Safety Publications/Articles


Telling them when to quit

The most distasteful task

All people are not necessarily created equal -- at least not when it comes to flying. Those who have spent a lifetime flight instructing can recall students who should not have been students and pilots who should not be flying. Could they get an airplane up and down? Yes. Could they do it repeatedly and safely? Absolutely not. And therein lies the crux of the problem. They can sort of fly, but in our judgment, they are likely to have problems in the future. At what point -- and for what reasons -- do we, as instructors, tell someone they shouldn't learn to fly?

In reality, we very seldom get a student who is not suited to becoming a pilot -- in 37 years of instructing, I've seen only two. To be a safe pilot, an individual must be capable of doing more than pushing and pulling the appropriate levers at the right time. There's a level of judgment that we expect from everyone who flies, and most often that's where an individual falls down. They can do the flying, but they can't do the thinking.

What makes them incapable?

When we're teaching students to fly, we're actually programming their brain to accurately assess what their eyes see and to turn that into useful information that their hands can then use to control the airplane. However, each brain differs in its capability to process this information, and some process it in a manner that results in unexpected, sometimes totally erroneous, reactions.

In some cases the brain is simply overwhelmed, which is most often the case with new students. The brain eventually catches up and problems disappear. Once in a while the brain is forever a step behind; the pilot can handle the everyday aspects of flight but is easily pushed into confusion by the slightest distraction or unusual challenge.

The latter situation isn't justification for them to stop flying. It is, however, important that they recognize their limitations. In most cases, these pilots know they can have a problem and don't have the false confidence that often leads to exceeding personal envelopes. But the person with faulty brain circuitry is a possible threat to himself and everyone around him. It is this person who should seriously examine the wisdom of learning to fly.

What are the signs?

The primary way we, as instructors, assess a person's mental processes is by evaluating how they manifest themselves as control movements. The first indication of a brain circuitry problem is when you get unusual physical reactions to your commands or in response to what the airplane is doing.

With one student in particular, two incidents are vivid in my mind. On takeoff, we were drifting toward the runway edge, and I gently urged him to add some right rudder. Without warning, he slammed the left rudder to the floor. It hit so hard that the nosewheel chirped sideways and couldn't quite make the turn. Fortunately, we were fast enough that I got it off the ground just before hitting the lights. In another situation, we were in the process of flaring, and I said, "Increase the back-pressure." Bam! The elevator hit the stop so hard that the entire airplane reverberated, and we fell from the air like a clod of dirt.

Repeatedly, he showed me that his brain was wired primarily with capacitors that would charge, charge, charge, and then suddenly fire with greatly exaggerated control inputs. I finally sent him for a proficiency ride with the chief instructor because I wasn't going to put my name in his logbook. Management resisted the move mightily, but after flying with him, the chief instructor washed him out.

Can we eliminate those problems?

The best we can do is treat the symptoms and try to determine whether such anomalies result from the stress of flight training or something that is part of this person's thought processes.

Flight training is a high-stress environment known for its ability to periodically scramble an individual's thought processes. After a little more exposure to flight, this kind of confusion -- whether it's right/left or differentiating downwind from base -- usually disappears. If the problems are more severe and potentially dangerous, however, we have to keep a close watch and see whether the problems are disappearing, or if they are just the way that particular brain functions. In virtually all cases, applying a little patient remedial training will eliminate the hiccups.

Delivering the bad news

There is no black-and-white way to approach this issue. And it happens so seldom that none of us has a pat procedure. Further complicating the issue is the personality of the student in question.

First, we have to remember that what we're about to do is squash someone's dreams of flight. This is no small deal. And don't kid yourself; when the deed is done, you'll feel almost as bad as the student, so you want to make absolutely certain that what you're doing is not a quick judgment call based on a few events. Of course, you're not the student's first instructor -- to give the student a fair chance, and to assure yourself there is no student/instructor incompatibility, you already would have facilitated a change. You must believe that in telling someone he shouldn't fly, you are doing him enough good in the long run that it offsets any short-term emotional damage.

I had a student whom I was checking out in a Pitts; he was a 300-hour pilot who owned a tailwheel airplane. It should have been an easy checkout, but it wasn't. I invested 25 intense instructional hours in him and just couldn't overcome the explosive brain glitches. I never knew what he was going to do next. I flew with him in his own airplane, and he was as bad in his little Piper Cub as he was in the Pitts. Maybe worse. I thought about it a lot and then advised him to stop flying for a year, then come back and start over as a student.

His personality was such that, as near as I could tell, it didn't faze him. I've never had a student of any kind who, when questioned closely, thought he was doing better then he really was. They usually know they have problems, although they often don't want to directly confront it. Since those with the explosive brain glitches always see the tire-screeching, runway-slamming results of their actions, they can't ignore reality, but they keep hoping it'll go away.

Telling someone they shouldn't be flying is the single most distasteful thing that you can do in aviation. With any luck, most instructors will never have to take this step in an entire career. But that doesn't mean we should avoid the issue. We aren't doing the student any favors if we ignore what we believe are potentially lethal problems just to make the student, or us, feel better. Or much worse, we keep flying with them because we want the revenue. That's just flat dishonest.

The best thing we can do for this person, his family, and his friends is to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else, and that means keeping him out of the air. Make sure you're absolutely right, then bite the bullet and tell him. In the long run, he'll thank you.

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 for 37 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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