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Click Air: Clicker Trained Flight Instruction, Part 1

Filed in - Off the Beaten Path

by: Michael Pryor, President, Click-Air

My flight instructor was younger than I was, a nice lad I'm sure, but he couldn't seem to find the Initial Approach Fix (a point in space we aim our aircraft at on an instrument approach) for an arc-shaped entry to the final approach out over the high desert in Southern California. He knew that he ought to know and was appropriately embarrassed. We circled and found our way eventually; but it was the proverbial "straw" that made me stop and evaluate my flight, my flight training and flight training in general. Why do instrument-rated pilots continue to make CFIT (controlled flight into terrain)? Could bad training be the root of "pilot error," "loss of control" from "spatial disorientation," and chronic deterioration of "proficiency" over time? What could I do to insure that I wasn't trained poorly?

Part of the problem is that schools often must hire "low time" pilots who have just obtained their instructors' ratings. It is a low-paying job and one of the only ways to build the 1000 plus hours necessary to get on even the lowest rung of the airline ladder. It is easy to say "Just get better teachers," but unrealistic. Few young instructors will stick around a school if they can get a seat on an airline. Students are looking for a school that will help them get their ratings for the least money (myself included) so the cycle continues.

My young instructor will eventually make his thousand hours and some airline will hire him and the new guy with the 300 hours will take his spot on the bench at the flight school (while whistling "Circle of Life."). The system does work, especially for those who stay in the training environment, and then move on to be a co-pilot (a long-term training period really.) Their training never stops. He (or she) will sit beside a veteran for thousands of hours where every flight is on "instruments" and over time the cream of these guys will eventually become captains.

But, at this point, my only thought was "find better training." I had along the way bought every book and manual on instrument flight available (none of them agree on technique, by the way) and began calling all the likely schools and teachers in my area. Flight instruction is a business and most of the businesses will promise to make you a proficient pilot and get you the ratings you want. But I had "been there" and I was looking for a lot more then a rating. I want to be good at what I do, and preferably, very good. I had the good fortune of meeting Gene Hudson (CFII at Hudson Flight) who has adapted military-style attitude instrument flight methods ("control / performance" methods vs. the FAA's unruly pet, the "primary / supporting" method.) Gene helps many deficient pilots, including airline candidates, to overcome bad training. Statistics show that even commercial multi-engine pilots lack fundamental attitude instrument skills. In one test, nine out of ten pilots rolled inverted during engine failure simulations (Yes, be very scared).

Gene uses flight simulators to teach new skills and to identify deficiencies. The modern flight simulator is a sophisticated machine and a much more efficient way to learn individual skills, and to practice emergency procedures that are impossible to recreate in the air without creating real emergencies. In Gene I had found a better curriculum (an essential element to good training). We soon found that we may have stumbled on a better way to train pilots as well.

Prior to simulator time, Gene teaches the fundamentals in a classroom setting. During one of our sessions we got talking about flight training in general and his dream of a highly advanced flight school – one that only produced excellent pilots. Somewhere along the way, I suggested clicker-training as a means of shaping pilot skill. (I grew up with porpoises in our back yard so it was a natural!) To my surprise, Gene was enthusiastic enough to want to try it. Part of Gene's success is a drive to always want to improve his craft. As a result, he has uncovered a number of facets of instrument flight that are overlooked or ignored by the average school, and just-plain-bad practices that schools dutifully train each successive generation of instructors to teach. For example, to teach a student about gyro failures the standard method is to cover the gyro and say "Gyro failure—fly the plane," which is easy. But pilots who die of gyro failure die because they didn't know how to recognize a failure happening; and by the time they do, IF they do, it is too late. In the simulator, Gene can quietly introduce a partial, incremental failure so that the student learns real recognition skills and appropriate responses.

Gene had also seen a need for communicating to a student at the exact moment the right action was taking place (reinforcement!). But he realized that by the time he said something, the moment could be gone. So I bought a few clickers and explained little about clicking and we did a couple of hours in the simulator. Gene is a natural at clicking and is highly tuned to the student's actions from so many years of teaching. For example, he can tell when you have made a turn by the using the coordinator instead of the attitude indicator. I had not spent any time in a simulator before: my previous instructors only wanted flight time!

My observation is that training progressed very quickly. I always knew exactly when I was doing the right thing (click) and I felt a strong sense of success (lots of clicks and a little praise does that…). Gene missed clicking some of my good examples so I did them perfectly and with slightly exaggerated gestures to make sure he saw. (Click) So that was what it felt like to be randomly reinforced! The behavior intensifies! It was a little tiring and breaks were necessary; but after five minutes we were back, progressing quickly. We ended the session doing a completely stable ILS into Burbank, with a 40-knot crosswind; that last trick is a Gene Hudson specialty.


Over all it was a great experience. But how would the skills hold up over time? Would it mirror the clicker-trained animals who can execute elaborate chains of behavior flawlessly and who can reproduce dormant behaviors easily or with only minimal refreshing?

If the training does "stick", we may have a way to overcome the deterioration of skills that plagues so many part time instrument pilots. If training is faster, we might be able to train to higher standard for the same money. And if being the trainer is more rewarding, perhaps we can keep the flight instructors in schools longer. And lastly, if learning to fly was more fun and the student was enabled to achieve more, sooner then maybe there would be more students who finish their training, and ultimately, avoid becoming "statistics".

My next opportunity to fly was more then two months later with a different instructor. Once we were airborne, I felt as if it had only been a couple days since my simulator sessions. And I hadn't flown under the hood for a couple months before that and my total time in simulated instrument (in aircraft) is only about 25 hours, but it feels so easy and natural now. I give credit to Gene for a very excellent method of attitude instrument flight and I definitely think there is a place for clicking in the future of flight training. (Clicker training without a good curriculum would just be a very efficient way to make bad pilots.) Think of the benefits: more specific and timely feedback to the student, less talking for the instructor (an even greater benefit while flying perhaps), and the subtle and powerful benefits of having skills shaped through positive reinforcement rather than drilled in with coercion.

One little obstacle remained. Gene thought his high dollar clients might object to being clicked like poodles! So, the Electronic Marker Signal Generator was born. Its limits are your imagination and the length of the headphone wire! (And I'm working on that….)

Michael Pryor, CFI, AGI mempryor [at] earthlink [dot] net

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