Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, April, 1992

Defining the Word "Perfect"

The search for the perfect training aircraft goes as far 'back as the Wright Brothers. Once Orville and Wilbur figured out how to get off the ground and back in one piece, they soon realized that pilots had to be trained. Then they figured that pilots would learn faster in an aircraft designed specifically for that purpose, and the search was on for a true training airplane.

The earliest specialized trainer to gain popularity was the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny. This drag festooned caricature of an airplane did perform well as a trainer, but quickly faded from the trainer scene as more modern designs became available.

During the '20s, there were many aircraft that were suitable for training, but were not specifically designed for that purpose. Without exception, these aircraft were biplanes with large engines which kept the cost of learning to fly very high.

The stock market had barely fallen when those in aviation who worried about such things realized they could only survive if the cost of training came down to the level of the average man's pocketbook. You couldn't feed a 225 horsepower J6 Wright engine and still have money left over for training. It was because of this that the first true light airplane, the Aeronca C-3, was designed and produced. This aircraft set the stage for the first light trainers.

The C-3, with only 37 horsepower and a lot of hope, could, if given enough time, lug a student and an instructor off the ground, and the first inexpensive trainer was born. There were numerous two-place airplanes to follow the Aeronca, but it was five or six years before the first plans for the Piper Cub series were drawn. With this aircraft, the die was cast for the standard by which all other primary trainer aircraft would be judged.

The next major step was when Cessna began producing their little two-place, all-metal airplane, the C-1201140. This was not only the first modern trainer, but also the last modern trainer designed, since nothing new has appeared since that aircraft was introduced in 194711948. We have been training students in the same airplane series for nearly 50 years.

It doesn't take much investigating to find the definition of what makes a good trainer. Everyone has their own ideas, which are primarily the result of there actually being three different versions of what defines a good trainer. The student has his idea of what he would like to see (although he may not actually know clearly what that is), the instructor very definitely knows what he would like to see in a trainer, and the economics of flight training force a very narrow definition of "good" onto the flight school operator.

Examining the three sides of the definition in reverse order, the flight school operator is in business for one reason and that's to make a profit. As much as he may love aviation, the bottom line has to be in black ink or his future will be short-lived.

A good trainer, to the operator, is, first, cost-effective. This means the combination of the initial investment, the operating costs, the maintenance, the hours which it coo fly in bad weather, and whether it operates as a multiple-use airplane for training and rental, figures into his definition. The question of how well it actually trains students is important but not primary.

The investment which goes into a trainer is more important than in most other aircraft because training is much more price-sensitive. Students know learning to fly is going to cost more than they want it to, but they would like it to not be ridiculously expensive. The instruction rate is controlled by the amortization cost of the original investment, as well as the insurance, which is also governed partially by the activities and aircraft.

The second major point, from the operator's point of view, is the actual direct operating cost. An airplane that burns six gallons an hour versus one that burns eight gallons at two dollars a gallon is returning four dollars an hour more to the operator in pure profit. That may not sound like much, but it is a major consideration.

Part of the direct operating cost is how easily and cheaply the airplane is maintained. Not that all students destroy airplanes, but flight training is, simply, hard on the machinery. There aren't many pilots who can say they went through their entire training career without smacking onto the runway at least a few times. In addition, just the landing cycles of power on/power off, on the runway and in the air, put a lot more wear and tear on everything, including the instructor.

When it comes to maintenance, there can be no argument that simpler is better. Systems not only cost money in the initial investment, but the more systems there are means more to be maintained. A classic case is the Cherokee versus the C-152. The Cherokee uses oleos for the landing gear versus a simple spring on the Cessna. Each of those oleos represents an item of maintenance. The Cherokee is also feeding 320 cubic inches versus 235 cubes for the Cessna. There is no way a Cherokee can actually be operated as cheaply as the C-152. There is, however, in these two airplanes, a cross-over between simpler and lighter, and heavier and more complex, in the number of hours that the airplane can fly because of wind.

A question of how many hours an airplane will sit on the ground, because of too much turbulence or wind, makes the heavier airplane more attractive to an operator. Even though such an airplane may be more expensive to maintain, it may fly more often, depending very much on local weather conditions. This is such a regional concern it's often not thought about when looking at the overall picture. The operators flying in Oklahoma know there are going to be more days shut down by wind than a similar operator in Florida or New Jersey. Aircraft such as a Cherokee have a higher wing loading and, therefore, are capable of punching through wind that would keep a Cessna on the ground. There is also a slight advantage of the low wing versus the high wing in handling gusty crosswinds. This exact same argument can be applied to the Cub versus the Champ. The Champ simply would get more flying time in a windy situation than the Cub, although it costs more per hour to operate.

Flight schools that are part of an FBO also have to consider the ability to use some of their trainers as rental aircraft or short-haul charters. This means that a four-seat airplane such as a C-172 may make more sense than the smaller, slower C-152. Also, if instrument training is being offered, it is almost always more sensible to do it in a larger airplane.

The big question of how well a trainer actually trains is one that's bound to generate lots of controversy and opinions. However, the point could be made that effective training is partially a function of how good the instructor is and what type of an aircraft they are flying. A good instructor can make up for a bad trainer, and a superior trainer can, within certain limitations, teach the student when the instructor himself is a little on the weak side.

Some aircraft make bad trainers simply because they are entirely too easy to fly. In that situation, they only become good trainers when the right seat is occupied by a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) who really cares and works at his job. If the airplane is too easy to fly, it's up to the instructor to work on the student and force him to develop the basic skills when the airplane itself is only giving a hint of what is actually needed. The Cherokee is one of those airplanes, it just flies too easy. If the CFI doesn't push the student hard to develop strong coordination and attitude control, there is a good probability the student will be weak in many basic areas.

Some trainers are better because their handling characteristics are not good when viewed in modern design terms. Current design has all but eliminated adverse yaw, but an airplane with lots of adverse yaw forces the student to use the rudder. He has no choice, or he's going to be just slipping and skidding through the sky.

An airplane that is extremely light is a difficult airplane to fly in windy or turbulent conditions, so it could be judged as a marginal airplane. That same characteristic makes it an excellent trainer simply because it makes a student work a little harder. The old Cub and Champ are both good examples of this type of airplane. Judged by modern handling criteria, they are really pretty sloppy airplanes, but they produce good students. Probably the best modern trainer when viewed in the same light is the C-152, although it is pretty light on adverse yaw.

The instructor looks at trainer aircraft much differently than the operator. After all, chances are he's not the one who has to support the airplane, he just flies it, and so his concerns are less financial and more instructional. The way a CFI looks at an aircraft is quite possibly the best definition of what makes a good trainer. Any CFI worth his salt (what a dumb saying!) is going to want an airplane that presents a definite challenge to the student without being too difficult to fly. He wants the airplane to be just demanding enough that it's initially out of the student's reach, but with proper training becomes a goal which is achievable.

At the same time, the airplane should be challenging. Most CFIs would prefer that every one of the normal characteristics such as a stall, adverse yaw, etc., be very noticeable. Students often are overwhelmed by simply being off the ground and they aren't into noticing nuances. For their first critical ten hours, be they almost have to hit over the head to get their attention. This is true in almost all aspects of flying, but is especially true when it comes to how the airplane handles. For instance, a Cherokee which has very little adverse yaw is a weak trainer because the adverse yaw isn't readily apparent. For that reason, the student doesn't see exactly why he needs the rudder at all times and he comes away with lazy feet.

The ideal training aircraft would probably be one that had the ability to change a few linkages and get rid of the differential ailerons, which would give the airplane very noticeable adverse yaw when being used as a trainer.

Most instructors would also like to see an airplane with a definite stall rather than simply mushing forward with the control yoke nailed to the student's chest. Most instructors would like to have the airplane approach the stall, give a characteristic buffet, let the controls turn to mush, and then break, if not sharply, at least noticeably, so the student actually sees the stall develop.

The reason for wanting a very noticeable stall, adverse yaw, and other handling characteristics is to teach the basics. It is important to turn out students who are coordinated and capable of handling extreme situations so, when they move on to other aircraft, the basics will be in place and they will be prepared. This is especially true since most modern aircraft are much more forgiving than a trainer that actually stalls, and has adverse yaw and other blemishes on its personality.

An instructor is also going to look for a cockpit that presents a good learning environment. Chief concern is the ability to communicate with the student. Training is nothing more than the instructor sizing up the student and developing a line of communication tailor-made for that student. The instructor can then successfully take what is in his head and put it in the studentís head. Teaching is a relatively complicated process in any situation, but flight instruction is a unique learning situation, if only because there aren't a whole lot of class-rooms that are doing 100 mph, are barely three feet wide, and can kill both the student and the teacher.

The aforementioned ability to communicate is critical. A lot of things affect that communication. the first being the seating arrangement. In a tandem airplane, the instructor has no way he can monitor the student except by his voice. Students in any educational situation present an opportunity for the instructor to judge how well he is communicating by watching the student's face and his body language. That's one place the side-by-.side trainer makes more sense than the tandem. When the student is either totally invisible behind the CFI or the instructor is looking at the back of the student's neck, it's difficult to tell when a stress situation is developing. The only clues are changes in vocal quality and the heads of sweat running down the back of a student's neck.

The ability for the student to clearly hear the instructor is also of paramount importance. In the first place, many of the words being used are either totally foreign to the student or they are words he only picked up the day before yesterday and isn't exactly sure what to do with them. The noisy, environment of most trainers really complicates that communication. This is even more complicated when it is a tandem seating, arrangement. One of the very best additions to the teaching environment is the development of low-cost, high-quality intercom systems (ICS). With a new voice-activated ICS, the instructor can communicate in a normal tone of voice without having to resort to a borderline shout. It's not unusual for a student to think ills instructor doesn't like him, while the instructor perceives himself as being relatively calm and in control. What the instructor doesn't realize is his high-decibel form of communicating, necessitated because of the cockpit noise. is being perceived by the student as a teacher who isn't pleased with what the student is doing.

Cockpit comfort is very definitely a secondary consideration to most instructors, primarily because there's not a whole lot they can do about it. However, the comfort of an airplane increases the quality of the learning environment significantly and aids both the CFI and the student, if nothing else because it reduces the fatigue factor. The instructor looks at comfort more strongly than the student because the student may he in that airplane for an hour or two a weekend, while the instructor will he strapped in a cockpit for 20 or 30 hours a week.

An airplane loses points as a trainer if the learning environment is jammed full of distractions, such as an incredibly noisy cockpit or a cockpit with icicles hanging from the overhead because of a nonexistent or inoperable heater. Another form of distraction is simply the unusual nature of a totally strange cockpit. The first few hours any student spends in a Cub, a Pitts, or any other airplane that is totally out of the norm means the sessions are going to be less productive than if spent in a more normal environment.

Flight instructors are also sensitive to how well the cockpit is laid out, i.e., is the trim on one side and the carburetor heat on the other? Does it require changing hands to get at the various controls? Are the mixture and the carb heat located in such a way that they are fairly representative of aircraft the pilot may be flying later on? A classic cockpit layout screwup was when Cherokees originally had a mixture and a carburetor heat that were almost identical to the higher-powered Comanchees and were located in the same spots on the panel, except they were reversed. More than one instructor who flew both airplanes on a daily basis in-advertently got the mixture when looking for the carburetor heat.

Students obviously look at airplanes differently than other people involved in training. At first, all they know is that it is a machine with a whirly thing in front and a bunch of gauges inside. In very few hours, most students find their thought patterns begin to parallel those of the CFI. Although, in the beginning, students cannot possibly think of an airplane that's too easy to fly. they eventually recognize they don't want one that they can immediately hop into and drive up and drive down. They have to recognize they are there to learn to fly not drive.

The definition of "easy" is not as clear as it would seem. because an airplane that is easy on one airport may be difficult on another. There is a definite combination of aircraft, airport, and geographical region that is very important. For instance, a trainer that is easy to fly when it is being flown off a big airport in a region of the country where the wind is generally smooth and down the runway means that it's going to be entirely up to the instructor and not the environment to make sure the pilot learns what the real world is all about. There is a tendency in that situation for the pilot to come out not only weak in the basics, but also very "airport specific." In other words, when he takes that same airplane to a short runway with a crosswind, he may have his hands full.

On the other hand, a hard aircraft to fly, i.e., one with lots of adverse yaw and little penetration, that's being worked off a tiny airport will teach a student a lot, but he still needs a good instructor in the right seat to help him wend his way down what could be a rocky path. This same combination of a higher demand airplane and a small air-port with a less than conscientious CFI is an absolutely disastrous combination. This situation presents too big a challenge for the student and if the successes come too far apart there's a chance he'll become disillusioned and pull the plug on the entire process.

Undoubtedly, one way a student looks at a trainer is through the numerous entries in his checkbook. The rental cost of the trainer is generally predicated more by the overhead of the school that's operating it than by the aircraft, or even the geographical region in which it's located. It's quite possible to find a bargain flight school in a major metropolitan area, if it's on a tiny, low-budget airport, where the flight school operator is not paying some outlandish rent or tars. In general, however, the cost per hour "rule-of-thumb" is that metropolitan areas are steep and outlying areas are cheaper.

Although there isn't much a student can do about it, if his body is triple-large he may have trouble fitting into some of the more common trainers. The question is not necessarily one of height or width, but one of the leg/torso ratio. If a student is all legs, he's going to find getting his knees out of the way of the control yoke on either a C-152 or a Cherokee to be a major challenge. In that situation, if he's not able to find, or doesn't want to learn in, a stick-controlled aircraft such as a Citabria, he's going to be stuck with one of the bigger aircraft such as a C-172/182.

At the other extreme, there really is no such thing as being too small. Every airport has the required stack of cushions needed to move the more petite pilot for-ward although there are extreme cases where "be-bigger" blocks have to be fabricated for the pedals.

So, what is the very best trainer? Obviously, there is no such thing, or there would have only been one trainer produced. Since we are talking in the past tense, because none are in production at this time, we can look back over half a century of potential trainers and see that each has its strong and weak points, and there are a few that actually are very poor as trainers for various reasons. But depending on the CFI on board, almost any airplane can be used to teach the fine art of aviating.

The single most cost-effective form of flight training is to buy a trainer and rent the instructor. This is especially true if one of the older trainers is purchased, whether it is a Champ or a straight-tail C-150. In these situations, if the airplane is bought right, has plenty of time on the engine, and isn't crashed during training, the student can get his ticket, fly the pants off of it for a few years, and resell it for so much more than he paid for it that it will offset the cost of his training.

Here's a brief survey of the more common trainers:

This is where the word "basic" came from. Trainers don't get any simpler than the Cub, or perform as a trainer as well as the Cub. It is an engine followed by just enough airplane that the student can learn how air feels and how an airplane reacts in going through it.

When examined in modern terms, the Cub is actually a poor airplane. It's slow, has adverse yaw out the ears, its stall breaks predictably when forced into it, and the pilot/student can't see over the nose on landing.

All of its shortcomings as an airplane, are its strong points as a trainer. It does everything slowly and gently enough that the student has plenty of time to play catch up, but it will fly well only when the student is making it fly well. It is light enough that the student has to work hard to overcome the gusts and adverse yaw. He soon learns about his feet and the rudder pedals.

The airplane is not without its shortcomings as a trainer. The very lightness that contributes so much to its character and performance works against it in a high-wing training environment. A good pilot can handle a large crosswind in a Cub, but it could be too much for a student, so the airplanes stay on the ground on high-gust days.

For an instructor, the Cub can also be damned uncomfortable. The uncomfortable factor goes off the scale with large instructors. The front seat is just too short and the stick is right in the instructor's nose. Of course, generations of instructors have gotten used to the cramped confines, but not without doing a little complaining.

The Cub is also temperature limited. It doesn't have a heater, to speak of, so as the temperature goes below 20 degrees, it can be too uncomfortable to fly.

There's an ongoing controversy between the Champ and Cub camps as to which is a better trainer. They are both good, they are just different.

The Champ puts the student in front where he can just about see over the nose. This is not necessarily good. The Champ is also much more comfortable for both the student and the CFI.

One of the Champ's advantages over the Cub is that its heavier weight gives it more wind capability so it can fly more often. Also, the airplane has enough adverse yaw for two (or three) airplanes, so the student either learns to use his feet or gets used to looking at the world sideways.

The Citabria is really nothing more than a modern Champ, but it is even heavier. It can handle almost any reasonable wind and its spring gear lets students screw up a bit and not hurt anything. That same gear, however, makes wheel landings more difficult, which is okay, since the emphasis should be on three-points anyway.

Adverse yaw in the Citabria is not nearly as noticeable as in a Champ, but it is very definitely there. It's a good compromise in that area.

The Citabria is the ultimate in tandem, tailwheel luxury. It is as comfortable as any airplane every built, although an intercom system is still a big help in teaching. It also has the advantage of being aerobatic, so the student can really learn to fly, if he wants.

Certainly the Citabria's biggest draw-back is that it is becoming incredibly expensive. Even the cheapest ones are twice the price of a comparable Champ. If it's basic training the student is after, a Champ gives a bigger bang for the training buck.

CESSNA 120/140
The trusty old 1201140 series has one foot in yesterday and the other in the day before that. Even the newest student, if introduced to both airplanes, would recognize the 140 as a 152 carrying a senior citizen's card. Some of the lines are different, and the tail is on the ground, but they are the same airplane.

The 120/140 didn't introduce the control wheel to the training market - the Taylor-crafts, Ercoupes, and Funks went before -but this was the first highly successful trainer with a control wheel. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that it lets the student transition into a newer airplane easily because the throttle hand is the same. The bad news is it is one of the few tail-wheel airplanes the student will ever fly with a right-hand throttle.

The 120/140 also introduced flaps to the training community, as well as all-metal construction and side-by-side seating (yes, T-crafts and Funks and . . . ). This was the trainer of the late 1940s and '50s, although there were still lots of Cubs and Champs.

Like we said, anyone can learn to fly in anything. It depends on the instructor.

CESSNA 150/152
It is this generation's J-3 Cub. That's a little depressing, if you think about it. Although several generations removed from its C-120/140 roots, it is still the same, basic airplane. It offers several advantages over its contemporary Cherokees in that it places more demand on the student. This is largely because it is much lighter and more subject to the whims of nature. Also, although most of the adverse yaw has been engineered out of it, the 150/152 still has more than a Cherokee, so it is easier to teach coordination in it.

The Cessna also has a slightly pronounced stall, so the student can actually feel it coming and see it. Spins are also approved in the airplane (up to three turns), so that very important training can be given.

Cherokees introduced the low wing to the trainer field, as well as established itself as the only true competition of the C-150/152.

The Cherokee has several serious advantages over the Cessna, and one is that it can punch its way through a lot of wind and be out training while the Cessnas are still tied down.

The Cherokee is also a much faster airplane in the pattern. This has good and bad points, depending on your point of view. It comes down final at about 85 mph, a full 20 mph faster than the competing Cessna, but 85 mph seems to be the universal approach speed for almost everything that's not a Cessna. This is good training for transitioning to faster airplanes, but in the beginning things happen fast for students. In reality, this almost never causes problems except when instructing on really short runways.

On the negative side of the ledger, the above points make the Cherokee very nearly a point-and-land airplane. It lands too easily, so, although it's a good airplane, it's too easy to fly for a trainer. It also has little adverse yaw, so it is harder to teach coordinated flight in. A good instructor can turn out a student that's as good as any of the other pilots, but he has to work at it.

Never has a trainer been so controversial. Or short-lived. Introduced in 1978 at the peak of aviation production, it was discontinued in 1982 at the depths of aviation production.

This was to be Piper's 152 Killer. It got rid of all the operating expense of the 140 Cherokee and matched the Cessna's landing gear and engine size in an effort to meet it head-on in the flight training arena. Unfortunately, it never had a chance. Piper didn't have time to sort it out before the curtain came down on General Aviation.

It is, in many respects, a low-wing C-150, but reportedly wasn't originally as well behaved at the stall. Very few are still used for training, mostly for mechanical reasons. It was an average trainer, not an awful one or a good one. Just average. Given time, it would undoubtedly have been improved.

Not often seen anymore, it was of typical Beech quality. Which is to say, it flew great but was too expensive for a trainer. They made a chrome-plated ball-peen hammer, when an old-fashioned claw hammer would have done the job.

Like the rest of the newer trainers, it was actually too easy to fly, although its light weight did make the student work a little harder in gusts, so that was good. Little adverse yaw, lots of comfort, too easy to land.

The early Yankees, like the AA-1s, were simply too much airplane to be good basic trainers. Although comfortable with great visibility, they were too unforgiving at the stall and in flair. Depending on the rigging, they could have a really exciting stall, for a civilian airplane.

The Yankees fly and react like much bigger airplanes because of their wing loading. They draw an absolutely straight line on final, as they punch through turbulence like a wall safe. Once on the ground, their full-swivel nosewheel and brake steering are too out of the ordinary for most students.

They are wonderful, sporty airplanes, but students don't need sporty.

There are many two-place airplanes out there, ranging from Porterfields to Commonwealths, T-Crafts to Swifts, and a good instructor can turn out a good student in any of them. But, it is much more productive to work with the right tools. Why begin the learning process with an automatic handicap?