David Franson
January 25, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. Jerry L. Robinson, PhD.

Years ago, while employed at Cessna, I was “checked out” to fly single engine airplanes by one of the most capable and precise pilots I’ve ever seen.

by Former Cessna Pilot Dr. Jerry Robinson

His piloting skills were as good as his jokes were corny and bad, but I learned from him every time we flew together. Perhaps his only mistake as a flyer was to sign me off to terrorize the skies on my own. But, he managed to survive with his reputation in tact and has gone on to a have a noteworthy and productive teaching career.
Dr. Jerry Robinson knows a lot about flying. When I told him I was looking for some guest “bloggers” for the Aero Club website, he willingly accepted my invitation. Here’s the first of what I hope will be numerous offerings from an insightful and capable flight instructor who can also write a little bit, too!


We all know that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. But I fear that we’re approaching a point in flight training where we can’t see the trees for the forest.

I’ve been a flight instructor since 1963, and a Designated Pilot Examiner for a considerable portion of that time. It’s easy…and natural, I suppose… to look fondly on the “good old days” and argue that aviation has gone to hell in a hand basket, and that we just don’t do it like we did back in the day.

But one thing has changed, and every instructor and DPE I talk to agrees…most of the kids coming along nowadays don’t fly the airplane as well as their fathers did.

What are some of the symptoms? Here are just three of many.

At the end of a flight, the left fuel tank has less fuel than the right (in airplanes with a gravity system and a “Both” position on the fuel selector.) Why? Because the pilot doesn’t understand the function of the rudder, and flies the entire flight with one wing low. (You can also see this by looking at the ailerons … the trailing edge of the right one is up just a little, compared to the left one. Left turning tendency tries to yaw the airplane to the left, especially in a climb, and the pilot compensates by holding right aileron.)

One main landing gear tire wears out faster than the other. Why? Because the pilot lands with one wing low. Usually the left tire wears faster on planes with a control wheel, and the right one wears out on planes with a stick. It’s because the pilot doesn’t pull the control straight back during the flare, lowering the one wing or the other just a little as the elevator comes up.

During the after landing roll, the nose gear immediately comes down following touchdown, (if indeed, it was up at all,) and if you watch the maneuver from the sidelines, you see the trailing edge of the elevator start to “flop” up and down, or go full down and stay there, and the pilot surrenders control of the airplane to fate, and takes his/her hands off the controls so better to pat himself/herself on the back for being such a great pilot.

Obviously, these are “trees” which are being missed in the walk through the forest of learning to fly.

Let me suggest some possibilities. They may or not be root causes. And they are based on my opinions. (Remember, most everyone has an opinion and an armpit, and they are both subject to being a little smelly.)

Pilots trained in technologically advanced aircraft seem to show these symptoms more often than pilots trained on more basic platforms. When a student steps into one of these marvels (and they truly are) of modern aviation, his/her mind is simply boggled by the enormity of what must be learned. And the instructor thinks, “How will I ever get this person ready for a checkride in only 40 or 50 hours?” The result is a rapid run-through of the basics (“See, this is straight and level flight. Now let’s go on to something important,”) and the student becomes a systems operator, never learning the fine art of controlling the airplane. Most of these airframes are so finely engineered and the aerodynamics so nearly perfect, that they are extremely easy to fly almost well. Thankfully, most pilots never get into situations where the ability to fly really well becomes a make or break factor. But when it does happen, the results are at best, interesting.

A second possible factor is our digital bias in everything we do. I tell folk that I’m an analog person in a digital world. But controlling an airplane is an analog process. I had this brought home to me the other day when I told a student, during climbout, that he needed to level the wings and hold a little right rudder. He immediately complied, but after a few seconds, backslid into his sinful ways. I again mentioned leveling wings and applying rudder. He looked at me with some disgust, and said, “I did,” In his digital mind, he equated applying the control pressures to a “I did it, time to move on to something else” computer input, and only after some counseling, did he understand that the wings must be continuously leveled, and the rudder must be continuously applied. Was he just a little slower than the average bear, or is that a symptom? I don’t know, but I’ve tweaked my terminology, and I now stress the analog aspects of controlling an airplane a little more to my students.

Some other examples:

An applicant on a Private Pilot checkride gets about 10 or 15 miles out on the cross-country portion of the flight test, and I shut down his GPS. He says: “I’m aborting the flight. I can’t continue with this malfunction.” Since the Practical Test Standards clearly states that the task is Pilotage and Dead Reckoning, (not GPS navigation) I gave him the opportunity to rethink his decision. He was adamant. I told him that he did not meet the standards for the issuance of the certificate he was seeking, and told him to take us back to the airport. His reply: “I can’t. I don’t know where it is.”

On a cross country flight with a student in a glass-cockpit airplane, I ask, “Where are we?” The reply: (Pointing at the bright dot in the middle of the screen) “We’re right here.” I suggested that what he was pointing at was just a spot of glowing phosphor, and that where we were was 10 miles northeast of Muskogee, OK, stressing that the glowing dot was an only an aid in knowing where we really were. His expression as he looked at me suggested that I was a fossilized old pterodactyl, and really didn’t have a clue about this flying stuff.

I ask a student for a steep turn. He rolls into a fairly decent 50 degree banked turn. I reach across the cockpit and cover the attitude and heading indicators. He loses 200 feet of altitude and rolls out 45 degrees late. Why? Because he is flying the video game on the instrument panel, not flying the airplane. (By the way, my friend and Principal Operations Inspector at the LIT FSDO and I often discuss what we believe to be the next accident surge – mid air collisions. Everybody is so busy watching the glass that nobody is looking out the window.)

Ok. I’ve suggested that there may be a problem. What is the solution?

The solution to the problem lies in the hands of the (probably) least experienced and (probably) lowest paid airmen in the system: The flight instructors. But they need some help. Designated examiners, chief flight instructors… even the FAA… must take a hand in shifting the emphasis during those first hours of flight training, to the basic skills emphasized so well (even if the terminology is a bit quaint) by Wolfgang Langewiesche in Stick and Rudder, (1944) McGraw Hill.

Will this happen? Likely not. Hard work doesn’t sell nearly as well as shiny new panels. And certainly the profits aren’t as good. But if even a few of us decide to go back to teaching flying instead of aeronautical video games, maybe we can make a difference.

Check six.

“Dr. Rob” is Aviation Professor Emeritus at Henderson State University. He holds an ATP and a CFI with a bunch of ratings, and is a DPE. He retired as a Colonel from the US Army Reserve, and is a Master Army Aviator. He holds the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. He was a flight crew trainer, corporate pilot and flight training supervisor in Cessna’s Air Transportation Department from l973 to 1987.)

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One thought on “GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. Jerry L. Robinson, PhD.

  1. Denis Cullinan on said:

    Bravo, Dr. Robinson! I’m not a flier, but I love to read well-written and cogent statements by someone who knows what he’s talking about (that’s why I enjoyed Langewiesche’s books so much). Mind you, I scarcely know what I’m talking about, but I would venture the opinion that if more of our general-aviation pilots knew what you know and Langewiesche knew, we’d be losing far fewer pilots in making ordinary turns.

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