One look at a cockpit, especially one belonging to a new airliner or a fighter jet, might seem like an impossible mess to a non-pilot and an overwhelming task to a new one. How can anyone master all those screens, knobs, and pedals? And what about everything else a pilot is expected to manage—information about weather, communication from air traffic control, or decisions about landing and taking off?
The good news is that just about every single aviator has started in the same place, experiencing the same emotions. Even the Wright Brothers struggled to get off the ground with the first airplane. It took them years, but the difference is that they had to work with trial and error. New pilots don’t have to teach themselves or figure out the basics of flying. They have decades of experience from other pilots and refined systems to help them.
The Time Is Now to Learn How to Fly
There’s never been a better time to become a pilot. Not only can prospective pilots research a great deal of reading material online, helpful videos and diagrams are available with just a click. Many arduous or complex calculations are now automated through apps or on-board systems, and even reliable computer simulators are available to cut the time of in-flight training.
Consider that even the most experienced pilots must undergo at least some training while climbing into the cockpit of a new aircraft; even if a captain has logged thousands of hours in a Boeing 777, he still has some learning to do before he can safely and efficiently operate a Gulfstream for the first time.
But where does a new pilot begin? Keep in mind that military pilots can go from never having sat in a cockpit to soloing in a matter of weeks, so rapid progression is possible. But, you say, these service member’s lives during their flight training are wholly concentrated on learning how to become a pilot. What about someone beginning later in life, with perhaps a career, a family, and lots of social obligations to consider?
Remember, as someone learning to fly, you have a great deal of help not only from books, apps, and the internet. Your certified flight instructor and flight school are well-equipped to help guide you in the process.
Flight Instructors and Grasping Information
Not only has your CFI already gone through the same process you do as a student pilot, he or she has been specifically trained to assist you in managing the workload of a cockpit. CFIs are taught how to break down information into manageable bites so that student pilots of all ages and backgrounds can build familiarity with and confidence in two areas: General principles of aviation, and information specific to the aircraft in which they are learning to fly.
You are not expected to learn the entire cockpit in a day, nor master the ability to land with a single taxi. Flying lessons are carefully prepared by experts not only in aviation, but also in education and information processing. The best flight instructors know how to explain the realities of flight in a variety of ways so that student pilots who learn all kinds of different ways can grasp the complexities of each concept. And even if you have a burning question at 3 AM on the East Coast, the chances are good that a pilot in Hawaii will be awake and surfing the same pilot chatrooms and message boards you are.
Charts, Cockpits, and Codes
There is a reason your pilot education will take place on the ground early on, and continue in the classroom even after you have grown comfortable in the cockpit. By introducing information in the classroom before you must apply it in the air, your CFI can ensure that you have fully grasped certain important concepts.
Part of the intimidation many people feel about the basics of flying are that they seem so foreign. The first time someone looks at a sectional aviation chart, for example, it can seem like a bizarre and incomprehensible jumble of symbols and codes.
However, after just one lesson with your instructor, you will come away with at least some grasp of what this data is and what it means. You’ll learn about what denotes an obstruction, where the radio aids are, and what to look for in order to plan a flight. Understanding this wealth of information, all provided at a glance, clues you into what the most experienced pilots understand as well.
Similarly, your instructor will ensure that you are familiar with the layout of your airplane’s cockpit before you climb into it, and he or she will be right by your side when it’s time to move from the ground and simulator to the real thing. You’ll have a grasp of how these operate—and, more importantly, why—and how the controls of the airplane make it possible for you to take off, navigate in the air, and land safely.
Not only that, modern cockpits are specifically designed to make task management and information flow as quickly and efficiently as possible. The more time you spend in the cockpit, the more comfortable you will become in working with its controls, and in time, you will come to rely on judgment, memory, and intuition rather than nervously trying to ensure you are completing a memorized checklist.
Helping Your Instructor to Keep it Simple
Your instructor and flight school are committed to your success. To make the process of learning to fly less complicated, however, you also have a responsibility to your own education. It is best to learn to fly in steady progression instead of stops and starts, and studying or memorizing material is vital to moving forward in your lesson plans. Coming to each lesson prepared, well rested, and with a silenced phone will also help your instructor make the most of your lesson time.
Learning to fly is quite an accomplishment, but it’s one you can make.
Mr. Matthew A. Johnston has over 23 years of experience serving various roles in education and is currently serving as the President of California Aeronautical University. He maintains memberships and is a supporting participant with several aviation promoting and advocacy associations including University Aviation Association (UAA), Regional Airline Association (RAA), AOPA, NBAA, and EAA with the Young Eagles program. He is proud of his collaboration with airlines, aviation businesses and individual aviation professionals who are working with him to develop California Aeronautical University as a leader in educating aviation professionals.