Inflight Student Pilot Blog
Student Pilot: 18.4 Hours
Training has taken on a decidedly different feel in the last few lessons. We have moved away from the fun and carefree cruising around the practice area, learning maneuvers and taking in the sights to something slightly more grinding involving laps and laps around the pattern never leaving the airport environment as we try to refine my pattern work and landing skills. CFI Drew said we would be “pounding the pattern” for a while and he was right. These first landing lessons feel more intense as they require both a higher level of focus and more constant focus as pattern work and landings are high pilot workload events. The lessons are still fun and rewarding in that they are challenging and moving me closer to the goal of a PPL, but also come with many more ups and downs (both literally and figuratively). After a good landing, I feel on top of the world and ready to solo, but after a not-so-good landing, it is easy to feel dejected and wondering if I will ever consistently nail landings to the standard I strive for. In the moment it can be hard to see the progress being made, but as I step back and collectively look at the last few landing lessons, I really can see the progress being made even if it isn’t quite as fast as I would like. Every lesson I get a little more consistent at the traffic pattern, the approach, and the landing itself.
To the non-pilot, most people would tend to think of the landing only as the physical touchdown of the airplane on the runway. However, as a student pilot, you learn that there are really several distinct phases to a landing. First is the approach, or the final leg of the traffic pattern where the plane is approaching the runways straight in for landing. The goal is the fly a consistent and stabilized approach every time to put yourself in the best position to make a quality and safe landing. A stabilized approach is one that is lined up directly on the runway centerline, within +/- 5kts of your target airspeed, on glide path, and at a steady descent towards your aiming point. Sloppy traffic patterns and approaches tend to lead to poor landings, or in many cases go-arounds if the approach is just too unstable to correct. The next phase is the round out. Cessna 172’s and almost all single-engine propeller planes land very differently than a commercial passenger jet. A jet comes in through the approach and touch down riding power in a nose-high attitude, gradually descending in a flared attitude (nose high) until the wheels contact the runway. In a Cessna, you fly your final approach with the nose down to keep the plane descending, or as my instructor would say “we fly these planes into the ground” on landing. However, eventually, you need to transition to a more neutral pitch relative to the horizon so you round out 10-15 feet above the runway by adding back pressure to the yoke to get to straight and level. Once in this attitude, it is all instinct and judgment as you try to bleed off airspeed and establish a gradual sink to the runway. As the plane sinks towards the runway, the ‘flare’ begins by gradually adding more and more back pressure to keep the plane from touching down as long as possible by increasing the angle of attack to generate more lift but also higher drag. Eventually, the lift dissipates as airspeed decreases and the wheels contact the runway on the main landing gear first, followed by the nose wheel gradually settling on the runway. Then, down but not quite done, the pilot has to complete the ‘rollout’ down the runway, making sure to maintain control through the braking and turn off the runway.
As with almost anything in life, understanding something and executing are two very different things. It takes many repetitions to build up the instincts needed to judge proper timing of the roundabout, proper transition to the flare and getting the nose to a high enough attitude to make sure you land on the main landing gear first. Misjudging any of these can lead to issues with excessive floating, ballooning, early/hard touchdowns, side loading the landing gear if the nose isn’t pointed directly down the runway or a host of other problems. Where I typically saw issues arise for me during problem landings was the transition from round out to flare and getting to a high enough pitch attitude to make sure I didn’t land on the nose wheel first. I can still hear CFI Drew saying “More, more, more” as we’re floating down the runway, referring to needing to add more back pressure to get the nose higher. I have no doubt that as we keep working on landings, eventually it will all ‘click’ for me and even those pesky crosswind landings will start to feel like a walk in the park.
While landings have been the biggest focus of the training in recent lessons, during one recent lesson I got to try something new. It was a hazy day due to Canadian wildfire smoke drifting down to Minnesota, so CFI Drew decided it would be a good day to do some simulated instrument training to work towards the 3 hours of required simulated instrument time required for a PPL. I got to wear a stylish hood that looked something like the bonnet a pioneer woman might have worn on the Oregon Trail. ‘Going under the hood’ blocks your vision outside the cockpit, forcing you to rely solely on your instruments to maintain desired pitch/bank and to navigate. After a few minutes, it was easy to see why non-instrument-rated pilots accidentally entering IFR conditions by flying in to a cloud, fog, or some other condition that blocks visual reference to the horizon is a big deal. It is highly disorienting when you can’t see the horizon as your body may be telling you one thing, but in reality, your plane is doing something very different. We never did this exercise, but I think it would be really interesting to have the student pilot be blindfolded and have the CFI put the airplane in various conditions of flight (banks, climbs, descents, etc) and have the student pilot guess what is happening. It sounds like it would be easy, but without the vision inside or outside of the cockpit my guess is it would be a very difficult exercise. Being under the hood got easier after a while as I established a rhythm for scanning across the instruments, and eventually, we added navigation under IFR conditions to the mix and even did a simulated instrument approach to landing in to Flying Cloud. It has always been my plan to eventually get an instrument rating, although after getting a taste for it in the air I might try to accelerate my timeline as I thought it was a fascinating experience. Even if I rarely have the need to fly in IFR conditions as a recreational private pilot, getting the Instrument Rating would be hugely beneficial for not only the occasional flight in IFR conditions but also make me a more capable and safer pilot all around in the event I encountered accidental IFR conditions.
Student Pilot Tip of the Week: Debriefing Method
While learning landings, I found myself trying to troubleshoot my landings in order to improve them. One thing that I found helpful was to use a consistent debriefing method to help me pinpoint what my errors were so I could better understand the errors and then correct them. I was listening to a podcast recently that featured an F-35 fighter pilot named Justin “Hasard” Lee, and he discussed a debriefing method they use in the military to improve their flying that I found helpful. The debriefing method seeks to break down pilot errors into three categories:
3 Types of Pilot Errors:
- Error in Perception – The pilot perceives the world in an incorrect way and proceeds with the current plan without knowing he or she missed something. A pilot needs to perceive the world around them and prioritize correctly in order to make correct decisions. (examples: missed radio call from ATC leads to a dangerous situation, misjudging wind direction and strength, failure to perceive getting too high or too low versus your aiming point on landing)
- Decision-Making Error – Choosing the incorrect course of action even when pilot perceives world correctly, or said another way choosing the wrong “play” or “tactic”. (examples: landing full flaps in strong crosswind when partial flaps would have been more stable, failure to initiate go around on an unstable approach)
- Execution Error – The pilot perceived the world correctly and chose the correct tactic, but failed to execute their tactic correctly. (examples: not enough crosswind correction on landing leads to drifting off centerline, rounding out too high or low resulting in poor landing, failure to establish sufficient nose-high attitude on a flare to touch down on main gear first)
I’ve found this debriefing method can be applied to pretty much any phase of flight and be useful, and really it could even be applicable for life situations outside of flying (work, hobbies, sports, etc). It is helpful to really pinpoint the errors I am making because without knowing the errors it is very difficult to correct them. If this method is good enough for an F-35 pilot in the military, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it can probably be useful for me in my mighty Cessna 172. As I have continued to work on landings I’ve found that most of my errors are now falling in the execution error category, although at first, I was also prone to category #1 and #2 errors. I’ll continue to work on cleaning up the execution errors with more practice and more wise teaching from CFI Drew. There is an old pilot joke that says “any landing you can walk away from is a good landing”. While I appreciate the aviation humor, CFI Drew, Inflight, and I are all demanding a much higher standard for landings in my training. I consider that a good thing, as the FAA, Inflight, my wife, and my family might have second thoughts about this whole flying thing if my standard for landings isn’t a higher one than just walking away.
That does it for blog post #5 of the Inflight Student Pilot Blog. Until next time, live life in the left seat!
Disclaimer: This is a student pilot blog. While I strive for accuracy when communicating concepts or elements from my training, this blog should never be relied on as being 100% accurate. My experience as a student pilot may also differ from what others experience. Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect opinions of Inflight Pilot Training.