Safety Publications/Articles


Teaching through humility

Lessons learned from a mentor

You've probably heard people say, "Being a good pilot doesn't necessarily make you a good flight instructor. Many instructors are very good at flying an aircraft but not effective in teaching others to do so." This has always been true and always will be.

But how does a good pilot become a good teacher? Books have been written on the subject. Learning to fly is a challenging and dynamic endeavor. Many subtle, personal skills are required to excel in fully and effectively molding safe, skilled pilots.

I think humility should be the first skill added to an instructor's tool belt. When this attribute is embraced, the door will be open for all the other skills necessary to be a true teacher.

Revealing humility in your approach will help defensiveness end, so learning can begin. More of your students will complete their training if you assure them that you and others have struggled with certain areas, just as they are currently struggling. You don't have to show your students what a great pilot you are. They already know you're a skilled pilot. Show them what a good teacher you are by sharing specific instances of when you had problems with the current maneuver that they can't seem to perfect. Then they will be encouraged and tell themselves, "If my instructor could get through this and get to where he or she is now, then I guess I can do it too!"

There is one caveat I must mention. There will be times when it becomes important to temper a humble, nurturing approach with some assertiveness. We must never let students turn our understanding, empathetic attitude into one that condones excuses or rationalization. There will be times you must say it like it is. "No, that wasn't the wind that pushed you up on that landing; you were overcontrolling. Try lightening your grip on the yoke."

Through the ages, working with a mentor has been the best method for acquiring and honing special skills. Just because you've become a flight instructor doesn't mean you no longer need mentors. When you're fortunate enough, as I have been, to be in the presence of instructors with the soul of a true teacher, by all means spend time with them, ask questions, and discuss scenarios. It's amazing how much you can learn from such a person even being in the same room and cocking one ear toward their conversations.

One of my most treasured mentors, Harold Koenig, flew on to higher skies when a brain tumor ended his very philanthropic life here on Earth.

They say it's hard to be humble when you're the best, but for Hal Koenig, it wasn't hard. One of the building blocks that made up his very unselfish being was graceful and natural humility. Whenever someone would confess to a less-than-perfect landing, Hal would quickly claim to do worse - all the time. (We all knew better.)

Many aviators seem to have stories of how their superior skills and knowledge allowed them to handle this situation and that. Hal, however, had a never-ending supply of stories that started out, "Don't feel bad, I...."

Hal was one of those truly rare unselfish souls whom you could always find at the bottom of the ladder, helping everyone else up. He would sacrifice time, money, sweat, or ego to help someone else move forward.

A few short years ago I was going around and around the pattern with Hal, working on my commercial certificate. We were practicing short-field landings and I was having a hard time touching down within 100 feet of the "beginning" of the runway. (We were using the beginning of the fixed distance markers as the simulated beginning of the runway, and since they are 100 feet long the goal was to touch down within the length of the two white dashes.) I could consistently touch down within 150 to 175 feet, and I felt I was doing all I could. Surely this requirement in the commercial Practical Test Standards is unreasonable, I thought.

Hal had been sitting in the right seat quietly and patiently watching throughout each pattern and approach. As I came to a stop on each landing, he would tell me to do another. Finally, frustrated, I asked, "Hal, is it even possible to touch down within a hundred feet? Let me see you do it." With absolutely no expression on his face he said, "Well, alright, I'll try - I have the plane." He wriggled into a more upright posture in the seat and took the controls. He took off, flew the airplane around the pattern, brought it smoothly down final, and gracefully plunked the wheels down right smack in the middle of the white markers. He had the airplane stopped within another few hundred feet, straight, smooth, and on the centerline the whole time. He cracked a smile and said, "Now one's all you get; I'm only good for a landing like that about once in a month."

I knew better

Guess where I touched down on the next landing?

- By Brett Justus

Brett Justus is an ATP and FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with more than 2,000 hours. He owns a Cessna 172 based at Sumter Airport in South Carolina.

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