Training using “chunks”   

    In training students to land the aircraft, as instructors we frequently find ourselves going around and around the traffic pattern at an airport, while the student very gradually learns the sequence of throttle, flap, trim and pitch changes needed to smoothly fly the aircraft down the descent path to the landing.  This work is of obvious value, since most of the students do learn how to land the aircraft.  But it seems so slow, and there are teaching tools we can borrow from musicians and martial artists to groove the pattern more quickly.  One method is what I call “chunking”.

     When a musician wants to teach himself a really difficult passage of music, he can flounder around trying to play the passage while making lots of mistakes, or take some approaches that work.  One systematic way to learn a tricky muscle-memory pattern is to slow it down until every motion (note) comes out perfectly, in the right order, extremely slowly.  This kind of practice “grooves” the muscle memory so that the body learns the exact placement of body parts to execute the passage.  When the musician’s body has the pattern learned with perfect accuracy, then she starts to speed up the tempo until the perfect passage is at the perfect speed. 

    Another “chunking” approach is to play two notes of the passage, at speed, perfectly, and to repeat just the two notes until they are grooved in.  Then the third note of the passage is introduced, and when three notes work perfectly, the fourth, and so on.  This approach lets the body learn the motions at the correct speed, and is effective when the musician can play fast, but just hasn’t encountered the particular pattern of notes that is involved.

    In his wonderful book, “The Art of Learning”, Josh Waitzkin tells of using the slow programming method to teach his body new moves in Tai Chi Push Hands, a competitive martial arts sport: “At times I repeated segments of the form over and over, honing certain techniques while refining my body mechanics and deepening my sense of relaxation.  I focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving my hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting my feet to my fingertips with less and less obstruction.....and suddenly everything would start flowing at a higher level.”

    I would not equate landing an airplane with the physical control needed to play Push Hands at a high competitive level.  But, landing an airplane has such obvious consequences that as instructors we cannot allow our student to “be thrown out of the ring” as happens when a Push Hands competitor loses two points. 

    So, here’s the technique for refining the control inputs for approach and landing:

  1. 1.   Start at an altitude that allows for a long, controlled descent.

  2. 2.    The student sets up the airplane in the downwind level flight configuration, with power, trim and airspeed just as for the downwind leg.

  3. 3.    The student makes the power reduction and configuration changes normal for beginning the pattern descent.  Allow the student to take the time to get the pitch, trim and airspeed just right for the initial descent.

  4. 4.    Reconfigure as for the base leg, and let the student take the time to get the airspeed and trim just right.

  5. 5.    Reconfigure as for final, and again let the student take time to get it just right.

  6. 6.    Student pulls the power back, simulates the landing flare (above 1500 AGL), and then practices a go-around, configuring the airplane for a climb, and returns to the starting altitude.

    When we fly around the traffic pattern, most of the basic skills of handling the airplane are compressed into 3 or 4 minutes of activity.  We expect our students to learn that pattern, but we need to allow the learning process to take place at the speed the student pilot is able to take it in.  Let the student do the actions at a slower pace, and the learning curve will get better.