Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

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Apprehensive students

Keep it from becoming fear

Show me a student who comes into flight training with absolutely no apprehension and I'll show you a student who is a terrific actor; a liar who has fooled even himself; an ex-military fighter jockey; or possibly all of the above.

Anyone who straps into an airplane for the first time harbors at least a hint of apprehension. This is only natural. Moreover, a little fear is probably healthy because it indicates a certain amount of common sense. We have every right to be a little spooked. After all, it doesn't make any sense to be thousands of feet in the air depending on a mechanism that experiences thousands of explosions an hour.

Training Trends

October 2004

Student pilot certificates are the number of student pilot certificate applications processed by the FAA during the month of October, and includes renewals as well as original issuances. Airline pilot hiring is all professional pilot hiring during October as reported by aviation career consulting firm AIR, Inc. and includes major, national, and regional airlines as well as fractional operators.

Student pilot certificates







Airline pilot hiring







Every new student is afraid, to some degree. How do flight instructors deal with that? Certainly the first step is to crank our empathy control to "full" and put ourselves in that student's place. After all, we were all there once. The second step is to realize that each student has a unique brand of apprehension. Most of the time, the student can't even articulate what bothers him. It's just there, and the student doesn't know why. That's when we put on our psychologist's hat.

For most students, apprehension is nothing more than a minor irritation -- a little tenseness at the beginning; a slight tremor of a hand or quiver in the voice. For a few, however, it's true fear. These students are constantly engaged in a battle with themselves. On the one hand, they want desperately to learn to fly; on the other, part of them is so afraid that it's all they can do to force themselves to get into the airplane. Imagine the frustration attached to that kind of internal struggle, not to mention the amount of determination it takes to overcome that fear.

It's tough to judge the exact degree of apprehension and decide whether it's going to be an obstacle in the teaching process. What is more important, however, is to determine the source of the apprehension and what we can do about it. We also need to determine whether they brought the apprehension with them into the cockpit or something happened while we were flying with them that caused the little sprigs of fear to take root.

The most common source of apprehension while learning to fly is unfamiliarity -- the new environment is causing some discomfort. We all know the apprehension will eventually pass, but this is where empathy really works.

The next time you take off, try to see that takeoff through the eyes of a first-timer. First, there is the airplane itself: It's much smaller than a car, has lots of unfamiliar gadgets, and is hurtling down the runway about to leap into the air. Then there's the image of the far horizon changing perspective as the ground falls away in our peripheral vision. And, if that's not enough strangeness, the horizon suddenly tilts as you turn, and you're looking over your shoulder at the ground. After a few hours none of this will be noticed, but on those first few flights, it is very much noticed and sometimes pegs the fear meter.

Surprise breeds apprehension, but that can be avoided by letting the student know ahead of time what he or she is about to see: "Now I'm going to turn left. You'll see the horizon at an angle and you'll see nothing but ground out your window. OK, here we go..." or "And now, as I turn final, I'm going to reduce power to idle. It'll sound as if the engine has quit, but it hasn't. I want you to notice how the airplane glides so beautifully with the power reduced to idle." Notice we said "reduced to idle," not "power off" -- the terms mean the same thing to you and me, but not to someone hearing the words for the first time.

Sometimes the apprehension is a variation on the "fear of flying" issue and predates the process of learning to fly. CFIs usually won't see this flavor of apprehension, because someone who is truly afraid to fly isn't likely to drive out to the field for a lesson. Some people are perfectly calm in an airliner, but a little airplane gives them the heebie-jeebies. To many, being part of a crowd that's going aloft makes it OK, but they don't know that until they are off the ground with no one but the flight instructor for company.

In this situation, the instructor has to create a feeling of belonging, making certain that the student understands that the CFI not only knows what he or she is doing but that the airplane isn't going to fall from under them on the slightest bump. Generating confidence -- first in the airplane, then in the instructor -- means the CFI can't engage in a "wait 'til you see this" style of demonstration. It also means the CFI has to be aware of a student's state of mind so that he doesn't make things worse.

Some professional people who are learning to fly come into the project with a fairly strong ego and fully expect to knock learning to fly on its butt. They expect a lot of themselves and judge themselves accordingly. If things start going downhill, not only are they hard on themselves, but they also are acutely aware that someone is seeing them in an environment in which they are not at their best. This bugs them and often causes them to tighten up as they try harder and harder. Of course, as a general rule, the harder they try, the worse they get -- so they become more frustrated and may begin to question whether they really need this brain damage.

How do you detect a student's apprehension factor? At one extreme, the student is perspiring and hanging onto the stick/yoke, with limbs so tense that when the instructor says "follow me through" and takes the controls he has to fight the student, who doesn't even realize he's still on them.

Another dead giveaway to a hyper-tense student is when you tell him to let you have the controls and you feel both rudder pedals move an inch or so toward you. It's amazing how much a tense student can stretch steel control cables.

The obviously tense student is, in most ways, much easier to work with than one who keeps all his or her tension bottled up. Instructors often don't notice when this type of student is tense. Worse, tension that is caged in the brain -- and not exhibited through body language -- can result in unpredictable behavior.

A brain tensed up by apprehension is like a computer with a virus: It appears to be working, but you only have to try a few tasks to find that some of its functions are not as they should be. So it is with terrified students. One of the first indications is when you give a simple command, they nod, and then do something that has nothing to do with what you just said. They aren't hearing you correctly, and the few words that they are absorbing aren't being processed correctly. This, by the way, is the source of the "no, the other right" syndrome. A combination of apprehension and good old sensory overload makes "left" sound an awful lot like "right."

There is no one-size-fits-all remedy for a student's apprehension, and you often have to make up a cure as you go along. The most important thing instructors can do is simply to keep alert for any signs of apprehension and attempt to head them off before they blossom into out-and-out fear.

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 since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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