Do you ever feel like you’re not getting anywhere with your flying lessons? That on some maneuvers your skills seem to be sliding backward rather than progressing? Perhaps you’re suffering loss of confidence as a result. Well if so, you’re not alone. Every pilot-in-training runs into such problems — excelling at times while frustrated at others. Unfortunately, few student pilots hear about the challenges their peers experience, so they often assume that only they are having problems.
Your flight instructor will tell you that every student faces training setbacks, but virtually everyone who sticks with it goes on to become a competent pilot. In fact, what you are facing is so common it has a name: “Learning Plateau.” The phenomenon is formally taught to CFIs because it occurs with every aspiring pilot — the student progresses rapidly for a while, then hits a learning plateau with no apparent progress. Once overcoming the plateau it’s back to rapid progress again!
Here’s a graph of the learning plateau. To quote directly from the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook, “…in learning motor skills, a leveling-off process, or a plateau, is normal, and can be expected after an initial period of rapid improvement. The instructor should prepare the student for this situation to avert discouragement. If the student is aware of this learning platform, frustration may be lessened.”
There are several approaches for overcoming a learning plateau. Step one is for your instructor to tackle the challenge in a variety of different ways. Each of us learns differently, so several approaches may be required to find the one that works best for you. If you feel that you and your CFI have “tried everything” with no results, schedule a lesson with someone else you respect, like your school’s Chief Flight Instructor. A fresh perspective will likely put you back on track.
Finally, if you find yourself getting discouraged take a break from stalls and steep turns and make a pleasure flight — to remind yourself of why you’re learning to fly in the first place. For fun! For adventure! For relaxation! Assuming that you don’t come from an aviation background, your piloting experience is probably limited to an intro flight followed by a series of high-intensity lessons. Other than craning our necks for traffic, not many of us get to relax and enjoy the view prior to solo cross-country. But few pilots learn to fly because they love practicing stalls and steep turns.
That’s why, even though it’s not on the syllabus, a casual “pleasure flight” is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself. Ask your CFI to schedule an extra “brunch lesson” to fly to an hour-away airport. If you want to make the flight educational, visit a nearby Automated Flight Service Station or radar approach control facility for a tour. Or go to a pancake fly-in. (Fly-ins are great places to learn collision-avoidance techniques!) But wherever you go on this trip, make it long enough for you to do some relaxed flying, and allow time at the destination to kick back with your instructor, relax, and talk.
Your “pleasure flight” objectives are to get some positive feedback on skills already learned, and to remind you of why it’s worth the headaches to become a pilot. Such adventures break the pattern of stressful lessons, and give you the opportunity to realize, “Hey, I may not have stalls perfectly nailed yet, but look at how far my piloting has come! I just flew an airplane comfortably for a hundred miles, all while holding my heading and altitude within Private Pilot practical test tolerances, handling the radios, and having fun to boot.” Imagine doing that a month ago!
Finally, keep in mind that the number of hours it takes for a pilot to earn a Private certificate doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the pilot’s skills when done. If anything, those who rush through training are often poorer performers. So keep chipping away at those learning plateaus, knowing you will indeed overcome them, and if necessary, take an occasional pleasure lesson to reawaken your excitement about being a pilot. You will never regret it!
©2009, 2017 Gregory N. Brown
For more guidance on this topic, see Greg’s book, The Savvy Flight Instructor Second Edition, available in print and ebook.