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Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Questions are the key to enlightenment

Take it from a long-time, old-school flight instructor: Far too often students don’t ask questions when they should.
Illustration by Raul Arias
Illustration by Raul Arias

Only the student knows when they don’t understand something. If they don’t verbalize it, the instructor usually only knows the understanding gap exists by the student’s lack of performance. Even then, the cause may not be clear. Feedback from the student is critical in guiding the instructor. A student can make learning to fly much more fun, much less exasperating, and much more productive by asking questions.

Disperse the fog before it sets in
It’s easy for an instructor to forget that aviation-speak is loaded with phrases and concepts that are totally unknown outside of the aviation community. For instance: “…so, when you turn base-to-final, nail the airspeed, drop a notch of flaps, retrim, keep the ball centered, and…” Try saying something like that at your next canasta get-together and see how many knowing nods people give you.

Don’t ignore a momentary lack of understanding. We can’t think to ourselves, I’m going to ask about that later. When we do that, “later” almost never comes.

If you don’t understand completely something being said or demonstrated, stop the instructor and have them go through it again. And, again, if necessary. Do not let something pass without totally understanding what was said. In the learning phase of anything, laying down a solid basis of understanding is critical. Otherwise, the rest of learning is built on a weak foundation.

Mental reviews often happen spontaneously—be ready!
When you’re actively involved in something as intense as learning to fly, your brain is almost never completely free of it. After a lesson you will re-fly that flight in your mind over and over in coming days. In the process of remembering, questions often arise.

Think how often you’ll be driving along, taking a shower, or otherwise be doing something mundane, when a solution to something totally unrelated suddenly pops into your mind. We all have those moments but they only last for a few seconds. Five minutes later we’ll remember that we had a wonderful, enlightening revelation, but for the life of us we can’t recall what it was. That’s why one of the most critically important learning apparatuses students can carry is a small pocket notebook and a pencil/pen. Or, these days, a smartphone.

Do not let something pass without totally understanding what was said. In the learning phase of anything, laying down a solid basis of understanding is critical. Otherwise, the rest of learning is built on a weak foundation.The instant we have that moment of understanding, we need to drop what we’re doing and jot it down as a question. If we wait as much as a minute, an opportunity for clarification of a flying moment is lost. These moments of understanding the details of what it is that we don’t understand are learning fodder for the next flight.

Be ready for the next flight with questions
CFIs love it when a student arrives and is prepared to ask questions. However, it is incumbent on students to ask these questions in an understandable way. It may help to examine each question carefully, making them as concise as possible and putting them in writing, before presenting them to the CFI. The process of dissecting your thoughts so they make sense on paper, before framing them as a question, will sometimes answer the question before it’s asked. However, answer or not, tightening up your thoughts helps you present your CFI with specifics rather than generalities, which makes her answers more specific. It won’t be, “When you were talking about speed control, I didn’t understand it.” It will be, “I’m not exactly sure of the relationship between the nose attitude and speed. How do I control them both?”

CFIs improve because of questions
All CFIs eventually develop a variety of semi-packaged methods for teaching various aspects of flying. Like a stand-up comedian or university professor, they have addressed the same thoughts enough times that they have mental paragraphs stored up to address different subjects. That’s not to say they’re lacking in originality. CFIs continually edit those mental paragraphs to fit different students at different times. That, however, doesn’t mean the words or technique will always be right and totally understood by every student. That’s where questions come into play.

CFIs depend on feedback from students to tell them whether their instruction is hitting the mark. When an instructor gets a question concerning something they have taught, it encourages them to review their words and their actions looking for better ways to teach something. Good instructors are constantly revising their teaching techniques, and questions from students are their guideposts. This is why an instructor often learns as much from his students as his students learn from him.

Everyone benefits from questions.
Teaching and learning are both improved by students’ questions. However, it’s not unusual for a student to think that asking questions makes them appear stupid or incapable of learning, when exactly the opposite is true. An instructor appreciates a student’s questions and looks forward to them. If something doesn’t make total sense, question it. If you do, both sides of the instructional equation win.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor.

Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.

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