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CFI to CFI

Bad days happen

Recognize when you shouldn't be instructing

CFIs are people too. We get sick, we have lives that sometimes take our minds in different directions, and we have those unexplained "bad days" just like everyone else. And try as we might, none of us is absolutely consistent day to day. This is to be expected. But are there days when we're close to the limits and we really shouldn't be in the cockpit with a student? Of course there are. How do we recognize those days, and what do we do about them?

First we have to recognize what we're supposed to be doing as instructors. Then we must evaluate whether we're able to perform at, or close to, 100 percent on all scores. If not, then we should consider rescheduling the hop.

Our primary mission is to pass along information in a way that the student can readily absorb. That sounds simple enough. But flight instructing is a pretty complicated form of teaching--we have to let the student try the maneuver, let him make the inevitable mistakes, and give him time to correct it himself, all while leaving ourselves room to correct the situation.

Our mission is further complicated because in our classroom, the student is quite often either stressed out or temporarily overloaded, so our ability to communicate becomes that much more critical in the transfer of information. In other words, there will be days that while we may be capable of flying an airplane, we aren't capable of effectively communicating--which means we're only doing 50 percent of our job.

The internal difficulties that make us less effective as instructors and pilots are numerous. The problems include, but are not limited to:

  • Distractions. The complexities of life can overpower our ability to focus. Losing a significant other, going through a divorce, a death in the family, or dozens of other common life events can distract us.
  • Physical problems. We all know not to fly with a head cold, but we also don't want to inconvenience a student (or lose the income) by canceling a hop just because we don't feel well. That, of course, is silly, because the student doesn't want to get sick either, and he wants to get the instruction he's paying for. If we're sick, he's not getting his full measure.
  • Burnout. Nothing wears down a pilot faster than days of back-to-back dual hops. As much as we hate to admit it, there are days when we just don't want to get into a cockpit and face a student. Most of the time, that feeling disappears the instant we saddle up--but, if we're having to grit our teeth and force ourselves into the cockpit, maybe we should reconsider.
  • Fatigue. This is a variation of burnout; here, the spirit is willing and able, but the brain and body aren't. Fatigue hampers your ability to think clearly, and your judgment--not to mention your ability to communicate--is compromised.
  • Student mismatch. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes a student/instructor personality conflict is so huge, we find that we just hate climbing into a cockpit with this person. This is not a healthy situation for either of us, and it's only going to get worse. Before the situation reaches crisis proportions, we should admit to the student that this isn't working and he'd be better off finding another instructor. If possible, we should try to recommend another CFI.

There's always pressure for us to keep a student moving along, so it's impractical to cancel a hop just because of a vague feeling that all is not well with our body. A student won't want to get into a cockpit with you if you're constantly sneezing, and if you're that sick you won't want to fly either. But there's a more difficult judgment call to be made when all the symptoms are internal. Often, we find that minor physical distress doesn't translate into any kind of thinking or teaching impairment. However, the first time you find your mind groping for an explanation or you see your hand doing something you didn't really tell it to do, you know you shouldn't be flying.

A clue that you're too distracted to fly is when you find yourself thinking about something that has nothing to do with flying but everything to do with something that's going on in your life. At that point we're not only doing a less than efficient job of instructing, but we're coming close to being unsafe as a pilot--and may not be able to prevent a student-induced crisis. Our personal life has to be left on the ground 100 percent of the time.

The same type of wandering-mind syndrome is indicative of burnout, whereas physical fatigue generally manifests itself in some sort of task that usually flows smoothly but is suddenly lumpy and hard to do. Where we may normally have a slick way of explaining how to transition into the flare on final approach, for example, we find ourselves stumbling over our words. Or worse yet, we just don't have the energy to get into it, so we skip it. Fatigue generally is also the cause of an unpleasant happening that we should have prevented--say we let a student hammer it onto the runway too hard because we were late in catching it, which indicates things are happening faster than we are thinking, and that's never a good thing.

So, how do we handle those days when we shouldn't be in the cockpit? Ideally, we see it coming soon enough that we can call our students and catch them before they leave for the airport. One of our goals in rescheduling should be to cause the student as little inconvenience as possible.

If the student is at the airport, or worse yet, you're already in the airplane with him when you decide to call it quits, it's much more complicated. In fact, once the engine is running, canceling the hop is so complicated that we sometimes let ourselves be pushed into continuing. This alone is a good indication that our brain isn't hitting on all cylinders.

Students are not ogres. They recognize that everyone has a bad day, and most will sympathize and understand. They don't want to be in a compromised situation either. So just be honest. We should then use what's left of our brain to apologize, then apologize again and reschedule. Then apologize.

Don't let the pressure to make a buck or to keep from disappointing a student force you into doing something you know isn't right. In flight instructing, there is no flight that absolutely has to be made, so stay on the ground when you're not fully capable.

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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