By Dave Scott
Words of Wisdom
A former AMA president once said, “If you ask each of the 2,600 clubs about instruction programs, the overwhelming majority would respond by saying, “Sure, we provide help for the newcomer.” All too often though, little thought is given to how the instruction is structured. There just seems to be an ultimate goal; learning to fly, but without a road map to get there. If you did have a more organized approach, in the long haul you would learn that you have safer flying and keep members longer. In the end, you will create a better club.
It seems that our sport puts a lot of emphasis on trying to get people interested in model aviation, but less emphasis is placed on keeping and satisfying them once they start flying. True, the equipment we use has never been better, but instruction methods haven’t really changed much over the past 50 years. If we want to sustain and grow the pilot ranks in an instant-gratification society, instructors need to ensure that their students’ flight experience is a satisfying one by providing training that ensures success right from the start.
Those who take on the responsibility of becoming instructors will significantly influence how their students will fly for years to come. While “good” instruction therefore requires a thoughtful commitment on the part of the instructor, when done well, helping a student pilot realize his goal of flying success is one of the most gratifying experiences that one can have in the sport. Indeed, those who help to train the next generation of flyers are our sport’s true heroes!
Ideally, before practicing any new skill one would acquire the proper understanding of the technique involved, but that’s not how most people learn to fly R/C. Many of us received informal instruction from a recreational instructor with little or no pre-flight preparation. (We were happy just to have some help at all.) It’s therefore always been assumed that learning to fly hinges on a lot of stick-time and pretty good reflexes and eyesight. Since most people are inclined to instruct others the way that they learned, generations of flyers have been brought up using the trial and error approach and presuming that crashing is part of the learning process, a.k.a., “paying your dues”.
More recently, simulators have helped a lot, but while simulators can help people learn with fewer crashes, student pilots need proper guidance to learn to fly correctly. Otherwise, incorrect practice can lead to learning bad habits that can be difficult to change and impair future success. In other words, just because a person can fly, it does not mean that he’s flying correctly — as many pilots discover when their skills plateau after only a few short years.
Good equipment definitely helps, but nothing impacts a person’s flying as much as the quality of his flying technique. Nothing! So, instructors’ wishing to improve both the short and long term effectiveness of their instruction need to do more than rely on quantities of stick-time and good equipment.
We hear all the time that “practice makes perfect.” The million dollar question is, “does the student understand what he’s supposed to be practicing?” The typical instructor method is to demonstrate the desired maneuver in the air, and then let the student give it a try. With such poor preparation, the student usually botches the maneuver, so the instructor critiques the result, but the student is so busy trying to fly the plane that he misses much of what the instructor is saying. This arduous cycle is repeated over and over, doing just a little bit better each time.
In order to instill confidence and improve your student’s performance, he needs to acquire the proper understanding of how the maneuvers are flown before taking to the air — when he’s relaxed and can more effectively absorb the information.
Thus, a surefire way to enhance your students’ performance is to have them prepare for their lessons by purchasing a flight training manual and studying the appropriate techniques before taking to the air with you. Simply by suggesting to your students that they get a good flight manual and study for their lessons, they’ll appreciate you more for showing an interest in their success. They’ll ask better questions, they’ll certainly perform better in the air and retain more between lessons, and even though your job will get easier, your students will think more highly of your instructing skills. You’ll even discover that your students see and hear better when the seeds of what to expect have been planted ahead of time! Of course, instructing will also be more fun. Flying is, after all, more fun when doing well and making progress.
Quality over Quantity
You should always review the lesson objectives shortly before each training flight. Remember, what you take for granted, your student is still learning, so these ground school sessions must not only cover what to do, but you must also explain how things are done. Telling him to keep his turns level doesn’t cut it. You must also explain how to keep a turn level, etc. If your student struggles in certain areas, stop and think, “in addition to telling/showing him what to do, did I explain to him how to do it?”
The effectiveness of your ground school can be significantly enhanced by utilizing a small hand-held model plane during the explanations to make it easier for your students to visualize the lesson objectives. A really good ground school simulates the experience of flying by commenting on the control stick positions throughout the maneuvers as you walk through them with the small model. And if you really want to accelerate the flight training, have the student walk through the lesson plan with the model after you. If the student’s response to handing him the model is, “Ah, ah,” and he’s not sure what to do even before there’s an airplane zooming around the sky, you know that flying at that point would probably prove to be a big waste of time and source of frustration for you both. Just in case you think that ground training will add more work for the instructor, you’ll discover that taking a few minutes to visualize the maneuvers before flying can easily cut the time that it takes to solo in half — typically referred to as the “quality over quantity” approach.
Many instructors teach the maneuvers as a highly experienced flyer would perform them, i.e., involving advanced techniques. However, the fundamentals are actually the most important requirements of any maneuver and a student’s success rides on learning good fundamentals.
Refinements only help to fine tune what the pilot can already do well on a consistent basis. Therefore, helping students’ solo early means focusing on the basic control skills necessary to fly the airplane and avoiding the temptation to impress the student with your knowledge of advanced flying techniques, for doing so will divide the student’s attention away from the fundamentals and ultimately end up prolonging the training.
By breaking down and prioritizing that which is essential to solo, and what fits into the refinement category as a result of building upon that success, the lessons will be easier to digest. Hence, your students will remain motivated and use that foundation and confidence to continue advancing once they’re on their own.
Focus on Proficiency
Despite what we’ve always been told, those who learn with the greatest ease do not do so by learning from their mistakes. Effective training emphasizes the correct result, rather than placing the emphasis on mistakes and “what if” scenarios. For example, the common trait shared among the elite flyers who make everything they do look easy is that they tend to only remember the things they did that produced favorable results, while forgetting everything that was unfavorable. In time, they develop proficiency/efficiency. That is, by repeating the favorable actions often enough, significant segments of their flying start becoming routine or even automatic. At that point they are able to turn their attention to improving their flying further and learning new maneuvers, with each new success motivating them to do even better.
What we learn from them is that whenever the student is struggling, rather than reinforcing the negatives, it’s best to keep reinforcing the ideal objective. In other words, since there’s a limit to how much your student can absorb, rather than getting into the details of their mistakes, answer a mistake by reinforcing what he’s supposed to do in the first place.
Describing changes to their control inputs is often the most tangible and effective way to communicate to the student cause-and-effect and how to achieve a better result. Even a poor result can be quickly improved upon as long as the student is aware of what kind of control inputs he’s making. When progress is slow or has ceased altogether, it’s usually because the pilot is inputting different commands each time the maneuver is attempted, and thus introducing too many variables to pinpoint precisely how the maneuver should be flown.
Note: It’s human nature for adults to take our successes for granted and finish the flight thinking primarily about the mistakes that were made. The ultimate goal is not to get better at correcting after mistakes, but to replace mistakes with the proper execution. The instructor can speed up this process by highlighting after the flight the good things that the student did, and point out that while it’s not yet perfect, he’s making fewer mistakes with every flight. As a rule, the only time you should spotlight a mistake is when the trend is no longer moving in the right direction.
A commonly held belief is that the repeated practice of any one thing will eventually lead to mastering it–the “practice makes perfect” approach–but then why do so many flyers’ skills plateau despite practicing regularly? That’s because practice doesn’t make perfect, correct practice makes perfect! Numerous performance studies have shown that optimal learning of a new skill occurs within the first 3 to 4 attempts. After that, learning tends to sharply drop off due to the pilot starting to lose focus or succumbing to “paralysis of analysis” and declining performance due to falling behind the airplane.
It’s therefore the instructor’s job to change the focus of the flight every few minutes. You will often find that after letting a technique or maneuver rest for awhile, the student does much better when you come back to it. That’s because after the student is exposed to something, his mind needs some time to absorb what happened in order to start becoming comfortable with it and start recognizing how to make it better.
Tip: When your student gets stuck on something, the solution is not to ask him to try harder–which only amounts to more stress and greater inconsistency–but to return to something that he does well in order to reestablish some confidence to hopefully propel him beyond whatever was holding him back.
Regardless of the content of your instruction, the combination of pre-flight preparation and positive reinforcement will help keep your students focused on effectively applying your instruction rather than letting anxiety and mistakes dominate the training — thus turning what was an arduous experience that most of us couldn’t wait to get past, to one of the most rewarding and exciting times that either the student or instructor can ever be involved in.
About the Author
Dave Scott is a full-size, competition aerobatic pilot, a long-time RC instructor and an IMAC competition pilot. Dave is also the founder of 1st U.S. RC Flight School and has written several beginners’ manuals. His teaching and learning insights are based on his experience teaching over 1,000 new RC pilots to solo in very brief time periods – usually 5-10 days. While AMA is NOT endorsing any flight school, we think that Dave’s insights can be extremely valuable to both instructors and new pilots alike. It is important for all instructors to educate themselves about various methods and then pick those they feel they can best use.