I spent a little time this morning perusing the FAA’s current practical test standards, required aeronautical knowledge areas, and sample written exam questions. While general aviation (GA) has seen notable advancements since I began flight training, I noticed that many of the FAA’s requisite knowledge and skill areas have failed to adapt with the times. Though certain changes, such as the adoption of scenario-based training (SBT), have been incorporated in recent years, I still believe the flight-training industry as a whole is largely stuck using 20th century instruction techniques.
Old vs. New School Teaching Methods
To add a little background to my argument, let me point out that I was trained using old school piloting techniques. Throughout my instruction (up to ATP certification), modern tools such as GPS, autopilots, and computer-based aids were essentially ignored in favor of decades-old practices. The general consensus among my university’s flight-training department was that you’re not a real pilot unless you navigate strictly by pilotage & dead reckoning, compute your calculations with a whiz wheel E6-B, read only coded weather information, and hand fly 100% of the time. Any form of modern convenience was more or less shunned as a crutch used by wannabe pilots.
While a few of the planes I trained in had GPS and/or autopilots, I never used them during my training (not even once!). When I expressed concern about being asked to demonstrate their use on checkrides (Per the PTS, all installed equipment is fair game.), my instructors assured me the check airmen wouldn’t be interested in my aptitude with such trinkets (and they were right). This continued for four years, at the conclusion of which I was a CFII/MEI who had never used an autopilot or GPS.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Are such manual skills necessary for a 21st century pilot? Perhaps, but probably not too often. These days, computer programs are capable of generating flight plans with just a few quick inputs, plain language weather reports/forecasts are widely available online (or via telephone), highly capable GPSs are accessible on tablets & mobile phones, and GA autopilots can fly an aircraft better than any human. With such niceties at our fingertips, why should we not make use of these resources?
Following completion of my flight training, I quickly embraced the modern marvels that were previously off limits in my flying activities. In over a dozen years of “new school” flying, I’ve yet to encounter an instance where I’ve needed to manually plan a flight or navigate without at least some form of electronic assistance. Though I still encounter coded weather from time to time, if necessary I’d be able to obtain the plain language equivalent. In essence, many of the so-called fundamentals from my flight training have been useless in my real-world flying.
The Problems of a One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Before I convince anyone that all of these age-old skills are relics of the past, let me point out that such skills are useful to some pilots – or occasionally necessary depending on the aircraft/operation in practice. I’m not at all advocating that the industry do away with the essentials, but I do think we should wisely devote our training time to the operations each student can reasonably expect to perform.
Consider lost communication procedures and partial panel ops. Would I ever consider covering such possibilities during a flight review? Absolutely, though not for all students. For a pilot who frequently flies IFR in a 1974, vacuum-equipped Cessna 172 (with the original audio panel), I’d want to see him operate without the gyro-driven gauges. After all, vacuum failures are fairly common, and decades-old avionics systems leave a lot to be desired. In this case, it’s wise to prepare for less-than-perfect systems reliability.
Now, imagine if the same individual piloted a 2009, G1000-equipped Cirrus SR22; carried a Garmin GPSMAP 696, and never took off without a handheld transceiver (and spare batteries) in his/her flight bag. Under these circumstances, I’d probably opt to devote our training time to more realistic pursuits. Why? The odds of this aviator ever needing to use lost comm or partial panel skills are rare. Even if (s)he suffered a complete electrical failure, said pilot could navigate and communicate reasonably well using the Garmin 696 and handheld transceiver. For this pilot, I’d think systems management training and practice minimizing head-down time would be much more beneficial activities; primarily because the pilot can reasonably expect to use such skills.
Relative to the Real World
Once securing my regional airline job, I spent several four-hour sessions in a simulator practicing loads of bad weather scenarios, passenger emergencies, and a multitude of engine/equipment problems. In all my professional-level training, I’ve never once been subject to executing a partial panel approach or dealing with a lost communications situation. As far as the company and the FAA were concerned, the reliability and double/triple/quadruple redundancy of these systems meant the odds of the above-stated occurrences were too small to warrant sim practice. Instead, weather, passenger emergencies, and other system problems were deemed much more worthy of our training time. Additionally, the company’s dispatch department always handled all flight-planning duties, so I’ve yet to put my whiz wheel skills to the test as a pro pilot.
Lost Skills or Unnecessary Practices?
Although I consider several basic (though seldom used) skills worthy of a reasonable amount of training time, I’m a firm believer that many could also be permanently retired. Just look at everyday life. I’ve never used an abacus or a slide rule, but always did fine in math class. Many college students today have never used a pay phone, dialed a rotary telephone, manually rolled down an automobile window, or operated a stick shift, yet remain incredibly competent at telecommunications and automobile operation. Times change, technologies die, and new skill sets emerge. It’s past time the flight-training community accepted the paradigm shift.