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 in another.

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 first solo.

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 debriefings afterward.

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 navigation carefully.

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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