Richard Bach, the well-known pilot and author of numerous books, articles and short stories about aviation (he’s probably most widely known for his book Jonathan Livingston Seagull), once wrote a story about a mythical flight school somewhere in the western U.S. and far away from civilization. This story, which was probably first published in the 1960s or early ’70s, also appeared in a compilation of Bach’s short stories and articles, the title of which I can’t recall.
The point of the story was that aspiring pilots would benefit from flight training that would take them through the historical development of flight. So, as Bach related it, this hypothetical flight school has students building and flying balloons and gliders, not unlike those built by the early pioneers of flight. Then the students move to building engines and powered airplanes and flying them, too, continuing this step-by-step approach to more complex aircraft.
Along the way, the budding pilots learn hands-on all the basics of flight, as well as the mechanical aspects of their aircraft. They learn to recognize when their aircraft is reaching the limits of its capabilities and can tell when the engine is running poorly by its sound. Their experiences serve them well regardless of how heavy, fast or complicated the aircraft they eventually fly are. It was the ultimate flight training for real pilots.
While I can’t recall the name of the story, I remember thinking at the time how cool it would have been to go through such a flight school. Impractical, yes, but what a way to learn how to fly.
Bach’s short story came to mind while I read an article about Air France Flight 447, the Airbus A330-200 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Data from the cockpit voice recorder has brought renewed focus on the ability of pilots to recognize high-altitude stalls, particularly in highly automated aircraft with flight-by-wire flight control systems. One recommendation is that authorities consider making angle-of-attack indicators mandatory in such airplanes. And there is also a push for regular training that teaches and re-teaches pilots how to recognize an approach to stall and to manually recover from it.
This is good and I hope it does not take forever for aviation authorities to implement.
Meanwhile, there is one thing any pilot can do right now to improve his or her flying ability. Simulators and autopilots are great. I used to train and instruct in six-axis simulators and fly aircraft with sophisticated autopilots. But I also found it helpful and reassuring to fly with the autopilot off, and usually did this for a least part of every flight. This is what I recommend. You don’t need to do anything weird. Just get comfortable flying without the autopilot engaged on a regular basis.
And if you have never read Richard Bach’s books, I recommend them, too. The U.S. Army and Air Force taught me to fly by the numbers, but it was Bach who gave me a real love of flight.