CFI to CFI
The psychic instructor
More than teaching a mechanical skill
We'll bet a lot of folks out there have the same problem spelling psychologist that we do: The letters sometimes get fouled up and come out "psychic," with a handful of letters left over. However, as we started thinking about what a flight instructor has to do in the cockpit to be successful, "psychic" could be just as correct as "psychologist." "Psychiatrist" fits too.
On one hand, a successful flight instructor is an educator; we are there to impart knowledge and skills to a student and to prepare him or her for a lifetime of flight. Imparting knowledge is the universal role of educators in every field of endeavor. There are, however, some major differences in flight instructing, and these differences expand our role from that of a pure educator to all those things that start with "psych."
Very few classrooms measure only three and one-half feet across and are filled with a confusing mixture of noise, movement, and mechanical contrivances. A cockpit is one of the few classrooms that can kill you if you don't treat it right. We must deal with the normal idiosyncrasies of the human mind in a stress-filled environment that often brings out the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The level of our success is based largely on being able to fine-tune our teaching techniques to match the individual involved, and this is where it gets tough and the "psych" words apply. We must match our teaching techniques to the individual's level of technical understanding and style of learning, and we have to deal with the student's apprehensions and emotional makeup. This means we must observe our students closely enough to monitor their emotional, mental, and physical well-being while doling out morsels of aeronautical knowledge. How many college professors worry about creating mental trauma for the student in the third row?
The psychological stress of learning to fly has its roots in many places and, at one time or another, we'll be faced with each of these.
Apprehension borne of risk. Flying is not without its risks. Any person with common sense knows that, so they bring a little apprehension into the cockpit with them. Sometimes it's more than just a little. In most cases, increased familiarity will put that risk in its place, but we have to be careful that we don't do something in our demonstrations or presentations to worsen that apprehension.
Apprehension borne of self-image. Many of the individuals with whom we fly are at the top of their respective professions. They are used to being seen as good at what they do. They may bring expectations--sometimes unrealistic--with them. It's a facet of the Type A personality. They are concerned about how well they will do and how well they will be perceived. Every student has bad days, so learning to fly can do serious damage to a person's confidence and self-image. When we see that happening, we have to pump some sunshine their way: "Hey, great job with the turns around the point! Really good! Now let's talk about that landing...."
Frustration. Frustration is usually the companion of expectations not met, and the expectations may be nothing more than expecting to do as well as they did during the previous lesson. When they don't, they often try harder, not realizing it's just one of "those" days. They keep forcing themselves, which invariably makes things worse--and the frustration builds, rather than abates. A frustrated student generally lets us know through body language and sometimes through actual words. If you see a shake of the head, a quietly uttered curse word, pursed lips, or gritted teeth, consider calling it quits right then before more damage is done. A student who leaves the airport with a huge amount of frustration will beat himself up mentally until he gets in the cockpit again. Sometimes the result will be a student who finds reasons not to schedule the next hop and eventually drifts away. If that happens, it's our fault for not recognizing the signs sooner.
Withdrawal. Once in a while a student will become very quiet, sometimes almost sullen, and we can't help but think we've done something to anger or hurt him in some way. Did we say something that this particular personality would take as an attack? Did we misread the personality type and use the wrong approach? A quiet student is a cue to start doing some self-evaluating of our own. We should make an effort to talk about it with the student to find out if it's something we did or something outside the flying environment that's bothering him. Whatever it is, don't let it go for long or it may fester into a bigger problem. After we've flown with a student for any period of time, there is a budding friendship, and we have to treat it as such.
Inability to communicate. It's interesting how often seemingly articulate individuals suddenly develop a general inability to verbally transmit and receive when inserted into a cockpit. You find yourself saying, "No, the other right." This is most often nothing more than a serious case of stress and pure sensory overload. It will go away as the student becomes more comfortable in the new environment. Occasionally, however, you'll encounter a student who really does have a communication problem. We laugh about it, but the right-left thing isn't a momentary lapse for some people. East-West and many technical terms like aileron and rudder are in the same category. This is more common than you'd think, and most students who exhibit these symptoms are willing to discuss the problem. Talk about it and think of ways to rephrase what you say.
Fatigue. Everyone reacts differently to physical and mental fatigue. For that reason, every flight instructor has to develop a fatigue yardstick for each student. Here are two extreme signs of burnout: The individual suddenly drops one task entirely. Maybe airspeed control suddenly goes away, or she can't handle the radio, or his feet refuse to join the party. The other extreme is people who are doing just great and then, like a NiCad battery, suddenly fizzle out and can't do anything right. Most people are somewhere in between, and it's our job to monitor them early in their training and mentally catalog the signals of an imminent shutdown. Always quit before fatigue has taken its toll, because every one of the characteristics we've mentioned earlier, from apprehension to the ability to communicate, is really aggravated by fatigue.
Remember that we're doing more than teaching a mechanical skill. Flying is an even mixture of mental, emotional, and physical education, and we can't educate the hands without understanding both the mind and the heart. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and get inside their heads if we expect to produce well-rounded, safe pilots.
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