Flight training on the cheap

November 12th, 2013 by Jamie Beckett

There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t hear somebody, somewhere making the observation that flying is expensive. I can relate. News Flash: It is! Another News Flash: It always was.

Having established the basics, let’s at least consider looking a little deeper into our options for cutting cost and bringing the aviation experience within reach of more people, more effectively. Admittedly, the airplane is an expensive classroom. It’s also a lousy classroom. As a flight instructor I learned long ago, expecting student pilots to absorb new information while hurtling through the sky at one-hundred knots or so, way up high in the air, while the sound of the engine, propeller, and rushing airflow do their best to deafen him (or her), is close to being an exercise in futility. There are few torture chambers that are less conducive to the experience of learning than the cockpit of an aircraft in flight.

So let’s at least consider making the educational experience more rewarding, less frightening, stress-free, and immeasurably less expensive. What’s the best and least expensive flight training tool available to fighter pilots and the general public? You’re sitting on it.

Whether you’re sharing a metal park bench with a loved one, going solo in a Eames lounge chair that sells for thousands of dollars, or a balancing precariously on a folding director’s chair you just fished out of the dumpster next door, the seat you’re filling is arguably the best, the least expensive, and the most readily available flight training aid you’ll find.

It works like this. Sit in the chair as comfortably as you can. Relax. Use your imagination to put your feet on the rudder pedals. Rest one hand on the yoke (or stick, as the case may be), leaving the other free to handle the imaginary throttle, flaps, landing gear, and so on. Now run through the tasks you have to practice.

It may sound foolish, but sitting in that chair and running through a takeoff, steep turn, stall and recovery, turn-around-a-point, forward slip to a landing, or pretty much any other task will make you a better pilot. And it will do it at no cost to you. Well, potentially at the cost of some slight embarrassment if you run through your paces at work while mimicking the sounds of the engine, the gear, or the squeal of the tires when they first touch the ground. Other than that your bench, chair, or oversized garden planter can all serve as a perfectly viable training aid.

Of course you can’t log time spent balancing on the railing while pretending to perform slow-flight or an emergency descent. But you can learn from the experience. You can ingrain the steps to virtually any maneuver or task in your thought process. You can become increasingly familiar with the appropriate configuration of the aircraft, solidify the need to clear the area before initiating a maneuver, and review the completion standards in order to give yourself specific goals to shoot for. In short, you can practice flying with precision without spending a dime. That’s a pretty darned good cost cutter, don’t you think?

Since you’re thinking it, I’ll tell you. Yes, I actually use this method of training myself. I used it as a primary student and I used it throughout my training right up through earning my CFI. Years later when I decided to add a seaplane rating to my tickets, I used it again. I closed the glass doors to my office, sat down, and saved myself a small fortune by running through idle taxi, step taxi, plow taxi, normal takeoffs, rough water takeoffs, glassy water takeoffs, and so on, until I could do them in my sleep.

The only thing that had changed from the time I began using this system as a primary student was that my children were older and more capable of talking back and making fun of the old man by this point. So it wasn’t the least bit unusual to hear the sound of my daughters coming from the living room as I persistently practiced for my impending practical test. “Dad’s really weird,” they’d say. To which I’d chuckle.

Weird? Maybe. But I get to work on maneuvers without writing a check and that’s a pretty good payoff in exchange for the kids finding out I’m a bit odd.

Try it. It works.

Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is a passionate promoter of all things aviation who focuses his attention on the positive more often than not. He is the former president of the Polk Aviation Alliance in central Florida. He is committed to working to build a growing pilot population as well as a greater appreciation for general aviation nationwide.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • David M Jackson

    I did the same thing throughout my flight training. The only difference is I added a computer monitor in front of me and a physical joystick and rudder pedals connected to a computer. Many flight simulation programs will allow you to review the results of your practice.

  • Michael

    It was referred to as “chair flying” when I trained in USAF and it is effective.

  • Doug Vause

    Visualization is a fantastically effective tool for real world training! Just observe any airshow performer or olympic athlete practice their routine again and again prior to the actual performance. I have observed Sean Tucker doing this before every performance insuring true perfection of his craft!

  • Ross Bonny

    I would add another training device that, while not free like ‘chair flying,’ can allow the student to practice maneuvers while seeing what it will look like — a PC simulator such as FsX. I’ve used both to great advantage in my own training, and in training students, especially instrument students.

  • Dennis

    Another thing that might help is to ask the FBO to let you sit in the plane without starting it up. Since the meter isn’t running, it’ll be free. Just make sure to keep the master switch off or else they may not let you do it again. :-)

  • Tom

    At the FBO we call this “making airplane noises”, and while we all laugh about it, some of us also do it. I did it for my complex endorsement, for my multiengine, and most recently for a DC-3 rating. Sit in the cockpit with the master off and run through the checklists and POH procedures, touching or moving controls as they are required. It’s amazing how many times you have to repeat a procedure before you get the sequence right.

    I spent 6-8 hours making airplane noises in the cockpit for my multi before I actually went up, and by then I could close my eyes and place my hand on every control or gauge by “muscle memory”. I hate to think of how much it would have cost me to do that with the Hobbs running! Took out all the time normally spent fumbling for controls (so I could instead spend the time fumbling other things :-)

    The only place where this DOESN’T seem to work is in small taildraggers. There are hardly any knobs and dials to mess with and no amount of chair flying could prepare me for the experience of ground-looping off into the weeds.

  • Brooks

    You don’t need to have knobs and dials :-) I make all my spin-training students go through the foot (rudder) and arm (stick/elevator/aileron) motions for spin entry and exit before we get in the plane. We do it standing in the hangar before boarding the Pitts. I tell them it will help, and cite the Blue Angels walking through a routine before boarding their jets. I don’t know if any of the students believe me, but I know it works for the expert acro guys, and I think it helps me too.

    I can add that you can fly a maneuver while lying in bed. When an acro trick does not work for me, I have found that flying it in my head, in bed, will find the trouble spots. Whenever I feel myself speeding up a part of the maneuver (in my head), I know that I don’t have that part down pat. My brain is trying to skip over that bit. That’s the trouble spot, and I won’t be able to fly successfully until I can bed-fly the trouble spot as slowly and easily as the rest of the maneuver.

  • Schulz, B

    Cognitive, structured, disciplined Daydreaming which is critiqued is called learning; it takes some time to do it. When i was a kid, i use to think through – see – the movements of the stick transfer through the levers, control wires, cantilevers, and to the control surfaces…. It’s part of that Stick & Rudder stuff that makes one a better Pilot, Mechanic, Athlete, etc. . And if one can convey to others how to do all that – an Instructor, Mentor, Coach.
    And you never get too old to ‘daydream’. There’s a 90 year old out there who on a low ceiling or bad weather day, climbs into our PT- 19 or AT-6; not to think of how it use to be – he reviews proceedures, airspeeds, and grades himself!

  • Regina Coker

    Yes, it does work!! The first good pattern and landing I ever made was sitting with my 85-year old mother in the hospital while she slept. I did pattern work over and over, having to leave the plane in the air occassionally to attend to my mom. I remember one pattern when I opened my eyes and said, “Wow! That was a good landing.” And within a week, I soloed!

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