retirement, and am both delighted and alarmed with the advances in avionics. I am fortunate to have a 6-pack aircraft with GPS, autopilot, TIS and weather installed. So much for the good, but when I look at the complexity of the G1000 for example, and synthetic vision, I wonder if we haven’t gone too far. The computer chip has enabled the inclusion of features that are unnecessary and add complexity. Perhaps this appeals to a generation of future pilots who are immersed in “tech”, but I can see the once sufficient one hour check out at the FBO to rent being a thing of the past. With synthetic vision I can see a lot of “scud running” in the future.

    When I went for my first BFR to become active again, the instructor became upset when I didn’t begin to slip the airplane at 1000 feet to compensate for the crosswind. At first I didn’t understand what he was upset about, but when he said this was how his flight school taught crosswind correction, I was stunned. How is this supposed to work when you are confronted with a 15 kt crosswind after a 200 and 1/2 approach? The ability to transition form a crab to a slip at the last moment is essential to an instrument pilot. Stick and rudder skills are in decline because they aren’t being taught.