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.