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Student see, student do

Making mimicry work

Ever notice how students tend to mimic your actions? It's almost like they're in mime school instead of flight training. Personally, I hate this behavior.

Although it may mask a lack of comprehension, this mimicking behavior is part of the learning process, and it does work, usually. Time after time, it gets our students from the ramp into the air and back successfully--as long as the flight environment stays the same. And for most students and instructors, the environment will stay the same on almost every flight, because most of our time is spent in the traffic pattern or training area, near the same airport.

Our students are making successful flights, so what's my complaint about depending on mimicking as an aid to learning? Well, students grow up to be pilots, and they can stray from the base camp airport, flying into a new environment where their mimicking behavior might not work so well. Two factors that could cause a disaster for your little mime in a new environment are density altitude and weather.

Let's look at density altitude. If you teach from a 3,500-foot runway, in a sea-level region where it never gets very hot, you can probably hop in the airplane any day of the year without worrying that you won't make it off the runway because of lack of performance. Even knowing this, we still make a good show of calculating takeoff distance, since it's on the knowledge test. Our students diligently mimic our behavior, breaking out their calculators while we go get another cup of coffee. Our students almost always get the same number we did, and the takeoff is almost always successful.

That's where we flight instructors usually fail. We rarely accept the challenge of bringing these numbers (and theories) to life so our students will be able learn, not just mimic. As CFIs, we are supposed to be teaching our students to analyze information and make good decisions, yet quite a few students never make it past mimicking and rote learning.

We should abhor the mimicking behavior and provide memorable experiences that our students will keep in mind as they fly in different areas of the country. To illustrate high-density-altitude takeoffs, one of my coworkers uses his hand to limit throttle travel on takeoff, allowing just enough rpm to realistically simulate high density altitudes. Other instructors wait for the hottest day of the year and have students perform a takeoff while the aircraft is at its maximum takeoff weight. These exercises are not intended to scare our students (or ourselves), but to provide a learning experience. A visceral feeling of fear as 50-foot trees get closer is worth many repetitions of an E6B calculation of takeoff distance.

If you'd like a little help in teaching the realities of a higher-elevation flight environment, check out Mountain Flying, a new online course just introduced by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. This FAA-funded course uses some delightful animations and real-world interactivity to explain the challenges rarely considered by pilots learning in the flatlands. Among the subjects covered: high-density-altitude operations, flight planning and performance considerations, mountain weather, and operating in and around "unimproved" airstrips.

Mountain Flying is available simply by visiting the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Online Safety Center and clicking on "Free Online Courses." A free Mountain Flying Safety Advisor is available as a supplement to the course. Just visit the ASF Web site and click on "Publications."

Of course, you could set a good example and take the ASF Mountain Flying course yourself. If your students mimicked your completion of any of the ASF online courses, it would not be such a bad thing.

Leisha Bell is a safety program developer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, she is a CFII and MEI with more than 2,000 hours.

By Leisha Bell

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