Safety Publications/Articles

License to Learn

Teaching the self-critique

Your FAA certificate number may not be 007, but flight instructors are on par with James Bond when it comes to performing incredible feats, such as teaching men and women how to fly. But transforming earthlings into aviators comes with something that Bond never worried about. It's called responsibility, and in today's litigious society, a big part of aviation responsibility is maintaining proficiency, both for us and for those we teach to fly.

For pilots of both groups, failure to maintain proficiency can be tantamount to turning their FAA certificate into a license to kill. While an automobile driver shares the same kind of liability, motor vehicle accidents are commonplace and deemed acceptable. Such is never the case for aviation mishaps. Thus, all flight instructors must ensure that their students understand personal accountability.

Perhaps one thing that separates pilots from automobile drivers is that not everyone can, or should, pilot an aircraft. Daredevil drivers attempting to interact with the third dimension rarely live to tell about something that pilots experience on every flight. Thankfully, those desiring to fly are a breed apart from these daredevils. No doubt you've observed that most student pilots have more maturity and ability than do student drivers. Most likely this is attributable to the momentous investment in time, money, and commitment required to become a pilot--a barrier that robs so many of their dream of becoming an aviator.

Flight instructing also poses other challenges. Flying several times a day can burn out a saint. At times you may need to remind yourself why you are even there. One of the best motivators may be to recall how your heart thumped the day your own flight instructor said, "Show me what you can do," as he stepped from the airplane. After you soloed, you couldn't stop grinning when your instructor clipped your shirt, added your name to the fragment, and tacked it to the wall. Never forget that feeling. And never forget what it was like to earn your first pilot certificate. Remember how cool it was to take your friends flying for the first time. Your new certificate gave you freedom beyond your wildest dreams.

Did your instructor ever mention that your pilot certificate is really a license to learn? Surely you are passing that same wisdom along to your students. As instructors, we know there is no such thing as a perfect flight. Perhaps your landing wasn't as smooth as you wanted, or maybe you landed with a little less fuel than expected. Maybe you forgot to dial in a new frequency or transmitted on the wrong one. No problem. We've all done it, and we know perfectly well that the men and women who fly with us will make the same mistakes. Let them, so long as safety is not compromised. That's how they gain experience.

Technological advancements have propelled general aviation into a new realm. Gone are the days when we could kick the tires and fly off into the sunset. Most new aircraft, even trainers, are being delivered with global positioning systems and glass cockpits. But while this new equipment has simplified our lives, it also pulls eyeballs inside to interpret complex cockpit displays, thus increasing the midair potential. And you thought it was tough keeping a student's eyes outside when the panel was nothing more than an uninteresting six-pack of instruments. Regardless of an aircraft's sophistication, pilots must never forget the basics.

If you stay in touch with your former students, challenge them to maintain their piloting proficiency. Suggest that before their next flight, they review the legend on their sectional chart, particularly the areas that concern airspace. Ask them to leave their GPS off and navigate using pilotage and VOR cross-checks, or fly to an airfield with crosswinds and practice landings until centerline landings in the desired touchdown zone are an every-time occurrence. Challenge them to calculate their intended landing fuel quantity and compare it with what they actually burned. And if you're truly a brave instructor, ask them to dust off their FAA knowledge test study guide and take a practice test. If they're like most pilots, they will be amazed at how much they've forgotten. But then, that's why we have this license to learn. Self-critiquing every flight is one of our best learning tools.

Professional pilots understand that flying has no room for ego. As the saying goes, flying, like the sea, is inherently dangerous, and terribly unforgiving. Since gravity plays no favorites, we must realize we are frail creatures in our flying machines, and admitting our own mortality is the first step to survival. My many departed friends taught me that one.

Hopefully this perspective will enhance your own professionalism, and that of the men and women you teach. Everyone who flies must fly responsibly. Learn, and keep learning. That's what professional pilots do.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark W. Danielson

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