Flight students can get complacent. They have a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) sitting next to them—able to save the helicopter, have the correct frequencies, and keep the flight legal. Sometimes instructors can get complacent themselves and not realize that they are actually enabling their student pilot during flight training. For example, we might find ourselves constantly taking over the radio in a specific area to “make things easy” for the flight, when we should suffer with the student to have them become proficient enough to handle it. In this article, we will address the student as the one needing attention with regards to combating complacency.
Alex is Unprepared
Here’s a story of one complacent helicopter student I heard from an instructor, who we will call Bob. Bob was once given a flight with another instructor’s student, who we will call Alex, working on the final few flight lessons for his Commercial Pilot Certificate. He had over 200 hours of flight time at this point (having completed Private and Instrument-Rotorcraft earlier, plus flying the required hours under the approved Part 141 Commercial program), and had been flying out of this large airport for over a year with roughly 100 hours in this specific make and model of helicopter.
After landing, Bob randomly would change all the frequencies stored in the radios of training helicopters to keep the next student on their toes with regards to being prepared for the flight—more on this tactic later. Bob had done just so with the aircraft Alex would be flying for this lesson. The lesson required them to fly to another airport outside of the Class B airspace, and then conduct almost every task found in the Practical Test Standards (PTS)* to the acceptable standard required to pass a practical exam. Bob selected a nearby airport located in Class G airspace that was routinely used for training, and instructed Alex to prepare for the flight and preflight the helicopter.
Alex told Bob he was ready for the flight, and they checked the aircraft out with dispatch and went to begin. Upon getting settled in the cockpit, Bob noticed something ridiculous: Alex had nothing but a headset with him. No charts, no notepad with essential flight information, no electronic version of the same, nothing. How would he get us to the airport for training? How would he comply with airspace? How would he know whom to talk to? How would he identify obstacles in the area? How would he know the limits of any Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in the area? Is he gifted with a perfect photographic memory? How has he gotten away with this in training?
Bob decided to see what would happen and let Alex start the aircraft, which he accomplished using the appropriate checklist—good job. Bob left the Global Positioning System (GPS) in a simulated failed mode to prevent use for many training flights, and did so with this one. The first thing Alex needed before they could depart was a clearance—this is a towered airport in Class B surface airspace. To ask for a clearance he would also need the alphabetical code for the current Automated Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast, which meant tuning to its frequency—something he’s done for every flight in the last 200 hours.
Alex looked directly at the failed GPS (a Garmin 430), paused, and said: “What’s the frequency for the ATIS?”
“Why don’t you look it up,” replied Bob.
“The GPS is down.”
“Check your documents. Your charts.”
“I don’t have that with me.”
“Why wouldn’t you bring the stuff required for flight? You know you are required by regulations to be familiar with all information concerning the flight.”1
“We’re just going to the training airport.”
“And? You are a commercial student, almost done with training, supposed to be acting like the Pilot-In-Command (PIC), and should have this required information. How else would you get us there?”
Alex stared blankly.
“Follow the shut down checklist,” Bob stated.
The lesson then turned into ground instruction with regards to being prepared for the flight. On later flights Alex was observed to have such information with him, hopefully indicating that this learning experience had a lasting impression that would lead him to great success in his career.
Two things the instructor did helped identify this student’s weakness in flight preparation: scrambling the radio frequencies and disabling the use of the GPS.
Scrambling Radio Frequencies
Changing the stored frequencies prevents the student from just getting by on the success of the previous student flying. It forces them to know and have in writing the frequencies required for the flight, and it forces them to get more proficient in inputting frequencies and using the radio in general.
If the student asks us to enter a frequency for them while flying, we may choose to oblige them, but make sure we have them:
- Specify the exact digits of the frequency to enter,
- Tell us which radio to input it into (if we have multiple), and
- Verify that we entered it correctly (we can mess up intentionally to test their attention to detail).
Disable the GPS
When I began to fly, GPS was something the military, airlines, and commercial jets had—not us lowly general aviation piston pilots. Navigating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) required good use of charts and pilotage. Today, many helicopters have GPS devices with airport information databases and moving maps.
These databases are typically not updated as frequently as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) publications are released, and many found in VFR aircraft are not approved for navigational use anyway. Additionally, they almost never contain all of the information you need about an airport, such as that found in the Chart Supplement or more timely Notices to Airmen (NOTAM).
The moving maps are usually not graphical representations of FAA charts. They usually only display controlled airspace, airports, city names, and some major land features. They often make it a multi-step process to further examine the confining altitudes of specific segments of airspace or get frequencies for the airport—something that is plainly evident on official charts.
I’m not saying using this technology is bad. It’s a great thing and I use it every day, making work so much easier. But, we are talking about initial training. One day we will have to figure something out from paper charts alone when the GPS or our tablet fails. One day we’ll lose that database and wish we had the frequencies written down in front of us. Forcing the student to rely on paper charts for navigation builds the foundation needed to rise to these challenges and helps them understand the system better. I will write another article on situations I’ve encountered where I had to revert to paper charts and publications in my career.
Disable the GPS on at least half of our training flights and make the student use their paper charts and pre-written information. We still want them to learn to use the GPS since they will certainly have them in their careers, but we also want to build that foundation for success with paper when the need may arise.
Here are a few additional tactics:
Simulated Ramp Check
We all dread getting ramp checked by an inspector from the FAA. I’ve been through several, and I’ve witnessed others. Ramp checks are conducted in accordance with the Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS)—commonly referred to as the “8900”—that FAA inspectors follow in executing their duties.
Part of Conducting a Part 91 Ramp Inspection2 states that inspectors will check that the aircraft’s required documents are available and current (registration, airworthiness, flight manual, etc…), and examine the pilot’s required documents (pilot certificate, photo identification, medical, currency, required endorsements, etc…). We can do the same inspection randomly of our students. This serves two purposes:
- Ensure that our student and aircraft has everything required, and
- Teach the student the importance of checking these documents before each flight to protect their pilot certificate from negative action in the future.
An additional benefit is that this random inspection may help us catch a mistake on a document, or notice that the student lacks a required endorsement or is missing a logbook entry. It’s basically an audit. I once encountered a commercial pilot student without their medical certificate—which he told me he lost. Per company rules, we had to suspend his training until he could get a replacement certificate, which he had not bothered to accomplish on his own up to this point.
In-Flight Pop Quiz
I love this one and only use it at the end of a flight while cruising back to the home airport. After a positive flight—don’t do this if the student had a bad day—I’ll take the controls from the student and tell them I’ll only give them back if they answer five questions correctly. I start simple and work my way to harder questions, but I don’t stop until they have answered a total of five correctly. If we get to question ten and still don’t have five correct answers, I stop asking questions, plan a ground training session, and give them back the controls if I feel comfortable.
This will encourage them to study more if they have a hard time answering, and give them a confidence boost if they are prepared and answer correctly quickly. It also helps us identify knowledge areas that need more attention in ground training. Taking the controls from them presents an incentive to answer the questions so they can get back to flying, and gives them a little break at the same time.
These tactics are not to be used with the beginning private pilot student or to just berate a student. We should be helping our new students learn to be prepared through example and guidance in flight training. However, as they progress toward the end of their Private Pilot Certificate or are in more advanced training (Instrument, Commercial and CFI), they need to be tested occasionally to ensure they can act safely and legally as stand-alone PICs. If we get a student that fails one of these tests, make sure we explain how and why they failed and what they can do to be prepared for next time.
* This is currently being replaced by the Airmen Certification Standards (ACS).
- Code of Federal Regulations. Title 14, Part 91, Section 103: Preflight Action. Retrieved December 6, 2016 from http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=e3778e38d8fc93531cf12ecdb1e87eae&mc=true&node=se14.2.91_1103&rgn=div8
- Federal Aviation Administration. (October 12, 2016). Order 8900.1, Volume 6, Chapter 1, Section 4: Conduct a Part 91 Ramp Inspection. Retrieved December 6, 2016 from http://fsims.faa.gov/PICDetail.aspx?docId=8900.1,Vol.6,Ch1,Sec4