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An Outsider’s Look at Collegiate Flight “Education”
Ed Wischmeyer, Ph.D., ATP/CFII/ME
Published in the Fall, 2005 issue of JAAER


Being both a CFI and a professor at a flight-oriented university, but not teaching flight academics, provided a unique, close up, but outsider’s view of collegiate flight “education.” As a pilot, three criteria come to mind for evaluating the efficacy of a collegiate flight program: training, education, and experience. Training means training for flight, both on the ground and in the air; education refers to both traditional academia and also to “flight education,” the latter a possibly new concept; and experience means marketable flight experience as opposed to just hours logged. This paper looks at flight “education” and these three standards, based both on lifelong participation in general aviation at multiple levels and also time spent observing a big name flight university.

Training for Flight

Medical schools and university flight training programs share the same basic problem -- the objective is to give students an education, but instead, much of the curriculum has to be spent on mere training. In this paper, training means teaching one way of doing things, with justification to support that one way. In contrast to training, a key facet of education is that education prepares the student to evaluate, create, modify, and/or choose a best way of doing things from multiple options.

Few flight students will graduate with enough experience to be employable by airlines, and most will need additional experience, gained through general aviation. However, collegiate flight training seems to focus flight training on the ultimate goal (an airline or military career), and this approach has an obvious flaw -- airline-centric training will often be inadequate for successful general aviation employment. If general aviation education is a mere check-off item to be completed to minimum standards, that training will not adequately prepare students for excellence in general aviation knowledge, procedures, techniques, and lore -- and will leave them unprepared for the intermediate steps required to meet their ultimate objectives.

This, in turn, raises the question of where to find appropriate instructors who excel in general aviation -- not professional collegians whose field is general aviation education, but professionals truly versed in and exposed to general aviation.

A similar question is what academic background such instructors should have. Consider that plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and the like are trained, not educated, by fellow professionals with real world experience. Their hands-on trainers are not required to pretend to pretend to be college professors and do research. Their classroom instructors are not required to pretend to be college professors and have doctorates and do research. CFIs are not required to have doctorates and do research. Yet, somewhere arose the idea that genuine academic credentials are required for ground school training.

Along those lines, if flight colleges and universities are serious about doctorates, only technically relevant doctorates would be accepted, not doctorates in education. Frankly, for teaching flight courses on the ground, I place considerably more value on an ATP than on an Ed.D.

Equally important is to make sure that the instructors have direct hands-on experience in the depth and breadth of what they teach. For example, ex-military pilots are unlikely to have more than a narrow, passing exposure to general aviation, and should not necessarily be considered completely qualified for teaching general aviation. An ex-military classroom instructor may not have ridden in even a few general aviation aircraft, but a well qualified general aviation CFI will have given instruction in at least a dozen makes and models of aircraft. Doing academic research will not compensate for lack of experience.

If graduates will need to spend time employed in general aviation before progressing to an airline career, I think it’s important that their instructors include those with real world general aviation experience. Substituting academic credentials and non-GA flight experience doesn’t make sense.

The problem? Inappropriate accreditation and hiring standards.

Education -- Flight Education

Amazingly enough, in the entire aviation industry, there seems to be little practice of “flight education.” Instead, as people progress through their aviation careers, they receive more and more training on aircraft, ATC, weather, human factors, and other topics. Some assimilate this training, reflect upon the differences and similarities amongst the various training received, and meld that totality into perspective and judgment. These multiply trained individuals self-educate, and become able to evaluate, modify, create, and/or choose a best way of doing things from multiple options. Should not aviation universities undertake, as a major responsibility, this kind of flight education?

To upgrade flight training into flight education, a necessary element is teaching multiple techniques for each procedure. The student will then be able to choose a preferred technique, perhaps on the basis of personal preference, for each situation encountered.

Examples of multiple techniques for each procedure could include:
1. For a power on stall recovery, is the nose lowered (a) the minimum amount necessary to bring the wing below the critical angle of attach (b) to the horizon (c) the same amount below the horizon as it was above the horizon? An educated pilot should be able to discuss the pros and cons of each technique. An educated CFI must be able to demonstrate all three.
2. For judging height during the flare, do you (a) look at the far end of the runway (b) move your eyes constantly back and forth from side to side?
3. In the runup area, do you (a) monitor ground control or (b) go to tower frequency as soon as parked in the runup area. What are the pros and cons of each?
4. When ready for takeoff at a towered airport, do you (a) taxi into the number one position and then call in or (b) call in from the runup position before taxiing into the number one position?

There are, of course, thousands of examples. An educated pilot must have the ability to consider the pros and cons of each technique seen or discussed, whether that technique is the only technique known to the educated pilot or not. A pilot who has seen only one technique for all or most procedures is not educated, but naive and possibly brainwashed.

A practice lethal to flight education is the practice that many flight schools and FBOs have of hiring their own graduates. Certainly within the UAA there could be a rotation program in place so that new CFI graduates would have a place of employment other than their own school. A reasonable and necessary measure of the viability of accreditation is that a CFI from one accredited institution is employable at any other accredited institution. Indeed, I think that the practice of hiring predominantly a school's own graduates as CFIs should be a strong threat to accreditation.

One of the few examples of “flight education” is the curriculum of test pilot schools. Test pilot students are exposed to a wide variety of criteria, procedures, and techniques so as to be able to evaluate, create, and/or choose a best way of doing things based on that education.

Observe that flight education requires depth and breadth of experience of the educational community. As discussed above, that depth and breadth of general aviation experience is too often absent.

Education -- College/University Education

At any four year college or university, a Bachelor’s degree should mean that a certain amount of education was required for the degree. Many technical degree programs unavoidably contain a certain amount of training, as defined above. For education at a flight college or university, that education must pass the same sanity check as other curricula -- will a graduate of this curricula be educated in fundamentals to a degree that will allow gainful employment in a different, if possibly related, arena?

Core university fundamentals are, of course, inherent in this requirement of transferability. Those fundamental courses should be the same for aviation students as for the general population, and certainly not dumbed down for the pilots. Science, engineering, and liberal arts students are not trained to minimum standards or to “Practical Test Standards.”

Experience -- Flight Experience

Three elements are important in flight experience -- total hours, exposure to different aircraft, and exposure to different flight conditions. And. like it or not, the core currency of flight experience is flying time -- not simulators, not equivalents, not stories and excuses, but actual time in the air.

To increase total flight hours, put as much training and education in the airplane as possible. A program which uses simulators heavily is a mixed blessing -- there can be savings in time and money, but in many ways, simulator time is not “real” experience, and it is not regarded as “real” flight time by much of the general aviation community.

The sanitized environment of a simulator is excellent for mastering techniques to accomplish procedures, but does not provide flight experience. Flight experience has the stresses of turbulence, radio communication, crowded traffic patterns, and the like. A comment I’ve heard often is that the very high fidelity Level 6 simulators are over-used. One way of increasing flight time is to use less expensive Light Sport Aircraft in training. There are long-term advantages to using a fully instrumented Cessna 172 for initial training, but the expensive airframe and avionics are of little value when learning commercial maneuvers, for example.

A second element of experience is exposure to different aircraft. Useful difference elements include high/low wing, carbureted/fuel injected, nosewheel/tailwheel, stick/wheel, flaps/none, different airfoils and wing loading, and others. Multiple gains are realized with breadth of experience, including diminished reliance on rote memory to fly the aircraft, and increased adaptability to new aircraft. In addition to regular powered instruction, an educated pilot will have significant exposure to gliders and tailwheel aircraft as well.

There are multiple advantages to such breadth of experience. One is that it substantially improves the odds for achieving excellence in general aviation, which is required for building pre-airline experience. Secondly, this wealth of experience should facilitate future career development, including airline training, as the student will have more background with which to assimilate any future training.

A third element of flight experience is different flight conditions. Indeed, long cross country flights are required in the regulations to make sure that students have such experience. An educated pilot will have more than just the minimum required cross country hours, and those flights to airports where the school provides airport diagrams and a “gouge” sheet. Pilots will become educated when they choose their own airports, and review their airport planning with their CFI before undertaking the trip. A student will become educated by taking overnight trips to other kinds of terrain and meteorology, possibly doubling up with another student for such trips. A student will not become any kind of pilot without solo time in the clouds, time as sole occupant, and time actually making in-flight decisions.

One laudable goal is to reduce flight training costs, and current efforts have succeeded in reducing the cost of getting the required licenses and certificates. It seems to me that along the way, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, and that the questionable assumption has been widely bought in to that a graduate trained to minimum FAA test standards is truly educated. The recent article by Arlynn McMahon, “Those who can’t, period,” in a recent issue of AOPA Flight Training, should be a wake up call to the industry.

A second laudable goal is risk reduction in flight training. I think that key elements of experience include detecting risk, assessing risk, managing risk, and mitigating risk. When making and acting upon risk-related decisions is removed, experience is replaced with repetition and rote. Which pilot has better experience -- one with 100 hours under the hood, or one with 40 hours under the hood and with 5 hours of genuine risk management in the clouds?

Part of risk management from the flight school’s point of view has to do with adolescent and group psychology. Adolescents, and indeed, adolescents of all ages, want to learn what the limits are, including personal capabilities and equipment limits. This normal pressure can be suppressed by rules and strict supervision, but this does not resolve the underlying issues. For example, CFIs at my school have told me that when students finish their private license and begin commercial and instrument work, the advanced training is perceived as lots more work and lots less fun, and that students feel the need for airborne stress relief. If the school does not provide such stress relief, the solo student (or sometimes the young instructor) will generate opportunities for such airborne relief to the detriment of safety procedures.

A second element of risk management has to do with group dynamics. Any group of individuals engaged in a focused task will generate a group identity in speech, mannerisms, attitudes, and dress. That group identity will rarely be in concord with established aviation traditions, where standardization is a major part of many safety concepts. Thus, such group dynamics are also a risk.


If I were king of a flight training curriculum, I would:

  • Require students to get a real college education while doing the flight work.
  • Be part of a CFI exchange with other organizations. No school that hired predominantly their own CFIs would be accredited, and strong pre-employment testing would be a necessary and valuable part of the cross-fertilization process.
  • Only hire CFIs who had mastered and could demonstrate multiple techniques for a number procedures.
  • Provide strong mentoring of new CFIs and ground school instructors.
  • Make sure that classroom instructors had real world experience in the material they were teaching. Military experience, airline experience, and degrees would be accepted for the strengths they actually bring, not as substitutes for directly relevant experience.
  • Have students fly aircraft with a variety of handling characteristics and master them, whether they soloed them or not. At least one of those aircraft would be tailwheel or a glider.
  • Require more sole occupant flight time.
  • Recognize that experience comes from exposure to possible risk, and manage risk by pre-flight reviews rather than by canned routes and scenarios.
  • Require actual time in IMC.
  • Require truly long cross countries, requiring multiple refueling stops on trips longer than can be flown in one day, and requiring an overnight stay.
  • When doctorates are required, only relevant technical doctorates would be counted.

* * * * * * * *

Ed Wischmeyer holds an ATP/AMEL, commercial privileges ASELS/G, and CFI/I/ME. He has accumulated 2700 flight hours in 150 makes and models of general aviation aircraft. He has 25 years industrial experience, 30+ years in general aviation, and his Ph.D. is from MIT in engineering. He currently lives in Prescott, AZ.

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