Flight instruction shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

A colleague of mine once told a story about a student pilot who could not be talked out of making large inputs to his helicopter controls. This never worked, of course, but the student kept making the same mistake, no matter how many times he was corrected. The student didn’t understand how to fix his mistake.

Finally, the instructor asked the student if he had a wife or a girlfriend. “Yes, I have a wife,” said the student. His instructor then asked, “When talking to your wife, if you yell, ‘This is what I want!’—does that communication style work well for you? Or do you get better results by saying a little, then waiting for her to say a little, and then talking back and forth?

“Just make small adjustments to the controls,” said the instructor. “If you communicate with the helicopter, then it will tell you what it needs.”

After this feedback, the student began to get the hang of making smaller control inputs. Whenever he overcorrected, his instructor would say, “Stop yelling at the helicopter.” Over time, the student was able to overcome the bad habit he had struggled with for so long.

We all have different personalities, backgrounds, and ways of viewing the world, and therefore, we all have different ways that we learn. For those of us who are flight instructors, it is our job to see our students as individuals and to find the techniques and strategies that work for them, while still providing the structure that ensures they have the skills and attitudes to be successful, safe pilots.

Not everyone must travel the same path, but we all need to end up at the same destination. Some students will be ready to be a PIC as soon as you give them the controls, while others will consistently rely on their instructor to give them permission to make decisions. Flight instructors must be flexible and able to work with differing personality types, while still enabling each student to reach their potential.

Not only will each student learn differently, but they may learn differently from day to day. A student may come in for a flight lesson tired from a poor night’s sleep. Or she may be worried about something unrelated to flight training. These are just a few of the situations that can affect a student’s ability to learn. Flight training is an excellent time to introduce the student pilot to the importance of human factors in aviation safety and the IMSAFE checklist.

As instructors, it is our job to first read the student’s performance. Are they distracted or tired? Have they prepared for the lesson? Are they having trouble with a particular maneuver?

Next, we must determine how to provide the student with the strategies they need to succeed. The strategy that works for one student may not work for another. That student who was having trouble with flight control inputs had been told many times that he was doing it wrong. But it wasn’t until his instructor told him how to fix the issue—in a way that student could understand and use—that the student could move ahead in his training.

Be aware of the need to adapt your teaching style to suit each student’s learning style. Think of this as a feature, not a bug, of the flight instructor’s job. Your ability to approach students as individuals will make you a better instructor and will reinforce your own knowledge of flight principles.

As your students progress and eventually become pilots and perhaps flight instructors themselves, the foundation that you laid during their training will affect not only what kind of pilot they become, but how they train their students, who will probably go on to teach other students, and so on. The way you teach will affect the industry for years to come.

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