CFI pointing to panel
4 min read

After a few events that drastically humbled me as a pilot and a person, I began to really dig into my glaring shortfalls in each of the situations. What I found was that I had some deficits in common with fellow pilots and below is the product of many, many discussions with aviators smarter than I.

CFI pointing to panel

Are you training or educating?

If you ask 100 instructors, you’ll probably get 150 different opinions on preferred teaching methods and approaches to getting perplexing points across to students. However, almost all instructors seem to have the same time-proven adages. My favorites include: “The most useless things to you when the engine quits are the runway behind you and the air above you;” “The only time you can have too much fuel is if you’re fat or on fire’” and “If you’re going to kill yourself, don’t do it in this airplane… I like the airplane.”

One that I’ve heard very seldom, however, is one that I’ve found to be true more often than any others: “You train for things you know are going to happen. You educate for the things you can’t anticipate.”

Most of us use the term “train” to mean everything we pay for in order to get a license or rating. But the reality is that the respective approaches to training and educating are very different. Getting education on crosswind landings involves getting a rote understanding of crosswind situations and a description of the techniques for dealing with them. The training portion comes from finding an airport with a good crosswind, figuring out which of the techniques to apply and then practicing as much as possible.

A situation with a much clearer distinction is a loss of electrical power at night. While we can all pull out a checklist and run through the steps, how many of us have studied the POH enough to know all the systems that are going to be impacted? Did you lose flaps? How about landing gear? Did you lose the battery or the alternator? Does it matter?

We all practice engine-out procedures at least once every couple of years. But do you include in that training items like calculating how far you can glide based on your current altitude? Does the best glide speed change with altitude or weight of the airplane? How much does it improve your distance if you pull the propeller control lever all the way back?

Because the procedure for an engine out situation is pretty much the same regardless of the situation, setting up a practice scenario is not difficult. However, when it really happens, it will take a few minutes to figure out how far you are from a suitable landing area plus some additional time to decide if your available glide distance will get you there. Looking all that up in the POH while the “air above you” continues to increase could be very important to that CFI who loves the plane you’re in.

According to the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) there are four practical learning levels: rote, understanding, application, and correlation. Most of our trained responses are rote (read a step, do a step, eat a banana). This is a very good thing when the stress of an emergency situation results in a profound lack of cognitive agility. The rote response to a situation gives you time to let your muscle memory do some time-critical steps while you think through the problem.

But as you’re thinking through the problem, your level of learning has to be toward the right side of the scale. In fact, you need to be able to at least “apply” information you’ve gained, through pure education, to the situation in which you find yourself. Your ability to recall and apply glide ratios, fuel system architectures or regulatory requirements may make the difference in your story being told the next day in a hangar or a newspaper.

While most of us are not instructors, we are all perpetual students. Continually educating ourselves on new regulations or old aircraft systems is definitely not the fun and exciting part of flying. However, applying those facts to hypothetical situations (hangar flying) reinforces that knowledge-level information and turns it into at least application-level material you can use in situations where the variables have to be determined on the spot.

Stephen Hunter
Latest posts by Stephen Hunter (see all)
12 replies
  1. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Mr. Hunter brings out some important points. He does, however, confuse training with education.
    Education teaches us knowledge about how to learn, and how to think. Training teaches us skills necessary to do a task. Knowledge gained from education can be measured with a verbal or written test. Skill has to be demonstrated by performing a task – starting an engine, landing a plane, tying a shoe. What you are talking about here is all training.

    The result can be similar, as it’s easier to separate the two fields academically than it is in practice. Mr. Hunter focuses here on being a safe pilot; I’d fly with him anytime. Afterwards, over an adult sudsy, we’d discuss education, training, airplanes, and probably women too. (But, no amount of either training or education will help us there.)

    • Stephen Hunter
      Stephen Hunter says:

      This is where I started with the comment on the “150 opinions” comment. I’ve had some outstanding instructors over the years and there are always some overlaps in how they teach/train. But it is those difference that make me wonder where the line is… There are a lot of things you have to know that you don’t realize until you REALLY have to know ’em… each instructor has a different background and they point out different “gotta knows”… I still find a distinction in preparing for the things you know are going to happen (how to land, how to take off) and learning how to deal with things that shouldn’t happen (inexplicable turbo failure, dead battery in flight, etc).
      I’m happy to discuss over that beverage and would really like to hear from where your thoughts developed. Those are always the best stories and few have resulted in me still breathing. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on education regarding women… however, I think the training aspects are more interesting… I have nothing to offer the conversation regarding education in that area.

  2. Gennaro Avolio
    Gennaro Avolio says:

    One easy way to define the difference between training and education is to ask yourself if you would prefer to enroll you daughter in a sex education class or a sex training class.

  3. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Mr. Hunter, thanks for your comments. Email me directly (can you pick off my email from this column?) and we’ll arrange some swapping of informatory and tales.
    Pilot of the Ruptured Duck

  4. Louis Sell
    Louis Sell says:

    I am sure you heard, “here is your license to learn” or some such when the examiner signed you off.
    That is the real truth, now go out and fly the system and your real education begins. Your instructor trained you in the basics and each real lesson should bring back memories of your basic training.
    There will be airplanes cutting you off when attempting landing, tower errors, marginal weather and many, many learning experiences. Sounds like life, doesn’t it ?
    Just like life, if you have learned, you will live, if not you will be just another flying statistic.
    As in life, we should be constantly be learning (makes for an opportunity for a bigger paycheck). Constant flying training is the mark of a good pilot (airlines require it).
    An instrument rating can be the best flying investment you will ever make. Now go out and fly the system ! You see, earning those ratings is of no use if you don’t use them. And for goodness sake get recurrent training.

  5. Stephen Hunter
    Stephen Hunter says:

    Oh yea!… “License to learn” is most likely the “truest of truisms”… You also have a lot of other good points in your comments. I particularly like the reference to the instrument rating. I believe my instrument rating was the most eye-opening and useful aviation endeavor I’ve ever worked through. After my first couple of flights that would not have happened without the rating, I had a different view of aviation as a whole. Faster airplanes and higher altitudes had the same impact on me, as well. And the more I learned the less I felt like I knew. Then just as I felt confident in my abilities, some smart-alec installed a really nice GPS in the airplane I was flying and it felt like I was starting all over again. I believe this goes toward your last comment on recurrent training… there are so many rules changes precipitated from technological advances that it is very easy to do dumb things in an airplane without the recurrent training from a good instructor.

    thanks again for your insight!


  6. Gordon Van Alstyne
    Gordon Van Alstyne says:

    I’d like to point out, without being insulting, two errors you made in your research. The first was talking to flight instructors about training and education. Unless a CFI has had specific education in the training or education fields, they are instructors as opposed to trainers or educators. Sure, they may train or educate, but it is the result of their instruction, not their profession. Think of it this way: instructors teach the course after trainers have built it.

    The second error is all too common and is one of my pet peeves. (I get more of these as I get older!) That is the use of the term ‘muscle memory’ to refer to a conditioned, or trained, response. Muscles, as you probably know, have no memory. It is the brain that has the memory and tells the muscles what to do. I guess that the use of this term bothers me because it is both inaccurate and has been used to belittle the good work of instructors and trainers in various fields by ignorant people.

    Gotta go and take my meds.

  7. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Gosh, Gordon, take it easy on folks. Yes, proprioceptors in our muscles and ears send messages to the brain. They help us remember how to tie our shoes, raise a fork to our mouth and not our eye, throw a ball, and fly planes.
    Maybe folks call it muscle memory because it didn’t originate somewhere else, and it helps them to separate it from other memory sources?

  8. Stephen Hunter
    Stephen Hunter says:

    First I’d like to thank you for “not being insulting”. I’d hate to see what that would look like. My first thought was to throw credentials and background your way, but in reality, experience doesn’t keep one from being “ignorant”. So I’d just like to say that I respect your opinion and appreciate you sharing your thoughts with everyone. I do want to point out, however, that it has been my experience (to use the word again) that this kind of approach to your comments makes others less interested in sharing their thoughts simply because they don’t care to be on the receiving end such posts.
    I’ve had the privilege of working with some very good CFIs who are full time college professors, prior military instructors, and some that have come out of the airline training departments and are picking up students just because they enjoy the job. I have also worked with several younger CFIs who are working to gain hours and are likely the example you would use as the “instructors” you described. I do not believe you can paint with such a broad brush when talking about the CFI community as a whole.
    As far as the term “muscle memory”, I would have to concede your point. However, given the fora in which these types of discussions are held, and the audience for which this discussion was intended, the act of communicating a thought through the term “muscle memory” was accomplished simply because it is a well understood bit of jargon that relays a concept in as few words as possible. Had this been a dissertation where precise, legally sufficient wording were required, I’m sure a great deal of the syntax would be different and no one would have read anything past the first couple of lines.
    You’re obviously an intelligent person with some lengthy background on which you’ve developed your opinions. That makes me look forward to hearing more from you in the future… possibly describing your thoughts in one of the articles that the Air Facts Journal staff has been nice enough to allow us to post to this site. I’d like to ask you to please share your background and experience with the quickly shrinking pilot population before there are so few of us left that there is no longer a need for sites like this one to exist.



  9. Gordon Van Alstyne
    Gordon Van Alstyne says:

    My apologies if I came across as strident. I don’t usually deliberately insult people although I may tell them what I think of them, for good or ill. Is that bad? (Sigh ;-)

    My third sentence of my original post contains a qualifier about CFIs that I may have made a bit stronger, but I only wanted to point out that with just completing CFI certification, and nothing else, a CFI is an instructor, but probably not a ‘trainer’ as I interpret the meaning of the word.

    I’ve known CFIs who trained, CFIs who tried different methods of instruction and I’ve known CFIs who only know one way. Members of the last group are not usually very successful in my experience.

    Many years ago, maybe 20, I gave a brief, maybe 30 to 60 minutes, train-the-trainer talk to some CFIs where I explained how different people learn differently and how different methods of instruction were therefore required. I remember a couple of the CFIs having ah-ha moments as we explored the subject.

    What makes ‘muscle memory’ such a hot button for me is, aside from the inaccuracy, is that I’ve met people who believe that muscles do have memory. I haven’t tried to educate those people.

    Oops, time for my meds!

  10. RW
    RW says:

    Gordon, does it really matter what you call it? Educator, instructor, whatever? I think what is one of the most important things in teaching/educating is being able to pass on the information to the student. AND after the lesson, the student can say, “man, that was a great experience”! PLUS, the student is ready to get back in the plane and do some more.

    I’m pretty sure I could learn a lot more from Stephen than I could from you inasmuch as you appear to know it all and talk down to people. I am pretty sure people really love to see you coming, anticipating that their toes will be stepped on pretty good!

    I truly do believe you are on meds!

Comments are closed.