Defeating the Dragons of Doubt

Mentors Can Help Safely Build Competence and Confidence

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
7 min readJan 5


By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Editor

Let’s say that the ink is still drying on your freshly issued certificate or rating. You’re proud of the accomplishment, but you don’t feel even close to confident enough to try it in real life.

To imagine another scenario, let’s say that you’ve scared yourself on a flight, perhaps by venturing into dodgy weather or by barely managing a mechanical malfunction without mishap.

Or to try still another, let’s say that a cluster of pesky “life happens” events has grounded you long enough to have you thinking you should learn to fly all over again.

The common denominator in each of these scenarios is the big D: doubt.

There Be Dragons!

The “dragons of doubt” can be fearsomely effective. They work by deterring you from just the kind of aviation activity that will douse the doubts they’ve inflamed. Doubts have a nasty way of seeping in and building on themselves, to the point that they burn your carefully cultivated confidence to cinders. When that happens, and especially when it truly puts you into the “rusty pilot” bucket, it can be tempting to close the hangar door for good.

Don’t do it! You worked long and hard to earn your aviation credentials. Don’t let the dragons of doubt drive you to the ground for good. That’s not to say that you should race right out to the runway and “wing it” to ditch the doubts; the “wing-and-a-prayer” method is always a dicey proposition. To truly dispatch the dragons of doubt, you need reinforcements.

Magazine cover.

You Need a Knight!

When you are really rusty or particularly plagued by doubts about your aviation prowess, the best reinforcement is a good flight instructor. A few hours with a pro occupying the right seat can do wonders. Hiring a flight instructor is a very good start to refurbishing skills tarnished by disuse and restoring the reservoir of self-confidence. That makes it a sound investment of your time and your money. But given the high demand for flight instructors these days, you might not be able to employ one for as many sessions — especially for as many regular sessions — as you might want.

That’s where a mentor can be the perfect companion in your battle with doubt. Like the original Mentor, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, a modern-day mentor is a trusted advisor who provides one-to-one support, encouragement, and advice.

You may already be familiar with the role a mentor can play in the workplace. Many professions use forms of mentoring to help newly trained novices transition to real-world application of book knowledge and basic skills. Mentoring can also give career guidance, provide a role model, and offer a seasoned sounding board for challenges and ideas. In all cases, though, perhaps the mentor’s most important function is to transfer experience by sharing events and outcomes that can help a less-experienced colleague learn faster, and with fewer mistakes.

An aviation mentor can serve the same functions for a doubt-plagued pilot. Let’s look at some specific ways that a mentor can help you dispatch the dragons of doubt to the dungeon.

Photo of flight instructor and student.
Working with a flight instructor is a good way to dispatch the dragons of doubt.

Been There, Done That

The flight instructor’s job is to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes appropriate to the certificate or rating at hand. An aviation mentor can certainly play a role in advancing the pilot’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes, but both the goal and the process are different. Khalil Gibran captures this idea in The Prophet, writing that the point is to “lead you to the threshold of your own mind” by offering experience to illuminate your individual decision-making process. Though it shares some characteristics with hangar flying, a mentor’s transfer of experience should be a structured and thoughtful effort to help the less experienced pilot safely navigate real-world situations. A good mentor must therefore know not only how to select and share “there-I-was” stories, but also how to listen to the mentored pilot’s concerns, ask questions to help address them, and tactfully offer appropriate feedback.

An aviation mentor can help you dispatch the dragons of doubt to the dungeon.

Whether you seek to find a mentor or to be one, remember that the mentor pilot must be able to offer experience that is pertinent to the mentored pilot’s needs and goals. Be careful not to equate a mentor pilot’s total time with relevant time. The experience of an airline pilot whose only recent flying involves transport category airliners with a crew will not necessarily be helpful to someone flying single-pilot instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) in a small GA aircraft. It is also true that a 100-hour private pilot who trained in a glass cockpit aircraft could have much to share with a 1,000-hour pilot who has flown nothing but “steam gauge” aircraft.

Photo of cockpit.

Show How It Goes

A good mentor will be a practitioner as well as a preacher of good practices. My first flight instructor is a great example. Though his official role was “teacher” rather than “mentor,” his greatest long-term influence arose from how he consistently modeled good practices. The instructor who guided me through multi-engine and multi-engine instructor qualifications has similar characteristics, and I literally trusted her with my life.

Never forget that you may be an unwitting mentor and model for pilots around you. Over the years, several pilots have unknowingly mentored me through their day-to-day actions. One was instrumental in showing me the ropes of long cross-country planning and operations. Another demonstrated the basic principles of crew coordination and models the kind of calm but watchful demeanor I have sought to emulate in my instructional activities. It was through flying long GA cross-countries with still another pilot that I finally learned how to more effectively evaluate weather. Watching how he approached the process of gathering, evaluating, and applying weather data was invaluable. That’s also what led me to develop the structured weather analysis model that I use today when I teach, write, and present on aviation weather and weather decision-making.

Point to the Path

An aviation mentor can help the mentored pilot establish and work toward a range of aeronautical advancement goals. You need a flight instructor for work toward formal qualifications and privileges, but an aviation mentor can help you battle the doubts common to different phases of instruction. By offering a sounding board, a fresh perspective, and simple encouragement to overcome learning plateaus, the mentor plays a vital role.

An aviation mentor can help the less-experienced pilot with a variety of skill enhancement goals and activities. By providing guidance and, as appropriate, cockpit companionship on skill development flights, an aviation mentor can contribute substantially to building a less-experienced pilot’s competence and confidence.

By providing guidance and, as appropriate, cockpit companionship on skill development flights, an aviation mentor can contribute substantially to building a less-experienced pilot’s competence and confidence.

To be most effective, a good mentor should have:

  • Substantial experience that is relevant to the needs and goals of the mentored pilot.
  • Good “airside manner” that is friendly, affirming, non-judgmental, and respectful.
  • Strong communication skills that include attentive listening and asking good questions.
  • Clear understanding of the mentor’s role, which is to support and guide the mentored pilot’s efforts to apply knowledge and skills to real situations.
  • Clear understanding of the pilot’s goals, to include knowledge of how the aircraft is to be used (i.e., recreational flying for fun, personal transportation for business or pleasure, professional operation).
  • Personal connection with the mentored pilot.
  • Mutual understanding of responsibilities. Both individuals must have a clear understanding of responsibilities — and liabilities — in the mentoring relationship. In general, the mentored pilot should always be pilot in command.

Cheering Section

Flying is fun, but it isn’t always easy. It’s common to have doubts about your progress, and to think sometimes that the skills you seek will never come. The dragons of doubt can also wake up when weather or mechanical delays keep you on the ground. We’ve all had days when we wonder if it is really worth the effort it demands. When those days arrive, a mentor’s encouragement and support can make all the difference in sending the dragons of doubt to the dungeons.

Susan K. Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.



FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. The magazine is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).