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.
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.