5 Things Being a Flight Instructor Taught Me About the Way We Think
For a little over two and a half years, I had the privilege of working as a flight instructor both privately and at a major university, teaching students of all ages and backgrounds how to fly. During that time, I instructed over forty students, ages seventeen to eighty, in ten different models of aircraft. My students ranged from those with the goal of becoming a private pilot all the way to students going after their own instructor certifications.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that each student actually taught me just as much as I could pass on to them. Each interaction, every day, with each and every student of mine left me with something new to take away. Every student brought a different background to the table. Some students were raised in the aviation industry, some were strangers to it. Some students were rich, some were poor. Some students were extroverts, some were introverts. Some had careers, some were full-time college students. Each student had a different level of prerequisite knowledge, level of confidence, and learning style. I got to see them process information during lessons on the ground — where they had time to think — and in the air, where at times their bodies and their airplanes were moving well over 200 miles per hour, and their minds had to keep up.
Communication is the first thing out the window
I saw this most often when preparing students for exams. I operated under the idea that if a student could thrive in an environment which was more intense and fast-paced than their exam would be, and with a higher workload, they could pass a test with an examiner who didn’t ask as much of them. I would intentionally hold my students (at the end of their training) to a higher standard than the test that they were about to take, so the test would feel easy to them.
In those environments, it was interesting to see even the most advanced and prepared students begin to filter their communication. In aviation, we teach that under all circumstances the most important thing you can do is fly the airplane first, fly it to the correct location second, and talk to someone — third. Aviate, navigate, communicate. When situations get stressful, people can get so laser-focused on the task at hand that they can’t even hear you talking to them, much less comprehend what you’re saying.
This happens outside of the training environment, as well. I spoke with an experienced corporate jet pilot once about a time when his autopilot failed at over 40,000 feet. At this altitude, the air is so thin that he equated keeping the airplane in level flight manually to “balancing the jet on a beachball.” His passenger came up to talk to him during all of this, probably about plans for the next day, but he was so focused on the task at hand that he filtered out what the man was saying and couldn’t even ask him to leave or stop talking.
Teach the same thing three ways
Every person is different, and every person has a different learning style. Being a flight instructor taught me to learn how to teach the same thing three different ways. Especially with more advanced concepts, like aerodynamics or aircraft systems, some students needed to hear things a few different times before they began to understand what was being taught.
I always tried to be able to describe things verbally, to be able to diagram them visually (and explain while the diagram was being drawn), show them to the student with a physical object (toy airplane), and I also tried to tie more advanced concepts back to something simple that the student already understood. With aerodynamics, for example, I would spend several minutes talking about boats and the force that water creates on them, or the feeling we all used to get as kids sticking our hands out of a car window. I’ve also used classroom doors to teach the concept of leverage as it relates to the length of an airplane.
You don’t really know it until you have to teach it
There’s something about the fear of walking into a classroom full of students and being asked a question that you can’t answer that inspires you to crack open the books a little more often. When I first got my instructors license, I thought I knew a lot. It wasn’t until I had been instructing for a couple of years and started teaching the next group of instructors myself that I realized how little I actually knew at the time.
If you really want to learn something, learn how to teach it. Like I said above, learning to prepare each topic for the consumption of each student and their individual learning styles will really force you to look at and understand a concept from all angles. Each time you teach something, you’ll understand it better. Students will ask different questions and bring up different ideas, and they’ll leave you better for it.
Nerves get the best of us
You know that stoic 30-year airline captain that flew you and 220 other people from Dallas to Miami a few years ago? They’ve undoubtedly got stories throughout their career of times when they were overtaken by nerves. Their first solo flight, all of their federal checkrides (exams), and every job interview they’ve ever taken. Heck, they’ve probably got stories of times they’ve been a little nervous in the airplane for one reason or another. Everybody does.
Anxiety and nerves are a normal part of the learning and growing process. They are an instinctual bodily-response to stressful situations, and they actually keep us safe. If something goes wrong in an airplane, you want your pilots to be nervous (for just a second) so their adrenaline and training can kick in with laser-like focus.
Look ahead, don’t drown
No matter what happens in life, the most important thing you can do is to keep flying the airplane. Keep going. Look ahead, and do what you need to do to handle the situation — whatever it may be. The moment you give up and stop flying the airplane, things can only get worse.
There will be times when situations become so powerful that you’ll want to stop and take a break. In some cases, that’s alright, but if you continue to ignore a problem it will continue to come back to bite you. Tackling these things with precision and care, but head on, is the best way to move forward. Keep going. Don’t drown.