Sometimes the instructor should just be quiet
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
Originally published in AOPA
Flight Training Magazine – October 2011
Years ago I worked toward
my initial flight instructor certificate at a flight school that
specialized in training new instructors. It was stressed repeatedly
that I needed to be able to talk while flying. The instructors said
many applicants were good pilots, but found it difficult to teach
in the airplane when they were busy aviating. This turned out to
be a non-issue for me. I’m a teacher by training, and anyone
who knows me will confirm that I’m also a bit of a loudmouth.
One flight was all it took for my instructor to tell me, “OK,
you’re not going to have any problem with the talking.”
He was correct in one way, but mistaken
When I began working at a flight school
the students seemed to like that I had a teaching background. I
kept up the patter beginning with the pre-flight lesson and aircraft
inspection, and continuing throughout the flight. This worked well
for many students, and I think they felt they were getting their
money’s worth from me.
But as I gained experience over the years
I came to feel I was over-doing it. I would find myself attempting
to fill silences during moments of inactivity, or emphasize the
same minor point multiple times. Sometimes I felt like a person
on a bad date, desperately trying to keep the conversation going.
Worse, I sensed I was making students dependent on me. I mentioned
this to a more experienced instructor and he gave me something to
think about. “An airplane cockpit is a terrible classroom,”
he said. “It’s cramped, noisy and sometimes makes you
sick to your stomach. Better to teach on the ground and then demonstrate
in the air.”
So over time I made an effort to put more
into my preflight lessons and debriefings, while dialing back my
verbiage in the aircraft. I still demonstrated maneuvers as usual
and spoke as needed, but I now began to cultivate silences every
so often. Once a student had the basic idea of landings, I would
make an effort to let a pattern or two go by with no input from
me. That would then become the norm as the student approached their
As students gained experience in cross
country flying, I would make a point of moving my seat back so they
might feel as if they were flying solo. I would then fold my arms
and say as little as possible, making occasional notes on my kneeboard
for debriefing later on.
If a student asked a question I suspected
they actually knew the answer to, but merely desired affirmation,
my reply would be, “What do you think?” I would then
let them explain and decide on an action themselves. This led to
students being more decisive in the cockpit, and made for more interesting
This is not to say I became a passive instructor
or got lazy. It means that I spoke more purposefully, not to simply
fill air. And I saw a difference in my clients as they transitioned
from students to pilots in command.
My new strategy especially paid dividends
with some of the more challenging students. I believe one of my
finest moments as a flight instructor came from choosing to be quiet
at the right moment.
Alfred was a stubborn man. A pilot for
many years, he was required to take remedial training and a checkride
because of an accident. Having been out of the training environment
for so long, he found it difficult to re-master some of the basics
and adjust to changes in technology. In particular, he had a tendency
to neglect flight planning. No matter how much I emphasized, even
ordered him to do his homework, Al always seemed to feel he would
just “figure it out” when push came to shove.
One day he planned a cross country to a
non-towered airport with a nice restaurant. The plan was to land,
drill for his oral exam over lunch, then practice maneuvers on the
flight back. When Al showed me the route I had noticed there was
another airport only two miles away from our destination with an
almost identical runway layout. So as we got closer I watched his
About eight miles away Al spotted an airport
- the wrong one, as it turned out. I thought it over and decided
this was a perfect opportunity for me to shut up. Perhaps he would
catch his own mistake. Or he might actually land at the wrong field,
giving me a powerful debriefing point. Either way, it would be better
if I didn’t intervene.
However, this carried some risk. If he
continued to approach the wrong airport, I had to ensure we did
so without becoming a hazard to other aircraft. I listened carefully
on the radio (the two airports used the same frequency) and scanned
aggressively for traffic at both locations. I surreptitiously checked
the field elevation and pattern direction, all the while maintaining
a casual posture and wondering if Al would catch the error.
But Al had his target in sight and was
heading toward it with the tenacity of a bulldog. Keeping up my
scan as we entered the downwind leg, I wondered if he would notice
the runway numbers didn’t match our intended destination.
Soon we turned base and final, then flared and touched down smoothly.
As we rolled out Al began to look around for a restaurant that wasn’t
there. “Hey, wait a minute…”
“Nice landing,” I said mildly,
tossing my map into the back seat. “Wrong airport.”
He exhaled slowly. “Oh, boy.”
We then embarked on the two mile hop to
our original destination. Al later told me it was the longest flight
of his life. During lunch we discussed the numerous ways he could
have done things differently, starting with more thorough preflight
planning. His stubbornness was gone, as there was clearly no excuse.
I believe this became the turning point in Al’s training,
and eventually led to his passing the checkride. Had I corrected
him in flight rather than allowing the situation to develop, things
might have turned out differently for him.
For flight instructors, sometimes silence
is the key to talking your way out of trouble.
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