Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Watch, listen, and learn

You can observe a lot by watching

The New York Yankees' Yogi Berra is as much a philosopher as he is baseball legend. Many of his "Yogi-isms" are used in daily conversation. "It's like d¿j¿ vu all over again" was made into song, while "It ain't over 'till it's over" is frequently heard in ballparks. "You can observe a lot by watching," however, is Berra's quote most apropos to flying, whether you are giving or receiving flight instruction.

We flight instructors have much to offer, and most students look up to us as though we were speaking the gospel. But our well-spoken words don't necessarily mean that the learning we intended is taking place. I've learned that best instructional results come when we watch our students, listen to what they are saying, and learn how to rephrase things if they aren't "getting it." Omitting these steps can cost students extra time and money, and may eventually cost you income as students drift away.

Students also have much to offer us instructors. Every one has a unique frame of reference and a different motivation for learning to fly, and can challenge you in ways never foreseen. For example, several years ago I endorsed my student's logbook for a solo cross-country. He was prepared and seemingly confident, but when he returned, he was ghostly with despair. When asked him why, he responded, "Everywhere I turned, killer clouds were coming at me." I took a moment to think while regaining my composure. Was the problem really "killer clouds," or was it his lack of understanding relative motion? Experience told me that whenever I pointed an aircraft at a stationary object, whether it is a cloud, a tree, or a runway, the object will get closer--but in my student's world, those vengeful clouds were out to get him. We had a long discussion about this, and I never made any such assumption again. Instead, I watched, listened, and learned, and in the process became a better CFI.

We know that students are like sponges, but sometimes we forget that they soak up bad just as easily as good. Students watch every move we make. They listen to our every word, interpret it in a manner that makes sense to them, and then learn from it. This is why it is critical that we teach to the FAA standards, and then evaluate our students to ensure that what they've learned is what we intended.

Leadership by example is a simple phrase that sums up our responsibility as flight instructors. When I was a very young glider tow pilot, I wasn't nearly as in tune with this phrase as I am now, as an airline captain. My own instructor had taught me well, and performing some 20 landings a day flying in mountainous terrain honed my ability to fly the heck out of that Super Cub. On windy days, I did vertical landings, coiling the rope below me, then dumping the nose in close and adding just enough power to make a perfect three-point landing. On normal days, I flew a tight pattern to avoid snagging the rope on the fence, and leveled the wings just before touchdown. Ah, yes. I was a master of the sky at age 18.

I learned to be a fool on my own. My towing operation boss helped me to realize my stupidity when he told me he wasn't worried about me hurting myself, but he was concerned that someone might get hurt by attempting to mimic my flying. He said this calmly and deliberately, and his message was received loud and clear.

But there are still plenty of pilots who haven't "gotten it." Not long ago, a young glider tow pilot was performing aerobatics in a Citabria over the Rockies, mimicking maneuvers her instructor had demonstrated. Sadly, her performance wasn't as good, and the accident was fatal. When I heard of this mishap, my old boss's words came back to haunt me. While I might get away with it, someone else might not.

Most likely, my distress over this incident stemmed from realizing that I was once part of the problem. So why did her instructor choose to demonstrate unsafe flying? That's a moot point. But as with every mishap, there is much to be learned. As a flight instructor, we have an obligation to teach safety--and watch, listen, and learn from our students. Most important, we must commit ourselves to our students, not to our logbooks.

So here's a thought. Whenever you sign a logbook, realize that Sponge Bob (or Bobbie) has taken everything you said as The Truth, and if anything happens, you will be held accountable. But this should come as no surprise. After all, isn't this why this student chose you in the first place?

Flight instructing is a big responsibility. Accept that, and look forward to every flight. Like Yogi says, you can learn a lot from just watching.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark Danielson

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports