The constantly-mentioned “pilot shortage” has created a cultural shift in flight training. More so than ever, companies, flight schools, and students alike want training to be completed in the shortest amount of time. There is pressure from all levels to produce qualified pilots to meet the growing demand. When they hear about the potential salaries, new students are lining up at flight schools to be funneled through programs as quickly as possible.
I am in the minority who strongly believe that students who meet the minimum requirements in a short time are not necessarily quality pilots. Many instructors, especially the young ones instructing to build hours, forget that they should be presenting a quality product at the end of a final checkride, not just a large quantity.
I argue that taking longer than technically necessary to take students through training will make for a better, safer pilot. I am not arguing that the current requirements are insufficient, but that there is a demonstrable benefit to spreading those required hours over a longer calendar period.
There are many advantages only obtainable by extending training, the three most important of which are: hangar flying, experience in varied weather conditions, and reflection. Each of these plays a significant role in the development of a student pilot even though they are not shown in the logbook.
Hangar flying, or the informal opportunity for pilots to exchange information and experiences, is wildly undervalued during training. When the weather is bad and no flights are heading up for the day, that isn’t when we should send our students home discouraged, but instead that is when we should urge them to stick around the airport to ask questions and listen.
So much knowledge flows in and out of an FBO everyday: pilots, mechanics, veterans, they all have something different to teach. A day spent hangar flying is not a day wasted. Though this time is not logged as instruction, it can be just as valuable to the education of a student as time in the air with an instructor. A quote by an anonymous aviator I often reference concurs, stating, “Every instructor, supervisor, and contemporary, whoever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment…”
This illustrates the point that every encounter with a member of the aviation community has an effect on a pilot’s development. Every time a story is shared about how a pilot faced a challenging situation, those listening store it in their memory for future reference. A large part of flight training is scenario-based, and having the stories of experienced pilots to draw from creates a more well-rounded student.
I like to use the analogy that every person in the aviation community has their own color, a color that has been molded by all their past experiences. When students show up for their first day of instruction they come as blank canvases. As I train them, my color covers their entire canvas, but that creates an incomplete picture. When other people in aviation interact with my students, the colors of their experiences and perspectives add new details to the students’ canvases. Every pilot or person that comes into the flight school is a potential new color for these students to add. Eventually, through all of these interactions, my students create their own color; just as unique as who they are as a pilot.
Another advantage to spreading out flight training is the opportunity to fly in a variety of weather patterns. In many parts of the country, flying in the winter is a completely different experience than flying in the summer. If a student were to cram all of their training between June and August, they would be at a significant disadvantage when attempting to fly in more temperamental winter weather.
Flying during the winter months can bring a variety of challenges such as icing, strong winds, and low ceilings. Spring and summer can bring different challenges, difficult to maneuver in their own way. Among many others, those can include convective activity, strong crosswinds, and increased density altitude. It could be catastrophic to encounter one of these for the first time without an instructor, which is possible if the student has only trained during the opposite season. The problem with limited seasonal experience is twofold: one, they have not had to make as many tough go/no-go decisions based on weather, and two, if they were trying to fly in weather they had never trained in, they may not possess the basic skills required.
For example, a student who conducted all of their instrument training during the summer may have a difficult time assessing a flight in IMC with ice forecasted near the MEA. The danger of icing was talked about in their training, but without having to apply that knowledge regularly, they may find it difficult to weigh all the options correctly. On the other hand, if a student was never able to practice landings on hot summer days with strong crosswinds, they will lack that skill to do so safely when the time comes. Having seen a variety of flight conditions will make them a better, safer pilot.
The third and final piece of the necessary beyond-book learning is reflection. Time spent reflecting on the previous flights is equally as valuable as the time spent in the airplane during those lessons. Again, while this time is not logged, it is a crucial tool to add meaning and is invaluable to every student’s development. I remember in my own training how important it was for me to analyze each flight after the adrenaline of the landing had worn off.
During my flight training, I worked on a small grass seed research farm. My work there taught me many things I could apply elsewhere, but the most important thing it gave me was time – hundreds of hours to reflect on my flights. At times I would be running a seed cleaning machine, but really I was 3,000 ft. AGL, wondering why I was losing altitude during my steep turns.
Other days I was hoeing an endless amount of weeds but actually experiencing an engine failure and reciting my checklist items. Without that time spent reflecting, I would not be the pilot I am today. Reflection can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. That is to say students can set aside specific time for it or they can have experiences like mine, making connections while living other parts of their lives. A student who takes 12 months instead of six to complete their training will have twice the amount of time to reflect and make these ever-important connections.
Students often don’t appreciate how critical this step is to their education. The responsibility falls upon the instructor to ensure there is adequate time between lessons to allow for this process. Even if students are working under time constraints, it should be a conscious choice to encourage and allow time for students to make those connections outside of the airplane. Reflection allows for meaning to enter the lessons. This meaning connects past, present, and future experiences and forms better pilots.
When a pilot is rushed, whether in the air or during a preflight, there is a higher chance they will do something incorrectly or not at all. To prevent that, it is good practice to slow down and be thorough. So why doesn’t that same philosophy apply in flight training?
Supplementing flight instruction with extra time to learn and process outside of the lesson plans will create a more developed and experienced pilot. It should be the goal of every school and instructor to produce the most knowledgeable, well-rounded pilots possible. Taking a little extra time during the training phase of a pilot’s career should be viewed as time well spent. So next time you hear of a student wanting to finish as fast as possible, remind them of what they could be missing.