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The ‘big five’ The ‘big five’

Keys to success in flight training

By Bob Nutwell

As in most learning endeavors, it is helpful to keep a few fundamental principles in mind to optimize learning in flight training. Emphasis on the following fundamentals helps students master flying skills for all ratings and phases of training.

The Big Four
Learning the sight picture and power setting for each maneuver or phase of flight helps you get it right from the start of the maneuver and avoid “hunting” for the correct settings.
Photography by Mike Fizer
1. Know the procedures cold.

Students must have a thorough knowledge of the procedures and flows to be employed in a particular lesson before leaving the ground. Learning procedures in the air is inefficient and costly, and knowing procedures and flows thoroughly will free up cognitive bandwidth to concentrate on flying the airplane. The result: The student will learn more in the air and progress more rapidly through the syllabus.

The pilot’s operating handbook for basic trainers is a good starting place for normal operating procedures, but these references are insufficient for flight training. At the Navy Annapolis Flight Center, students are provided a handout for each aircraft model with amplified procedures, flows, and selected techniques for each maneuver in the private pilot curriculum. For example, the level-off procedure is pitch to level flight attitude, trim nose down, reduce to cruise power as airspeed approaches cruise speed, and then refine the trim—in short, “pitch, trim, power, trim.” The flow for the Piper Warrior when abeam the intended landing point is reduce power to 1,400 rpm, fuel pump on, mixture rich, trim three turns nose up, flaps to 10 degrees. Learning procedures and flows in this level of detail on the ground not only promotes training but also provides the student with good habits after graduation. 

A good way to learn procedures is through mental rehearsals, sometimes called “chair flying.” Students mentally place themselves in a scenario and imagine performing the procedure. This technique is even more effective when performed in a cockpit on the ground, when the applicable controls can be touched or moved.

2..Memorize the attitude and power for each maneuver.

As the Airplane Flying Handbook explains, for a given configuration, aircraft performance is a function of attitude and power. In VFR as well as in IFR flying, students must memorize the attitude and the associated power setting for each maneuver or phase of flight. Doing so will greatly facilitate achieving the desired aircraft performance. Failure to establish the proper attitude and power setting at the start of a maneuver necessitates continuous corrections and hunting for the desired results. 

During the early phases of private pilot training, to help the student learn the correct pitch attitude for various maneuvers, it can be helpful for the CFI to place a piece of tape on the windscreen where the horizon should be. A consistent seat height is also important for learning the correct pitch attitudes.

The Big Four
The Big Four

The approximate pitch and roll attitudes for basic private pilot maneuvers in a Cessna 172 or Piper PA–28.

1. Develop an effective scan to detect deviations from desired aircraft performance

To perform any maneuver, a pilot must understand what parameters are to be controlled. During the maneuver, students must continuously and frequently monitor these parameters in a rotating pattern by scanning outside the cockpit (in VFR flying) and inside. While the concept of scanning—or instrument cross-check, as it is referred to in some instrument syllabi—has been stressed for years in connection with instrument training, it is equally important for VFR flying. The parameters to be scanned include both input parameters (attitude and power) plus output or performance parameters: airspeed, altitude, rate of climb/descent, heading, rate of turn, and yaw. Ground reference points are included for ground reference maneuvers and the landing pattern.

In VFR flying, the pilot should be looking outside the cockpit most of the time. Pitch and roll attitude should be set by referencing the external horizon, using the attitude indicator and turn coordinator only as backup. Airspeed in slow flight and the landing configuration for a given power setting can be estimated from the pitch attitude and rate of turn for a given airspeed from the bank angle, thus obviating the need to look inside frequently. Modest yaw is difficult for inexperienced pilots to assess, and normally requires reference to the ball. Altitude, rate of climb/descent, and heading clearly require reference to the instruments. Thus the VFR scan is a hybrid outside/inside scan.

The scan pattern to be used is a matter of pilot technique. Many pilots find that a horizontal figure 8 pattern centered on the nose is efficient for VFR flying. Instrument scan patterns are discussed in the Instrument Flying Handbook. The particular parameters and instruments to be scanned and the frequency of scanning will vary with the maneuver.

As a student progresses to the later stages of private pilot training and more advanced syllabi, the concept of scanning should be expanded to include “mental scanning,” i.e., regular consideration of all factors relevant to the safe and successful completion of the flight.

2. Apply appropriate error corrections.

Once the scan has detected a deviation from a performance target (e.g., altitude is below that assigned), the student must learn which control(s) to use to correct the error, and how to apply the appropriate degree of correction. The appropriate control is not always obvious. In cruise flight, an altitude error is corrected with pitch and, if necessary, power adjustments; an airspeed error is corrected with power. In slow flight, the appropriate controls are the opposite. 

The appropriate degree of correction will depend on the magnitude and trend of the error, as well as on the presumed source in some cases (for instance, is the course deviation caused by wind or by heading deviation?). Error correction skills develop with experience as the student learns how the airplane responds to control inputs in various flight regimes and configurations. Some rules of thumb can be helpful. For example, for basic trainers:

  • An altitude deviation of 100 feet in cruise flight can usually be corrected with a small pitch change, while a deviation of 200 feet or greater will require both power and pitch.
  • To avoid overcorrection of heading errors, in cruise flight use a bank angle equal to no more than the heading error; in slow flight, use one-half of that bank angle.
  • When correcting heading for wind drift to maintain a course, make a heading change equal to twice the error, then reduce that change by half when back on course.
  • In steep turns, to correct for an altitude below target, shallow the bank angle before adding back-pressure.
  • When making power adjustments to correct glideslope and/or rate of descent during landing approach, remember that each correction will probably require a counter-correction, and likely a counter-counter-correction, to stabilize on the new glide slope.

3. Develop good thinking habits in addition to physical flying skills.

Headwork is ultimately the most important skill for safe recreational flying and successful flights in the professional realm. It comprises a variety of sub-skills related to the cognitive aspect of flying, including:  

  • Effective implementation of procedures (applying the procedure to the situation).
  • Maintaining good situational awareness by monitoring all factors that could affect the safe and effective conduct of the flight. These include but are not limited to aircraft flight condition, traffic (from visual scan and monitoring the radio), weather/darkness, terrain, navigation, fuel status, aircraft system status, facilities status, pilot/crew fitness, and passenger comfort.
  • Thinking ahead of the airplane, to be prepared for forthcoming tasks.
  • Complying with ATC instructions.
  • Using logical, conservative decision making and good judgment (in FAA terminology, using good aeronautical decision making).
  • Preparing for possible contingencies and managing risk appropriately.
  • Managing cockpit workload efficiently and making effective use of available resources.
  • Using proper communications practices.

Good headwork is probably the most difficult skill to learn and the one most dependent upon experience. As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes with experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” However, a better way to develop good judgment and other aspects of good headwork is to observe and emulate experienced, successful pilots. To complement experience and emulation, the skills listed here should be explicitly practiced and graded throughout training.

No recipe can guarantee success in flight training. However, adherence to these five fundamentals, coupled with sound aeronautical knowledge, will greatly enhance the probability of a successful flight training experience. Furthermore, continued compliance with these principles throughout a pilot’s flying career will contribute substantially to safe and successful flights.

Bob Nutwell is a CFI/CFII associated with the Navy Annapolis Flight Center, a private flight school at Lee Airport in Edgewater, Maryland, and at St. Mary's County Airport in California, Maryland.

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