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Getting the most out of flight training

Learning to fly – the “minimum” standard?

Two of the most common questions asked by people enquiring about learning to fly are “How much will it cost? and “How long will it take?” My answer: “How long is a piece of string?” Believe it or not, the real answer relies not so much on the flying school, but the student themselves!

Learning to fly is a complex task. It takes a 2-dimensional, ground-dwelling, human being and transforms them into a 3-dimensional aviator. This task takes time, dedication, and good instruction to achieve correctly and SAFELY.

Flight training is competency-based. It has to be, for everyone’s safety -the pilots, the passengers, and the people on the ground! It is not safe to merely “tick off” the syllabus items and issue a licence.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) sets a minimum number of flight training hours to qualify for the issue of a licence. For the Recreational Pilot Licence (RPL), this is:

AAA PPL Navigation student

  • 25 hours of flight training, including 20 hours instruction and 5 hours solo consolidation flying,
  • Pass an Aeronautical Knowledge Test, and
  • Pass a flight test.



Compare this to learning to drive a modern car; an arguably as, if not more complicated piece of equipment. The minimum requirements for a learner driver to get their licence in NSW is currently:

  • Pass a Driver Knowledge Test,
  • Hold a learner licence for at least 12 months,
  • Have at least 120 hours of supervised driving, including 20 hours at night,
  • Pass a Hazard Perception Test, and
  • Pass a Driving Test.

…all before your “first solo” in a car!

There are many safety features on modern cars compared with a light aircraft. Airbags, anti-skid brakes, crumple zones, side-impact protection, electronic stability control, blind-spot monitoring, lane deviation monitoring, emergency braking assist, traction control… the list is almost endless. These features protect the occupants and other road users.

Light aircraft, apart from some fairly up-market and expensive types not often used by flying schools, have NONE of the safety features we have come to expect in a car. Of course, if there is a critical system failure in a car, the occupants can just get out and walk…!

Other than the extraordinary reliability of aircraft and their components – a highly regulated and safety-critical function for the most part managed by CASA-approved workshops – the final arbiter of flight safety is the skill, knowledge, and the decisions of the pilot-in-command. These therefore need training to a safe, highly competent standard.

Solo flight training in the Sydney training area
AAA student on a training area solo flight

This begs some questions of the minimum hours set by the Regulator. These stem from the Empire Air Training Scheme established in 1940 which “churned out” 37,000 Australian airmen in five years through RAAF Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS). EFTS training was extremely condensed and focused on the basics – take-off, landing, manoeuvring (including basic aerobatics and spinning), instrument flying and engine-out procedures. The Service Flying Training Schools would then take successful candidates and brush up the new pilots’ skills to combat readiness.

The minimum hours at an EFTS were 50 hours of training – 25 of which were solo consolidation. However, with the removal of basic aerobatics and spinning from civilian syllabuses, the “standard” flight school syllabus has been whittled down to the 20 dual & 5 solo hours we have now. An EXTREMELY condensed syllabus indeed!

Be realistic in your expectations

Students must have realistic expectations of their performance. Or, more rightly, a flying school almost has a moral duty to produce a syllabus which is realistic in its approach to the AVERAGE student, not just those who show exceptional talent.

Some individuals have a natural pre-disposition for learning the art of flight. They may be able to reach the required competency standards in the minimum hours or time allotted.

I was not one of them.

Nor are most of my colleagues who have professional piloting careers.

Nor are the great majority of our students and graduates.

It takes a gifted individual to achieve the required competencies in the minimum time. Most of these rare and talented indivudals end up in military aviation;  after an arduous vetting process and intensive training designed to produce a finely tuned weapon to be used with absolute precision.

It is not impossible to LEARN to fly with such precision, it just takes us mere mortals longer than the minimum prescribed time!

Our RPL course teaches you WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW to be completely comfortable in the 3-dimensional airborne environment. Not only do we teach you the basic mechanics of flight; to take off, manoeuvre and land, and to cope with emergency scenarios, we teach you how to REALLY FLY!

Spin Endorsement flight training over Sydney
Spin recovery training

Basic aerobatics, spinning, and Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) are an integral part of our Recreational Pilot Licence course. On graduating, you will know exactly what you can ask your aircraft to do, for he who demands everything that his aircraft can give him is a pilot; he who demands one iota more is a fool.” (Anon.)

This means that our RPL course is longer, and subsequently more expensive than most. The benefits in safety, confidence and a true understanding of flight however,  far outweigh the initial outlay in cost – just ask our graduates!

There are several ways you can enhance the investment in your learning to make it more cost-effective:

“The 5 P’s” – Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

At the beginning of the RPL course, your instructor should show you the syllabus. You can do one of two things: (a) get a copy of the syllabus and pre-prepare your knowledge toward the next lesson, or (b) turn up on the day wondering what today’s lesson entails. Which method do you think is more productive in terms of gaining the required skills and knowledge in the minimum time and cost?

People learn by DOING. Learning any skill is about establishing neural links. Neural links are forged more strongly if learning is purposeful, meaningful, and FUN! Learning to loop and roll an aircraft is an exhilarating experience! Fear and doubt about aircraft manoeuvring is removed on our students’ first flight. An aircraft WILL NOT simply “fall out of the sky” because it is upside down or subjected to forces greater than 1 unit of gravity. A environment foreign to a 2-dimensional human being – but one that MUST be understood and explored to become an AVIATOR.

Consolidating DOING (skill) with UNDERSTANDING (knowledge) is essential in forging strong neural links. The logic & reasoning centers of the brain also need to understand the mechanics of what is going on to not be overwhelmed by such “fantastic” inputs from the senses – How? READ! Study the underpinning knowledge required before the lesson, after the lesson, and revisit it again later to really understand the lesson’s objectives and make learning more permanent.

Practice makes perfect – WRONG!

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT! Only PERFECT practice makes perfect! The flight instructor’s creed is “Demonstrate – Direct – Monitor.” Ab-initio flight instruction in particular demands precision demonstration. However, precision only comes with practice and discipline. For example, a virtuoso pianist spends years refining their skills and can often see a note about to be played incorrectly well before the student pianist knows it’s about to happen. An experienced flight instructor can do the same, ultimately saving you time and money.

AAA Robin 2160i flight training aircraft on take-off
AAA R2160i take-off and landing practice

Let’s take the driving corollary again – as a parent, would you be comfortable allowing your son or daughter to learn to drive with a recently-licensed “P-plater”, having 200 hours total driving experience, with the last 50 hours alternating between learning how to teach someone to drive and practicing on another P-plater? Of course you wouldn’t, and neither does NSW RMS allow it! Let me tell you though, this is the product that a number of flying schools are selling when it comes to initial flying training!

Quality is important in flight training. It is costly to correct mistakes later on. It is also potentially disastrous to leave latent failures in instructional technique, which may surface at a later, more critical moment.

Time is of the essence – use it wisely!

REPETITION and RECENCY are key in the early stages of learning, and when trying to maintain or fine-tune a skill. The average flying lesson lasts for an hour from start-up to shut down. Take out 15 minutes for start-up, taxi, checks, take-off and climb out. Take out another 10 minutes for arrival procedures, taxi-in and shut down. That leaves 35 minutes in each hour for the instructor to demonstrate and direct you through the learning of new skills. Do your homework. Learn aircraft checklists and procedures. Spend time at home becoming familiar with the processes to make better use of valuable lesson time.

New skills are “perishable.” Some time at the beginning of each lesson must be dedicated to consolidating and monitoring the application of previously learned skills, and performing any remedial work prior to loading the next skill set on top of the good foundations. Consolidation MUST occur for effective learning. Rushing through the initial training process without proper consolidation results in poor uptake and retention of skill.

It is impossible to take in everything on the first session when learning any new skill or skill subset. This generally necessitates a remedial lesson or at least part thereof. This adds to the total time spent learning and thus the ultimate cost of the licence.

With the advent of small, lightweight, portable HD cameras (GoPro™ or similar), it is now possible to record a flying lesson in its entirety for you to review post-flight.

This technology is invaluable in many ways:

  • Instructor demonstrations can be replayed for FREE!
  • You have time to diagnose errors on the ground where you may not be able to in-flight.
  • Due to the sheer number of inputs your brain is processing, some things will go unnoticed – the camera doesn’t lie!
  • Sometimes it takes several re-plays of a critical event to see WHY the event occurred – a great learning tool to avoid unnecessary or incorrect repetition.

These cameras cost roughly the price of a single flying lesson. Like investing in a good headset to protect your hearing, why would you not invest in a tool to reduce the time and cost of your training by more than the initial outlay?!

Cameras can help provide the visual stimuli for neural links to form, but remember, humans learn by DOING! It is no good listening to the same piece of music over and over in the hope that your fingers will hit the right notes in practice! Once you have the “picture” in your head, connect the neural links to your hands and feet with VISUALISATION.

Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room. Watch the demonstration of the skill you are about to visualise. Once you have the picture in your head, close your eyes and imagine yourself in the moment. Take a deep breath in, and then out, and try to replay that picture in real time in your mind’s eye, whilst moving your hands and feet on imaginary controls. The more detailed the picture in your mind, the stronger the neural link. Your brain will adapt more readily to sensory inputs if it fine-tunes existing links.

AAA Pitts Special Vertical
The vertical attitude in a Pitts Special

Competition aerobatic and display pilots use visualization to a high degree prior to their performances. There’s not a lot of time to think when moving at speeds of up to 400 km/hr, rolling at 400 deg /sec, under  +/- 10 G’s,100m off the ground! The aircraft attitudes and control inputs must be automatic. Visualization saves valuable time and money in burning AVGAS!

Enjoy the journey!

Above all, remember: learning to fly is a JOURNEY. It changes you as a human being. Once you are at one with the airborne environment, it permeates your very soul. To command your aircraft at will around the sky free of the encumbrance of the ground and everything on it is something that only the true aviator understands. Some “pilots” regrettably never understand this concept – to them the operation of the aeroplane becomes the end goal.  The “aviator” transcends the equipment, to realise the beauty and freedom of controlled flight. Take ownership of your journey. Use wisely the time you have in your initial training to be the best and safest aviator you can be.

Flight training in aerobatic Robin 2160 over Sydney