Striving for Too Much, Too Soon - Fantasy Flight Training

Early in the previous decade, the FAA began heavily promoting a flight training concept known as scenario-based training (SBT). SBT was billed as a highly structured script of real-world experiences to address aviation training objectives in an operational environment. Hailed as a new and innovative component of the FAA’s Industry Training Standards (FITS), it turns out that the use of SBT in flight training is neither new nor innovative. It has an aviation provenance dating back decades.

The FAA was teaching instructors to use a practical version of SBT as far back as 1969 in their original Flight Instructor Handbook. They did so under the rubric of contrived experience. A contrived experience creates a simulated scene, which is the Latin root of the word scenario. These scenes might include a simulated engine failure, stumbling into an unexpected stall, or even simulated flight control failure. Contrived experience helps instructors reinforce fundamental flight skills. Unfortunately, today’s version of SBT no longer focuses on fundamental skills. It now emphasizes advanced decision-making skills while unwittingly diminishing the primary purpose of flight training, which is to teach some to fly. Welcome to the wonderful world of Fantasy Flight Training.

In a 2007 paper by Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), the institution described how it used SBT in its FITS curriculum. The paper indicated that “good flight instructors have always incorporated real-world situations into their flight training.” According to MTSU, one way instructors do this is by asking their students “what if” questions (an excellent technique, too).

For instance, during a flight, an instructor might ask her student what he’d do if the weather prevented a landing at the desired destination. The student might wisely suggest diverting to another airport, followed by an actual diversion. According to MTSU, a scenario presented in flight is called an inside-the-flight (ITF) scenario.

MTSU suggests that ITF scenarios are different from the type that many in our industry now promote. Apparently, we no longer think that ITF scenarios (i.e., experiences contrived by the instructor in flight) are perceived by the student as having real-world consequences since they don’t affect student’s deeply enough, such as on an emotional level. In the example above, the student’s decision to change destinations wasn’t properly influenced by a deeply compelling reason to reach his original destination.

The MTSU authors suggest that a more emotionally engaging and realistic scenario is one where the student was given a compelling reason to reach the original destination before departure. This is called an outside-the-flight (OTF) scenario.

One example of an OTF scenario is where the student is told before departure that he’s delivering a human transplant organ to a donor at the destination airport. Apparently, pretending something to be true before departure (an OTF scenario) is more compelling than pretending it to be true during flight (an ITF scenario). While I’m a big fan of experimenting to find more effective ways to teach, I think this example shows how we’ve lost sight of the purpose of primary flight training.

Teaching a student pilot how to divert in flight isn’t primarily about teaching him or her to cope with the consequences of a decision. It’s about teaching the “plotter and chart” mechanics necessary to land at another airport. Our modern version of SBT asks students to think beyond their level of experience when they should be thinking about the experience itself. After all, how can a student consider the emotional difficulty of making a decision to deviate when he hasn’t acquired the necessary skills to deviate in the first place?

For primary students, the cockpit should be a place to learn how to fly using practical ITF scenarios and contrived experience. This keeps the focus on teaching fundamental flight skills. Teaching advanced decision-making and critical thinking skills should be taught to student pilots when and where appropriate. No argument here. The vast majority of these skills, however, are best taught in the classroom, not in the cockpit. Live lectures, videos, audios, and/or books are all appropriate means to convey this knowledge. Using fantasy-based OTF scenarios to teach advanced decision making at the expense of emphasizing fundamental flight skills isn’t an effective way to teach anyone how to fly.

Let’s remember what history says about our noble endeavors to deemphasize the basics in hopes of accelerating a student’s development. The Whole Language vs. Phonics reading debacle is a good example. At one time, educators tried to accelerate reading development in young people by forgoing sounding out phonemes, the basic parts of a word (phonics). Instead, they had them decode whole words and phrases (whole language) as they were encountered in the meaningful context of a text. While the intentions were noble, millions of young people failed to learn how to read properly. We can’t expect students to learn efficiently if we fail to emphasize the basic skills first.

The FAA understood this idea clearly in 1969 with its concept of contrived experience and ITF scenarios. At that time, our ability to “teach” didn’t exceed our “grasp.” Today, we might be striving for too much, too soon in our desire to change a student’s behavior.

By Rod Machado | | CFI Resource Center, Learning to Fly | 1 comment
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  • Karen Arendt - January 07, 2016

    Well said. The venerable Building block approach to learning uses fundamental skill building as the underpinnings for everything else. If the fundamental technical skills are weak the outcome will always be less than stellar.

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