by Jay Biederman, CFI, ATP
If you were to walk into your flight school and ask your instructor for free flying lessons, you would be laughed back into the parking lot from whence you came. However, if you were to ask the same instructor if you could observe one of his lessons from the backseat, you would likely be greeted with enthusiasm. And this time, you would have the last laugh – you just negotiated a free flying lesson.
Back when I was fifteen and I weighed 140 pounds, I could barely squeeze into a 152 for my $65/hour (instructor inclusive) flying lesson. Nowadays, more students learn in four seat aircraft with expensive glass cockpits. However, most fly their aircraft with nothing in the back seat but a headphone cover. For an enterprising student, the empty back seat represents a great learning opportunity.
As a CFI of twenty-five years, I’m always impressed when a student asks to observe a lesson. It tells me the student is mature – he realizes the pilot seat isn’t always the best place to take it all in, and from the back seat he can absorb at a realistic pace.
Observing other students’ lessons from the back seat is one of the most cost-efficient ways to improve piloting skills. In this two-part post, I’ll give examples of how and who can benefit from riding back seat, and then I’ll discuss how best to connect with other students to get the opportunity to observe: OK, you are strapped in with no hope of touching the yoke for two hours–now what?
The most obvious way to benefit from back seating is to listen to the instructor and take notes. This is your chance to get extra exposure to your instructors’ demonstrations and words of wisdom. What you lose in visual perspective from the front seat, you gain in the chance to learn and relearn concepts that can be applied in your own lessons. Back Seat to Conquer Your Fear of Communication:
Your radio communication skills can get a real shot in the arm from back seating. When you are trying to learn how to land, or to stall, learning radio communications can be overwhelming. Instructors tell students to aviate before they communicate. But at some point, you have to learn how to do both. In the back seat, you don’t have to aviate, and you can focus on listening to ATC. Think about how you would respond. Listen for calls the student misses. Try to identify mistakes in his communications. The more familiar you are with ATC phraseology, the more quickly you will develop the ability to aviate AND communicate.
What if the pilots are doing nothing of interest, or if you are tired of listening to their chatter? There is plenty to learn with your headset off.
Navigate: This is your chance to become familiar with local landmarks. Pull out your map and locate towers, VFR checkpoints, stadiums, airports, lakes and other structures. Then do the reverse – look out the window for eye-catching landmarks, and then find them on your map. Randomly quiz yourself on your position in the airspace system – are you in C, D, or E? All you need to know is your altitude and position. What are your cloud clearance and visibility requirements at various points in the flight? These are essential navigation skills, and the faster you can do them, the more quickly you will complete your training.
Emergency Skills: Find suitable emergency landing locations throughout the flight. Based on your current position and altitude, visualize how you would set yourself up for a successful emergency landing. This is a serious skill. The faster and more accurately you can visualize your path to a suitable landing location the more likely you will be to successfully resolve engine problems should they occur.
Airport Familiarization: Airport signage and markings are a big deal, not only on check-rides, but also in real life flying. As a private pilot, you are expected to know ALL airport markings and signage. Students often have little time to look around at all the different signs when taxiing. Get to know the different airports and signs around you. If you see one you don’t know – make a note and look it up.
Collision Avoidance: With a lot more time to look for planes than the guy up front, make it your goal to identify all the planes that ATC identifies. Better yet, try to find other aircraft before ATC identifies them. This will strengthen your ability to identify aircraft when you are the one in the front seat.
And many, more – There are plenty of things that pilots can do to take advantage of the back seat and a creative pilot should have no trouble coming up with ideas.
With Whom Should You Backseat?
You would be amazed is said by your instructor that you don’t hear the first time. Riding with your instructor is a chance to relearn what he already tried to teach you. Similarly, listening to other instructors may reinforce something your instructor said, or they may explain something in a way that speaks to you in a new way. Regardless, listening to different points of view will help concepts sink in – and it’s a heck of a lot better than a textbook.
Most student pilots drop out before they get their pilot’s license, often because of problems with their CFI. Certificated pilots may face ongoing CFI problems, or they may become too comfortable one instructor and shy away from new challenges that could lead to improved flight skills. When I decided to earn my private license, we already owned a Cessna 210 and I had flown it quite a bit, all over the country. So we chose an instructor who owned an airplane and had flown around the country [Click here to read more…]
Observing an advanced student gives you the opportunity to peer into the future and see how you may be performing when you advance. You might also get to observe the maneuvers and missions you can look forward to. What is it like to fly in the clouds? What is a chandelle? Never seen ice – perhaps you can ride along on a flight where the pilots expect to pick up ice.
Likewise flying with those less advanced than you is a great chance to revisit the basics. You might be surprised at what you relearn. If you have recently come off a discouraging lesson, it may even provide a much-needed ego boost. In part two of this post, I will discuss how advanced pilots can benefit from back seating, and will give tips on back seat etiquette and setting up observation lessons.