by Demian Harris, CFII

The best way to learn any new skill is by actually doing it. If you’re a student pilot, this means flying with an instructor to learn how to execute each maneuver correctly, and then when it’s time, going out solo to practice and refine your technique. However, unless you have unlimited time and money, the best way to learn any new maneuver or procedure is by memorizing and practicing it on the ground through a form of visualization known as “chair flying.”  

Chair flying is a very effective ground-based learning technique that has long been advocated by flight instructors. The student, sitting in a chair or perhaps in the cockpit of an aircraft on the ground, mimics the control inputs for a maneuver to reinforce the connection between knowledge and motor skill. No special equipment is needed to practice chair flying — all you need is a comfortable seat, an open mind and a willingness to learn! 

The student, sitting in a chair or perhaps in the cockpit of an aircraft on the ground, mimics the control inputs for a maneuver to reinforce the connection between knowledge and motor skill.

There are many different ways to chair fly and get regular practice. Showing up early for a flight lesson to sit in an actual airplane and practice procedures is an excellent way to prepare for a lesson and become more familiar with the airplane you’ll be flying that day. Simulator practice is also great for correlating your performance to the minimum standards outlined in the FAA Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards (ACS).

When I was a new student pilot, I put little value on chair flying. I flew often and regularly practiced my maneuvers, but it took me about 80 hours to finally reach the point where I was ready for my Private Pilot check ride. I found myself wondering how people ever managed to complete their training in half that time.

Fast forward through my instrument training and some cross country time building to meet my Commercial Pilot certificate requirements. I got into the plane with my instructor one day to practice and to my shock and horror discovered that I was struggling to remember some of my basic maneuvers. My instructor and I just chalked it up to being an off day, but when things hadn’t improved much on my next lesson it was time for a reality check. “What have you been doing to prepare for our lessons?” he asked. “Have you been chair flying at all?”

To my shame, I had to admit I had not. I redoubled my efforts and began chair flying each of the maneuvers on a daily basis. On my next flight, not only were my basic maneuvers back up to speed, but my commercial maneuvers went much smoother as well. As I moved on to training for my flight instructor ratings, I continued to chair fly regularly and realized what a difference there was in my flying. I was no longer trying to remember procedures during a flight, but instead I could focus on the sight picture and the feel of the aircraft. I finally realized that the reason that I barely felt ready for my Private Pilot check ride at 80 hours when some can do it in half the time was that I had missed out on all the practice I could have done on the ground chair flying.

If you haven’t tried chair flying before, here are three tips to help you get started.  

  1. Write down the steps for completing the maneuver you’re practicing. Whether it’s slow flight, chandelles, or a lap in the pattern, you can benefit from having everything written in an organized fashion that contains everything you want to remember. This can be electronic, on a sheet of paper, or, my favorite, listed out on a wall on a poster or white board. Always refer to the ACS.
  2. Talk through the maneuver aloud.  This will help you to hold yourself accountable for doing it correctly. Repeatedly speaking the steps aloud can also help you to remember the items in order when you get back into the aircraft, much like how we remember the verses to our favorite songs after repeating them over and over.
  3. Visualize the aircraft moving, and move your hands and feet the same way you would to initiate control inputs in the air. When instructors talk about having a feel for the aircraft, we’re referring to more than just the sensations of flight in the cockpit.  A big part of that feel is muscle memory. We can work on developing muscle memory while chair flying. Use both your body and imagination to pull back on the throttle, coordinate your ailerons and rudder, and adjust your mixture, flaps, and carb heat.  Moving as you would in the aircraft can help develop the muscle memory on the ground so you can pay closer attention to the nuances of flying when you do get up in the air.

Remember that the sky is a dynamic environment that requires constant adjustments due to weather, traffic and other factors, so don’t become a robot! When in doubt, always do what will keep your flight safe and legal in order to determine how to fly these maneuvers better. Chair fly like the Pilot In Command you are working so hard to become!