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 lector.

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.

  1. Several, different-paced schedules, so that students can know at the outset what their lesson schedules will be.

    1. 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 indefinite.

    3. 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.

    5. A single-price package would be nice, too
  3. 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:

  1. The instruction helped me to focus on the parts of the textbook that are most relevant to the FAA written test.
  2. The final exam showed me what I needed to learn.
  3. 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.
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.

There were three things that bothered me about the ground school.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!)
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.

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--

  1. Try to integrate the ground school and the flight instruction into one curriculum. I found them to be almost entirely separate experiences.
  2. Purchase a set of the King tapes--because they're a good complement to the thorough but dry Jeppesen tapes, and
  3. 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.)
Flight Instruction

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.

  1. The student has a mentor and feels that the instruction is person.

  3. The instructor is able to focus on one student at a time and therefore can tailor the instruction to the individual student.

  5. There's no feeling of competition among students and none of the uneasiness that group instruction usually brings on in students.
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.

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 considered:

  1. 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.

  3. 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!

  5. 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.)
    2. 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 I did.

    4. 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.

    6. 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:

    8. I was unready for several common but difficult flying situations.
      2. 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.

      4. 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.)

      6. 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.)

      8. 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.)
    1. 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.
    2. 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.

    3. 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:
      1. 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 pedals.
      1. 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 locally.
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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