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Follow me through

There's on the controls, and then there is on the controls

Let's think about the concept of teaching someone to fly as if we were on the outside looking in.

Training Trends

First, we're in a machine that travels more than 100 mph and is often a mile off the ground. Second, as instructors, we are expected to let someone who has never touched the controls of an airplane fly this machine. Third, we have to let students make mistakes, give them time to make their corrections, but still give us time to salvage the situation while making an instructional point in the process. To an outsider, this probably doesn't sound very smart.

The last point--letting students make their own mistakes as well as their own corrections--is not only the crux of instruction, but also what defines the margins within which a given CFI is willing to work. How far will we let the student go before we step in? Maybe a better question is how far should we let a student go before we step in?

Different instructors have decidedly different styles of instructing. Even though the FAA has done its best to standardize training, once the student and instructor are in the cockpit, the instructional personality of the CFI is what actually defines how that lesson plan will be flown.

Some of us talk a lot, while others demonstrate a procedure, mutter "do it like this," and sit back silently while the student tries to mimic our moves. When the mistakes start to pile up some instructors are right there on the controls, careful to keep the airplane and the student close to the center of the envelop. Others sit back and let the student dig a deeper and deeper hole; they might not offer any words of advice until they snatch the controls away, performing a heroic recovery and making certain the student understands just how stupid he was to let things get that far. Somewhere there's a middle-ground approach.

The question at hand, then, is exactly how far do we let a student go--and what should we be doing while the student is getting into trouble? How much do we talk, and how much do we get on the controls?

There's no single answer to this question, because so much depends on so many different factors. These include:

  • How experienced is the instructor?
  • How well does the instructor know the airplane?
  • Is this the first time the student has tried the maneuver?
  • How critical is the maneuver; e.g., how far can we go before hitting something?
  • What is the student's personality profile? Is he easily rattled, confident, et cetera?

How experienced is the instructor?

The reality is that an instructor is always learning right along with the student, but the more instructing a CFI does, the more he has seen and the less likely he is to be surprised by something the student and/or the airplane does. He's still learning, but he's learning less and less as the years go by.

As the instructor learns, he begins to see patterns within students and can fairly quickly determine how a given student learns best. (One person benefits best by duplicating what the instructor shows her; another needs to understand more of the theory behind it.)

With instructing experience comes the ability to know how far to let a student go, and still retain plenty of margin for recovery. More than that, a student's characteristics will guide you in setting those margins. Some students keep an instructor on his toes; the CFI learns to build in more of a margin when flying with an erratic student.

How well does the CFI know the airplane?

This is another experienced-based factor. The more times you see an airplane do a particular thing with a student at the controls, the better you are at handling that situation in that particular airplane. That, however, doesn't mean you can do the same thing in another model. Cessnas and Pipers, for instance, handle totally differently in many situations, and the flaps on the two airplanes precipitate different problems. Knowing one airplane well doesn't necessarily mean all of that experience-based knowledge will transfer to another make and model. The less you know about an airplane, the wider you must set your margins and the more you have to stay on top of things.

Is this the first time the student has tried the maneuver?

The question of how far we let a student go and how much we are on the controls is most often driven by how much experience that particular student has in that particular situation. The first time he does turns around a point, for example, he's going to need some help, both verbally and physically. The more turns he does, the less prompting or intervention he should need. However, when we change the situation and put a student on final, for instance, he is now back to a low experience level and needs our help again.

The less experience a student has in a given situation, the narrower our margins. If they don't know what they're doing to begin with, no one profits if we purposely let them step off the deep end. Conversely, the more experience a student has in doing something, the more we have to refrain from correcting them, and no one profits if we don't let them dig themselves out of a corner. Learning depends on the make-a-mistake-and-correct-it cycle being repeated unaided as often as possible. After each cycle, we point out the mistake and see if they repeat it.

It's important that students be allowed to make mistakes and put themselves somewhere they shouldn't be. The old saying fits: "How will you know how to find your way back, if you've never been there before?" We need to let them get "there" so they can see it coming and will immediately know what to do. We're putting blinders on them if we constantly protect them from themselves.

How critical is the maneuver?

We can naturally let a student dig a deeper hole when the maneuver itself offers a larger margin for error. With less-forgiving maneuvers, higher altitudes provide more time for recovery from student mistakes. On short final in a nasty, gusting crosswind, we don't have that margin. Plus, when the elements are major factors, they also cut down our margins. When the gusts are beating our brains out, for instance, we can't let them get as slow on final as we would on a normal day before we speak or act. We can't let them balloon or drift too far out. We need to let them recognize a bad trend, but serious wind can force us into shortening the leash.

What is the personality profile of the student?

The subject of personality profile is a fascinating one whether we're talking about students or not. When we climb into a cockpit with a new student, we don't have a clue what we're actually getting into. The nervous, smiling student on the ground may turn into an overconfident, obnoxious you-know-what in the air. The on-the-ball guy on the ground may have nervous meltdowns in the air. The hyper-rational groundling may push rudders and jerk controls at the most inappropriate times and display a complete lack of physical control. We just don't know.

Therefore, we start with almost no margins on a new student. We hold the leash tight because we don't know for sure how the student on the other end will respond. Besides, we're still instilling basic knowledge and movements. As we get to know the student, however, we should start letting up on the reins so they can find their own way--but it's up to us to match the teaching technique to the learning technique a given student demonstrates.

If you're always herding the controls but the student is one of those who want to figure it out for themselves, you'll frustrate him. Taper off and let him build his decision-making powers as soon as possible.

If, however, you're being the strong silent type but the student needs to hear your voice continually guiding her, she may get apprehensive. This is where, regardless of your style, you need to play psychiatrist and fit yourself to that student's needs.

Leaving the nest

From the very first flight, we are verbally and physically part of a student's flying life. But at some point we have to remove ourselves and give the student control of every aspect of every situation, or we aren't developing pilots. How soon we remove ourselves is a function of each student's characteristics and progress.

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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