Good Students Know Their Weaknesses

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I mostly make my living as a flight instructor, so I often fly with ten or more students in a week. Not all are “student pilots” in the FAA sense of the term, but they’re all flying with me to get instruction of some sort. They're seeking new certificates, instrument ratings, tailwheel transitions or they're rusty pilots, doing recurrent training, new aircraft checkouts, remediation, etc. Some of my students, I adore. I’d feel bad taking their money, but for the need to feed my family. Others not so much.

Why do I enjoy flying with some more than others? It’s great if they’re thoughtful, pay promptly, don’t smell bad and show up on time, but I’ve realized I will bend on all of these in exchange for one particular behavior.

I want to fly with students who tell me the ways in which they suck at flying. When you tell me, “I was too flat at touchdown” or “that was way outside of ACS limits for steep turns” or “my SA in the pattern was super low today,” it brings a tear to my eye. I can trust these pilots to keep learning on their own. When I sign these pilots off, they’re going to come back in six months for recurrent training in better shape than I left them. The other guys come back to me in six months flying worse because they’re forced to by the safety office after getting caught doing something stupid.

The “other guys” are always trying to sell me on how well they flew, which creates a handful of problems. First, my job is to help you improve at the things you’re not good at. If you don’t admit that these things exist, we’ve got a problem. (Some people think my job is to sign them off to rent airplanes without an instructor, which is an awkward collateral responsibility.) Second, I’m going to have to break the news to you that you’re not as good as you say you are, which isn’t fun for me. I don’t care to hear about the magnitude of the sucking. I don’t want a mopey, “I’m a terrible pilot. I’ll never amount to anything.” I need specific things you recognize as a problem with a credible prospect for improvement.

If you’re having a painful moment of introspection and wondering if you’re one of the “other guys,” keep your chin up. We’ve all tried to minimize our mistakes to an instructor whose approval we wanted or needed. Your next lesson is a new opportunity to be the kind of student your instructor adores. I'm a student sometimes too, and I still have fight the urge to minimize my mistakes every time I'm on the receiving end of a training flight.

In retrospect, this should have been obvious to me years ago. A great pilot isn’t one who doesn’t make mistakes. A great pilot recognizes and fixes his or her own mistakes before anyone else notices them. It’s obvious then that a great student pilot is one who calls out his or her mistakes and the fix before their instructor. 

Comments (17)

Actually, good instructors discover students' weaknesses by virtue of observation - including (especially?) the ones of which the students themselves are unaware. Good instructors then figure out a way to cause the students to "discover" their own problems, which (usually) motivates them to entertain offered solutions (a.k.a. "suggestions"). This is an example of that trite old YARS-ism: "Nothing is a good idea, until it's THEIR idea."

"Try it this way" is (almost always) inoffensive, and often is quite effective.

New instructors figure out pretty quickly ( ? ) that students have to WANT to learn. One important first-order task for all instructors is to discover a menu of things that make each student want to learn. Then push those "buttons" - gently but incessantly.

"Learning is a change in behavior that occurs as a response to experience." Instruction is less about teaching ("pouring in a quart of knowledge") than it is about helping students learn. The reward is the joy that washes over them when they finally "get it." Priceless.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 13, 2017 4:29 AM    Report this comment

A man's got to know his limitations

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 13, 2017 7:34 AM    Report this comment

"Actually, good instructors discover students' weaknesses by virtue of observation..."

I think it's both, actually. It is part of our job to discover their weaknesses, but it certainly helps if they admit they have weaknesses. But then on the opposite side is trying to build confidence in students who feel they're weaker than they are.

Going back to the "students who know their weaknesses" theme, I know as both a flight instructor and manager of a flying club that it's the students/members that think they're super pilots that really worry me. Some of them even are actually good pilots, but such an attitude (machoism) is dangerous and often eventually leads to some problem down the road.

And speaking of machoism, I think it's easy for instructors to inadvertently fall into this trap if they aren't careful. After all, we're supposed to be able to teach any pilot how to become a better one, which surely means we must be perfect, right? For me personally, I've found that intentionally subjecting myself to additional training (new ratings, a brush-up flight review/IPC with a fair-but-demanding instructor, etc) is the best way to stave off that attitude.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 13, 2017 8:01 AM    Report this comment

Ok, I am in the camp of saying I stink at this or that. I have stopped feeling like an idiot when I don't recall something and do not abdicate my role as PIC anymore. I ask that my instructor assist as my coach and let me make my errors so and then coach me for a better outcome.

In the past when I was with an instructor I would give up all my authority to the instructor and found myself anxious and not able to complete maneuver to better than ACS. At the same time I would go brain dead and could not easily answer any questions.

So what I have done is take complete responsibility for my flight instruction, recurrent training and not allow myself to feel like a fish out of water. This approach have helped me be better at learning.

After 40 years of flying and now chasing after a Commercial and CFI-A rating I have learned that I am PIC from the moment I decide to read, learn, fly or talk about flying.

Posted by: Joseph F. Marszal | November 13, 2017 8:59 AM    Report this comment

Gary's quote: "I think it's easy for instructors to inadvertently fall into this trap if they aren't careful. After all, we're supposed to be able to teach any pilot how to become a better one"

As an observer of flight instructors, I consider the instructor's weak point is not letting a student go. The flight school I was Director of Maintenance for had a dozen or so instructors and many of them would not pass the student over to another instructor.

The school had a run of students come through and the first-out instructor just couldn't communicate with any of them well. He was a retired military instructor so, he came off a little abrasive. When the next run of students came through with big know everything attitudes (machoism) he was the only instructor that could train a couple of them. Those students with attitude combined with the attitude instructor got their pilots licence in less then 50 hours.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | November 13, 2017 1:12 PM    Report this comment

A competent flight instructor makes for good practice. Good practice makes for a competent student. Keep it simple!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 13, 2017 3:09 PM    Report this comment

A superior pilot is one who uses superior judgement so that he/she does not have to use their superior skills!!!

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 13, 2017 4:02 PM    Report this comment

Grasshopper School of Aviation

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 13, 2017 6:29 PM    Report this comment

My most significant weakness (while flying :) is an inability to relax. I've found it helpful to take breaks from flying with an instructor, and just practicing required skills on my own; it seems to help in really learning and integrating. Assuming I'm not the only one like this, I'd encourage instructors to watch out for it, and in such cases avoid 'over-instructing'. Sometimes it means just letting things happen (as long as feasible) and the occasional nudge -- as opposed to lecturing, and resorting to doing things for the student.

Joseph said: "In the past when I was with an instructor I would give up all my authority to the instructor and found myself anxious and not able to complete maneuver to better than ACS. At the same time I would go brain dead and could not easily answer any questions. " That's it.

Posted by: Harry Saddler | November 14, 2017 12:03 PM    Report this comment

"I'd encourage instructors to watch out for it, and in such cases avoid 'over-instructing'. Sometimes it means just letting things happen (as long as feasible) and the occasional nudge"

Sometimes the hardest part of instructing is knowing when to just be quiet. A good, attentive instructor will recognize those moments, but there's also nothing wrong with a student saying "let me try to work this out on my own for a bit". As long as it's not something that will reinforce a bad habit, most instructors will be receptive to such a request.

But I think the point Joseph made is a good one. Students have to be active in their learning too. Even from good students, I still occasionally get asked something like "should I do X" and my usual response is "what do you think" (at least for students who should know - obviously at times in primary training it's my job to just answer the question straight). Most of the time the student already knows what needs to be done, but is "giving up their authority" to me. Again, a good, attentive instructor will notice that and try to have the student take back their authority.

And that all goes back to a good student being one that is engaged in the training and not just along for the ride. You have to know your strengths and know your weaknesses, and it's the instructor's job to make sure the student knows which is which.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 14, 2017 1:07 PM    Report this comment

Harry Saddler, play being a CFI and give your instructor a ground and flight lesson the way you'd want it to be given to you. I've found this approach helpful.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 14, 2017 3:00 PM    Report this comment

Everybody knows when they suck, "Bring a tear to my eye when they tell me how awful they are" God almighty, has the new generation becomes totally effeminized.....

Any CFI that talks that way I would not fly with if she paid me. Your job as a CFI is to make the fellow next to you fly very well, slow flight the basics over and over,, till they get it. None of that gushing out with emotions and "I understand your pain",,,,, Are we making pilots or Tea Circle girls.

At some point in time some of them will have to go and fight ISIS types, that little girl psychological attitude will guarantee us loosing.


Posted by: max Mason | November 15, 2017 9:26 AM    Report this comment

"Everybody knows when they suck"

Spend some time in the right seat, and you'll learn that far too many pilots think they are the next Neil Armstrong. Or if not that, they don't realize something that they're doing is wrong and dangerous, and I can't teach them the proper way to do it if they don't accept that the way they're doing it now is wrong. I can try to convince them, sure, but until they accept it, learning won't take place. A student has to WANT to learn (or unlearn as the case may be).

The good thing I've noticed with female pilots is that as a rule they generally don't have the same egos that a lot of male pilots have. I'd much rather have an "effeminized" student than someone with a big ego who will question every bit of advice they give them. The former generally are more receptive of training than the latter.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 15, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

Hey Max, I'd be careful going to bed with the wifey after blurting "that little girl psychological attitude will guarantee us loosing." Waking up without cojones would probably bring a tear to my eye.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 15, 2017 11:02 AM    Report this comment


And does anyone else notice the phenomenon of late on forums, letters-to-editor, texts - everywhere where society has lost the correct spelling of loose and lose? I think I've seen it a hundred times of late. Now that brings a tear to my eye...

Posted by: Dave Miller | November 15, 2017 12:18 PM    Report this comment

I have become very intolerant of the "worlds greatest" pilots. Most are legends in their own minds. I handle the situation very simply. No signature in their log book if they don't fly to the ACS. If they have an attitude, they can find someone else to work with them.

Many pilots do not realize that they can not call time out or retreat to their safe place with their little comfort blankie. Mother nature and the laws of physics do not respect their safe spaces. My job is to keep them from killing themselves and plane load of unsuspecting passengers. It is the little things. "You do the preflight because I am too busy" or "I don't worry about going through a few clouds as long as they are not too thick" or "I don't need to do hood work, I have plenty of hood time" (like 6 hours).

Then there the pilots who come along who are driven, want to learn and really put in the time to learning the craft. They are a joy who fly with and I feel privileged to have my name in their log books. Guess that is why this spring I will do CFI refresher course to keep the piece of plastic that says Flight Instructor.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | November 15, 2017 12:23 PM    Report this comment

My tale is probably common to a lot of would be pilots. With limited resources and living expenses taking most of my income limiting my flying budget to only a few hours of time a month. Those hours definitely would have been better used had I been able to bunch them together. Many hours had to be repeat hours for lessons learned before. Maybe I was a slow learner but had I the resources I would have planned my instruction differently.

Posted by: Kenneth Thomas | November 15, 2017 6:13 PM    Report this comment

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