The Great Plateau and Polarization

September 19, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

08r-198_052Every pilot has experienced a flat spot on the climb to perfection, or at least to solo. The learning process takes the weekend off, maybe a week, and sometimes longer. It’s frustrating to all concerned, and it’s a fact of learning to fly. Just can’t get that last 10 feet to work out.

We put a lot of stock in soloing. There’s a subtle and real pressure to get it done, but this is a performance activity and not one to be rushed. One of our staff members has been struggling with landings and stopped by for some “counseling.” The last 10 feet turned out to be as elusive as ever. Her instructor, a very seasoned professional, was patiently working her through the plateau and coaching as well.

The student and I talked through the final approach and how things were supposed to look. She knew exactly what to do but couldn’t time it quite right. Offhandedly, I asked about her depth perception. She said it was fine, but an appointment with her optometrist for an unrelated issue a week later turned up an interesting twist. When she related the discussion to him, the doctor asked if she wore polarized sunglasses. She did. The doctor explained that polarization messes with depth perception and not to wear them. (They also create interesting patterns on the windshield.) Voila! Two lessons later, the shirttail was cut and the solo mountain was climbed. Now begins the equally long journey of becoming a pilot. Too often people quit because they’ve achieved one goal.

A few thoughts come out of this:

1) We probably put a bit too much emphasis on solo, and students might do better with the idea that solo happens when it does and should concentrate more on the total flight skills package rather than just one part of it. That is a complete upending of the “normal” training methodology, and there will be conflicting thoughts on the tried and true versus a new approach.

2) As instructors and pilots, we should be sharing our difficulties and solutions. It’s good to talk through, get a second opinion, and problem solve together.

3)  It would save countless hours and hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel if someone developed a cost-effective light-aircraft landing simulator. When I think back on the thousands of landings I’ve coached people through, with marginal effectiveness, to let them ultimately reach the “aha” moment—there’s GOT to be a better system.

What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Lawrence Stalla

    “The reduction of the wingtip vortices due to ground effect alters the spanwise lift distribution and reduces the induced AOA and induced drag.” This qualitative description of how aircraft aerodynamics change during landing, taken from the “Ground Effect” section of Chapter 4 “Aerodynamics of Flight” of the FAA’s “Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge”, does okay as a teaching tool. But, before a “cost-effective light-aircraft landing simulator” can be built, the impacts on “induced AOA” and “induced drag” of height above runway, airspeed, and thrust setting for the to-be-simulated aircraft type must be precisely measured, and then precisely modeled. I know of noone who has done this measuring and modeling to support the design of anything less than multi-million dollar, Level C and D simulators (you did say “cost-effective”, right?). Only after the needed detailed modeling is complete can a simulator be built that accurately simulates the changes in control forces, airspeed, pitch attitude, and sight picture that occur continually throughout the landing flare. Anything less than an accurate simulation of the continually-changing aerodynamics of landing will result in “negative learning”, in which case burning the fuel is the better choice.

  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    The FAA advised against pilots wearing polarized sunglasses back in the 60’s. I quit when I started seeing boats seemingly above my altitude when I was flying over water. Some of the GPS screens and glass displays in the cockpit today can’t be seen properly while using polarized glasses as well.

    I fly many hours every year in a Level D sim and while it’s great for practicing emergency maneuvers that can’t safely be done in the real aircraft it still doesn’t fly like the “real” thing.

  • James Shaddox

    I found out what polarized sunglasses do to an IPAD display – I thought my IPAD had gone dead because the screen was completely black, until I turned it 90 degrees and realized it was working just fine. I had to get my lenses replaced with unpolarized ones.

  • Charlie Branch

    On a rare mirror-smooth day, I cruised down Peril Strait in SE Alaska and drift logs looked like they were floating in the sky ahead of the boat. No worse condition for landing a seaplane… than glassy water. I’m contemplating Vedalo HD sunglasses.

  • Alan D. Resnicke

    Very astute observation, Bruce… questioning your AOPA collegue about depth perception. We all see the world “through our own eyes” and forget that not everyone else is so equipped. Vision (and other bio functions), reach and related anthropometrics, reaction time and more all vary from person to person. As a professional safety officer I often ask similar questions of those I must interview… rule out ‘the obvious’ before scratching for the hidden.

    Interesting blog… keep reminding us that looking cool isn’t as important as seeing in the first place!

  • Mike Brown

    I had the same “last ten feet” problem when I was a student, and it was only solved when my instructor realized that my glasses were so thick they distorted my vision to the side to the point where I just couldn’t distinguish the visual clues I needed to see. He recommended contact lenses, which I wore for long enough to see what I was missing and learn what to look for. Once I knew that, it wasn’t a big deal to figure out what those things looked like through glasses, and the landing problems became a non-issue.

  • C W Williamson

    I would appreciate being able to utilize a reasonably realistic cost effective landing simulator as a learning aid. Redbird makes one for crosswind landings that seems to be accepted by the aviation community and it is not off the scale expensive. I disagree that the sim would have to have perfect flight characteristics of the trainer model – “very good” to “good” could be immensely helpful in helping to develop a sight picture. The more important issue would be a sim that displays a fairly accurate sight picture during the landing process. As the article states, it was her vision during the last ten feet that proved problematic for the student.
    I certainly agree that it could speed up the learning process and make for a much more rewarding and meaningful experience. You are right – in this day and age there certainly could be better system.

  • Nick Santo

    I’m a bit curious about the thoughts of depth perception. I believe that it only hapens to about 12 feet in front of our eyes. Using that fact I took on an individual who was monocular and taught him how to land an airplane in about the same amount of time as a binocular person. I think that Bill Kershner had some very good ideas about how to land an airplane and where to look. I’d br more trmpted to think the sunglasses were the real problem. I also have been teaching flying for more than 25,000 hours and believe simulators are of little value for VFR learning, but very good for IFR training.

  • Lawrence Pearlman

    As a student and then CFI those “last ten feet” are definitely a possible plateau for most prospective soloists. I was lucky enough to do my training in Socal, with a myriad of old SAC bases near my primary airport. Found that, irrespective of other issues, one of the most effective ways to overcome the student’s problems with transitioning to flare and then landing was to fly out to one of those now-civilian airports with little traffic and looong runways (10,000 feet plus), then instruct them to fly as close to the runway, along most of its length, with minimum power, and NOT touch down. Taking the pressure away from landing to just another facet of flight, albeit close to the ground, seems to help a lot in overcoming the mental blocks that might stand in the way of achieving consistent, safe, smooth touchdowns. Also, it’s a fun exercise.

  • http://Last10feet Dan Maloney

    A video camera hanging from the cockpit ceiling looking over the nose and top of the instrument panel has helped in this phase. I give the student a demo normal, high/steep and low/flat approach, then all their approaches are also recorded. The system has intercom on it and SD card to plug into the student’s laptop so he/she can review the whole lesson multiple times. Helps greatly with perceiving visual clues. I also take them to various size runways (narrow and wide/ long) Also eye position is critical. The student’s eye must be high up enough to see well over the nose and thus better perceive height.

  • Richard Weil

    At our glider club I’ve often wished that someone would set up a video recorder so we could review how our approaches and landings look from the ground. I know the Navy routinely does this for every carrier landing, and there’s no reason–except interest and cost–why it couldn’t be done elsewhere. Having an outside view to compare with what we think we’re seeing from the inside could better align technique with reality.

  • Daniel Lee

    Not only use a simulator to save money during initial training, but use it for emergency procedures that are too dangerous to do in real life. I have over 150 hours in a heli and have never done a full-down autorotation, experienced retreating blade stall, low-g induced mast-bumping, loss of tail rotor effectiveness, etc. All of these are killers and few if any instructors can take a student through all of them.