Leighton Collins on flight training, 1944

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May, 1944 edition of Air Facts. We found Leighton Collins’ comments on improving both safety and flight training to be as valuable today as they were almost 70 years ago.

–And Safety

By: Leighton Collins

Air Facts magazine, 1944
This article originally appeared in the May, 1944 edition of Air Facts

Having proposed that the development and licensing of private pilots be placed wholly and solely in the hands of the professional flight instructor, it now comes time to consider what this instructor should teach. This is one of the most important questions bearing upon the future development of private flying, for not only must learning to fly be made more attractive to the public but the process must turn out pilots who will be able to fly with a far better safety record than we’ve ever had yet.

Having gotten used to our present accident frequency we are too much inclined to think it is not much of a problem or handicap to the industry. But that is only because private aviation is yet so small. You get 50,000 private owners instead of seven or eight thousand and let them fly ten to twenty times more hazardously than they drive their cars and you’ll stop the clock–the ownership trend will resume its near-level line of the thirties–airplanes will remain expensive–private flying will again meet itself coming around the haystack.

The trouble safety-wise is that we have never had a flying system designed for the civilian. What we have is, in the main, an adaptation of the military system which was founded during World War I. At that time you out maneuvered your opponent or else, and you flew with good coordination or you weren’t an expert marksman. Under the pressure of this circumstance ability to maneuver and precision in doing it became the criterion by which a “good” pilot was judged. And from this was born one of the Great Fallacies of aviation: it was gradually assumed that this man would also be a safe pilot, i.e., that if he were “good” in the sense indicated it therefore followed that he would be a safe pilot also.

The idea perpetuated itself, both officially and unofficially, because every pilot figures that the way he learned is the best and he doesn’t want flight training to go off in any other direction.

The CAA [forerunner to the FAA] was originally staffed with pilots and ex-pilots of World War I, so in their minds a really good pilot could only be one who could throw one around rather well. Safety thinking went little beyond the fact that most fatalities involved spin-ins, therefore there should be a lot of spin practice. Otherwise, the student should spend his precious early hours in the air in making S-turns across a road, in making eights around pylons, in making pylon eights (for many years he was supposed to believe that pivotal altitude varied with degrees of bank), in learning to judge his approach glide at a constant airspeed, and again in spin practice, this time, two turns, even.

The question we must ask ourselves now and from here on is whether this sort of training gives the most that can be given to the man who simply wants to fly for pleasure or because it is a good way to travel. His only interest in technique or need on that score is in a technique that will mean he flies safely.

At the risk of being repetitious, the point is not that the military approach to primary training is not good. The distinction sought is that it is special purpose training. In that category you are teaching a man to fight and you haven’t long to do it in. He must learn, and learn quickly, how to operate the airplane in a precise, military manner, so that a few months later he can fly almost automatically, with his main concentration on the fighting. If you taught him less of that and more of safety in the time allotted you could reach the point that he would suffer from knowing too much about how to handle the airplane safely and too little about to how to fight with it.

But for the private pilot the situation is different–he doesn’t need a high pressure system that will carry him to a certain stage of perfection in maneuvering ability in a given time. He needs only a set of safe flying habits and reactions which will enable him to avoid one of these nose-first landings. Whether, in time, he becomes a smooth, a good, a hot pilot is beside the point–he may never become that and still fly right on through the years. And presumably, that is the main thing in which he is interested.

Having made a fetish of technique and operated so long on the false assumption that enough of it also means safe flying, we have failed completely to realize that maybe even more important than a pilot’s ability to run the practice scale nicely is his ability to correct for a bad performance.

How little of that sort of training he starts his flying career with!

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