Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Don't sweat it

Managing student anxiety

Getting the message across

All instructors grasp the importance of getting to know a new student and understanding how that student thinks. Good things to ask new students include his (or her) background, his goals, what he believes to be his strengths and weaknesses, what really matters to him, what he thinks makes a good teacher, and his pet peeves. But beyond the basics, what's required to achieve excellent CFI-student communication? We look at that subject in this month's Instructor Report. -- The editors

During a flight review, a well-seasoned pilot posed a question that I had never before been asked. "After all your hours in the air, do you still get butterflies in your stomach when you climb into the cockpit?"

"Yes," I responded, "and if they ever go away, I'll stop flying."

This pilot thought that a little fear and anxiety was a sign of weakness or a lack of skill, something to be avoided. Au contraire, I told him; it keeps you sharp, gives you an edge, and causes you to check and recheck the airplane, the weather, and your own physical and mental condition before taking to the air. A little fear and anxiety is something to be encouraged, not resisted.

In this issue, Rod Machado encourages us to know our students in depth and discover how they go about learning. An extension of Rod's advice is to gauge their readiness to learn by seeing how much anxiety they show while learning. Some anxiety is normal, and it is probably the most significant psychological factor affecting flight instruction.

Where the student falls on the "apprehension scale" helps to determine the proper approach to specific aspects of flight training. For example, a nervous student introduced on his first lesson to aggressive power-on stalls will likely decide that it's also going to be his last lesson. In the same vein, a student who does not understand aerodynamics and how to manage airspeed and altitude will continue to suffer excessive anxiety every time power is reduced for a glide.

I have flown with pilots who exhibit absolutely no fear. They are convinced that nothing bad can happen to them. I worry about these people because they are the ones who are the most dangerous. Many of us will remember from the Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) that the need for safety is second only to satisfaction of physical needs in Maslow's hierarchy. To have no anxiety at all in the cockpit is just not normal.

Too much fear, on the other hand, can short-circuit our ability to think and analyze. I was teaching a Pinch-Hitter(r) Course for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation a few years ago. As I was explaining what makes an airplane turn, a woman in the front row broke into tears and left the room. She returned a few minutes later, but once again began crying and left.

I didn't think my teaching was all that bad, so during the break I gently asked her what was going on. Her husband was an avid pilot who wanted her to fly with him, but she was deathly afraid of flying. She had experienced some situations while flying with him that had frightened her, and she had agreed to attend the Pinch-Hitter course to try to please him.

It is a simple fact that the more you know about something, the less fear and anxiety you experience. ASF's Pinch-Hitter course was designed to provide knowledge and awareness that will reduce fear and anxiety for nonpilots. We explain how an airplane flies, what keeps it in the air, and why it does not fall from the sky if the engine quits. Since the lady in my Pinch-Hitter course stayed in class for the remainder of the day, hopefully she was able to reduce her anxiety to a manageable level. The same holds true for fledgling pilots. The more we teach them, the more confidence they exhibit in the airplane.

It is also true that the more you fly, the more confident you become. All of us have had students who dropped out in the middle of training -- or stopped flying after receiving a certificate. The reason could be financial or just a loss of interest, but it might be increased anxiety resulting in not flying very often or a failure to fully grasp the fundamentals of aviation. The less a pilot flies, the more his apprehension builds, until eventually he stops flying altogether. He loses confidence in his flying abilities because he doesn't fly enough. Eventually, he believes it is impossible to regain the confidence and skill he once had, and he hangs up his wings.

Sometimes an instructor will unwittingly say or do something to raise the anxiety level in a student. I remember my first solo vividly. After a lesson, the instructor asked me to pull over to the ramp, signed my logbook authorizing a solo flight, and told me to do three touch and goes. I was really excited. As he climbed out of the airplane, he said, "Don't crash!" I laughed nervously and went on to do my three courses around the pattern without incident.

When I became a flight instructor, I recalled that parting comment. Was it an appropriate thing to say right before my first solo? Probably not. The lesson here is not to discourage or scare students with comments that you intend to be humorous.

Through mastery of theory and enough practice, anxiety can be reduced to a minimum. Each student will have a different anxiety level, and one of the challenges of a good instructor is to manage it. But it's always true that carrying around a little anxiety is a good thing.

Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He can be contacted.

By Richard Hiner

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