Budd Davisson, Flight Training, May 2000

A Check List for Learning

Flying is one of those skills you only learn once. Hopefully, you learn it right the first time, because to undo bad habits later is three times as hard as learning good habits the first time. In some cases, once the skill is learned, no amount of instruction can undo bad habits. Unfortunately, not everyone learns right that first time around, for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't have to include you. In fact, we've put together a check list of what to watch for, while still a student. You can use it as a guide to make sure you're learning what you ought to be learning the way you ought to be learning it.

The list is made of both subjective and qualitative stuff that won't be found on the PPL Test Guide. An examiner won't base any of his pass/fail decisions on many of these factors. These are the factors which, after over 30 years of instructing already-licensed pilots in a wide variety of strictly stick-and-rudder skills (aerobatics, tailwheel and type check-outs), I've found lacking in the majority of pilots. All though some of these factors actually are skills, most of intangible, qualitative judgments of those skills. These qualities combine with certain attitudes to make a student a good pilot, rather than simply an average one.


None of us is as good as we could be, but many pilots exhibit the same weaknesses in the same areas.

Coordination-Centering the Ball

A huge (as in 90% or better) preponderance of pilots don't coordinate while flying, meaning, they don't use the rudder when using ailerons and, if they do, they do it poorly. Most of this is because they don't fully understand adverse yaw and the role the rudder plays in it. At the same time, they don't understand torque, P-factor, slip stream effect and all the other rudder-related requirements of flight. They might be able to parrot the words, but don't see how it works when actually in the airplane.

More important, they don't understand how important keeping the ball centered (keeping the airplane coordinated) is to not only airplane efficiency but, in some situations, to overall safety. Among other things, an airplane with the ball centered is an airplane that's not yawing and an airplane that's not yawing is an airplane that's not likely to spin.

Awareness of the Senses

You can fly an airplane by the numbers, pushing and pulling at the appropriate time, which will very definitely get you into the air and where you are going. Or you can become a "real" pilot and develop a feel for the airplane which makes you part of it. Those who seem one with the airplane do so primarily because their senses are connected to it. They are feeling and hearing it, as well as seeing it.

One of the most under-rated pieces of hardware in the cockpit ("software" probably describes it better) is your butt. Being aware of pressures moving your butt sideways is the best way to tell whether the airplane is coordinated or not. But don't forget the rest of your body. A general sense of your body moving one way or the other is an indication things aren't coordinated.

Your hearing is another piece of information-gathering equipment. An airplane changes sound, when it changes speed. Part of it is propeller noise, part slip stream, but the subtle noises are talking to you. If you can become aware of those sounds, you won't have to look at the airspeed to know things are changing on approach. Just listen. You'll be surprised what you've been missing.

Attitude/Airspeed Control

Not enough emphasis is being placed on the relationship between the aircraft's attitude and its airspeed. The airspeed indicator is nothing more than an instrument that confirms and quantifies what the nose did a significant number of seconds earlier. If an awareness of what the nose is doing is hammered into you early on, plus you're keeping the ball centered, the chances of you getting into a stall-spin accident are next to zero. On top of that, you'll be a much smoother, more accurate pilot.

Aerodynamic Understanding

A depressing number of pilots have only the vaguest understanding about what affects an airplane's aerodynamics and how that effects the airplane in different situations. Most can mumble something about "...yeah, well the wind goes faster over the top and..." It's not necessary you be able to aggressively argue the difference between Bernoulli's concepts and the down-wash school of thought and circulation-theory doesn't even have to be mentioned. However, understanding some of the basic precepts, like camber, for instance, and how that relates to wing and control surfaces helps in building a well rounded understanding of what the airplane is doing and is likely to do. Angle of Attack (AOA) is another basic on which so much is based and should be understood.

Yes, you can fly forever and not know a single thing about how the wings and control surfaces work, but you'll be a better, safer pilot, if you do have an intuitive understanding of what's going on. Among other things, that kind of understanding will have you pushing, to decrease AOA, when the crap is hitting the fan, rather than impulsively yanking simply because you want to get away from the ground. Aerodynamic understanding will help you understand energy conservation and the trade-offs in those situations where that kind of understanding will save your bacon.

Mechanical Understanding

It seems society, in general, is drifting away from understanding the mechanisms they are operating, aviation included. This is probably because of the computerization of everything from cars to coffee makers. However, an airplane is an incredibly simple, easily understood mechanism. Even the engine is easy to understand because it bears a frightening resemblance to the motor out of a mid-60's VW Bug. A pilot who just kicks the tires and lights the fires, giving no thought to what his input does once in the cockpit, is a pilot who is helpless if something were to go wrong. It's unnecessary to know how to fix or design minute parts within the airframe. However, knowing how the control system works, how the fuel system is plumbed, understanding why the engine does what it does and how brakes work, for instance, is all good stuff. It'll put you in better control of the contraption which is keeping you in the air.

Approximate Versus Specific

There is a pervasive thought pattern among many that "good enough" actually is good enough, when it's not. These pilots fly in an approximate manner. Their approach speed wanders five mph either side of where it's supposed to be. The pattern altitude is plus or minus 50 feet. They make up for a wandering compass heading with a series of slow angular trips back and forth across their intended course line. An airplane rewards you for being precise. Or at the very least, for an attempt at being precise. No one is dead-nuts on every time. No one! But, if you don't have it in your mind that 85 mph is the only speed you accept on final, for instance, than rather than being a couple of miles/knots either side of that, the needle will wander all over. This same thought pattern applies to every thing you do in the airplane from putting it right on centerline to hitting your check points right in the middle and on time.


The small area bounded by the traffic pattern actually takes every single piloting skill and bundles it into the act, and art, of takeoffs and landings.

Land Slow and On the Numbers

Somewhere along the line, the basic goal of landing an airplane has become blurred for many pilots. The goal, is to land as slowly as practical, in the first quarter of the runway, not the last half after floating thousands of feet with too much speed. The final judgment of how well you've learned to fly is clearly demonstrated right there, in the last few feet before you touch down. Are you on speed, near the numbers and in a touch down attitude that will gently put the airplane on its main gear? Anything else is unacceptable. Landing an airplane should be a pleasing reunion of machine with the Earth, not a desperate attempt to return to the burrow.

Bomber Patterns in Little Airplanes

Flying any further away from the airport than is absolutely necessary is a waste of energy, is inconsiderate to the pilots behind you and puts you in a position where you can't make the airport, should the engine quit, for entirely too long. All patterns should as tight as practical.

Minimize Power Usage

There are a lot of arguments for and against power off landings. However, ignoring the controversy, it can't the argued that engines have been known to quit. They don't quit often, but how often to they have to quit to make it necessary to protect yourself against the possibility. One failure is usually enough. For that reason, at the very least, you should do enough power-off landings that you develop a set of references as to what the airplane does and where it goes when the engine is at idle. If you don't have those references and you loose an engine enroute, you're just going to be a passenger because you won't have the slightest idea how far the airplane will go or how to position or scale a power-off emergency approach. It's not necessary you fly every approach power-off (although many of us do), but, at the very least, try to minimize your dependence on the throttle. It's only good technique.


The old fashioned forward slip is one of the handiest, yet most seldom used, skills a pilot can learn. Knowing how to slip an airplane well gives you another little trick that lets you fine-tune the approach right down to a gnat's whisker. The slip gives you total control over the vertical rate of descent and is especially handy for getting rid of a little unwanted altitude at the last minute. It can also be used in an emergency approach to drop the airplane in over the trees to put you in that awfully short, but thankfully available, piece of ground that was magically there when the engine quit.

Look for Traffic--See and Be Seen

It seems to come as a surprise to some pilots that the windshield can be used for something other than looking straight ahead. Get your head out of the cockpit in the pattern and remember you're probably not up there alone. Get your eyes out there walking around every leg of the pattern. Then scan areas outside of the traditional pattern. Is some idiot making a right hand turn in a left hand pattern? Is there another idiot way out there low, making a straight in? Look around, there are lots of idiots out there and they are all trying to complicate your life.

Situational Awareness

Where am I? If I don't do anything to change the situation, where is my airplane going to go? What is my relationship to the runway and what is the line I want to fly to land? Where is everyone else in the pattern? How is the wind effecting my ground track? Do I look high or low? These and about a billion other questions should be constantly ricocheting around inside your brain during approach. They describe and define the situation around you and it is absolutely necessary that you be aware of all the factors around you and how you are going to dovetail with them. Far too many pilots simply react to things going out of whack, during the approach, rather than planning and executing that plan.

Centerline the Runway

There's a reason a runway has a stripe painted down the middle. It's there to tell you where the middle is and that's where you should be putting the airplane. It's another of those approximate versus specific things. You may not put it exactly in the middle often, but, if you don't try, you won't even come close.


Once a pilot gets out of the pattern, it's important he or she not only know where they are going but they need to what's actually effecting the airplane.

Understand Stalls

It's not enough to periodically slow the airplane enough to get a buffet and then recover. Yes, recognition is 95% of prevention, but it also helps to spend a fair amount of time pulling the airplane deep into the stall and holding it there while keeping the wings level. This gives you a better feeling of how the airplane feels when the wings lose, and then regain, lift. It's like learning to feel how tire traction changes when driving on ice.

Cross controlled stalls and spins

There's a lot to be learned from getting training in cross controlled stalls and spin entries. It's important to see that an airplane won't spin unless it's slow and yawed. It's even more important to see that being cross controlled in the base-to-final turn will start a spin at a nose attitude which is much lower than most would imagine. If you aren't going to get training in spins, at the very least, get training that shows how insidious cross-controlled stalls can be by putting them into a real-life type of scenario.

Dead Reckoning/pilotage

A compass doesn't need batteries. It doesn't need an electrical system. And the wind isn't something that's so constant you can depend upon it. All the forgoing says is that it's a good idea to really know how to get from A to B with nothing but a compass and a map. Everything mechanical or electrical has failure modes engineered in. A compass, however, is about as fool proof as they come. Assuming you know how to use it, that is. Also, by keeping dead reckoning and pilotage in the back of your mind while GPS'ing it across country, you have a general situational awareness of what is going on around you. So, should the batteries die or the electrical system go away, you'll at least know where you are and how to get where you're going.

Understand weather

It's important to understand what makes weather tick. Get the cold front, warm front thing down pat and learn how to read the clouds for a clue as to what they are likely to do. After a while, you'll be able to look at a cloud situation and immediately assign it an index that says it's something to be feared, it's simply a nuisance, or nothing to worry about at all.

The foregoing is not an all-inclusive list, but it gives you a good idea of what kinds of things to look for while you're learning to fly. If you feel as if your instructor is breezing past some of these points, tell him so and slow him down. You're only going to go through this process once and your life may depend on doing it right.