Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

CFI to CFI

CFI, listen to yourself

Are you making sense to your students?

There are only 26 letters in our alphabet, but a nearly limitless number of combinations and permutations in the ways in which they can be combined into words.

The good news is that when we climb into the cockpit with a student, the number of different words we need is actually fairly limited. We are there for a given purpose. We aren't going to discuss nuclear physics or religion. The words and phrases that we use will be directed at transferring knowledge about one subject only: learning to fly. Why, then, is it that we sometimes find ourselves talking, but we don't realize the student doesn't understand - because we aren't listening to what we're saying through the student's ears?

An instructor frequently listens closely to what the student is saying, but we aren't listening to ourselves. Words are coming out of our mouths, but we aren't monitoring their effect on the student closely enough to realize this lack of communications has nothing to do with them not listening. They are listening, but we are combining the letters of the alphabet in such a way that the words formed mean something to us, but not to the student. Without realizing it, we've developed our own habitual way of speaking that has become a code that we understand, but sometimes a student doesn't.

We'll come into the flare and say, "OK, hold it off. Hoooolld it off."

What we mean is as clear as a bell to us. It says everything we want to say in a tight little phrase that doesn't take long to say nor long to hear. However, step back and look at the phrase from the student's point of view.

"Hold it off." Hold what off? Do you want me to postpone doing something? And what exactly do I do with the controls to do whatever "hold it off" means?

This is just an example. Each of us has little personal phrases that mean so much. But do they? Are they totally understandable or are they some sort of verbal shorthand that we've unwittingly fallen into the habit of using without giving enough thought to whether the student is getting the entire message?

We don't have to instruct for very many hours before we start to develop a patter, a verbal style we use to talk to our students. This isn't bad and, in fact, is unavoidable. After you've done the same thing many times, you become programmed. You've been in that exact situation so often that you know what you need to tell the student next, and you have a pretty good idea what he's likely to do.

Every student and every flight is different, but not so different as to be totally off the chart. The majority of students, especially those in primary training, form themselves into a reasonably predictable bell-shaped curve, so after we've flown with a bunch of them we see the same thing happen so frequently that we begin analyzing the trends represented, and little by little develop verbal phrases to deal with whatever is happening.

In some ways the students are training us: The majority of them will do a certain thing at a certain time, e.g., pull too hard to flare, and that action will elicit what soon becomes a standard response, i.e., "Ease off. Kill the balloon."

Right there is a classic of misunderstood clarity. "Ease off. Kill the balloon." It means everything in the world to CFIs. It's obvious that if you don't ease off the backpressure, the airplane is going to want to keep floating upward in a "balloon," and the airplane will continue losing speed until it comes back down like a two-day-old flapjack. That's in our minds, but are we communicating it to the student? Maybe, maybe not.

In almost every situation where we spout one of our favorite profound phrases, the student eventually figures it out because of the context in which it occurs. Students are capable of trend analysis too, and, after they've heard us say the same thing in the same place enough times, they start to figure it out. Unfortunately, this sometimes takes time, and for some students it can present a communication barrier that leads to frustration. The student knows you want him to do something, but he isn't sure exactly what. Believe it or not, most students want to please their instructors as much as they want to please themselves. When they make mistakes or are slow in picking up on a technique or concept, most will internalize it and see it as a failure on their part; they'll believe that they've let the instructor and themselves down. And all of this can be because we use a phrase that makes so much sense to us.

There's an obvious point to be made here: It's not important that the phrase make sense to us or be so common that 90 percent of students understand it. What's important is that this particular student didn't understand it, and you can count on one thing - if one student didn't understand, lots of others won't either.

The obvious cure for all of this is to do a better job of letting the student in on what we actually mean with these phrases. That can be done in a number of ways. The first possibility is to stop using shorthand phrases altogether, which is not only an impossible habit to break, but not practical. So many times something on the flight is happening that needs a shorthand comment to correct because there isn't time to fit an entire paragraph into the situation.

If the airplane is in the act of ballooning away from the runway, for instance, we are inviting disaster to say, "The reason the airplane is moving away from the runway is because you used too much backpressure, which increased the angle of attack in such a way that, for the airspeed we currently have, the airplane will momentarily climb. However, the speed is going to decay, at which point that angle of attack will be too much and the airplane may stall, or partially stall, and hit the runway excessively hard. Please reduce the angle of attack by moving the elevator control slightly forward. Don't push it forward - just stop pulling and let it move a tiny fraction of an inch forward to decrease the angle of attack slightly, which will stop the airplane from gaining any more altitude."

It is sooo much easier just to say, "Ease off. Stop the balloon."

There are two factors here for us, as instructors, to deal with. The first is to make sure the words themselves are clearly understood. Simply saying "ease off" clearly means what it says, but how does it relate to the situation at hand?

Also, balloon is jargon. It's something that we use all the time in aviation, and everyone knows what it means. At least they do after they've been around aviation for a while, which definitely isn't the case with a new student. The very least we can do is define our vocabulary and use it in phrases that are meaningful.

This doesn't mean we restructure our phrases, although that may be necessary sometimes. What it means is that we should give the student a thorough briefing of what each phrase means and how we expect them to act when they hear that phrase.

To a certain extent what we're doing is training our students the same way we would train a puppy. We could train a dog to roll over by using the phrase "Ease off the back pressure" just as easily as we could by using the phrase "Roll over." All the dog knows is that when he hears a particular sound made by those words, he's expected to do a specific thing.

Think back to your first trig or calculus course and remember how it all sounded like Greek (actually, a lot of it was Greek). Once you learned the language, a lot of the mystery went away. Think of your students the same way. Listen to yourself and see if you're habitually saying something that, if you think about it hard, really isn't very explanatory.

In this case it isn't "physician heal thyself," it's "CFI listen to yourself as if you're the student."

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 36 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports