Safety Publications/Articles

From The Right Seat

Make Students Safer

As flight instructors, we not only teach our students how to fly, we influence their basic beliefs and values. How? By title and proximity.

The title flight instructor gives us authority. It means that students pay attention to our words and actions. The proximity of teaching in airplanes means we establish a more intimate relationship with our students. Both title and proximity encourage students to mimic our behaviors, thoughts, and actions. And they are the means by which we may influence how safely our students fly for years to come.

So influence your students in positive ways. Let them see you behave responsibly, use that checklist, muse about safety, obtain a weather briefing for a local flight. And if you wonder how much influence you have, consider these wise words offered by an unknown aviator: "Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind. He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That his judgment was faulty is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every instructor, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose."

Imagined Rehearsal

Have you ever prepared for a job interview by mentally rehearsing answers to the questions that you think you'll be asked? Most of us have. It helps, doesn't it? At least it helps us to prepare appropriate responses and minimizes the chance that we'll say something goofy. Given enough rehearsal, if the interviewer asks how you intend to get to work, you're less likely to answer with something strange like, "Ahh, the starship Enterprise?" We call mental practice imagined rehearsal, and it's very important for helping our students to acquire new skills.

Imagined rehearsal is a mental process where behavioral scenarios are visualized in order to refine and reinforce them. The process requires that you mentally picture a particular behavior while simultaneously imagining all the sensory impressions that are associated with it. You've probably seen airshow pilots do something similar when preparing for a performance. They'll walk the flight line moving their hands up and down as they visualize each maneuver and recall its associated sensory impressions. This is a perfectly normal process (as long as the pilot isn't pursing his lips while making engine sounds).

Imagined rehearsal is especially useful when you're trying to link the behaviors that we discussed in my previous article on behavioral modeling. ("Behavioral Modeling: The Next Step," March AOPA Flight Training). In that article, I identified the following behavioral components that I use when entering slow flight (that's entering, not maintaining slow flight):

  1. Apply back elevator pressure to increase the angle of attack and compare the rate of elevator pull with the vertical speed indicator's needle.
  2. Look at the altimeter, followed by a look outside the cockpit to ensure that you're in level flight.
  3. Glance at the airspeed indicator to check the airspeed. (This process is repeated until the airplane is five knots above the desired airspeed, at which point we enter the third element of slow flight - maintaining airspeed. We won't cover that element here.)

After you've discussed these slow flight components with your student, here's how imagined rehearsal can help him or her to link these behaviors together. First, have the student sit in a chair with his hands and feet placed to simulate the application of flight controls. Tell him to imagine that he's flying at 3,000 feet with 2,300 rpm at a speed of, say, 100 kt. Have him place his hands and feet on the imagined controls, just as he would in a real airplane. Now, tell him to enter slow flight by mentally rehearsing the first component of slow flight behavior shown above. (It's OK if he moves his hands and feet in the process as long as he doesn't make the engine noise.)

He should pull the power back with his right hand while using his left hand to simultaneously apply back elevator pressure. Then, he should adjust the elevator back pressure in reference to the VSI's needle position. If you have him imagine that the needle moves up, he should reduce the back pressure; if it moves down, increase the back pressure.

Have him repeat this same step but instruct him to include a mental glance at the altimeter to ensure that the hundred foot hand hasn't moved. He should also imagine glancing over the panel to check the airplane's attitude as well as glancing at the airspeed indicator to determine when he's within 5 kt of the desired slow-flight speed. The neat thing about this process is that you can stop and start the mental rehearsal again and again, which makes this a very efficient method of building behaviors.

The secret to making this work is taking the time to reinforce the cause and effect (C-E) relationship associated with each element of the behavior being rehearsed. For instance, the C-E relationships associated with the element we're rehearsing in this example suggests that increasing the angle of attack (cause) increases drag (effect); increasing drag (cause) decreases airspeed (effect); increasing the angle of attack at the appropriate rate (cause), keeps the airplane at a constant altitude during the transition (effect).

So, while the student is applying elevator back pressure to keep the VSI needle centered, I'm either asking him to tell me about this C-E relationship or I'm reminding him about it. (I switch between asking and telling for variety.) The point here is that I want him to know why he's doing what he's doing.

I apply the same rehearsal process with all the individual elements of behavior identified during the modeling process. Students can rehearse these behaviors on their own, which makes their learning more efficient.

Does imagined rehearsal really work? You bet it does. It's been used for years by sports psychologists, astronauts, doctors, martial artists, and people from all walks of life. There are mounds of scientific evidence supporting its value.

Teach your students using imagined rehearsal and encourage them to use it on their own. You'll find it a very effective way to integrate the individual elements of almost anything that your students are learning.

By Rod Machado

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