Category Archives: CFI Chatter

From Van Halen to Steep Turns: The Learning Curve

Eddie Van Halen ca. 1977 via Wikipedia

by Chris Findley, CFI, CFII

Pilots are perfectionists –the good ones anyway.  They’re the ones you want to fly with.  I mean really, do YOU want to fly with a lacsadasical, whimsical, “don’t give rip” pilot?  Neither do I.

Pilots are hard on themselves –the good ones anyway.  They want to do things right and they want to improve.  They want to grow in their skills and knowledge.

But when you are a student pilot, there is a tendency toward perfection that outstrips your skills.  That is, you may see your instructor do steep turns or make a crosswind landing and you recognize the skill.  You recognize that the maneuver was done well.  What you often forget is that you’re not there yet!  Instructors have typically been flying for a while and have practiced and observed these maneuvers for hundreds or even thousands of flight hours.  Often students despair that in their 3rd or 4th hour they still haven’t mastered a skill.  What they don’t realize is that flying skills take time to develop.

I think this taps into our modern impatience with learning.  We are so used to things moving very quickly and at a fast pace, that we find processes difficult.  We want to know now what someone else has spent a lifetime learning.  We pick up the guitar and if we aren’t playing like Eddie Van Halen in a few weeks, we give up. (If you don’t know who Van Halen is, stop reading, slap yourself, and research him in google)  Likewise, if we decide to write and within a month or so if we haven’t created the next literary sensation we become depressed.

Flying is much like art.  There is a feel, a groove to it, that you have to develop.  There is a learning curve that develops over time.  So if you are a student and not moving as fast as you think you should be, relax.  The key is sticking with it.  The learning occurs in the mistakes, in the flubs, and in the bounces, slips, and stalls of flight training.  Just engage the process.  Push yourself for sure, but allow the learning to unfold.  Develop the skills and the excellence will come –as you stick with it.

Besides, when Eddie Van Halen first started playing guitar, even HE didn’t sound like Eddie Van Halen!


The PreFlight

Teaching students about making a thorough preflight check is easy early in training.  On the whole, new students are very conscientious and methodical, sometimes overly so.  As they become more confident and capable, things –including the preflight– begin to roll a bit more smoothly.

It is the student later in training, and after receiving their certificate that sometimes is tempted to cut corners.  The preflight begins to be done as if it were a race and the attention to detail begins to wane.  For probably most of these pilots their oversight will have no noticable consequence.  But here’s the question:  Why rush it?  Is it really worth the risk?

I teach a preflight that is based on the old 70’s era Cessna manuals that was systematic and methodical.  You start at the baggage door on the left side and work your way around the aircraft the same way, every time.  There’s something to be said for routine, especially when conducting a preflight check.

Even (or especially) if the plane is regularly flown, take time to check it over.  You don’t know what happened on its last flight.  Did they, as I discovered on one plane I used to fly, drag the tail down the runway while in the flare?  Did that damage anything?  Did they lock the brakes and damage the tires?  Did they fuel it properly or fail to report something faulty?

It’s your posterior (and that of your family, students etc.)  you are putting in the plane.  Check it.

First Things First

When you first begin flying you may feel overwhelmed with the amount of information you encounter.  It seems like there is so much to learn and much of it sounds like a foreign language!  You’ll hear your instructor and other pilots talk about things like: Class B, ATC, VSI, Static Port, Asymmetrical Thrust, Nimbus, ATIS, and the Pattern.   In the air the radio will crackle with odd sounding phrases that seem only vaguely related to English.  A lot of students feel overwhelmed early on.  That’s why we must keep “First things first.”

The knowledge required for the Private Pilot Certificate is extensive.  But it is something you learn over the course of your training and not all at once.  No one expects that by your second lesson that you have mastered the material in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK).  Nor will you be expected to perfectly execute turns around a point or fly a flawless pattern.  For now, you need to simply begin stretching your wings and you (and your instructor) needs to give you time and space to learn. Here are a few suggestions:

On the Ground: Begin reading today!  It is important to build your knowledge base.  Yes, there is a lot of studying to do.  Most syllabi begin by having you learn about aerodynamics, systems, and the flying environment.  Check out the online PHAK, chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 7.   Again, you don’t have to have this done by your 2nd or 3rd flight, but it will greatly help your training process when you take the time and effort to read all you can while on the ground.

In the Air: You’ll likely begin with the 4 fundamentals (Straight & Level, Turns, Climbs, and Descents) and then move into combinations of these.  Soon you’ll be doing slow-flight, steep turns, and stalls as well as being introduced to ground-reference maneuvers.  These are the building blocks of your flying.  You’ll spend a lot of time in the practice area doing these drills and learning emergency procedures.  You may get a little tired of the repetition, but I find that students generally enjoy getting better at these maneuvers (they see their progress).  And of course we begin learning to land also!

I think the important thing is to not let yourself get overwhelmed early on.  Sure, there is a lot of material, but attack the material at a steady pace and not all at once.  In flying, each learning event builds on the next so as you master one thing, the next thing comes naturally.  Focus simply on the learning and flying your instructor is showing you.  You’ll be surprised how much you learn and how fast you learn it.  Most importantly –have fun and fly safe!


MyFlightCoach Podcast | Episode 1

The first regular podcast of myFlightCoach is here!

I’m going to offer a variety of news, topics, advice, interviews ranging from flight training, to marketing, to featuring new and innovative businesses.  I welcome your ideas and input.  Please send questions also that I can answer on the air!

Email me at

Listen to the podcast:

Direct Download


Pic of me on my first flight…ever. I think I was 9 or 10.

AOPA Student Pilot Summit and News

National Association of Flight Instructors

Kershner’s Student Pilot’s Flight Manual

Be Ready for Your Bienniel Flight Review

Chris’ Book, You Can be a Pilot

Chris’ Email:

The Pilot’s 6th Sense

by Chris Findley, CFI, CFII

Where do we draw the line between backing down from a challenge and simply exercising prudent judgment?  How do we know if we are simply “chickening out” or when we’re correctly avoiding something hazardous.

The truth is in many cases we don’t.

The go/no go decision is sometimes easy.  Clear day, calm winds and a well-maintained airplane?  Count me in!

Weather below minimums with a 40 knot crosswind with thunderstorms nearby?  You’ll find me at Barnes and Noble reading and drinking a kick-butt strong cup of coffee. I’ll fly another day thank you very much.

But you and I know that its the in-between days that make decision-making difficult.  It’s the marginal days where the numbers are just good enough, barely.  There’s a student or passenger looking expectantly at you and waiting for your decision.  You know you could go.  But should you go?  Is this just a challenge? Or is this a gremlin daring you to fly and get yourself in over your head?

We need to develop our 6th sense.  Call it your gut.  Call it intuition.  Call it ADM.  Call it experience. Whatever you want to call it, it can save your ass.

Let’s be honest, pilots.  You and I know that we learn from our mistakes.  I learned my best lessons not when things go right and I make every decision perfectly, but when do a major screw up and then fix it.

I remember a flight when I was in college in a Piper Archer.  I was so concerned with trying to sneak back home at night under a solid overcast layer that I failed to swtich fuel tanks.  I kept wondering why the right wing was so heavy!  It was only upon landing and asking for fuel that I discovered my mistake.  A simple mistake, but one that I know has caused others to lose their lives. Then there was that time when “get-there-itus” brought me way too close to a thunderstorm.

How do we develop this 6th sense in ourselves and (if we’re a CFI) in our students?

1.) Develop personal minimums and stick with them. See my article here for more info on that.  Having personal minimums and sticking with them will help take much of the grey area out of your decisions. Decide ahead of time, when there is no pressure to fly, what you are comfortable and capable of handling.  As you grow in experience you can always reevaluate and adjust.  Just don’t do it IN the situation!

2.) Stay proficient! Often pilots get themselves in trouble by thinking that just because you’re legal, then your ready to fly.  Keep your chops proficient.  Practice, read, study.

3.) Take the counsel of others. Talk to your instructor or a pilot-friend with more experience than you and present them with your situation and see what they say.  If you need to practice, or if you think it’s on the edge of your skills, then take them with you.

When you’re faced with a grey-ish decision and you’re wondering if you are being chicken, always review your personal minimums, your proficiency and talk with someone you trust.  There will be days when you could have gone, but didn’t.  It’s OK.  If you are really uneasy and feel like this flight is going to be too much for you then keep your posterior out of the plane.

Undoubtedly you’ll also have a few flights in your logbook that you will later label, “Shouldn’t have done that one…”

In any event, you will learn to listen to your 6th sense.

A thru G for Diversions

I’m not sure where this originated, but this is a helpful reference for handling diversions.  When it becomes obvious that you are going to have to divert, remember your alphabet, particularly A thru G:

A – Airport— Where do we need to go?

B – Best guess on your heading (refine it in a minute)

C – Clock –Start your time

D – Distance –How far is it?

E – ETA and groundspeed –When will I arrive, what is my groundspeed?

F – Fuel –Do I have enough to make it?

G – Ground –Call someone on the ground to make change in plan (ATC, FSS etc)

This little checklist can be a great help when you’re in a pinch and need to make a change of plans!


Umm…Wrong Runway Dude!

Stock Photo of an Aeronica Champ

by Chris Findley, CFI

Like so many flying yarns, this one could begin with, “There I was….”

Well, there I was on the ramp in Bowling Green, KY (BWG) with another pilot as we readied to depart on the short flight back to our home airport in Gallatin, TN (M33).  We were watching a Cessna 172 land on the runway 3.  There was quite a bit of traffic.  After we landed, at least 2 other planes departed and a few others had landed.  So it was a busy Sunday afternoon as pilots made the most of the gorgeous southern weather.

This 172 rounded out and, patiently waited for the flare.  The pilot made a nice landing.  It was then I heard another aircraft engine coming from a direction that was surprising….the OPPOSITE end of the same runway!

Bowling Green (BWG). Rwy 3 is at the bottom of the picture.

The Aeronica Chump, oops, I mean “Champ” must have discovered his error really late in his own approach.  He made a hard right turn over our heads after flying the first third of the runway.  Maybe it was the Cessna 172 still rolling out that got his attention.  I’m sure it had the occupants of the Cesnna’s attention.  I think I heard them ask the unicom if there was anyone on the field that cleaned upholstery.   The Aeronica converted his missed approach into a midfield downwind (entering from the inside of the pattern) and landed without event on Runway 3– the approach end– the correct end.

We all make mistakes.  I’ve made my share.  Pilots know that we learn from our blunders and later, we share our stories to help others learn.

However, some goof-ups are easily avoidable and committing them can put others at significant risk.  Approaching to land on the wrong end of the runway is one of them.

What could the pilot in the Aeronica have done differently?

1.) Listen— Before he could see the airport, he could have been listening to the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency).  If he had done this, he would have heard the traffic landing and departing on 3.

2.) Ask— If in doubt ask.  Ask another airplane in the pattern.  Ask the UNICOM.  Ask somebody.

3.) Observe— If 1 and 2 don’t bring clarification, or if the plane isn’t equipped with a radio, then stay outside of the pattern and observe for a few minutes.  It’s worth the extra time and extra 1/10 of a gallon of fuel.

This is also a lesson for those of us on the ground and in the pattern.  Always keep your head on a swivel!  Look for other traffic, even and especially where you don’t expect it!  Most everyone is taught to clear the final approach as they taxi into position for takeoff and to watch for traffic entering the pattern on the 45 downwind. But be always vigilant at every point in the pattern until you are on the ground and at the ramp.

Be Safe and Fly On!