Some Reflections on
My Student Pilot Experience
This is just my reply to a request from
Dominion Aviation Service for feedback on my experience as a student pilot
there. It's messy, windy, and self-centered, but... Well, caveat
The Overall Flight Instruction Program at DAS
In general, I was very pleased by the quality of the instruction I received.
I selected DAS because, compared to other flight schools I visited in this
area, you had a recognizable syllabus (although I'm leery of slavish adherence
to syllabi), the instructors I met seemed thoughtful and earnest, and DAS
seemed to be well organized and the aircraft well maintained.
I also liked having a set schedule for lessons, so I could count on
having lessons at a regular pace. At the beginning, I was in no particular
hurry, thinking that I'd be through in three or four months. Later, however,
when there seemed to be no end to the duration of my instruction and I
began to be pressed by other commitments, I was in a hurry, and
the few times when there was a long wait to get scheduled for instruction
or a stage check were frustrating--but nothing like the frustration one
hears about flying lessons elsewhere!
Here are some things I wished for--although they may not be practical
in your view.
Several, different-paced schedules, so that students can know at the outset
what their lesson schedules will be.
For example, one schedule might have lessons at a certain time or times
each week, like a college course, but continuing until the student received
the certificate. This is more or less what you have now, but somewhat less
Another schedule might work by elapsed time, with the solo, the FAA checkride,
and so on expected by certain dates, and the intensity of instruction adjusted
so that the student would be prepared by the specified dates. This would
probably be much more difficult for you, but I would have preferred it.
A single-price package would be nice, too
Although I was pleased with the instruction I received, I'd think that
putting your full-time instructors on salary would be beneficial for everyone.
I worked for several years myself as a post-graduate teaching assistant,
dividing my time between my own studies and my students, and found it hard
to satisfy my commitment to either
The Ground School.
I found the ground school worthwhile for three main reasons:
However, most of what I needed to know to pass the test I learned on my
own, while working through the Jeppesen computer Test Preparation Software.
I found that the software helped me focus on the problems presented by
the various questions. Jeppesen's printed test prep book was much less
effective for me because I often looked at the answer before I had figured
it out for myself. Other students might prefer the printed version.
The instruction helped me to focus on the parts of the textbook that are
most relevant to the FAA written test.
The final exam showed me what I needed to learn.
It gave me company. I don't ordinarily need a lot of company, but
in this case it was helpful to be in with other students and to be able
to ask questions of the instructors. And it was helpful to have two instructors
who were not responsible for the flying parts of my education, and to be
able to ask them questions about the course content.
There were three things that bothered me about the ground school.
All in all, then, I think the ground school was useful to me; but I probably
would have been able to do just as well on the FAA written test just by
working through the Jeppesen test prep program.
The instructors pretty much just recapitulated what's in the textbook.
That irritated me for quite a while, until I finally realized that the
repetition was helping me understand and remember. I think I might have
been less restive if I had known at the outset that the FAA written test
is apparently designed to focus students on certain things that are necessary
for safe flying and to help them learn to understand certain concepts while
deriving the correct answers. It isn't really the answers that the
test leads to, it's understanding the concepts. That's evidently
why the FAA seems so blasé about publication of the test questions.
The Xeroxed handouts were nth-generation copies and many were almost illegible.
It would be better to have one good master set and photocopy its pages
for classroom use.
The instructors seemed dedicated and earnest, and I found that having two
instructors team-teaching was quite helpful because they generally complemented
each other, and their different teaching styles correlated with more students'
learning styles. However, the instructors sometimes did or said things
that were counterproductive--without meaning to. For example, I heard this
question many, many times: "Is there anybody who doesn't understand this?"
The intention was good, but the effect was to suppress questions and intimidate
the students. A better question would be something like "Am I saying that
clearly?" or some other wording that puts the responsibility for clarity
on the instructor. (NOT "Am I saying that clearly enough for you?"
with the implication of "stupid" at the end!)
I think also that the King test prep videotapes are probably excellent
aids. At least, the demo tape I received in the mail shortly before taking
the written test made me think so. (The demo got me past at least one of
the trickier questions.) Granted, I've seen only the King demo and a few
Jeppesen tapes--but I found the King method more helpful than Jeppesen's,
and a lot more interesting to watch. If the rest of the King video course
is as good as the demo tape, then I'd be inclined to recommend it to anyone
who's trying to learn to fly, as a supplement to an infernos ground school
course, or possibly even instead of one.
If you'd like recommendations here, I suggest that you might--
Try to integrate the ground school and the flight instruction into one
curriculum. I found them to be almost entirely separate experiences.
Purchase a set of the King tapes--because they're a good complement to
the thorough but dry Jeppesen tapes, and
Place copies of them in some room like the pilots' lounge, along with a
VCR and a headset--so that your students can watch the tapes easily, and
without bothering anyone. (You can keep the masters in a safe place.)
Because this is a tutorial, anything I can say about my own flight instruction
is really about the relationship between my instructor and myself. In other
words, this is a very narrow and subjective case study, and therefore one
can't take it too seriously. I'll try to focus on what I perceived and
to generalize as best I can from my own particular experience.
The tutorial method has several advantages.
The greatest disadvantage of the tutorial method is that the student
has little perspective--no real way to know how he or she is getting along,
compared to other students. In a way that's comforting. But on the other
hand, one has to trust the instructor implicitly.
The student has a mentor and feels that the instruction is person.
The instructor is able to focus on one student at a time and therefore
can tailor the instruction to the individual student.
There's no feeling of competition among students and none of the uneasiness
that group instruction usually brings on in students.
Luckily, my instructor and I got along well, and he was conscientious
about scheduling lessons and keeping me focused on them. On the other hand,
he was relatively inexperienced as an instructor, and that may have put
us both at a slight disadvantage.
However, his inexperience turned out to be useful to me in my personal
case study of learning and teaching because it was relatively easy to see
what he did that was effective, and vice versa. And I was able to discuss
the instruction with him to a certain extent, apparently without making
him feel uncomfortable.
I don't think the 2-to-1 difference in our ages was a problem--certainly
not for me.
The course of instruction--or maybe it would be better to say my learning
process--took about twice as long as I'd expected, both in elapsed time
and in flying hours. I've tried to figure out why that was so, but without
coming to any firm conclusions. Here are some of the possibilities I've
Maybe at age 61 I'm a slower learner than I think I am--and slower than
I was at 22, when I first took some flying lessons. I don't feel
that this is so, and my job involves constant learning, but I may not be
the best judge of my abilities.
Maybe my early flight training got in the way. I had expected that it would
help, but I found immediately that my muscles had forgotten everything
in 39 years. My brain, on the other hand, remembered a lot, but I discovered
several times that my memories had led me to do exactly the opposite of
what I needed to do. The main problem was in identifying which of my 1959
memories were counter to what I needed to do in 1997 and 98. I never was
able to predict them, and discovered them only after I'd been doing things
"1998-wrong" for some time. My 1959 experience was in an Aeronca Tri-Champ--simpler
than a Cessna 152, slower, draggier, no flaps, tandem seating (so the view
was the same turning left and right), stick, engine controls on the left.
That training stressed power-off landings and spins. So, for just one example,
in 1998 I was at first trying to do stalls which I thought were
to supposed to result in really hard stalls. I didn't know then that the
1998 purpose was aimed at practicing stall avoidance!
Maybe the instruction was inefficient. However, I don't mean this as a
criticism of my instructor; he did very nicely. The problem in instruction
was me, not him. In retrospect, I've thought of some things that
might have made the learning quicker and easier for me. (Grains of salt
might be useful here.)
An overview of the entire course at the outset would have helped me. I
think my instructor, knowing that I'd flown before, probably just skipped
this part, assuming that I knew what to expect. And of course, I thought
Pre-flight briefings about the nature and purpose of each new maneuver
to be introduced in the day's lesson. There was some of this, but it seemed
haphazard, and a lot of it came after the fact, rather than before. Also,
the information was presented orally. (Almost all teachers work this way,
but I've found it to be counter-productive.) Brief written explanations
would have been very helpful. It's true that the Jeppesen texts
cover most of this. However, I found them rather hard to digest. They're
thorough--but rather too thorough and dense for ready comprehension.
About 50 well-chosen words on a handout would probably do it better.
At least four very different learning styles have been identified, so what
worked well for me might not work for another student. During my instruction
at DAS, I found that I generally learn best by doing for myself. Of
course, focused practice is essential, as well. But I've never been much
good at performing to a set script. And I generally seem to learn best
from my own experience. Because of these traits (or weaknesses), I probably
would have learned most quickly by doing a lot of solo cross-country flights--but
only if I had first been able to learn how to do certain things that made
me feel terribly anxious, and which I'll describe next:
I was unready for several common but difficult flying situations.
The one that gave me the most trouble and anxiety was crosswind landing,
and that became obvious during my pre-solo stage check: I'd landed in crosswinds
a number of times, but without ever getting a feel for what I needed to
do-didn't really do crosswind landings, just sort of landed despite
the wind. (Back in the summer of 1959, at a controlled airport with three
big runways, I had never experienced any significant crosswind.) Even after
soloing here, I didn't really have it. Finally, I read a book about landings
(How to Make Perfect Landings, by Ron Fowler) and found out
that I needed to start slipping well away from the runway. While flying
with my instructor, I practiced that for the first time, and suddenly crosswind
landing became fun.
I didn't do enough engine-outs in the pattern to be comfortable until a
few days before the FAA check ride. This was partly my own fault--but I
didn't practice them earlier because I was anxious about them. (Ironic,
because in 1959, all landings were with the engine idling.)
I never did a forward slip to a landing until the FAA check ride. I'd done
forward slips and landings, but not the two together. (I had done
them often in 1959, however.)
Until my final stage check, I'd never done an emergency descent using flaps,
instead of slipping. (I tried both maneuvers again recently, by the way,
and found that the slip gets you down considerably faster in a 152, although
the flap method is more straightforward--literally--and sets you up for
an immediate landing. To my surprise, my passenger felt more comfortable
in the slip because, he said, the nose wasn't pointing down as sharply.)
At the same time, I was perhaps over-prepared early on for some other situations,
such as ground-reference maneuvers. Of course, you can't really be
over-prepared. But I think I might have benefited if the order of things
had been somewhat different.
At the beginning I thought it would be good to fly several different 152s,
on the theory that I'd be learning to fly, and not just to fly a
certain airplane. Later on, however, I decided that it was a bum idea,
because the various airplanes handled differently and had different avionics,
and getting used to them just complicated things for me.
Eventually we settled on 4725B, mainly because my instructor preferred
it. In retrospect, however, I've decided that it's a somewhat harder airplane
for beginners (for me, anyhow), for two reasons:
The seats are high, giving wonderful visibility but making it hard for
me to judge the relationship of the nose to the horizon. And there's not
much legroom, so my knees are bent and my feet feel awkward on the rudder
The comm radio is quite nice, but it's complicated. Even after finally
learning to use it correctly (and I'm a techie at heart) I still find the
simpler radio requires a lot less of my attention, especially when flying
The Stage Checks
I hated the stage checks, but I learned a lot in them, and I'm grateful
for them. I knew I wasn't ready for the pre-solo stage check because of
not knowing how to land in a crosswind, and almost canceled out on it--would
have felt a lot happier if I had, as it turned out. But all in all
I found the stage checks very helpful, both in identifying what I needed
to learn and, once I'd learned it, in buoying my confidence.
And in a way they reflect my entire experience in learning to fly at
DAS--difficult, but generally pleasant and definitely helpful.
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