It Takes Two!

By Susan Parson, Editor, FAA Safety Briefing magazine, Special Technical Assistant, FAA Flight Standards Service

May 2019

(This article has been reprinted with permission from Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans). She is the editor of the FAA Safety Briefing, as well as an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.)

A pilot certificate at any level-from student to ATP-is primarily a license to learn more about the vast world of aviation. There is indeed a great deal to learn. If that seems intimidating, I get it. That was an issue for me as well. But since teaching is my family profession, I had the benefit of a lifetime’s worth of ideas on what constitutes effective teaching and learning.

Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the idea that effective learning is not a spectator sport. On the contrary, one of the most important elements in education is a learner who is engaged – one who is an active participant in his or her own learning process and experience. That does not require, or even imply, academic anarchy. As an instructor friend likes to say, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Rather, learner engagement – especially for adults – implies a person who regards learning as a participatory process and acts accordingly.

Show Up

It has been said that 90 percent of success in life results from the simple act of “showing up.” In flight training, showing up means being physically present for regularly scheduled ground and flight lessons. Flight training is expensive, but in my experience both as a flight training student and as an instructor, I have learned that frequent lessons are more cost-effective than taking a lesson every 4-6 weeks. Especially in the earliest stages, when everything is new and easily forgotten, frequent lessons are key to effective learning and retention.

In addition, showing up means being mentally present – alert and prepared. Solid preparation is key to being an effectively engaged aviation student. If you are in ground school, there’s no substitute for reading the assigned material before you take your seat in the classroom. If there are practice exercises (e.g., performance calculations), do enough to either master the material or pinpoint the knowledge gaps you can ask about in class. For flight training, think of your lesson components as a sandwich. The flying part is the meat, and pre- and post-lesson preparation make up the slices of bread that keep the meat in place. Before the lesson, mentally review the maneuvers and procedures you learned last time and familiarize yourself with the activities slated for this one. After the lesson, mentally replay what happened.

Pay Attention

I’m not a parent, but I sometimes joke that the flight training process is akin to compressed parenthood. Like a parent with a newborn, the flight instructor starts with a person who is completely dependent on him or her for survival. Again, like the parent, the instructor’s task is to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes the student needs to safely operate alone. The instructor clearly bears a huge responsibility, but so does the student. The actively engaged flight student needs to pay attention – watch, listen, and work to put perceptions from each training experience into a broader context. Never hesitate to ask questions. Say what you see, what you hear, and what you think it means. That gives the instructor a chance to validate the accurate perceptions and correct any misperceptions at the earliest opportunity.

To encourage more active participation by the flight training student, the FAA Aviation Instructor’s Handbook1 suggests a post-flight debriefing technique called the “collaborative critique.” In the traditional assessment we all remember from grade school, the student sits quietly while the instructor marches through a laundry list of quibbles about the student’s performance. In the collaborative critique, however, the instructor guides the student through a four-step process to replay, reconstruct, reflect, and redirect the flight experience. If your instructor doesn’t use this technique, you might want to consider suggesting it.

Another way to develop judgment is to train like you plan to fly. Learning to fly has a few things in common with learning to play a musical instrument. The maneuvers you learn – starting with the four fundamentals of straight and level flight, climbs, turns, descents – are like notes and scales. Knowing how to fly the maneuvers according to the requirements of the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) is very important. But operating safely in the real world requires arranging the basic maneuvers to accomplish the trip or mission you intend to fly and doing so in the context of real-world pressures and constraints. To be an effectively engaged flight training student, you might use a real-world approach to plan your dual and solo cross-country flights. For example, plan as if it were for a family vacation that you might really want to take in an airplane. The importance of comprehensive flight planning becomes very real when you must put it in specific terms: how many people and how many bags can be carried, and how they must be loaded.

Have Fun!

Flying is incredibly fun. Notwithstanding the dedication and work it requires, flight training should also be fun. Here’s hoping that “fun” is threaded through every part of your lifelong aviation learning experience.


NOTE: For more on the collaborative critique, see:
Jan/Feb 2019 issue of NAFI Mentor magazine
Feb 20, 2019 webcast of NAFI Mentor Live

Reprints are allowed by both Avemco Insurance Company and the author, Susan Parson.

Susan Parson has been with the FAA since May 2004. She worked in the General Aviation and Commercial Division of the FAA Flight Standards Service from May 2004 until June 2009, when she became special technical assistant to the FAA Flight Standards Service executive director. In this capacity, she manages his internal and external communications, continues as editor of FAA Safety Briefing magazine and serves as the lead FAA representative for the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) project to improve airman testing and training.   She has authored over 200 GA safety articles and several online training documents and courses. These include Conducting an Effective Flight Review, Instrument Proficiency Check Guidance, and Best Practices for Mentoring in Flight Instruction. She has created several advanced avionics training courses and modules, and she was the primary author of the Civil Air Patrol’s National Check Pilot Standardization Course.  Susan holds an ATP certificate, as well as ground and flight instructor certificates with instrument, single engine, and multi-engine land ratings. She also maintains a blog at

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