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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Last flight with my best passenger

All lines in a logbook are the same, but not all the hours in it are.

As we fill up the pages of our logbook, some entries are more special than others. Some are written with an ink that weighs heavily on the page, separating those few moments from entries kept just to show we did a certain flight on a certain day. As we fill up the pages of our life, some people and experiences end up being more permanent than others, while others are just another line on a page.

This particular entry is about my last flight with my first passenger: my father. Sunday is Father's Day, and although I've never forgotten him, this week I want to remember him.

My father and I at the Cleveland National Air Show, 2009.

There are two entries in my logbook for July 13, 2008. The first is 1.0 hours in a Cessna 172, with the comment being "Private Pilot Checkride". Directly below that is an entry for 1.8 hours in a Flight Design CTsw, with the very first time there would be a number in the "Passengers" column, and the comment simply being, "Celebration flight". He was passenger #1.

In the time afterward, whenever I didn't already have someone I'd promised a ride to, and assuming it wasn't one of those days when I wanted to fly by myself (flying, like meditation, sometimes requires and rewards solitude), he was almost always ready to jump at the chance to fly around, even if it was for no other purpose than to convert avgas into noise.

His name would appear in my logbook nine more times. I always thought it would be ninety or more. I always thought there would be plenty of time. We always do, until the time is gone.

On page 4 of what is now 106 (and counting) in my logbook is this entry:


10/18/2009: CTLS N566FD, LPR -> UNI -> PJC -> LPR, 4.30 total hours, 359.49 miles, Landings: 2 day, 1 night, 1.10 night hours, 1 passenger. Comment: leaf flight. Passengers: Last flight with Dad

We started with a rough plan: fly to Ohio University to check out the fall colors from the air, fly the 20 or so miles to the Ohio River, then turn back around. Our flight path would take us almost directly over the Mohican River, a place we spent many fun summers camping and canoeing on as I was growing up, so I marked the place to look for it on the sectional, and we took off.

One of the pleasures of being a pilot is the freedom it brings with it. Like many good flights, the plan started with a straight line there and back, but ended up being a meandering exploration to an entirely different state:

It was supposed to be a boring, straight magenta line, but the right half of the flight followed the Ohio River north to see where it is formed.
It started out simply, with a straight-out departure that ends up taking us over downtown Elyria. The hospital where I was born sticks out of the left edge of the picture:

Downtown Elyria.

Although the colors weren't all that glorious in Elyria yet despite the mid-October date, they did start becoming more dazzling as we flew along:



We ended up finding Mohican a little easier than I expected:





As we continued on our flight on an amazingly smooth day, we came across this bit of farm field near Zanesville:


In our part of Ohio, everything is flat. We are where the Great Plains start, and from us it's a thousand miles of grid lines without a curve or bump in sight. By this point in the flight, we were starting to get into the tiny foothills of the Appalachians. This incredibly winding river has carved a path of almost perfect undulations in the rock that tried to get in its way:

The river is visible at the center-left of the picture. The back-and-forth coiling of whatever river this is (still nameless to me now) is so regular, so uniform that it almost looks artificial. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and would be for almost 5 years until I started flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains as an airline pilot.

My mind carries my father with me now as I routinely fly over Harpers Ferry on the way from Washington-Dulles to State College, PA. Along the way, the beautiful Shenandoah converges with the Potomac at the site where John Brown conducted his raid a century-and-a-half ago. The Potomac writhes on northward, and at one point, near Shepherdstown, WV, not far from the site of the Battle of Antietam on the Maryland side, the river makes a similar series of undulations, then travels on a path so unnaturally straight before going back to doing what rivers do as it flows along to the horizon. Every time I fly over this stretch of history, I think back to how similar it is to the first time I ever saw a river do that:

Antietam is at the center-right of this picture.
But that is now; let's get back to then. We stopped at Ohio University's airport to stretch and check out the terminal. Another connection is made: OU's airport identifier is KUNI; now I fly to State College, whose identifier is KUNV, since it's the home of Penn State University. While there, I took a picture--in fact, the only picture I still have--that has my father by a plane:


Had I known he would be gone on page 4, I would have taken so many more. There was supposed to be so much time to do that.

We left Ohio University's airport to take some pictures of what many consider to be a very beautiful campus:

I never imagined that only 19 months later, I would be back on that campus (having driven this time) for a bioinformatics conference in exactly the place that picture captures. We continued on what was supposed to be a short, few-minute hop to cross the river, then turn around:


In no time, we found the Ohio River:


We had driven across that river dozens of times to see family in Eastern Kentucky, where he was from. Since he had never seen it from the air before (and I had only done so once), we decided to fly up it for a little while before turning for home.

After a while, we decided that since we were only a little over half an hour from Pittsburgh, we could just continue up the Ohio to see where it begins. Neither of us had ever seen the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, where the two meet to make the river that gives our state its name. In an airplane, after all, 70 miles is just up the creek.

Unfortunately, along the way the memory card on the camera became full, so there are no more pictures until landing. This is extremely unfortunate indeed, as we had an uncomfortably excellent view of downtown Pittsburgh along the way. I say "uncomfortably excellent" because on the way to the three rivers, I found out the hard way what those oddly-shaped notches in Pittsburgh's Class B airspace are for:

Turns out, those clusters of obstructions (the things that look like an M with dots in between their legs) are the skyscrapers downtown. Nowadays, with almost 4000 hours more in the logbook, I wouldn't think anything at all of calling ATC and asking permission to enter their airspace. But with less than 100 hours, I still didn't talk to controllers routinely or fluently, so I just stayed below their airspace instead.

Since we had been flying a lot longer than expected, my bladder had had enough. This was supposed to be a 2-hour round trip, and we were now almost 3 hours in and still not even in the same state. We both quickly agreed to land and find a bathroom, and the closest reasonable place to where we were was Zelienople.

We did our business and took off again, this time heading in a straight line for home. It is just under 100 miles as the crow flies, or about 50 minutes. We said little. Some of that was from having been in an airplane for almost 4 hours, and some of that was due to the lateness of the day. But a large measure of the silence was because we had both just enjoyed an amazing, unplanned voyage, and we were still simply enjoying the time we just had.

I wish I knew it was almost all the time we would ever have. He knew he had cancer. But no one else did. He didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, so he said nothing.

Two months and 25 days later, he would, as John Gillespie Magee would put it, slip the surly bonds of Earth. But for that October night, on the homeward leg, together we "with silent, lifting mind... trod [t]he high untrespassed sanctity of space" for the final time.

He is buried at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery, an honor he earned as a Vietnam veteran. A month after he was laid to rest there, I flew over for some pictures:


I have flown to it and back so many times now that I no longer need a chart or GPS to navigate there.





In my days as an instructor, there were some students I signed off to solo before they thought they were ready. I knew they were, as I wouldn't have signed them off if I hadn't had full confidence in their abilities, knowing that I had done everything they needed to have the skills and knowledge to make into the sky and back successfully. They had learned what they needed to from me, and it was time for them to learn the rest solo.

Although he was not a pilot, my father did the same thing for me in his own way.



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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why are pictures of props so distorted?

Here's a short video of what it looks like skimming the tops of a cloud layer. Check out what the propeller seems to be doing:

video

That prop disc in the video looked almost hypnotic, didn't it? I also have tons of pictures with crazy-bent props like these:

Waves splashing over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Washington-Dulles peeking out of a cloud layer.
Power plant plume rising on an exceptionally calm day.
Pilot's glory 1.
Pilot's glory 2.
Sunset coming from Buffalo.

Crepuscular rays.
 (I did an entire post on crepuscular rays before.)
Flying past a building thunderstorm over North Carolina.

In the soup 1.
In the soup 2.
In the soup and icing up.
Departing Newark with New York City in the distance.
Departing Newark with New York City in the distance.

The propeller isn't made of rubber, but the camera doesn't know that. You can't read an entire page of a book at once; instead, you scan through the page line by line working your way from the top of the page down to the bottom. Unless you have a very expensive professional-quality camera, your camera does the same sort of thing as it captures a picture: it "reads" the scene from one end to the other.

This is called "rolling shutter", and works quite well in most cases. However, when the thing you're taking a picture of is rotating at 900 RPM (as was the case in all but the last two pictures above—those were at 1050 RPM), by the time the camera makes it to the next line, the prop has moved a bit.

This incredible animation lets you see what's happening as a digital camera takes a picture of a moving propeller:

Original image by Hunter5625 on imgur.
You can see the scan line moving from the bottom to the top. As the red "propeller" rotates, the bent blue shapes show where the scan line and the propeller meet at that instant. If the propeller wasn't moving, the red shape and the blue shape would overlap perfectly, and there would be no distortion. That's why 99.9% of the time, this method of taking pictures works just fine. There are camera sensors that work on a different principle that aren't subject to this distortion, but they are so expensive that the cost outweighs the benefit many times over.

As a bonus, here's a different kind of distortion. This one has nothing to do with camera sensors, but instead is how much change an aircraft tire distorts when inflated to a couple hundred PSI. (That's 6-7 times the tire pressure in your car!) The tire on the left is at normal pressure, and the one on the right is flat due to the big piece of metal in it. They're both the same kind of tire, but one is almost twice as big as the other!

Flat tire on a Dash-8.
See you next Wednesday!


Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:





The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Circle of Life

One of the funniest aviation sites on Facebook is ATC Memes. Yesterday, they posted this picture and challenged their mountain of followers to caption it:

Via ATC Memes.
My caption:
Pilot of 172: "I wish I was in that 747 right now."
Pilot of 747: "I wish I was in that 172 right now."

The challenge, excitement, and fun of aviation is that there is always somewhere new to go, something new to learn, and something new to fly. That can be a bit of a problem, however, when you focus on what someone else is doing instead of enjoying what you are doing.

I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet because I actually enjoy what I do for a living. So many people drag themselves to work every day, count down the minutes to 5:00, and hate every minute in between. I get to do something useful and have fun doing it!

Sure, the hours are long sometimes, there are delays for any of a dozen reasons, and I spend more time away from home than I do at home, but it's been almost two years and I still have yet to have a day where I said, "Ugh. I don't want to go to work today."

After all, I get to fly the Dash-8, one of the most pilot-enjoyable airliners ever designed, into conditions I probably wouldn't get to see otherwise (I'd never shot an ILS approach to 100 feet until I became an airline pilot) to places I wouldn't have seen. I get to have the challenge of shooting an unusual approach, the LDA + glideslope into Runway 6 at Roanoke, or mixing it up in the crazy-busy airspace into Newark. There's still a new airplane for me to fly, as I'll be moving over to the ERJ-145 in July, too.

In other words, I love my flying life. But if you're a student pilot or someone in a 172 or a Cherokee or a Cub or any of a hundred different general aviation aircraft, I envy you.

I envy you. If you're a student pilot who hasn't soloed, you're probably wondering what you got yourself into. Studying a bunch of new, arcane material, hitting your own wake turbulence for the first time when you really nail a steep turn, having an occasional "Wow!" of a landing (in both good and bad ways as you find 50 different ways not to land an airplane), and wondering if you're ever going to get signed off is a time you'll never experience again in your life. Sometime soon, you'll have that first solo, and you'll get to experience for the first time that feeling that only a pilot gets to feel. It's not a feeling that anyone has managed to fully do justice to: you just have to join the club to know what that feeling is. Once you do, though, you'll never forget it. When you tell other pilots you just soloed, you'll get that congratulations and a nod: the nod being the silent pilot-to-pilot way of saying, "I know how happy you are, and you earned it." You're about to have that experience, and I envy you for it.

Recently, I was waiting to pick up our IFR clearance back to DC and had to wait for a Piper to finish getting their VFR clearance. Their plan was to head a few miles out, circle a prominent landmark a couple of times to do some sightseeing, head about 15 more miles away, do some maneuvers, and head back. What a fun day for them. I envied them for being able to do that.

Some of my best times flying were almost as free and unplanned. One I'll never forget was a fall flight from Lorain County to Ohio University to spend an hour checking out the autumn colors. Since Ohio U. isn't far by air from the Ohio River, we decided to continue on for a little bit and check out the river. That "little bit" ended up being another half an hour flying all the way up the rest of the river to Pittsburgh to see where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio! I wouldn't know it then, but that would end up being the last flight with my father before he passed away. I'm glad I had the chance to go on such a spontaneous excursion with him, because nowadays I'm glad if I get to divert 10 degrees off course to avoid a towering cumulus buildup before going back on course.

No matter what you're doing, enjoy it. If you're practicing maneuvers for your checkride, revel in the fact that you have a challenge to meet. After all, someday that tricky maneuver that you haven't quite perfected will become routine for you, and most people go their entire lives without ever stepping up to meet that challenge at all. If you're slogging through the weather on a tough approach, have fun with the 3-D mental puzzle you get to solve in realtime. After all, everyone without an instrument rating doesn't get to fly that day, but you do. If you're a Cub pilot with traffic on the freeway passing you a thousand feet below, just enjoy the freedom you have to be in the sky looking down on that traffic! There's someone in the flight levels on that clear blue day doing Mach .78 wishing they were doing 78 knots instead.

It never gets better than what you're doing right now.

See you next Wednesday!


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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Make Practice Perfect, Part 1: First, do no harm

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
—Aristotle
The quotation above accidentally sums up the two sides of practice in two sentences. First, we will only get as good at something as our practice is good. If we repeatedly practice excellence, we will develop excellence in what we're practicing.

Second—the accidentally part—it demonstrates that if we practice poorly, all we will do is make sloppiness a habit.

How does it demonstrate that? Because if you Google "We are what we repeatedly do", you will get over 200 million results, and a pile of pretty images like this:

Original: blackbeltforums.com
Original: emilysquotes.com
Original: muskurado.com
So I just posted the same thing three times. Each one of them said it was a quotation from Aristotle. Each one of them was wrong.

It's actually a quote from Will Durant explaining what Aristotle meant when he said, "These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions." Posting it three different times didn't make it be from Aristotle; it just repeated the same wrong thing, just like 200 million other search results.

New doctors take the Hippocratic Oath. This is a tradition that comes from Hippocrates, often called the Father of Western Medicine, who lived over 2000 years ago. In that oath, he is famous for saying:
Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.
There are plenty of people who will tell you that this is part of the Hippocratic Oath. The only problem is that it isn't anywhere in it. (But at least he actually said that somewhere else, unlike the misattributed Aristotle quotation.) As to the quotation that makes up this post's title, "First, do no harm", he never said that at all.

If you simply repeat the same mistakes over and over again, your practice is no better than no practice at all. For practice to be effective (and at well over $100/hour for aircraft time, you want it to be effective), you must have three things:
  1. A concrete goal for that session
  2. Correct practice
  3. Feedback
If any of these three are missing, you are not making the most of your time. They are all connected together, so if one link of the chain is missing, the whole chain is affected.

If you have no goal for that session, you have no way of knowing what to practice or how to determine if you've done anything worthwhile. You end up like this conversation from Alice in Wonderland:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
This doesn't mean you have to have a multi-page, detailed plan with bullet points and diagrams every time you want to practice. All it means is you need to have some idea of what you want to do, even if it is something as simple as, "I want to perfect my steep turns" or "I want to get better at dead reckoning" or "I want to fly a good DME arc". That's not a wonderful plan, but it's better than no plan at all. (Chessplayers have a saying that goes, "A good plan will beat a bad plan, but a bad plan will beat no plan at all.")

When you're with an instructor, you obviously have a source of feedback (at least if the instructor is doing their job correctly). When you're out on your own, you still have an excellent source of feedback: the PTS, or Practical Test Standards. (These will soon become the ACS, or Airmen Certification Standards. Don't get too bogged down in the distinction; it's basically the same old wine in shiny new bottles.)

The FAA laid out everything you're expected to perform and what standards you're expected to perform to, then published it all in a free guide. (You can pay money for a printed version if you wish, or you can download them for free from the FAA's website.) You couldn't ask for a better source of feedback because you know precisely what you're supposed to do and how well you have to do it.

The first and third parts are the easy ones, and that's why the second part is usually the one left out. Good practice requires the most effort. The good news is that because of that, it's also the one you have the most control over.

Unfortunately, because it requires the most effort, it usually ends up going something like this:

Pilot says: "I practiced steep turns."
Pilot means: "I went out to the practice area, did half a dozen steep turns in a row, flew over and checked out the lake, then came back and did one normal landing. Most of the turns were OK, I think."

I would see this when it came time for a stage check. This is what it would look like from my perspective:

Pilot rolls into steep turn way too slowly. They're already almost 90° into the turn before getting close to 45° of bank. Nose lowers slightly because of too-timid back pressure once the load factor goes past 1g, and the plane loses 200 feet of altitude. Past the halfway mark, the pilot pulls back a lot on the controls and regains most of the lost altitude. We pull less than 1g during the rollout because the pilot rushes to keep from shooting through the altitude he should have been at the whole time. Rolls out 10 degrees past the correct heading (meaning within standards), but happens to be at the correct altitude thanks to the last minute ham-fisting of the controls to reel the plane back in.

I say, "How do you think that one went?"
Pilot says, "Pretty good!"
I say, "Really?"
Pilot says, "Yeah. I ended up at the right altitude and heading."
I say, "In that case, let's see if you can do that again."

And he does, and it looks pretty close to the last horrible one. But he finishes "within standards", so everything is OK, right?

No. But this is what bad practice creates. This pilot "practiced" all of these bad habits so many times that they were able to look like they were doing what they should have been. Another thing I've seen with steep turns is people who can do great ones to the left, and absolutely atrocious ones to the right (or vice versa).

That phenomenon indicates another common practice deficiency: practicing what's easy instead of what's hard. I used the example of steep turns above, but that's not because there's anything special about steep turns; they just happen to be an easy example. Sometimes I would see people who are great at doing steep turns in both directions, but were bad at slow flight. Or people who would be really good at almost all of the maneuvers, but couldn't navigate their way to the ocean if they took off from the beach.

It's easy—all too easy—to enjoy the illusion of competence and the rewarding feeling given by doing something you're already good at. But that's a superficial "mental sugar rush" that won't help you to your goal of mastering an airplane. (Or anything else, really.)

The legendary Bob Hoover, a man who is a household name among pilots, became the legend he is precisely by doing the opposite of what most people do: he deliberately sought out what he wasn't good at and practiced that. I wrote a post about that approach that has a video of him talking about that, and I called it Bob Hoover reveals THE secret to learning ANYTHING. I capitalized THE because this principle is the one fundamental principle to learning, no matter what it is you're trying.

I've given some examples of what bad practice looks like and what it produces, but what does good practice look like? Find out in next week's post. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chunking: It's not just for peanut butter

There 86x more Lego blocks than there are people on the planet, according to the people who make them. With that many building blocks, you can make almost anything. For example, there is a replica of Mark Twain's house in the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire made of almost 125,000 Lego bricks:

The house is 7.5 feet wide and over 4.5 feet tall, and took over 4.5 months to build!
There are Lego versions of just about every aircraft ever made, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the White House (plus Air Force One to go with it), an entire set of New York City skyscrapers, "The Brick Testament" (a collection of biblical scenes done in Lego), a Lego Vegas, and an entire Wikipedia page on a fraction of the things that have been built with Legos. There's even a short humorous YouTube video detailing a day in the life of Lego Pilot:


To build anything you can imagine with a pile of small Lego bricks, you just start with two bricks and connect them together. You add another brick to that one, then another, and another, and so on. If you just want to build something small, it might not take very long and it won't require a lot of bricks. If you want to build a scale model of the Golden Gate Bridge, it might take months or years and will require tens of thousands of Legos. In either case, whatever you build is just one brick connected to another: it's how many you use and how you connect them that makes the difference.

Continuing with last week's theme from Coursera's Learning How to Learn class and accompanying book, your brain does much the same thing when you're learning. The brain has a stunning capacity to learn almost anything, from catching a softly-tossed baseball to hitting a 100 MPH fastball, from learning the rules of chess to playing a dozen games against a dozen people at the same time while blindfolded, and from looking up at the sky to learning to fly through it. It learns all of those things and any of a billion more by taking small bricks of knowledge and connecting them to each other.

Unlike Legos, however, you do not have the bricks to start with: you have to build them yourself through education and then putting that new knowledge into active practice. Once you make a brick, you can combine that new micro-skill with another brick (which you had to make yourself) and make a "chunk", which forms a basic fundamental. Chunk together enough of the fundamentals and you have a new skill.

In the case of flying, there are four of these fundamentals:
  • Straight and level
  • Turns
  • Climbs
  • Descents
Almost anything else you do when flying will just be one or more of these chunks put together in a certain way. A takeoff is just a climb; a landing is a descent turned into straight and level at an inch off the ground; a traffic pattern is all of these strung together into a several minute sequence.

This is why when you first start to learn to fly, it may seem almost overwhelming and like you're always behind the airplane. That's because at first, you're making those little Lego bricks every single flight, and then you still have to take those bricks and chunk them together. As your lessons progress, you start to create and firm together those chunks, which means each of them takes less mental effort as they become more automatic.

That sounds great, but why does it seem like just when you're getting one thing down, there is even more to learn? Shouldn't it be getting easier by now?

It will. At first, you're so task-saturated that you have no idea how much you're missing. Your instructor has been sitting over there taking care of all the other things you've been missing while you learn the fundamentals. The better you get at the fundamentals, however, the more of those tasks are shifted over to you. In other words, the better you get, the better you need to be!

A good instructor will hand those tasks to you at about the same rate that you're chunking together the other things, so for a while it will seem like you're always putting out a large amount of effort. Ideally, you will be putting in the same amount of effort, but you'll also be doing a lot more at the same time. After all, the goal is to get you to solo, where you'll have no choice but to be doing everything at once.

Learning to fly is hard work, but it's also fun work. A while back, I went into more detail about the "fun curve" of learning to fly. This constant workload concept is one of the reasons why there are two large dips in that curve.

However, almost everyone has a lesson when getting ready to solo where it seems like you just can't do anything right. Those days are frustrating because they so often come after a lesson where things were just starting to seem simple. I've both seen this happen as an instructor many times, and experienced it myself as a student pilot.

The good news is that almost every time, the very next lesson is outstanding, and it really starts to feel like flying makes sense! The chunking concept explains this as well. Sometimes the brain does some "remodeling" overnight as you sleep. It takes the chunks you've piled up, shifts them around, puts them in a new, nice, neat configuration, and glues them together. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a bit of time for the glue to set, so things are a little shaky until the new shape firms up. Once it does, however, you've taken the next leap.

So how do we create these chunks? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. That's a subject that is so big that I could devote multiple posts to that alone. Fortunately, that's exactly what I'll be doing for the next two weeks! Next week's post will be on some general rules for effective and efficient practice so you can save yourself some time and money. See you next Wednesday!

Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:





The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Learning How to Learn How to Fly

In 2015, the FAA counted 590,093 people as pilots. (That means that if you become a pilot, you'll do something that 99.8% of people have never accomplished!) That's well over half a million people, which seems like a pretty large number.

That is, it seems like a large number until you find out that there is a class on the internet that has had twice that number of students: "Learning How to Learn".

In college, the largest class I ever had was Psychology 221, "Educational Psychology", which had about 200 students, and it was in the largest lecture hall on campus. Most classes ranged anywhere from 6-30, so a class with over 1,000,000 students is a little out of the ordinary. Imagine how big a lecture hall you'd need for that many students!

Fortunately, there is no classroom required for this class, thanks to the internet and the technology it enables: the MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. If you want to join that number, you can take it yourself for free at your own pace. After you register at Coursera's site, you can enroll in it or hundreds of others.

It is taught by Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor, and Terrence Sejnowski, who specializes in neuroscience. Oakley's lectures make up most of the course, and the class is based on her engaging and easy-to-read book called A Mind for Numbers. While you don't have to have the book to follow the course, the does go into more detail than she can go into in the series of brief lectures that makes up the course, so it is a useful and inexpensive companion.

Buy it and help support us at no cost to you!

While it is designed more toward learning math, science, and engineering, many of its lessons apply to flying as well. It is also packed with a world of other advice that is applicable to learning almost anything else, such as a new language. She also spends a lot of time explaining how to defeat procrastination by understanding how procrastination works. Sejnowski also contributes some modern research showing that exercise does indeed improve learning and explains how it does its magic, which is another reason to do it for those of us who need to get our medicals renewed to fly.

There are several main takeaways from the book and/or course. Here are some of them that are very important in learning how to fly or becoming a better pilot:

1. Chunking: Taking small units of learning and combining them into larger units called chunks. These chunks can themselves be combined into even larger chunks. Once a chunk becomes big enough, you've mastered a particular maneuver. Even something that seems simple like a takeoff requires a lot of smaller chunks items to be learned first: how to use the rudder pedals to steer, how to stay on centerline and correct for the various right-turning tendencies, how to use the elevator, and so on.

2. Practice alone doesn't make perfect: perfect practice makes better. Just practicing for the sake of practicing doesn't accomplish much—you must practice with focus. Your CFI will give you feedback when they are in the plane, but you must observe your own performance as well in order to understand that feedback. When you're in the practice area or getting ready for your checkride in the post-solo stage, there will be no one to give you feedback besides yourself.

3. Interleaving: Don't just practice the same thing over and over. Practice what your major objective for that lesson is a few times, then mix in something else for a couple of attempts. Go back to your major objective for a little bit longer, then try something else for a bit. It may seem like it might not be as efficient, but there is a lot of research demonstrating the power of interleaving.


This is just a very brief overview of these concepts. Giving them the space they deserve would take up several blog posts. So that's exactly what I intend to do for the next several weeks: go into each of them in a more useful level of detail.

A final piece of excellent advice from A Mind for Numbers is the "Law of Serendipity":

Lady Luck favors the one who tries.

If you've been putting off learning to fly for any of the dozens of reasons people always seem to have (not enough time or money are the two most popular), you won't become Lucky Lindy until you take that first step and set up a discovery flight at your local flight school.

Next week, I'm going to start expanding on how to apply each of these highlights to your own flying. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to take it to a new level this year

Hello world! The holiday hiatus is over at Keyboard & Rudder, and it's time for the new weekly posts to start rolling. Here's hoping your year is off to a great start!

As a side note before we begin, I spent the time away from the blog doing what many of you probably did: with family, having a big dinner and opening gifts. However, l've also been absorbed in writing a book; a project that has now become so large it will probably end up as two books. To that end, I've been reading piles of books and scientific papers on learning and expertise, taking a free online course called "Learning How to Learn" through Coursera, and using some of the material I've been poring over to use myself as a guinea pig and see if the research actually works.

It has taken up a lot of my writing time and energy, but I think it will lead to an exciting start to the year's posts. The first portion of the year will cover a large amount of material on how to get started learning to fly and how to make the process more effective and efficient (meaning cheaper) for you.

Since the beginning of the new year also brings along resolutions to break, let's begin with some suggestions on easy things to do (or do more of) throughout the year, broken down by pilot level. Pick and choose as many or as few as you like, and keep this year rolling strong!

All levels (including non-pilot, just curious, or haven't started yet)


Learn to use a flight simulator (Microsoft Flight Simulator X, X-Plane, or something similar). There are a lot of people who say that flight simulators don't teach you about flying. They are wrong. I could write a book about how much you can learn from simming—in fact, I'm writing just that book right now.

Read Fate Is the Hunter: A Pilot's Memoir. The best collection of one person's flying stories ever written.


Read North Star over My Shoulder: A Flying Life. Almost tied with Fate is the Hunter for best aviation writing ever.

Student pilot

Read Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying. It's never too early to read the book that's so good this blog is named after it!

Sign up for the FAA's free WINGS program. If you request it, they will email you when a pilot seminar is coming to your area. You can earn a real set of wings to pin to your lapel by completing different topics in different phases, and your private pilot checkride earns you them all at once! (I got a gold set of Master wings myself when I completed my ATP checkride.)

Two excellent, free resources are the weekly pilot tips email from pilotworkshops.com and Tom Turner's Flight Lessons Weekly. I am working on a short weekly email as well (details to come soon).

After a lesson, review what you've done by doing it in a flight simulator. Combine the sim with the Airplane Flying Handbook section covering what your lesson was about. If you really want to make fast (meaning cheaper) progress, follow along with the book Microsoft Flight Simulator X For Pilots Real World Training, which is the best book on the market (until mine gets done!) for blending the sim and the real worlds.

Private pilot


Re-read Stick and Rudder.

Solidify a "maneuver of the month". Pick something that you had to do for your checkride and practice it whenever you go up until you can meet double the standards you had to meet for your checkride.

Add a rating or different type of flying machine like a glider. I'm planning to get a seaplane rating this fall. I will never use it, as there are no seaplane bases in the state, but it is something that will get me away from the routine flying environment I spend every day in and make me stretch my skills. That last part alone makes it worth it, even if I never touch anything on floats again. Do something that makes you stretch your skills.

Go somewhere you haven't been.

Spend 30 minutes a week memorizing the boldfaced items in Section 3 of your POH. Most pilots make it all the way through their checkride without ever finding out that the bold items in the emergency section are supposed to be done from memory before even reaching for the POH!



Volunteer with Pilots & Paws, Wings of Hope, etc. There are dozens and dozens of organizations that would love your help, and you get to fly for a cause! Fortunately, to make it easy to find the one that is right for you, the Volunteer Pilots Network has compiled a list of all of these organizations.

Instrument pilot

 

Spend 90 minutes a week (just a half-hour three times a week) reading the Instrument Procedures Handbook. You can download it for free from the FAA's website or buy a printed copy on Amazon.

Once you've finished the Instrument Procedures Handbook, use those 90 minutes to make your way through 8260.3B - United States Standard for Terminal Instrument Procedures (TERPS). It's dry and technical, but you'll become a better instrument pilot by making it through it. Your instrument training taught you how to fly instrument approaches. The TERPS manual teaches you why those approaches are the way they are.

Use the sim to practice two approaches per week. Over the course of a year, that adds up to over 100 practice approaches! That's almost as many instrument approaches as I fly in a year (although if I'm shooting an instrument approach, it's because we're in actual IMC that day), but it costs you nothing.

Don't just shoot random approaches, however. Pick two different kinds of approaches. Do one of them several times over several sessions, and do a new one every time, too. In other words, do something like this:

ILS A + GPS B
ILS A + NDB C
ILS A + LOC D
ILS A + VOR E
GPS B + NDB C
GPS B + LOC D
GPS B + VOR E
GPS B + ILS F
ILS F + NDB C
ILS F + LOC D
ILS F + VOR E
ILS F + GPS G
NDB H + LOC I
And so on.

Pick an ILS that has a DME arc into it, as that will really keep your scan moving. If you use a rotating schedule like the one above, you'll end up doing more ILS approaches than anything else. There are two good reasons for this. First, the ILS approach is the one you're most likely to encounter in real life. Second, the ILS approach is one of those things that is easy to understand, but hard to master.

In the near future, I'll devote an entire post to what makes a good practice approach, how that weird-looking interleaved schedule works, and why it looks like that.

Commercial pilot

Re-read Stick and Rudder. Seriously. I re-read this book every even-numbered year, and I still learn something new about flying every time I go through it.

Volunteer with Pilots & Paws, Angel Flight, etc. or any of the dozens of other worthwhile organizations.

Teach yourself something new. (Especially if you're planning to become a CFI.) Don't just read it, learn it! Next week's post goes into learning how to learn, so you won't want to miss that one.

You had to learn how to do chandelles and lazy eights for your checkride. Use the Airplane Flying Handbook (free from the FAA or buy a printed copy on Amazon) and break down those maneuvers into their smaller components. Focus on getting each of those smaller components absolutely perfect and you'll understand why you had to learn them instead of just mechanically performing them.

An example of something you can teach yourself is a concept that most pilots don't understand even at the commercial level: what manifold pressure actually is. Research it until you understand it (it's the opposite of what many pilots think it is), then explain it to someone else.

If you're planning to go to the airlines, absolutely read The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual. I wish I had known about this book before I started ground school at my airline.

ATP


By this point, you already know what skills you need to improve (because everyone has something they could do better). Figure out what it is, make a goal to improve it, and achieve it.

However, the biggest thing you can do at this level is to give back to the aviation community. Mentor student pilots, talk to children about flying to get them excited about aviation and how they can become pilots themselves, answer questions on forums (and not just the airline pilot forums where everyone complains about how bad their company is), volunteer to take kids on Young Eagles flights.

The most important thing you can do with expertise is to share it, and if you've reached the ATP level, you probably have a passion for aviation that needs to be shared with others.


Next week, I'll get into more details about "Learning How to Learn", which is an excellent class that costs you nothing that may help you throughout this year and beyond. See you next Wednesday!

Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:





The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.