The Gym Teacher's Guide to Flight Instruction

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI

Originally published in AOPA Flight Training Magazine – May 2013

I’m a fairly ordinary guy, but I may hold one distinction: As far as I know, I’m the only gym teacher in the world to hold a commercial pilot’s license. Actually, I’m a former Physical Education teacher, and this background was an excellent primer for being a flight instructor. Many people have bad memories of their “phys ed” classes – with good reason, in my opinion. It’s often poorly taught and has been painfully slow to adapt over time. But the teachers who do it well use techniques that have a lot of crossover to what we do as CFIs.

Flying involves the acquisition of physical skills. This differentiates it from purely intellectual learning, and research shows there are some important aspects to teaching physical skills. The bedrock principle is that students learn best through correct hands-on practice. Good lectures, effective visual aids and the like are important, but the single most important thing is for students to practice as many repetitions as possible with the proper technique. Teachers call this “time-on-task”, and good ones attempt to maximize it in their lessons. Flight instructors should take this to heart because of the cost of flight training. Students are now paying upwards of $2 per minute for training, and they understandably want their learning time to be as efficient as possible.

Instructors can often dramatically increase time-on-task by making small, but important changes to how they plan lessons. One is cutting down on lecture time, and I’m always looking for ways to deliver information more concisely. I include only the critical elements to allow for safe and productive practice, leaving as much time as possible for hands-on repetition. Besides trimming verbiage and omitting superfluous detail, I find working from a good syllabus allows me to assign reading to students prior to training flights. This means I have less need to lecture in the first place.

Another area is minimizing time spent on what teachers call management. Suppose a gym teacher is planning a soccer lesson for a class of 30 kids. How many balls should be used? How many traffic cones are needed to divide the area into stations? Then how will the teacher distribute the balls, divide the class, move the kids to and from the different practice areas and retrieve the equipment at the end? Not thinking through these details in advance means a lot of wasted time. For CFIs this can apply to actual classrooms, the aircraft and even airspace. Is the briefing room ready for use? Is the whiteboard erased and clean? Computer booted up with your PowerPoint lesson loaded? Do you have all the equipment you need in the airplane? Would a short flight to a nearby airport allow for more circuits in the pattern due to less traffic? Novice teachers are notoriously weak at this type of management, and may be unaware of the tremendous amount of learning time that is wasted.

Another aspect of management is transitioning from one activity to another during a lesson. If they are not well planned, these changes can be awkward and eat up a great deal of instructional time. For CFIs this can mean giving some thought to the order of the maneuvers they will teach on a given flight. As in aerobatic routines, one can take advantage of altitude and position at the end of one maneuver to set up another. Say my syllabus calls for work on stalls, ground reference maneuvers and an introduction to emergency landings. I’d probably choose to do the low maneuvers first, as soon after takeoff as possible since we’re already low. Then we would climb to an intermediate altitude for stall practice, during which I vector us back toward the airport. The altitude gain inherent to power-on stalls would then bring us to our highest point of the flight, and put is in a good position to simulate an emergency descent and landing. This type of efficiency moves the lesson along, makes good use of time and students are less likely to perform the “Poor Man’s Instrument Scan” (attitude indicator, Hobbs meter, airspeed, Hobbs meter, altitude, Hobbs meter, etc).

Apart from maximizing time-on-task, Physical Education has some other lessons for us. CFIs are often trained to keep up a steady stream of feedback to students. But what about the quality of that feedback? “Good job on that maneuver,” is nice. But saying, “I liked how you kept scanning for traffic during slow flight,” provides specific information and is much more valuable to a learner. This goes for both positive and negative feedback.

Using specific verbiage is also important in order to get proper responses from students. I once told a client, “Keep the nose up until the plane stalls, then recover by pushing the nose down.” He obligingly pushed the nose over until it pointed almost straight at the ground. After hastily recovering the aircraft (while levitating partly out of my seat) I immediately apologized. After all, he did precisely what I told him to do. I later changed this instruction to be more specific: “Recover by pushing the nose slightly below the horizon.” This also brings up the point that effective educators reflect on their teaching and re-visit their lesson plan book every so often. I’ve seen a lot of CFIs who write their lesson plans to satisfy the FAA examiner on the checkride and then seldom consult them again. Teaching is a constant process of evaluation and improvement for thoughtful professionals.

If you are planning well organized lessons and maximizing time-on-task, it may occasionally reveal itself in a “Whew!” from your student after shutting down. Giving them a real workout in the airplane is good from time to time. It makes them perform when slightly overloaded and fatigued, which can certainly happen in real-world flying. After those lessons I tell students what I used to tell athletes when I was a coach: Practice should be hard so game day will seem easy.


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