In Defense of Stick and Rudder Training
It happened in the early 1990s. That was the time we saw the diminishing influence of WWII flight instructors (and their instructional progeny). Our pilots didn’t fly jets during that war. Instead, they flew airplanes that demanded exceptional stick and rudder skills. As one veteran instructor told me, you could give a P-38 pilot a P-51 manual to read, then send him to the airplane where he’d easily and safely check himself out in the machine. Pilots of that era could do these things safely because they had good stick and rudder skills. Their lives depended on it.
Without the mooring provided by stick and rudder pilots of an earlier age, general aviation’s flight training curriculums came under the influence and sway of the airline and jet community. It was no longer enough to produce a private pilot when it seemed as though you could create an airline pilot lite, the GA version of the professional pilot. But a funny thing happened on the way to the practice area—it disappeared. No, I'm not kidding.
In the last 20 years, the idea of emphasizing stick and rudder skills during a primary student’s training became passé. In its place, many prominent flight schools and academic institutions began emphasizing higher order learning strategies, such as scenario-based training—a method used extensively in the airline and jet community and originally intended for use in uber-sophisticated flight simulators. The intent was to expose student pilots to higher order training scenarios (decision making, risk assessment, situational awareness, etc.) while they were simultaneously taught how to turn, climb, descend and fly straight and level. Flight training syllabi evolved to reflect these ambitions, with emphasis on autopilot usage, GPS training, pilot workload management, to name just a few of these higher order scenarios. The FAA even published an advisory circular encouraging instructors to combine basic pre-solo flight training with cross country trips, thus eliminating the once-venerable practice area altogether. (Scenarios are perfectly fine once the "basics" of any discipline are acquired, but not before!)
Unfortunately, there’s no law of psychology—not one!—supporting the idea that pre-solo students learn the basics of flying more effectively or efficiently when they are distracted by the burden of simultaneously having to learn higher order flight skills. The concept is antithetical to the building block principle of learning. Anyone who had difficulty learning to read in the latter half of the last century knows exactly what I mean.
For years the progressive teaching movement advocated a higher order, experiential method of reading instruction known as the whole language reading method. Whole language reading teaches students to guess at the meaning of words while phonics emphasizes the building blocks of sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet. The most important difference between the two was that whole language reading is also antithetical to the building block principle of learning. The results of the whole language reading philosophy? Several generations of students never learned to read, read properly or even spell correctly. In 1995, after years of failure, California put the whole language idea in the Dumpster and adopted the building-block strategy of phonics as its primary teaching method.
Many of today’s aviation corporations, flight centers and universities now exclusively use experiential or scenario-based flight training curriculums, all with FAA sanction and approval. As one instructor put it, we’ve “front-end loaded” our flight training syllabi with learning modules that introduce advanced behavior skills during training times when the emphasis has always been on basic skill acquisition. This explains why student pilots are being taught to fly instrument approaches before they’ve even learned how to land an airplane.
Failure to focus on, much less emphasize stick and rudder skills, especially during the formative hours of a primary student’s development, often reveals itself in the same way a geologic fault does when it comes under excessive stress. Something breaks. A commuter pilot’s failure to lower the nose of his turboprop airplane during a stall is just one example of such a fault. After congress directed an aviation group to probe why some professional pilots seemingly forgot how to fly, the group recommended that airline pilots be better trained in manual flying skills, among other things.
On a local level, the fault lines appear to be opening even wider, given the FAA’s recent demand that flight instructors receive more training in the concept of angle of attack. How is it possible that a flight instructor can be deficient in such a basic stick and rudder concept? One can only guess how little the students of these instructors know about the subject of basic airmanship. Yet, many of these instructors were trained under our newer, higher order training philosophy.
If our newer higher order training strategy were as effective its proponents claim, then we should be seeing a reduction in aviation accidents. Unfortunately, the personal flying accident rate has actually increased over the past decade. That’s a sad statistic, but it does support the idea that we need to modify our training curriculums to emphasize stick and rudder skill development.
Educational psychology teaches that students learn quickly and effectively when they’re taught using building blocks of knowledge, one step at a time, but no step before its time. Returning to a flight curriculum based on stick and rudder training is how to make flying safer for everyone, while making the private pilot certificate more affordable and attainable. We should certainly teach higher order skills, but not by sacrificing fundamentals skills in the process.
Originally appeared in AOPA Pilot