Breaking Up Bad Habits
is Hard to Do
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
Originally published in AOPA
Flight Training Magazine – March 2012
There is an old saying that
a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. The same
can go for teaching. I once made the mistake of trying to teach
myself how to play the guitar, despite an almost complete lack of
musical knowledge or talent. I eventually realized I had given myself
some very bad habits which have proved excruciatingly difficult
to break. The FAA stresses that flight instructors occupy a critical
place in pilot training for the same reason.
Whatever you learn first generally stays
with you, for good or for bad. It logically follows that the best
way to avoid bad habits are to learn good ones from the start. If
bad piloting habits are acquired, they can be safety hazards in
addition to being difficult to break. Flight instructors generally
do an excellent job in this regard. We have Pilot Test Standards
to work from, good lesson planning and curriculum development is
usually part of CFI training, as is the development of a sense of
professionalism. But every so often you may run into a client who
has a habit you deem unacceptable. It could be a student inherited
from another instructor, or a long-time pilot during a flight review.
How do you help a pilot break a bad habit?
Enter Ralph. He came to me after amassing
about 40 hours at another flight school without soloing. Worse,
he felt his training was going nowhere and he was getting very discouraged.
After talking and flying with him I found myself in the rare position
of saying, “Your CFI shouldn’t have taught you that
way.” So step one in Ralph’s rehabilitation was to not
blame the victim. Ralph didn’t choose to learn bad habits
– they were given to him and he did exactly as he was told.
In my previous career as a teacher, I was
taught there are three basic ways for an educator to do a disservice
to his or her students:
Attempting to teach correctly, but
failing to do so: Ralph had been taught to
keep his hand on the throttle at all times. That’s a good
practice during taxi, takeoff and landing, but not if you are trying
to write down instructions from the tower when the plane is sitting
still. Or (see below) when trimming the airplane. His iron grip
on the throttle also led to rough and abrupt power changes.
Omitting important items: Ralph
was never taught to trim the airplane. I found it startling that
something so basic had been neglected, and it took some time for
Ralph to adjust to the routine of frequent trimming. It seemed like
extra work and a distraction until he realized how much easier it
was to fly the plane when it was properly trimmed. He had also never
flown from his home base to another airport.
Teaching something that is factually
incorrect: Ralph was taught that he had to hold altitude within
50 feet. This is just plain wrong according to the Private Pilot
Test Standards, which specify altitude to be held plus or minus
100 feet. While holding students to a high standard is generally
a good idea, the unwavering demand that he fly to this tolerance
clearly worked against Ralph. He was primed to think about nothing
but maintaining altitude (without trimming, remember!), and all
other cockpit tasks suffered for it. Ralph was so busy watching
the altimeter that he rarely performed a traffic scan, had little
idea of the geographical area in which he flew, and failed to notice
the airplane was drifting in wind during landing patterns.
After a few more flights we had identified
the deficiencies, and I did my best to communicate exactly what
I expected of him going forward. We frequently referred to the Pilot
Test Standards, and I made an effort to describe some of the less
cut and dry behaviors I wanted to see. For example, Ralph appeared
very tense in the aircraft and this caused some difficulties with
prioritization. I told him, “On a scale of 1-10 in tension,
you’re at about 11. I’d like to see that come down to
a two or three.”
I also listened. Ralph mentioned that fatigue
was a factor for him. I tended to fly longer lessons than he was
used to, up to 1.5 hours. I started paying attention to this, and
was more gradual about working him up to longer flights.
We isolated some tasks to allow for more
targeted practice. During steep turns I might say, “Forget
altitude on these next two attempts. Concentrate on watching the
horizon to maintain your bank angle.” Or I’d allow for
some altitude excursions in the landing pattern so he could concentrate
on crabbing to avoid wind drift. Later we would put it all together
Perhaps most important, we set short and
long-term goals. Some I would suggest, such as, “Each time
you level off at an altitude today, set pitch / power / trim in
that order.” Some we set together, such as, “Solo the
aircraft before the end of the year.” Some weeks later I was
ableto tell him, “Show me three consecutive landings as good
as that one, and I’m going for a walk.” Ralph successfully
soloed after about 12 hours.
Flight instructors should take to heart
that the laws of primacy and recency are not just academic double-talk.
Students WILL retain what they’re taught first, which means
they need to learn good habits from their primary instructor. Bad
habits can be very tricky to break, but the law of recency gives
you a fighting chance.
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