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Informal Teachers

Any time pilots congregate, the conversation inevitably turns to flying. Picture this: You're sitting around the FBO on a rainy Saturday talking about flying. Everyone has a story to tell. Bragging, telling everyone how tough your last flight was, and even lying about how your superior piloting skills got you out of a tricky situation are all part of the game. Sometimes the stories get downright scary as pilots swap tales of flights that waltzed along the fringes of legality, safety, or sanity.

As an instructor, I find that down time caused by bad weather or a lull in the schedule is valuable time. There's a lot to be learned just by talking with other pilots about flying. At most flight schools the standard topics of conversation include regulations, teaching techniques, and dealing with problem students. Listening to other pilots may give you ideas that you can use in your own flying. You might discover that other instructors have some of the same problems you do and have come up with different ways to handle them. Even more valuable are the little tips that can improve your technique or new ways to explain a difficult concept. But when you find yourself in such a hangar session, stop to consider the personalities of the other participants.

Sometimes there's someone in the group - usually a low-time pilot or student pilot - who has less experience than the others. These people are primed to absorb any and all information about flying. That's great in the formal training environment. The problem is that some pilots, regardless of their experience, are absorbing more from these informal conversations than they should.

Students take everything they see and hear from flight instructors as fact. They soak up all the information that comes their way. And, they don't have the experience to judge the value of that information and reject what's worthless. Whether you're on the ground or in the airplane, you must show your students the right way to do things the first time, because that's what they'll believe.

This is where informal instructors can become a problem. You may know that the story someone is telling is a load of baloney, but the student listening may not. Even innocent comments exchanged among instructors or FBO employees can have disastrous results. At the flight school where I teach, a comment made by an experienced instructor almost cost us a customer. After the logbook entries and other paper-work were complete, the CFI looked at the schedule and said, "It looks like everyone is staying pretty even in their hours today." The student left without making another appointment.

The instructor was making a joke. Later, the student called the owner of the FBO to complain. He had taken this joke to mean that the instructors were competing for billable hours and gouging customers to get ahead. In the end, the student returned to complete his training. But he had lost confidence in the instructor and the FBO. It took a lot of work for the business to win back his trust. The instructor never did.

And that sort of thing can happen very easily. If you know nothing about driving a truck, you are ready to believe anything a group of truck drivers say about their work. You don't know that it's not legal to do this or that or that something else is unsafe. Worse, you don't even know what you don't know.

The same is true of flying. Telling stories about how skillfully you flew when conditions were marginal might impress another pilot, but that pilot has a frame of reference by which to judge the veracity of your story. The student who overhears this might not know the difference between exaggeration and the truth. Was that 20-kt crosswind really blowing directly across the runway? And was it really only 15 kt? Maybe. But exaggerating the wind speed and angle sure makes your story more interesting and feeds your ego. Pilots are as prone to hyperbole as anyone else.

Stories like these may lead students to believe it's OK to do things that aren't quite legal or push the boundaries of good judgment. And the people who tell these stories don't have to be instructors to do damage. Sometimes these folks are just good storytellers. Sometimes, just the tone of voice a person uses in telling a story will persuade others that he knows what he's talking about.

When someone with less experience believes that it really is OK to be sloppy with his flying, we all know what happens next. The pilot tries it. Maybe he even gets away with it once or twice. Soon that 150-hour pilot pushes the envelope too far and an airplane gets damaged, someone gets hurt, or worse.

Some informal instructors say something they know is wrong merely to start an argument or see if anyone will challenge it. A brand-new CFII was discussing icing with a group of pilots, including a low-time private pilot who had just begun working on his instrument rating. The instructor maintained that if conditions are just right - you know where the freezing level is, there are no clouds below that, etc. - it's OK to fly into the clouds and intentionally pick up airframe ice. The so-called objective was to teach students about the effects of ice. The instructor swore that this was accepted practice, even though he obviously knew that flight in icing conditions is prohibited in airplanes not specially certified. He even promised that all of his students would experience ice sometime during their training just so they could see how dangerous it is. Was he joking? It was impossible to say.

When it was explained to him that the FBO would not continue to employ an instructor who intentionally flew into known icing conditions, he insisted that he had been joking and would never really do it. He just wanted to see how the rest of us - including his student - would react. But the damage had been done. There was an 18-year-old instrument student listening who might really have thought it was OK. This young man idolized the instructor. There is no more fertile ground for planting ideas than that.

Still other informal instructors fall into the can-you-top-this category. They really get rolling when someone brings up a question about procedure, technique, or regulations. These folks have to top that question. One instructor I know loved to argue and would surround the question with the most bizarre twists and turns imaginable. He used this technique with his students when he was trying to get them to think through a question or look for the correct answer. But how much did he teach them, and how much did he confuse them?

In one case, the owner of the company tried to use a hangar flying session to help him prepare for an upcoming commercial checkride. He asked the group to quiz him on some things he might be asked on the oral portion of the practical test. It was going fine until the debater got involved. Then the CFII with the icing theory chimed in. The whole conversation went in the tank. The boss later said that it was the last time he'd ask for that type of help. He felt that the others were trying to trap him with their off-the-wall questions. He felt belittled and humiliated. And he was an experienced pilot and their employer!

Imagine how a young or inexperienced pilot might feel. How would you feel? You might be discouraged from asking even simple questions for fear that you might be humiliated. Now imagine the consequences if you had a violation or incident because you never got the answer to your question.

The NTSB files are full of accident and incident reports that result from pilots trying to push the airplane's envelope or their own limits. We can't know how many of those accidents were the result of the pilot believing that others had gotten away with it or even that it was OK. But you can bet that at least some of them were.

Hangar flying and swapping war stories are part of the game. But use a little judgment when it comes to your audience. Next time you find yourself in a hangar flying session, listen and try to decide what's a lie and what's the truth. You may discover that even you have trouble separating the two.

You can manage informal teachers. But don't become one yourself. Create good relationships with your students. Encourage them to ask questions. Let them know that not everything they hear is valid. Encourage them to tell you what they hear from other pilots and, if necessary, set them straight.

Teach your students the right way the first time. Instill in them the confidence to question anything that doesn't sound right or contradicts the training you've given them. The occasional joke can go a long way toward putting a student at ease. Humor can even be a good way to reinforce a lesson. But if you use this technique, make darn sure that your student knows where the joke ends and the real lesson begins. And, of course, never use words, names, or expressions that could be interpreted as demeaning. Hangar flying can be constructive. But separate the fables from the facts, and make sure your students do too.

By Colin Cressman

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