As I stood in front of 15 excited and anxious student pilots in the first meeting of my private pilot ground school class last fall, I started to lose their attention as I kicked off a discussion on navigation tips, tools and techniques. The majority of them didn’t have one hour of flight instruction in an aircraft, as many of them used this class as their initial introduction to aviation. With this, it was my job to deliver the information required to pass the private pilot written exam over the course of 12 classes in a clear, concise and interesting manner that was engaging and, ideally, memorable.
Rewinding to a few years ago, perhaps one of the pivotal moments in my learning experience as a student pilot was realizing that my flight instructor and other various teachers were once in my shoes and that they hadn’t received a multitude of pilot certificates and ratings within a six-month window. On the other hand, I perceived my instructors to be flawless; every landing was an act of perfection and every checkride was passed with flying colors. It wasn’t until I was well into my flight training that I realized that my flight instructor wasn’t perfect and that he, too, had made some rather ridiculous mistakes. Little did I know that I would later come to realize that revealing my mistakes would be the most engaging and meaningful teaching method for this group of students.
Back to the classroom, I dove headfirst into a two-hour discussion of GPS, VORs and the use of ground aids to navigate our National Airspace System. Referencing the book and how it discussed the technicalities associated with radials and identifying magnetic course caused the majority of my new flying classroom students to gaze out the window. I paused for a moment and asked, “Does anyone know why this is important?” Still new to class, nobody was ready to offer any insight. I drew a couple of X’s on the whiteboard that were representative of airports, a few course lines and a stick airplane that was flying well off-course.
“It’s important because I got lost on my first solo cross-country, and with roughly 25 hours of flight time, it was terrifying,” I said.“I was a ball of nerves, convinced I was on my last flight ever; I would never be seen in, near or within a 10-mile radius of an airplane or airport ever again,” I continued, as I described the emotional perspective of getting lost as a student pilot.
As I elaborated further and described my brief 30 nm adventure, I explained how important it was to understand reverse sensing, even though GPS navigation dominates the cockpit of many aircraft nowadays. I noted that having a backup source of navigation is vital and understanding how to use all of the navigation equipment onboard is just as important.
Did I go too far and out myself as a lackluster pilot? Will these students continue to trust me, trust my judgment, skills and abilities? Will they come back for class next week?
They came back. Two days later, we met for the second class. The discussion led us to the airport environment, noting runway layouts, lighting, signage and the information available to them to help them navigate on the ground. It was at this point I sensed that my students’ minds had started to wander outside and I feared that my ability to engage, inspire and connect with them had now passed.
Time to reengage and divert from the book. “Why is it important to study and understand the layout of an airport?” They all looked up at me in bewilderment. Using the information we discussed in the book, we talked about the importance of hold short lines and runway numbers.
One student raised his hand. “What happens if you don’t stop at a hold short line?” Great question.
Another student asked how runways received their runway number. The questions kept coming and internally I was elated; however, now it was time for real-world application.
“Several years ago, I landed on the wrong runway,” I announced proudly. I thought to myself, if my students were questioning my piloting capabilities before, certainly I had swayed their opinion by now.
Back to the whiteboard, I drew an airport diagram with three runways all spaced 40 degrees apart. I described just how easily a pilot could land on or line up for the wrong runway. I asked the students to put themselves in the pilot’s seat for a moment.
“You’re cleared to take off on runway 27, winds are calm, and ATC says you can make a short approach to runway 5 instead and hold short of runway 27,” I said, drawing the irregular traffic pattern on the board, which was accompanied by a stick airplane. “However, it’s night, the airport is lit up like a Christmas tree, and there’s a Citation on final for runway 27 so the pressure is on. Rolling out on short final, you see the Citation and make a short approach to the runway only to realize your directional gyro isn’t heading northeast and you’re not next to taxiway Kilo like you should be; instead, your aircraft is facing a northwest heading. What happened?”
One student said, “You landed on the wrong runway.”
“Which one?” I asked.
I explained that it was (unfortunately) relatively common and that even professional pilots make this perceivably rookie mistake from time to time. With this, I offered several tricks and tools to incorporate into their flight training, such as placing the heading bug on the appropriate heading that aligns with the runway number during takeoff and landing. Checking and double-checking this on short final or as part of a pre-takeoff clearance has been a habit of mine ever since this incident. This also proved to be a great tool to correlate runway numbers and magnetic heading. For grins, I also explained what it was like to make that dreaded call to the air traffic control tower. After a few laughs, the light bulbs began to flicker on.
It was at this point that the connection between what was in the book and the real-world examples was gaining more momentum than I had ever anticipated. Because many of these students didn’t have any experience in the left seat of an airplane, I realized I was using these stories as a method of putting them in the “virtual” pilot’s seat. Putting these new, zero-flight-time students in the pilot’s seat by way of providing examples and boastfully proclaiming my inadequacies as a student pilot was an effective teaching method and, perhaps, most importantly, it got all of us out of the book.
As part of the learning experience, my admissions were also a method of scenario-based training, which naturally engaged students and indirectly generated a foundation of honesty and trust. I noticed they felt more open and free to ask questions, especially, “Why?” As a teacher (or parent of any four-year-old), that question can prove to be a dreaded, spiraling question of doom, but in our classroom, we dove into the details. In a matter of two classes, our three-hour meetings turned into a friendly, open conversation where learning flourished.
Over the course of the class, I expressed how important it was to not give up in their day-to-day flying; mistakes are and always will be a part of flight training. Not only was this method of teaching from my mistakes engaging for my students, taking a risk and unveiling mistakes created learning opportunities, and these learning opportunities generated a multitude of teaching opportunities—outside of the book. Albeit it’s not popular to reveal these types of stories, but when paired with passion, raw emotion and a commitment to educate, they often end up being successful learning and teaching tools.
Jessica Koss holds a Commercial Pilots license, and has been a Certified Flight Instructor and Advanced Ground Instructor for over 10 years; she most recently earned her Seaplane rating. Jessica handles aviation media relations at Garmin International.