Mission Aviation Fellowship

Unexpected problems for students

After you’ve been instructing for a while, it can become fairly routine for most of the time. You give pretty much the same briefings for each flight exercise, although you may adapt them a little to suit the individual student. And, especially in the early stages of flying training, teaching the actual exercises is fairly similar with every student. For each manoeuvre, you go over what to do, you demonstrate, then you let the student have a go. And to be honest, almost every person makes pretty much the same mistakes, too.

For helicopters, students all struggle with hovering, sometimes maintaining for weeks that it’s impossible and they’ll never manage it…but then eventually they do. I’m quite sure that this is roughly analogous to the difficulties fixed-wing students have with learning to land; I certainly remember, when I was doing my PPL(A), declaring that landings were impossible. Of course, some people may be better at flying than others, some may learn faster, a few may even look from the start as though they were born in a light aircraft. But overall there is not a great deal of difference between individuals…except in a very few cases. 

… that is when you start to understand that part of this job of being a flying instructor is to be a good detective

Occasionally as an instructor you run into someone who seems to have a specific and unexpected problem, either with flying as a whole, or with some particular aspect of it. You start off teaching them as you’ve always taught everyone. But this time, it just doesn’t work. You begin to realise that something else is required, though you may have no idea precisely to do that will help. And that is when you start to understand that part of this job of being a flying instructor is to be a good detective.

The first time this happened to me was very soon after I got my FI rating and my first instructing job. The student was an older lady, who had done a trial lesson and been extremely enthusiastic. I was now briefing her for the Effects of Controls exercise, which she seemed to be following well. I described to her how you know if you’re flying straight and level:

You use the compass inside the helicopter as a reference point”, I explained, “And you note where that reference point is on the natural horizon. Then, when it deviates from that picture, you move the cyclic so that the compass comes back to the same point on the horizon. Do you follow that OK?

She had been nodding throughout my explanation, and now she responded positively:

Oh yes!” she said, very definitely and enthusiastically.

So of course, I believed her.

But she hadn’t understood. When we came to fly the exercise, she couldn’t do it at all. She moved the cyclic in the wrong direction, or not at all, or apparently randomly. It took me a while to realise that she wasn’t having any particular difficulty in controlling the helicopter, but she had simply failed to understand the concept of a reference point in the cockpit and its relation to the horizon. 

Why had she insisted that she did understand? I suspect that she was so keen to do well and to impress me, her instructor, that she didn’t want to admit that she didn’t understand something

So why had she insisted that she did understand? I suspect that she was so keen to do well and to impress me, her instructor, that she didn’t want to admit that she didn’t understand something. The mechanisms of flying training often take people, no matter what their real ages, mentally back to being at school. If as a six year old you told teacher you understood, she’d leave you alone, so that’s what you did. Nodding earnestly got you brownie points, so you did that too. And you were then considered a good student…and you muddled along somehow. It is probably a long-term coping mechanism for a substantial number of people, and I suspect that was the case for this lady. But of course it really didn’t work when it came to flying training. 

His problem was that he simply couldn’t seem to put it into practice. So now we had to work out why. Was he struggling with co-ordination? Was it some kind of mental or emotional problem?

Some people may understand perfectly, but they then have difficulty putting the understanding into practice. I had one of those types of students much later on, when I was quite experienced. Flying straight and level seemed like a complete impossibility for him. By then I knew that the first thing I had to do was ascertain precisely where the problem lay, so I took control of the helicopter and questioned him, making sure that he genuinely understood the theory and what it was he was trying to do. And he did. His problem was that he simply couldn’t seem to put it into practice. So now we had to work out why. Was he struggling with co-ordination? Was it some kind of mental or emotional problem? Was it a combination of the two – fairly likely, since many people do get upset when they try hard but still can’t do things? Or was he simply exceedingly slow to learn…and in fact this turned out to be the case. Once we found this out, things were very simple – though rather expensive for the student. After that he made snail’s-pace but steady progress…and I realised that flying instructors have to develop an infinite amount of patience.

Sometimes, however, pinpointing the student’s specific problem is not as easy as this. As a PPL(A) student, I had a great deal of difficulty learning to land the aircraft. This is not at all unusual, you might say. Yes, but hour after hour after hour in the circuit, and no improvement at all! Eventually my low hours instructor admitted defeat and passed me on to someone else. By then I had compounded the original problem by losing all confidence in my ability to fly, and it took several flying hours with a sympathetic instructor for me to get that back again. Sometime after that, yet another instructor discovered that I found it less difficult to land if I kept on a trickle of power until the last possible moment:

That’s supposed to be slightly harder”, he said, “But if you find it easier that way, do it.”

That worked, and I began to make progress. But still no-one had discovered just why I found landings quite so difficult. The breakthrough came one day on the drive home from the airfield. I was sitting behind another car on a straight road, and there was another car coming in the opposite direction, but quite some distance away. Yet, as had been usual for me for all the years I had been driving, I refused to overtake since I simply wasn’t sure how far away the other car was. I never could judge that kind of distance. Light dawned. Of course! I had always found depth and distance perception extraordinarily difficult. So that was why I had so many problems with landings – I simply didn’t know how close I was to the runway. You could tell me what height to start the flare til all the cows and sheep in the world came home, but it still really didn’t mean much to me.

Once a problem is identified it can be solved. From then on, I worked on ways to improve my depth perception, and also methods to get around it. There are limits to what I can do; I’ll probably never win a spot landing competition, or be a good enough helicopter pilot to land in the world’s tightest confined areas. But I can fly, and I know my limitations, just as I know that I need to be extra careful of overtaking when I’m driving. That’s good enough for me, and good enough for most of us and our students. 

As an instructor, the first thing you need to do when a student has an unexpected difficulty is to put on your detective hat. What is the real problem?

So, as an instructor, the first thing you need to do when a student has an unexpected difficulty is to put on your detective hat. What is the real problem? Try asking the student, as people often know the answer themselves. What exactly is he or she finding difficult? Is it a problem of understanding? Is it a difficulty with perception, as mine was. Is it simply a physical or co-ordination problem? Or is it some kind of mental problem, perhaps bound up with the student’s emotional make-up or personality, or his/her relationship with the instructor? These last can be a bit complicated at times, and may even need a change of instructor, but they can be sorted out; everything can.

All of the above are possible causes of difficulties, and all can be dealt with. But the reasons have to be discovered and then solved by using one’s brain, by stopping and thinking rather than merely circuit bashing or repeating a manoeuvre ad infinitum and hoping that either the problem or the student will go away! It can actually be quite simple, as with some of the examples I have described. Or, it can on occasion be very difficult, and you find yourself wishing that the FI course had included a degree course in psychology and lessons from a top-notch Scotland Yard detective. But the breakthrough, when it comes, is immensely satisfying for the student. And, as the instructor sighs with relief, it also reminds a good instructor of what a rewarding, diverse, and fascinating job it is that we do.

Author: FTN Editor

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