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Joining sport and recreational aviation

Learning to fly: a student's viewpoint

Contributed by Dr Carol Richards

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The following text is a rewrite of two articles originally published in the Australian Ultralights magazine. The author — Dr Carol Richards — was then a senior lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Carol was elected to the RA-Aus board in 2006 and was very much involved in the RA-Aus/Airservices Australia flight training scholarships program until she retired from the board in 2011.

Module content

  1. Effective teaching strategies
  2. Ineffective teaching strategies
  3. Expertise in teaching
  4. Take responsibility for your learning

1. Effective teaching strategies

Strategy One: Using adult learning techniques

Adults learn differently from children and have different learning needs. They come to pilot training with years of experience and successful achievements in other fields, and need to be given respect for their abilities in their own field of expertise. Instructors have to recognise that adults are goal-oriented and expect to know what they will learn and why it is important. They need to know that the instructor has a plan for their learning and will ensure they progress. They expect a goal for every lesson and they need to know how they have progressed in meeting the goal.

Learning to fly puts some adults into a psychologically vulnerable position. The aircraft is an environment that is unfamiliar and complex. Self-esteem and ego are put on the line, and learning is hampered if the environment is not seen as supportive or safe psychologically. In learning to fly, adults have to feel comfortable in expressing confusion and misunderstandings. My best instructors made me feel psychologically safe in the environment. At no time did I hesitate in asking them to explain something again, or clear up my own misconceptions. They treated all my questions with dignity and respect. I was never made to feel incompetent or stupid.

Strategy Two: Finding another way to explain the same concept

Occasionally it was a struggle to wrap my brain around a particular concept. The good instructors found multiple ways of explaining the same idea. They drew pictures, they called on metaphors, they told stories, they put me in the cockpit, or they used information I already knew. The store of different ideas they called upon to help me understand seemed limitless. I remember I had difficulty working out why the ball went to the right when I put too much rudder into the left turn. Alan asked, "What happens if you put an orange on the dash board of your car and you turn sharply to the left? The orange of course rolls to the right". I will never forget that now because he found a way to connect a flying concept to something I understood. All three instructors could do that. None of them ever resorted to saying, "But I told you that yesterday!"

Strategy Three: Limiting the cognitive load

The capacity of our working memory is limited. We can only 'attend' to and 'process' so much information at one time. In the working memory, duration is short (about 5 to 20 seconds) and information can be lost unless you keep rehearsing it mentally — like saying a phone number over and over. Poor instructors put you in the aeroplane, get you in the air and try to tell you everything in one flight. That's like pouring water in a glass. Instead of stopping when it is full, you continue to pour but the water just runs over and is wasted. Working memory acts like that. Too much information at one time means most of it may be wasted. Additionally, if you become stressed or the information is too complex, you will have less mental space to process it. I used to go 'unconscious' when I was on short final because too much was happening, so my brain literally gave up. I could see, hear and communicate, but I didn't know what to do. The best instructors recognised the problem straight away and limited the amount of information I had to deal with. In the case of landing, Paul worked the rudders, and I worked the throttle and the stick. Gradually, more and more of the controls were relinquished to me when I was ready to deal with them. This kept me learning and conscious without overloading my brain and frustrating me.

Strategy Four: Scaffolding student's learning

A scaffold is a temporary support. In education terms, scaffolding is providing temporary supports for learning by 'giving information, prompts, reminders and encouragement at the right time and in the right amounts'. This is different from telling a student the answer. Students may not understand the answer. They may misunderstand the answer. They may forget the answer. They may get into the habit of waiting for the instructor to tell them the answer. Scaffolding is a defensible educational technique. It involves prompting the student to use their own brain cells to make connections and to work things out, but is given just enough assistance to help the process. I remember doing circuits in rough air conditions and worrying about my landings so much that I would forget my downwind checks. Instead of telling me to do them, Keith would ask, "What leg of the circuit are we on?" and when I answered "downwind" I would remember that I had to do my checks. In flight, if I had forgotten to turn off the fuel pump, he would ask if I had sufficient fuel. This would trigger the brain into checking everything to do with fuel and I would discover the fuel pump was on and turn it off. By using this technique, he forced me to do the thinking and problem solving rather than continually relying on him to do the thinking for me.

Strategy Five: Focusing on priorities and key ideas

There is a lot to learn when you begin your flight training. Everything you see, everything you touch in the cockpit, everything you are told, everything you read is important. The amount of information you must attend to and the number of tasks you must complete seem astronomical. Alan talked to me one day about priorities in flying. He made me work out what the main priority was for each stage of the flight beginning with the pre-flight. For example, the most important priorities in takeoff were oil and fuel. The most important priority on final was airspeed, and so on. This exercise was a great assistance in flying because although one tries to keep track of everything, if you have to let something go, the things you continue to look after are the priorities.

When I transferred my training to Cooranbong, I was faced with the challenge of mastering procedures in an aerodrome with contra circuits (one side for GA, the other side for ultralights), in a CTAF with two other aerodromes and LOTS OF TRAFFIC. I was used to Temora where a busy circuit was me and one other aircraft. My first flight at Cooranbong was very stressful because I could hear masses of radio calls but I didn't know where the aircraft were or what they were saying. After the flight, Keith told me to listen for key words in the radio calls from other aircraft (that signified position) rather than try to listen to everything. He then followed up this advice by making me sit and listen to the calls on his radio and practise working out where the aircraft were. That was such a simple idea, but so effective in helping me unravel the mysteries of aircraft positions in the new CTAF.

Now I am a pilot. I have my cross country, radio and passenger endorsements. I finally made it to this point because I had some instructors who helped me learn and did it in a way that did not destroy my dignity. I feel really pleased with myself. Alan, Paul, Keith and some of the other instructors can feel pleased with themselves too. My success is linked in a great part to their use of effective teaching strategies.

2. Ineffective teaching strategies

Not all of my training was helpful. Sometimes other instructors engaged in practices that frustrated my learning, and made it more difficult and time-consuming for me to attain my pilot certificate.

Unhelpful instructor attitude

There are many factors that affect how we as adults learn. They include our level of ability, intelligence, motivation and financial resources, as well as the skill of our instructors and their ability to analyse the problems students are having and devise ways to help the students overcome those problems. The instructor's attitude and way of communication to the student is paramount in assisting or frustrating this learning process. An instructor who has the 'if you can't learn it the first time I say it, there is something wrong with you' attitude will lose students or at least affect their attempts to learn. For example, when I began learning, I trained with a GA instructor in the US for a month. I used to fly twice a week but it was a debilitating experience. (In fact, I stopped training for eight years because he made me feel so incompetent.) When we began to practise circuits, I had trouble with the landings. As usual, I went practically unconscious on short final. I forgot ALWAYS to put the last 10% of flaps down. When I tried to land the Cessna, I would kangaroo down the runway. (I got very good at perfecting the kangaroo hop.) The instructor never tried to hide his disgust at my efforts. "That's horrible! I've told you what to do!!!", he would scream at me. Circuit after circuit I would kangaroo and he would yell. I actually knew the landings were horrible. I was desperately trying to do what he told me. His yelling at me did not EVER improve the situation. "Scan the runway, scan the runway" he would scream. Well, I didn't actually know what "scan the runway" meant. What was I supposed to be seeing, and what was I supposed to be doing? These were never explained. When we stopped, he would depart the aircraft in a huff, storm back to the office and disappear. So much for paying someone to teach me how to fly. Of course I gave up. At that time, it never occurred to me that he might share some of the responsibility for my poor performance. I just assumed that I was incapable of learning.

Another unhelpful attitude is the "I'd rather be an airline pilot, not an instructor" attitude. The instructor in the US was definitely not interested in training me or possibly anyone else. He wanted to get his hours up so he could be a real pilot and this was one way to do it. Briefings were fast and furious and most of the content was never absorbed by me before I got into the aircraft. Consequently, I was unable to implement the information he gave me. If he noticed my mistakes, he ignored them, if he didn't he prefaced his remarks with "I TOLD you this before we left" as if TELLING someone something beforehand, out of context, and in an unsupportive environment is going to result in actually implementing the action in the aircraft. This attitude did nothing to help me learn, and did a lot of damage to my self-esteem and my perception of my own ability.

The "you'll get it eventually" attitude is one that is most annoying to me as an educator. The number of hours I have clocked up in the log book for circuits is embarrassing now to me as a pilot. Some of the instructors I had stopped giving me instruction on landing very early in the training because they had the "if you do enough of these you will get it eventually without me saying anything" attitude. Their rationale followed along these lines. "I can't give you any visual cues for the circuit because each circuit is different, wind conditions are different, aerodromes are different. You just have to figure out if you are too high, too low, too fast, too slow, whether to put power on or not, watch your airspeed, etc. etc." So I made new mistakes every single circuit for months. I used to despair. I had so many questions and no answers. A couple of instructors sat beside me and watched me do everything wrong for circuit after circuit. Finally, I began asking for input for the WHOLE circuit. I decided I wanted input until I was ready for them to stop. I used to argue with some instructors' "you'll get it eventually" attitude.

That may be how some pilots think. And that technique may work with some students, but certainly not all students. It certainly wasn't working with me. That is NOT how good educators think. Educators give input until they see the student doing a task correctly CONSISTENTLY, then GRADUALLY withdraw instructional scaffolding. The problem with allowing students to continue to make mistakes, is that some students perfect mistakes and consolidate their bad habits (want to see my kangaroo hop down the runway?). A better way to teach is to give LOTS of input, EVERY time until the picture becomes ingrained in the student's eye and the control input becomes connected with the picture. My last three instructors worked hard at helping me consolidate the 'picture' of the runway on downwind, base and final, and consolidate in my mind the control input needed to keep the picture right. Because they put in the information and the time, I progressed rapidly and learned to land well.

Inadequate record keeping and preparation time

Some of my instructors trained pilots as a full time job. Some of the instructors had other full-time employment and only trained as an interest. Some kept scrupulous records of my training and consulted the records before each flight. Some kept records, but never looked at them. Some kept no records. When I changed instructors, the records didn't come with me. That meant that the new instructor had only my log book (with sketchy information on the hours I had attempted certain skills) to make some decisions about my ability and my level of piloting skill. This amount of information was inadequate for the instructor, I realise now. As a student paying for instruction I assumed that all of my instructors would know what I had to learn and would take steps in my training to help me progress. But often they made assumptions about what I could and couldn't do that were not based in fact. When a person changes doctors, medical records are transferred to the new doctor. It would be good if detailed records followed the students who were learning to fly. Even if records did follow students, there is the problem that instructors have so little time to devote to reading them, that keeping track of students' progress can be a problem.

There were occasions when instructors would ask me questions like, "Have you done any precautionary landing work?" or "Have you done any short-field take-off and landing work?" as we got into the aircraft. I know everyone is busy. And I do believe that students have to take some responsibility for keeping track of their own learning. But I also know that flight training is expensive and most students would expect that the instructor is keeping track of their progress. I know good educators have a plan for their students' learning. Pilot training is education and therefore the instructors need to find a few minutes before the flight to keep themselves up to speed on the individual plan for each student.

Wrong assumptions

The best instructors insisted that I talk out loud as I flew so that they knew what I was thinking. The best instructors also ASKED me WHY I made certain decisions so that they could discover the rationale behind my actions. Having students talk out loud or 'self-talk' can give the instructor valuable insights into novice thinking. Vygotsky, one of the most influential educational theorists of the 20th century, believed that 'self talk' helps to regulate our thinking and guide our learning. For the student, self talk can be helpful in focusing, reminding, solving problems, directing attention and forming concepts. Most instructors never asked me to think out loud. They never asked WHY I had made a decision. Perhaps they thought they knew the answer. Perhaps they were right, but perhaps they were WRONG. How can anyone work out why a student has taken a particular course of action unless they ASK them? Once the good instructors knew why I had completed a task in a certain way (that always made perfect sense to me), they were able to point out the flaws in my thinking or give me additional information that would assist my understanding.

Another wrong assumption held by some instructors is that students will automatically understand why instructors insist on something being done in a certain way. Because it is perfectly clear to the instructor, perhaps they think it is perfectly clear to the student. This is not always the case. For example, I learned the start-up and run-up checklists by rote, but I didn't know for a long time WHY I had to do some of the tasks. I just knew they had to be done.

Do what I say, not what I do

This really sounds like stating the obvious, but students tend to copy the behavior and the attitude they see modelled by the teacher. Remember the old saying, "You remember 10% of what you are told, 60% of what you see, and 80 % of what you do"? I had an instructor very early in my training who told me to taxi at the speed of walking. Like so much information that is TOLD to you, its shelf-life in my brain was very brief, especially when I watched him taxi at nearly lift-off speed all morning. When I got in the aircraft, I remembered what I saw vividly and only dimly remembered what he had said. So I too taxied as fast as I could and still stay on the ground. Of course, I got chipped for that, but my reply was, "but you have done this all morning".

Other examples include instructors not giving the mandatory radio calls, not entering the circuit properly, telling me to always put the carb heat on final, but not doing it themselves and so on. For students this is confusing and I always thought, "Why is it important that I learn to do something a certain way when a REAL pilot doesn't do it?" Of course they all had good reasons for doing something differently. However, with novice students, it is important for the instructor to maintain consistency between what they teach the student to do and what they model themselves. If the rules are changed, students have to know the circumstances in which a change in the rules can occur.

3. Expertise in teaching

This article is not about instructor bashing. I have had some wonderful instructors. This article is about starting and continuing a professional dialogue with instructors concerning their teaching and the learning of their students – taking into account feedback from students. It's about raising an awareness of some of the teaching strategies instructors may use that are unhelpful from, at least, one student's point of view. Instructors are good pilots, but good pilots are not necessarily good teachers. Teaching takes as much skill and as much expertise as flying. Each student is different, each set of problems that student brings is different, and each student's learning style, aptitude and intelligence is different.

Expert teachers in any field have "elaborate systems of knowledge for understanding the problems" of their students. They recognise common problems that students encounter and have a wealth of strategies they can call upon to help students overcome learning difficulties. Expert teachers also recognise that student decisions can be based on misinformation or misunderstanding and find ways of correcting these. Expert teachers are reflective practitioners who think about student learning problems and actively engage in thinking of alternatives to assist their students. They reflect on their own teaching and assess how effective their teaching strategies are in helping students achieve learning outcomes. And they are prepared to change their teaching to ensure that students learn what they need to know. I know my best instructors not only displayed expertise in teaching but also displayed a genuine desire to improve their practice; a sure sign of a professional who takes teaching seriously.

4. Take responsibility for your learning

One pilot (James) told this story about his training. "When I did my pilot training, I remember I was a bit overawed by the whole idea of learning to fly. I knew absolutely nothing about flying, only knew I wanted to fly. So I took a very passive role in my training. I just went along and did what the instructor told me –nothing more. Consequently, it took me longer to catch on that it should have. If I did it again, I would probably take a more active role in my own learning."

Pilot training is expensive and time-consuming. How long it takes to learn to fly, really depends on how long the student needs to be competent in physically handling the aircraft and understanding the theories associated with flight. For adults, training is an addition to a generally already frantically busy life. Many responsibilities compete for the time available to adults. However, there are a number of strategies that adult student pilots can employ to facilitate their learning – many take very little time and can be done mentally, while waiting for the wife or husband. Learning to be a pilot is the result, not so much of what the teacher does, but what cognitive processing is occurring in the student's mind. Student pilots should not leave all the responsibility for learning to the instructor or expect that learning is the result of an instructor pouring their expertise into a student's passive brain. Learning is an active construction of integrating new information with information we already know. The student is the only one that can do that. Remember the saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"? The instructor can give a student all the good oil in the world, but the student has to actively engage in making sense of the information.

This article forwards a number of strategies that may help student pilots to facilitate their own learning. These strategies were solicited in interviews with pilots and instructors, and have a theoretical basis in educational learning research. They have been organised into three sections of actions students can take: before the flight, during the instructional time and after the flight. They all follow the same theme, "Take Responsibility for your Learning".

Pre-flight preparation

Flying is a combination of physical and mental development and understanding. The student can help himself by reading the theoretical aspects of flight that will be the focus of the next lesson. While reading, the student should note any questions that occur. These questions can then be addressed by the instructor in the course of the lesson. When learning new information, it is not uncommon for individuals to have to revisit some concepts more than once for them to make sense. Reading the theory beforehand helps this process of learning because it establishes a cognitive framework that can be reinforced through instruction and implementation.

There are other kinds of mental preparation that students can employ to prepare them for their flight besides reading the theory. One technique that some find useful is visualisation. If a student is going to do circuits, for example, she or he can fly the circuits in their mind, going through all the checks, motions and radio calls that they will be required to do in the aircraft on each leg of the circuit. If the student is going on a navigation exercise, she or he can fly the nav several times at home in a chair, looking at the chart, practising calls and changes of heading, and so on. Visualisation of a process or procedure can help students to implement them more effectively and efficiently when faced with the real thing.

Another useful technique is physical preparation. One instructor suggested that students who have difficulty sorting out their circuit directions could practise them at home by drawing a circuit on the garage floor and walking the various legs of the circuit until the crosswind, downwind, base and final legs were clear in their mind. This technique has also been used for learning how to position the aircraft nose relative to the wind on different legs of the circuit. This represents a kind of kinaesthetic rehearsal — a technique that sportsmen use to 'practise' various aspects of their sport when they are not on the field. This technique can also be used early on in training to become familiar with the position of the controls and avionics while sitting in a parked aircraft.

Sitting in the stationary aircraft and rehearsing emergency procedures for engine outs, engine fires and electrical faults can also be a good preparation for the real thing when students say the process and physically touch the controls and switches that need to be turned off or used. Writing down the terminology and the order for making radio calls and practising them at home is another good way for novices to learn to give their radio calls before they get to the aerodrome.

There is another kind of physical preparation that is important before the lesson. This falls into the category of "Am I fit to fly today?" One instructor told the story about a training session that ended up being very ordinary because the student had played Rugby Union the day before and was physically not up to the rigours of flight training. Unless students are alert and ready for the flight physically, they may not get much out of that particular lesson. The classic example is the person who had a big Friday night at the pub and then arrives at 8 am the next day to fly ? not a pretty sight. Self-motivation and study to prepare for the lesson are essential, but having your body ready is also very important.

Instructors do not always have the time in the lesson to explain all areas of the syllabus in great detail. Information on engines, propellers and weather conditions is important. Student pilots should show some initiative and do some reading in these areas to supplement the actual learning that occurs when they are in the aircraft.

A final useful technique is for students to make a list of learning priorities for their own lessons. This helps to focus attention and mental energy, and helps students to actively engage in those aspects of the lesson that contribute to their priorities.

Instructional time

Being a good pilot requires knowledge not only flying but also a thorough knowledge of the aircraft, its capabilities, limits and procedures for handling on the ground as well as in the air. It's a good idea to arrive at the aerodrome early and read the aircraft manual so you are familiar with the technical specifications unique to that aircraft. It is also a good idea to assist the instructor in activities like refuelling, moving the aircraft and finding out where to do engine start-up procedures.

Flying is such fun and the temptation is to enjoy every minute in the cockpit at the expense of doing the work well. One of the instructors said that students need to understand that learning to fly is 'work', not 'play'. Students need to keep their mind on the tasks at hand and actively engage in establishing and improving their skills. Their 'head' needs to be in the cockpit and not on what happened last night or will happen tonight. The operation of the aircraft requires the full attention of the novice aviator.

A good technique to help focus attention to tasks and problem-solve is 'self-talk'. This allows thinking to be clarified by the instructor. Talking out loud also clarifies thinking for the student. Students should also be quick to ask the instructor for advice or input when they are unsure of a procedure or an instruction.

Flying regularly at short intervals is more useful than flying once in a while or at long intervals. There is a certain amount of re-learning that has to occur unless the student pilot is preparing for flights by engaging in visualisation or other mental and physical preparation between flights.

After the flight

Student pilots need to be proactive in searching out the information they need and clarifying the information they don't understand. Instructors can assume that students are following their explanations unless the student gives feedback to the contrary. Student pilots should ask questions about flying, about training, about the expectations of the instructor, about the readings they need to do and about their progress.

Students can also engage in reflective thinking about the flight. In fact, flying the lesson again in their mind can help them to realise what actions they took that resulted in various outcomes. They can examine their actions and the thinking they engaged in when performing those actions to determine what they would change or vary the next time they fly.

Learning to fly takes a lot of physical and mental energy and effort. Even though most students live busy lives with spare time at a premium, time put aside for preparation is well worth it. The more mental and physical preparation a student engages in before, during and after the flight, the more they will achieve. Students who take responsibility for their learning will reap the rewards and maximise their training.


Section 1. Lieb, S. (2000). Principles of adult learning http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/adults-

Sections 2-4 Woolfolk, A. (2004). Educational psychology 9th edition, Sydney: Allyn and Bacon

The next module in this 'Joining sport and recreational aviation' series discusses advanced flight training for power-driven, 3-axis control aeroplanes.

This 'Joining sport and recreational aviation' series

Copyright © 2004–2011 Dr Carol Richards  
Revision 2 — page content was reviewed by the author August 2011.