Safety Publications/Articles


Killer Clouds

Most people will read this title and automatically think of the notorious dark and unforgiving "cumulogranite" that seems to reach out and grab those who attempt to fly VFR through obscured mountain passes. Snow-covered terrain decreases the odds of survival in these incidents, because there is little depth perception under such conditions. While pilots absolutely should avoid such "killer clouds," they aren't the focus of this article.

This story actually concerns a former student of mine who had been doing quite well in his post-solo training and was flying at least once a week. Armenian by origin, he spoke fluent English, and I suspect he was a naturalized citizen. As with so many student pilots, he was learning to fly for personal pleasure. He delighted in taking me through the various maneuvers and looked forward to earning his private pilot certificate so that he could take his family and friends up for rides. I was so confident in his abilities that his solo flights never raised a bead of sweat on my brow. I can honestly say he was one of my least-worrisome flight students.

One beautiful Sunday afternoon, he returned clearly shaken from a 100-mile solo cross-country flight. When I asked him how the flight had gone, he was so nervous that he could hardly speak. When he finally calmed down, I was hardly prepared for his answer. "It was terrible!" he said, his hands still shaking. "Everywhere I turned, the killer clouds kept coming at me." He was so frightened that I never considered breaking a smile. When he concluded, I considered it a good news/bad news story: good in the sense that he was actually looking outside, but bad in that he had no idea what he was seeing. Needless to say, we had a lengthy debrief - at no charge, I might add.

As I later reflected on his situation, I was reminded of a line from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke. "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Nothing else I could come up with could have been so profound. I felt that I failed him completely as his instructor and don't recall whether he ever completed his training. If you've ever wondered why some instructors are more successful with their students than others, the reason comes down to one word - communication.

Somewhere along the line, my student failed to grasp the principles of relative motion. Obviously the "killer clouds" weren't "attacking" him; he was simply flying toward them. (The weather conditions were scattered clouds at 3,000 feet during his flight.) So who was at fault here? Was it me for not understanding how best to teach him?

How much of a message we comprehend is in direct proportion to the sender's ability to express words in a manner that the receiver can relate to. In my case, I apparently made assumptions about my student's frame of reference, when in fact I had no understanding of what that frame of reference was. Remember, effective communication takes place only when the receiver is able to grasp what's being said.

That brings up another assumption: The receiver must be willing to understand what's being said, meaning that distractions will almost certainly interfere with the communicative process. A student may be thinking about financial matters - or, if the debrief is taking too long, how it might affect his or her job. The same holds true for the instructor. Perhaps he or she is thinking about that long-awaited airline job interview and is no longer in tune with the student.

Either way, there will always be a failure to communicate if the receiver is distracted, so do whatever it takes to ensure both parties are in tune with the matters at hand. (If you care to test that theory, tell a teenager something while he or she is watching television, and then ask him or her to repeat what you just said. Need I say more?)

Regardless of who is paying for the training, learning to fly is a major investment in time and money. In the case of the general aviation pilot, the student pilot may only be able to fly two to four times a month because of financial and time constraints. In order to get the most out of each lesson, the student needs to come prepared with specific questions about the maneuver or procedure to be taught so the instructor can go over them before the flight.

For infrequent students, it may be in the best interest of both parties if the instructor gives a specific homework assignment to complete prior to the next lesson. Such assignments not only enhance the training because the student is more prepared, but they ensure that everyone has the same expectations and frame of reference.

Admittedly, there is nothing new about this concept. After all, it's practiced in public schools on a daily basis, but I've rarely seen it used in flight schools. Too often, instructors desert their students for new flying jobs, leaving someone else to pick up where they left off. Since flight instructing is often a stepping-stone to other flying jobs, this problem will not go away any time soon - but if there has been decent record keeping, the problems of being "orphaned" should be minimized.

Effective communication takes time and effort on the part of the instructor and student, but it is essential to getting the most out of each training session. By understanding each party's frame of reference, there should never be a reason to have a discussion about killer clouds after the flight.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for Federal Express. He has been a CFI for 24 years and has flown more than 8,500 hours.

By Mark Danielson

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