Teaching the Right Stuff
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
in AOPA Flight Training Magazine - December 2010
Certificated flight instructors
(CFIs) are often skilled, experienced pilots. Even new instructors
are vastly more experienced than first-time students. But this know-how
may sometimes work against them. It can be difficult for expert
practitioners to relate to beginners, and I often trot out what
I call my "Ted Williams Story" when this subject comes
For those unfamiliar with baseball history,
Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Not only
possessing the ideal physical attributes, Williams was also highly
analytical and studied the game intensively. He hit 521 home runs
during a career spanning 21 seasons, and in 1941 Williams became
the last player ever to bat over .400 for an entire season.
However, and with all due respect to his
memory, Ted Williams may not have been the best coach the world
has seen. After retiring from baseball (and hitting a home run in
his final at-bat), Williams managed the Washington Senators and
Texas Rangers for four less-than-spectacular seasons. In a recent
biography, one of his players recalled a piece of hitting advice
Williams shared with the team. He said that in the earlier part
of a ballgame when the pitcher was fresh and throwing hard, he would
only try to hit the top half of the ball for line drives. But in
the later innings, he would aim for the bottom half of the ball
to hit home runs.
This probably wasn't the best advice for
hitters not destined for the Hall of Fame. As one of his players
put it, "I'm going up there against Nolan Ryan, and he's throwing
95 miles per hour, and I'm trying to hit a particular half of the
While Ted Williams was fully capable of
hitting whichever half of a 95 mph fastball he wanted, that's probably
too much to expect from your average utility infielder. Williams
had, in effect, set the standard without teaching how to achieve
it. This is a trap that often afflicts flight instructors: We sometimes
fail to teach methodically because we forget what it's like to be
“Hold straight and level”,
we tell the student. OK. How?
Experienced pilots hold straight and level
without thinking about it very much. But we need to break down the
skill for a beginner. Where should she look? Which controls should
be used? With how much force should the controls be manipulated?
Should one or two hands be used on the yoke? For that matter, have
we even bothered to define what straight and level means?
Breaking down complex skills into component
parts requires us to think from the point of view of a beginner.
It’s great when a student has the “knack” and
picks things up simply by watching us demonstrate, but not everyone
will have that ability. We must give specific, methodical instructions,
and be careful not to assume knowledge on the part of the student.
Another part of our experience that sometimes
works against CFIs is that we’re not afraid of flying. New
students in small aircraft, no matter how enthusiastic, often feel
intimidated by the sights, sounds and sensations of flight until
they learn what is normal.
The more experience we instructors rack
up as pilots, the easier it is to forget how nervousness and apprehension
can affect a student. I was reminded of this recently when I ferried
an airplane back to my home airport in somewhat extreme wind conditions.
I’m usually a confident pilot in
wind, but at nearly 40 knots and in a very lightly loaded aircraft,
it felt like I was flying before I’d even started the engine.
The takeoff was raucous, and as I departed the pattern I wondered
if I had made a mistake taking off into this situation. I eventually
landed safely and put the airplane in the hangar before a tree could
fall on it. But I later reflected that while this was the first
time in years I had felt uncomfortable in an airplane, new students
sometimes feel this way even in smooth air.
Instructors need to remember that although
intensity of experience is useful for learning, outright fear is
not. The engine is loud, the plane moves in ways they’ve never
seen on an airliner, and everything is new and unfamiliar. Instructors
must work to expand students’ limits, but we can't expect
too much too soon either.
I’m glad for the occasional wake-up
call like my windy ferry flight. It's good for instructors to feel
a little uneasy in the airplane from time to time because it puts
us in the shoes of our students. Aerobatics, tailwheel training,
or anything unfamiliar is useful for keeping us mindful of what
students are experiencing.
Did I mention Ted Williams was also a Marine
Corps pilot? He was an instructor toward the end of World War II,
and flew Grumman Panther jets in the Korean War. But most of our
students aren’t going to be like Ted Williams, so if we want
our students to get the “right stuff”, we need to be
prepared to teach it to them step by step.
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