Refill that coffee cup, this is a long one, but hopefully worth it.
Teaching Someone to Fly - Tools and Techniques
by Ed Anderson
AMA Introductory Pilot
aeajr on the forums
Help the new guys. Don't wait to be asked, go over and offer. Some people
are shy and most don't want to be a bother. I am asking you to go help the
new guys. They will be very grateful and you will make a new flying friend.
How bad could that be?
But what if you don't feel you know how to teach someone to fly. I can say
that I have seen some unselfish attempts go bad because the "teacher" didn't
really have any idea how to go about it. That was probably me, far too many
But after a while, if teaching is something you like, you get
organized and start to understand what the new flyer needs. Here is what I
have developed over time. What method you use may be dictated by your
preference or it may be limited by the equipment and resources you have
available. I will share what I typically do. I invite others to share
their approaches and methods so that more people can feel comfortable
helping new pilots learn to fly.
This is being written with new parkflyer pilots in mind as that is where I
have spent most of my teaching time. Most of them have had 3 channel R/E/T
planes with high wings and electric motors. I have also helped a few pilots
with their first gliders. I don't teach glow or gas, so others will need to
fill into those gaps.
I hope this encourages you and gives you confidence to reach out and help
the new guys.
I always encourage new pilots to read the manual or documentation that came
with their planes. This is especially true if they have a plane that I have
not handled before. The manuals always have good information and can provide
valuable reference material that can help the new pilot after they leave
your loving care.
If they have it with them I may take the time to go through it with them.
If they come to the field without their manual, I ask them to bring it the
next time. If they don't bring it again, I get annoyed.
By the third time, it shows up, and I go through it with them. So often they are
suffering with a question, and the answer is right there, in front of them.
I have no hesitation to ask them if they checked the manual. After a
while, they know the question is coming, and may come to me with the manual
in hand. I consider that a good sign.
I also direct them to these forums as a source of help. If they are
e-mail users I will e-mail them links to useful sites and sources. I
include a series of links at the end of this discussion.
Terms and Expressions
Throughout your lessons, review terms and expressions. This is a new field,
a new skill and it has new terms and expressions. Some of these have become
familiar to you, but your student will be confused. Review things at every
For example, when you say "up" do you mean to push the stick up/forward or
do you mean to pull the stick back to raise the nose of the plane? Tell
them, show them, and explain what will happen on the plane when they do this
on the radio.
When you say left, do you mean the pilot's left, the plane's left ( which
might not be the pilot's left ) or something else? I emphasize that I
ALWAYS mean the plane's left. No matter which way the plane goes, left is
the plane's left. I talk about projecting myself into the pilot seat in the
plane. Once I have that in their minds, then left becomes left all the
What does "give it some down" mean? How much and do they hold it there or
just tap it?
You get the idea.
I have created check lists that I often give to the students to help them
formalize their routine upon arrival at the field. Full scale pilots use
them, so why not us? If you would like a copy, just ask. I am more than
happy to share them.
We always launch and land into the wind. I make sure they have a ribbon on
their radio to help them become aware of the direction of the wind. The
wind can be your friend, or it can be your enemy, depending on how you treat
it. I need them to think about the wind.
Always encourage the new pilots to fly in calm air and try to teach in calm
to mild air. Under 5 mph is best. If they have a real floater, even 5 mph
may be too much. Planes like the Slow Stick or the Slo-V, for example, are
great trainers. However, in the hands of a new flyer, 5 mph is practically
a hurricane. Planes like the Aerobird Challenger, the T-Hawk, the Sky Fly
and similar planes can be flown it more wind, but still calm is best. Be
sensative to this and encourage them to wait for calm air if they plan to
practice on thier own. They probably won't listen, so you can plan on teaching
some repair techniques next time.
Frequency Control and Range Check
I want to be sure we have a clear channel, so we discuss frequency
control, setting or taking of pins and the like. If we turn the radio on to
check the surfaces, I don't want to bring another flyer down. I want to
instill this habit early and reinforce it often.
Then we review the radio to be sure we have a common understanding of its
parts and uses. Many new students do not understand the use of the trims,
so this is often a topic of extended discussion. If all this goes well, we
get ready to fly.
This is followed by a radio range check. A range check must be performed
before the first flight of every plane, every time they come to the field.
Often this is described in the manual. RTFM!
Checking the Plane
I examine the student's plane along with him or her to review the
parts of the plane to be sure we are using common terms. Then we check
alignment, balance and the setting of the surfaces. Anything that must be
adjusted or repaired becomes an important part of the flight lesson. This
usually leads to a discussion about what should be in the student's tool
I then ask the student's permission to take the plane up for a test flight
to be sure that all is working well. If I can't fly it, they certainly
can't fly it. So many times, the first thing that I learn is that they feel
there is something wrong with the plane. If all checks out, and I can
easily fly and land it. There is no more question about where the problem
lies, and that is important. :o
I talk through the process of checking wind directionand that the take
off will be into the wind. We talk about preparing to hand launch or a rise
off ground take-off. We discuss preplanning the landing, landing into the
wind, as well as the landing pattern and the landing location.
On the climb out I discuss the importance of altitude. A plane belongs in
the air. My recommendation is that you should be above 50 feet when you are
new, about tree height where I live, unless you are preparing to land. Let's
call that one mistake high. I normally teach much higher than that, say
3 times that height, or 3 mistakes high. This makes some of them nervous.
This is something they must get past. Altitude is their friend and will
save their plane. Make them fly high.
During the flight I test the plane's glide and determine at what throttle
setting it will hold straight and level flight. Throughout the entire
procedure I am talking the new pilot through the flight to explain what I am
doing and why.
The Plane Knows How to Fly
At some point, if the plane is properly trimmed, I will set it on a straight
and level course, then hold my hands out wide to impress upon the student
that the plane will fly itself and that it is not necessary to manage and
correct every little movement of the plane. Assuming this is a trainer type
plane, I often put the plane into a gentle turn using the trims and let if
fly for 15 to 30 seconds with no contact with the sticks. This usually
reinforces the fact that we do not need to over control or over manage the
plane. It knows how to fly if we just leave it alone. I have been told by
my students that this demonstration was a real eye opener!
If it has a good glide, I will get the plane high, then turn the motor off
for an extended period of time to impress upon them that their plane can fly
without the motor. We discuss how it responds with the motor on and with it
Finally I talk through landing procedures, the landing pattern, then I land
the plane. As we do not have a runway at our field, planes will be landed
on grass so we discuss how this individual plane will behave when it touches
the grass. Most will not roll out but will hang in the grass. So we
discuss whether to use landing gear or to remove it and belly land the
After that we prepare for a first flight together where the student will be
involved in flying the plane. Before we launch, I describe how the flight
will go and what the student will be expected to do and how we will work
together to keep the plane under control.
Normally I launch, reach altitude, get it going level and straight then get
them involved. After a time, I land the plane and we discuss the flight. On
each subsequent flight, if they progress, they take on more and more. I
have had pilots progress to take off and landing in as little as an hour.
I had a 7 year old who, after 20 minutes and two flights could
reliably manage a plane in the air after I got it to height. He flew and I
talked to his Dad, while I watched out of the corner of my eye.
the way, he was flying MY plane. He was pretty good!
We spend a fair amount of time gliding so that they do not panic if
the motor cuts out. I want them to understand how the plane's behavior will
change somewhat when the motor is off. There is less air over the surfaces,
so the plane will be slower to respond. Best to learn this under my
guidance than when they overfly the battery and suddenly have to land
without the motor. And, being a sailplane pilot myself, I may teach them to
thermal the plane.
That is about it. Anything beyond that is something
the student must request from me or other members of the club. Once they
can do this, they are solo.
My goal not to make them pattern flyers, it is to get them to the point
that they can launch, climb, fly, glide, keep the plane in front of them,
line up and land safely. I will probably teach them a loop and a tail
stall. Some people need two hours. Some take a whole season. Some give up
and buy an RC car.
SHARING CONTROL OF THE PLANE
I will touch on two methods I have used. I am sure there are others.
Perhaps others will add their own approaches, tools and reference material.
I hope this is helpful both for those who are teaching and those who are
HAND ON HAND/PASS THE RADIO
Many new flyers are starting on low cost RTF electrics. Many of these
planes fly very well and make good first planes. Unfortunately the radios
don't have trainer/buddy box ports so you can't connect them to a flight
simulator on the computer and you can't connect them to the instructor's
radio to use the buddy system for flying. More on flight simulators and the
buddy system later.
So how do you teach someone to fly without a buddy box?
I am sure there are many methods. Here is one that I have used with adults
and with children as young as 7 years old. Regardless of age or gender, I
follow the same approach.
Hand on Hand
I launch and climb to height. I pull back to about 1/2 to 2/3 throttle.
I get it level and stable and then we begin sharing the flying task.
For adults, I have them stand to my right, off my right shoulder. I have
them reach around my right side to put their right hand on top of mine.
For children and young teens, I will have them stand in front of me. I will
bring the radio in front of them and have them place their right hand on top
of mine. These are usually single stick radios with a slide or lever
throttle. I maintain throttle control to maintain height and have them feel
how my hand moves as I manage the plane. I point out the speed and length
of the motion. I point out when I am controlling and when I am not.
After a minute or two, if they seem to be comfortable, I have them put their
hand on the stick and mine goes on top. I am still in control but now they
feel the stick as we move it. Gentle movement and easy flying is the goal.
If all goes well, I invite them to start to take control.
Once they demonstrate that they can keep the plane level and under control,
I will slowly lift my hand till they have it. I continue to control the
throttle. For some this is a moment of great joy, some panic and some never
even realize I have pulled away.
When it is time to land, I take over and land the plane. Then we discuss
the flight. This is where they usually start to breath again.