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Nine habits of successful studentsNine habits of successful students

Habits of successful students

A number of factors may contribute to a student pilot’s success—a great instructor, support from a flight school, a stretch of good weather conducive to frequent flights. But you can take the reins of your flight training and tackle challenges faster by adopting habits that set you up for success. Are you setting yourself up to achieve your training goals in 2015? Many AOPA staff members are also active flight instructors, and several offered their insight into behaviors they’ve observed in their most successful students.

They come ready to fly

Study! All the instructors who weighed in on their successful students mentioned that they do work at home between lessons. “Nothing will get a flight instructor more motivated and engaged than a student who is motivated, engaged and asks good, relevant questions,” said Air Safety Institute Chief Flight Instructor Kristine Hartzell.

Don’t worry—your instructor doesn’t expect you to learn everything on your own. (In fact, AOPA Manager of the Flying Club Initiative Kelby Ferwerda said his favorite students work to learn a portion of the material themselves, but don’t get ahead of him.) But reading up on a topic and doing work at home can help you come to your instructor with good questions and reinforce your learning.

“It may seem silly to sit in your dining room chair and practice engine starting, stalls, steep turns, or emergency procedures,” said AOPA Online Managing Editor Alyssa Miller. “But, what you are doing is helping to commit the checklists and procedures to memory and mentally walking through maneuvers. This helps reinforce the learning process.”

In preparing for your lessons, don’t neglect the physical factors that contribute to your performance on a given day. The best students show up for a lesson ready to fly, AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman said—“and ‘ready to fly’ means more than just having an open block on their day planner. It means they’ve done their homework, they have a plan for what they are going to accomplish, they’re rested, hydrated, fed, and ready to give their best effort.

They fly often

Have you ever gotten back in the airplane after time away and felt like the skill you were so close to mastering had slipped away? Students who fly often reinforce the motor skills from the previous lesson and tend to learn faster. Weather, schedules, or financial constraints may conspire to ground you for a while and that won’t derail your flight training, but make flying frequently a priority.

AOPA Aviation Program Specialist Brenda Tibbs discussed one of her students, who is on her schedule four days a week to ensure he flies at least twice, sometimes more. “That is why he is making progress so quickly,” she said. “He is consistent with the schedule. It also helps me. I know he will be there four days a week. I save those times just for him. No one takes his spots because I know I can count on him to be there and I know he is serious.” Pilot Information Center Aviation Technical Specialist Sarah Staudt added that scheduling frequent lessons and treating those like any other commitment gives students something to look forward to and keeps training a priority.

They set goals, and work toward them

What do you want out of your flight training? Keeping the ultimate goal in mind helps buoy students through the frustration of training plateaus.

“The best students have a destination,” said Hirschman. “Whether they’re flying for personal growth and challenge, or as formal training for a future profession, the best students know where they are headed and what they want to achieve. Student goals often change along the way—and that’s good. But students still progress more rapidly when they are on a defined path.”

It also helps to focus on tackling intermediate goals on your way to that certificate. AOPA Editor at Large Tom Horne said that successful, goal-oriented students “make sure they jump through the hoops quickly—getting the medical/student certificate, passing the written, taking classes/online courses—and in the earliest stages of training. Maybe even before the actual flying even begins.” Getting these obstacles out of the way early can free you to focus on flight training, without other requirements hanging over your head.

They go deeper

The best students are curious. They “work to become aware of what they don’t know and then seek answers aggressively as opposed to waiting until the subject comes up,” said Pilot Information Center Aviation Technical Specialist Adam Williams. And the best students aren’t satisfied just knowing how to do something like a steep turn, according to Hirschman. “They want to understand the mechanics of what moves the control surfaces, the aerodynamics, the physical forces at play, and the situations in which steep turns are appropriate.”

Seeking out answers means consulting resources beyond those associated with their curriculum, according to Horne: “Books, websites, safety info, accident reports, etc. And yes, they ask a lot of questions.”

Whether you’re struggling to understand a concept or wondering why a maneuver is important, your instructor can be one of your most valuable resources. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

They communicate

Your instructor can be your biggest ally in your flight training journey, so don’t be afraid to talk to him or her about your anxieties or frustrations. “Instructors are pretty good at reading body language, but being open and honest about how you feel will go a long way with the instructor,” said Miller. “He or she will be able to tailor lessons to help address those concerns and continue to encourage you along the way. A lot of times, what a student feels he or she is alone in experiencing is something that other students—and the CFI—have experienced as well. The CFI can help you understand you aren’t alone.”

Williams noted that the most successful students also give feedback to their instructors often. “Instructors rely on information from the student in order to tailor the training to the individual,” he said. “If your instructor doesn’t welcome feedback find another one.”

They self-assess

Are you a visual or auditory learner? Would you prefer to be hands-on right away, or do you want to mull it over first? Assessing how you learn can help you and your instructor play to your strengths.

“An engineer may benefit from reading graphs and technical reports and committing numbers to memory,” Hirschman said. “A poet may prefer listening intently to flying stories and visualizing different scenarios. Students who know how they learn will find the aviation information they need in a format that’s most meaningful to them.”

Self-assessment is a critical part of flight training from the beginning, when the student must decide whether he or she is ready to commit the required time and financial resources to the task. And during training, a student can benefit from asking the instructor how he or she is doing, and what to work on, according to Ferwerda. “Often instructors can be concerned about discouraging a student, but if we’re invited (in a positive way) to provide criticisms, it makes our job easier, and provides the student with good situational awareness.”

They ‘live it’

“You can’t just think of learning to fly as a purely intellectual activity,” noted Horne. “This means flying as much and as often as possible—not once a week, especially in the beginning. It also means seeking out fellow students and forming new relationships.”

Connecting to a flying community—whether other student pilots, a flying club, or regulars at the airport café—can help keep student pilots interested and motivated. Ferwerda noted that students who come to social events and want to be airport bums “usually maintain stronger self-motivation to complete their flying goals. They also surround themselves with a support structure that provides outside support, not just internal.”

They relax

Good students are confident in their ability to learn, according to Staudt. That doesn’t mean that they feel like they don’t need guidance from an instructor, but shedding self-doubt can help students learn. And, according to Hirschman, the best students are happy and relaxed in the air.

“The cockpit is a terrible classroom,” he said. “To be able to learn in that cramped, noisy, stressful place, a student has got to be calm enough to recognize the nuances of what’s going on. If they’re too tense, they’ll miss it.”

They bounce back

Learning to fly is a challenge, but the best students don’t let the frustrations get them down. Any creative thinker can compile a list of reasons to stop flying, according to Ferwerda, but the goal is to make a list of the reasons you can succeed.

“Even under the best conditions, flight training is full of frustration, setbacks, and learning plateaus,” Hirschman said. “The weather is awful, airplanes break, maintenance takes longer than expected, your instructor gets the flu, stalls are scary, and consistently soft landings are elusive. Every student pilot encounters adversity and moments when they aren’t certain they can succeed, or flying doesn’t seem worth the effort and expense. The best students aren’t deterred, however. They keep trying and they know that, eventually, they will find a way—and their victory will be sweeter because of the difficulties.”

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener

Managing Editor, 'AOPA Pilot' and 'Flight Training'
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Managing Editor Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated private pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.
Topics: Flight Training, Pilot Training and Certification, Flying Club

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