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 again.

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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