Can you teach good judgement? AVweb's Howard Fried questions how we impart this vital skill to pilots. Poor judgement will kill as quickly as poor flying technique. Combine poor judgement on the part of the instructor and the poor student is in double trouble. What is the best way to teach sound judgement? Howard offers some examples about what doesn't work.
September 20, 1998
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
Much has been written about the fact that judgement is very difficult,
if not impossible, to teach. We have all seen examples of flight
students exercising poor judgement, and even on fairly rare occasions
flight instructors demonstrating faulty judgement, but when both
a student and an instructor exercise poor judgement in a single
episode it is bound to lead to serious problems as the following
Several years ago the Chief Flight Instructor on the primary curriculum
at the flight school I run had a particularly difficult student
who was finally ready for solo cross-country work. Although not
his real name, we'll call the student Bill. On a fine early summer
day the instructor, Kenny, carefully reviewed the student's planning,
gave him a company credit card with which to buy fuel, and dispatched
him on a cross-country flight involving three legs, the first
of which was well over one hundred nautical miles. The next leg
was also about one hundred nautical miles and the final stretch
back to the home airport, which is located in the middle of a
large city and is surrounded by homes, factories, and businesses,
was about eighty nautical miles. After the student was on his
way, the instructor and his new bride took off for their honeymoon
The student successfully navigated to each of his first two destinations,
getting his logbook signed at each to attest to his safe arrival.
At the second destination he used the company credit card to buy
a quart of oil, but he neglected to purchase any fuel! He
was never able to explain this failure, a lapse which I can only
attribute to "brain fade."
Just as I was about to leave for the day, I got a call from the
control tower informing me that one of our training planes had
just gone down a couple of miles northwest of the airport. All
I could think of was the residential area in that location. However,
just as I hung up from talking with the Tower Chief, there was
a call on the other line from Bill, who informed me that his engine
had quit due to fuel exhaustion and he had made a safe landing
at the racetrack. He was calling from a pay phone, and when I
asked him which gate he was near so I could find him when I arrived
with a can of gas, he turned to a bystander and learned that he
wasn't at the racecourse at all, but at the fairgrounds some four
or five miles from the racecourse. I told him to stay put, that
I'd be right there.
I had one of our instructors drive me to the site, and that evening,
on the six o'clock television news, I had the experience of seeing
myself take off from the fairgrounds, climb over the wires along
the main road at the north end of the fairgrounds, and turn toward
the airport. To this very day that student still thinks he did
everything right! He kept repeating the statement that he'd handled
the situation just as he'd been taught. This is no doubt true
as regards his actions after the engine quit (I'm not sure that
even I could have gotten the airplane in where he had), but his
action in failing to fuel the airplane at either of his first
two destinations certainly demonstrates poor judgement on his
So much for episode number one in Bill's adventures as a student
pilot. This brings us to the series of events which exemplify
multiple instances of the combined bad judgement of both a student
and an instructor on the same transaction. After Bill's off-airport
landing as a result of fuel exhaustion, stemming from his failure
to fuel up at either of his two stops, on his return from his
honeymoon Kenny worked with Bill intensively. When it was felt
that he was finally ready to finish his cross-country requirement,
Kenny gave him an assignment and told him to plan the trip. This
was to be an out and back expedition of about seventy-five miles
On the day Bill was scheduled to go on this trip, Kenny and I
together flew a passenger charter trip of some three hundred miles,
departing early in the morning in our Aztec with two corporate
executives aboard. As we flew north, the weather worsened behind
us until it reached a point that severe thunderstorms and even
tornadoes were popping up all over the southern half of the state.
It was so bad that on our return trip in the Aztec, Kenny and
I had to deviate over two hundred miles to make an end-run around
the weather to get back in.
Meanwhile, Bill had showed up at the airport, ready to go on his
final student cross-country. In Kenny's absence, one of our other
instructors (who we'll call Paulalso not his real name) reviewed
Bill's planning. As is our policy with students embarking on cross-country
trips, Paul listened on an extension while Bill got his weather
briefing. He heard the Flight Service Specialist tell Bill every
way he could, "Don't go!" As you know, a briefer
cannot refuse to permit a pilot to make an ass of himself. All
he can do is tell the pilot what to expect.
However, even after hearing about the simply horrible weather
along the route, Paul signed Bill off and dispatched him on his
way! As he was leaving the office for the flight line, Bill said
to the office manager, a woman who held a Private Pilot Certificate,
"I'm glad Kenny's not here. He wouldn't let me go."
When he completed his pre-flight and called ready, first the ground
controller and then the local tower controller told Bill every
way they could, "Don't go!" Despite all this,
Bill took off.
About fifty miles along the way, Bill, as might be expected, encountered
heavy weather. At this time he was in contact with an approach
radar facility about twenty miles west of his position. The controller
was attempting to vector him to a nearby airport when such a large
cell grew up between Bill and the radar antennae that the controller
lost him on radar. This controller then handed him off to another
controller at a military airport about forty miles east of his
position. That one had Bill on his screen, but not for long. Another
powerful cell grew up between him and that facility and again
he was lost on radar. Since he was over flat farmland, and since
he was experienced at off-airport procedures, Bill opted to land
on a pea farm. He did, however, neglect to turn off the master
switch. When the weather improved a couple of hours later, the
military sent a helicopter to bring Bill out. That makes two off-airport
landings that Bill accomplished safely as a student pilot, and
that's two more than most pilots are required to make in a lifetime
Kenny and I learned all this when we returned from our charter
trip. When Kenny went out to retrieve the airplane the next day,
he found the battery dead as a result of Bill having left the
master switch on. With a jump-start, Kenny got it going and flew
As a result of this episode, Paul lost his privileges until such
time as he could, under FAR 609, demonstrate to the FAA that he
was competent to exercise the privileges of a Commercial Pilot
and Certified Flight Instructor. The damn fool went over to the
FSDO (FAA Flight Standards District Office) and argued that he'd
done nothing wrong as an instructor, that the only way for students
to learn is to send them out so they can experience it all for
themselves. Altogether, it took Paul four tries to regain his
privileges. However, we didn't keep his job at our flight school
The faulty judgement of a single individual frequently results
in total disaster, but when two people demonstrate bad
judgement at the same time on the same transaction it is nothing
less than a miracle that disaster is averted. In the case, here
not only was Bill lucky to survive, but we were twice fortunate
to come out with an undamaged airplane.
Paul to this day steadfastly maintains that the best teaching
technique is to let the student find out for himself what it's
like in the "real world." I have attempted, unsuccessfully,
to explain that the reason why he's an instructor is so when a
student comes up with a bad or unsafe idea, he can veto the plan
and explain why, but this explanation just didn't seem to register
with Paul, who fancies himself as an expert educator.
What can be done to insure that this kind of thing never occurs?
I confess that I'm at a loss. I just don't know the answer. All
management, and this includes both industry and the FAA, can do
is to closely monitor the activity of those for whom we are responsible
and when we detect signs of poor judgement embark on a program
of counseling and more counseling. If it is to do any good, we
must counsel with patience and understanding, explaining carefully
just what is wrong with the idea or action and just why it is
a bad idea or action. The key, of course, is convincing the individual
that what he proposes or does would be better left undone. Then
we must either draw from him a proposal for an alternative, better
course of action, or, failing that, suggest one ourselves. It
seems to me that this is all we can do. If the object of education
is to effect a change in behavior, then we must educate. After
all, in the final analysis, a desirable change in behavior is
what we're looking for.
Even so, in Paul's case, as the FAA and I discovered, when his erroneous theory of teaching was explained to him it did no good whatsoever. He didn't even learn from the experience he had with Kenny's student, Bill. I guess some people just never learn. They are so convinced of their own rightness that they can't be taught. These are the ones that will go on continuing to be a hazard to themselves and others as long as they are permitted to remain in positions where they can influence what other people do. It has been said of people like Paul, "They are often wrong, but never in doubt!" Sooner or later, given enough exposure, they are likely to encounter personal disaster, but in Paul's case the damage to others has already been done.
Thus, I conclude, there are some people who just aren't amenable to counseling. I recall an incident when I was in IMC on an IFR flight plan with another instrument rated pilot aboard and the approach controller called traffic just off our right, traffic with which the controller wasn't in contact. On looking out, we observed a Cherokee less than twenty feet off our right wing, and at our altitude. The approach at our destination (just a few miles away) was such that in order to legally execute the approach we had to land downwind. Just as we were flaring for the touchdown, the Cherokee appeared on short final at the other end of the runway! We were committed to land, but the Cherokee went around under the four-hundred-foot ceiling.
The Cherokee pilot landed into the wind, taxied up to the ramp, and soundly berated us for landing downwind and forcing him to go around. Bear in mind that this guy had been blundering around in the cloud without being rated and without being on a flight plan with a clearance. We attempted to politely counsel him, but all he could do was scream at us for landing downwind. My associate reported him to the FAA (a situation that I had hoped to avoid by counseling him), and we later learned that he had received his private pilot certificate only days prior to our encounter. This occurred several years ago, and I wonder how that pilot is doing today, long after his certificate suspension had ended and his privileges had been restored.
As flight instructors, all we can do is demonstrate sound, safe
procedures and practices. Thus, by providing "leadership
by example," we can influence our students, or at least most
of them, to follow our example. When decision-making time arrives,
hopefully they will make the correct decisions as a result.
In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience
you need the hard waykeep an eye out!