Right to Left (seat) and Back Again…Never Stop Learning!

Master Instructor (and SAFE Director) Michael Phillips on “Always Learning” and “Right Seat Rust!”

MIkePhillipsLogoFlying has been an important part of my life in one way or another for many, many years and I have had the opportunity to spend over 9000 hours sharing my passion with others from the right seat or the back seat of all types of airplanes. I love teaching, I love flying, but I especially love the challenge that comes with learning something new, and more times than not the learning is delivered from the pilot at the controls. As you read this comment you may ask yourself what can an instructor learn from the pilot training aren’t we the teacher? To truly seek answers, you must first challenge yourself: am I comfortable being uncomfortable? Sit pointed into that headwind for a moment and then ask: “how can I be a better teacher, mentor, and coach?” Embracing our role as instructors, push further and ask, “are we really teaching as effectively and ‘quietly’ as possible?”

 

Over the years there have been times that if I had only been quiet and listened to what the pilot training was trying to communicate in actions or words my success as a teacher would have been significantly improved. If I had stayed out of the way and “gently guided” the pilot training through their learning process as opposed to not-so-gently guiding them through my teaching process, had I been more patient as they struggled to master the airplane or the instruments, I am absolutely sure that I would have been a more effective teacher. When given the opportunity to guide other instructors I always mention that those of us that teach have the potential to be “an impediment to learning” and if we pack this thought in our flight bag, each time we share the cockpit with a pilot training, our chances of being a more effective, kind and patient instructor are significantly enhanced.

 

These thoughts are not new or unique to me. I have always held myself to a high standard of excellence in every pursuit, particularly that of flight instructor. I expect anyone with the title Certified Flight Instructor holds such a standard of excellence for themselves and their clients; as fellow stakeholders in the educational process, we all deserve such focus and dedication. This said, over the past twelve months I had two experiences that made me painfully aware that I still have work to do.

 

Interestingly enough both of these learning events came as a result of me becoming the student and not the teacher. The first was adding Single Engine Sea to my skill set and the other was transition training into a new and significantly powered and complex aircraft. Each challenge was fun and exciting because they required learning new skills as well as applying existing skills to new situations.

In the case of the Seaplane rating the instructor was a young, talented CFI that was as anxious about teaching a salty old instructor as I was about wanting not to embarrass myself. We had fun and challenged each other; me as the pilot training and he as the instructor trying to teach me the skills required to attain this new rating. I experimented with interesting ways not to fail and he tried to remind me that making mistakes is how we learn best (not his words but mine). He was laughing and challenging me as he guided me to the necessary level of competence to pass the checkride which was successfully accomplished. As I reflected back on this experience I asked myself if I were in his shoes how would I have handled my learning style and what did I learn from him? The answer was clear; be aware of the learning style of the pilot training, adjust as necessary, be playful and respect the person that you are training without making the hard work and pure joy of learning something new a negative event.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 11.59.25 AMThe transition training involved stepping up to a single engine turbine powered rocket-ship. I had been flying turbines for a while and felt comfortable managing the intricacies of the PT6 but in this case my comfort level did not translate into the level of performance that I had expected of myself. There were many factors that added to the challenge but none greater than personal expectations mixed with a good dose of “right seat rust”. The training was not a straight line and after a particularly challenging session my frustration was apparent and I shared it with my instructor pilot. It was nothing major or unsafe, just a lot of little things that showed a lack of proficiency that was keeping me from the factory sign-off. I departed knowing that it would be almost a month before we would be able to complete the training due to scheduling issues and I was in a funk. After returning home I received a note from my instructor that sounded exactly like what I have said to my students many, many times over the years.

 

“I just wanted to take the time to write you a note.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you during our training.  I see how serious you are taking it and really appreciate your desire and drive to get it right.  Please don’t be too hard on yourself.  I know that you will be successful with your goal with more training and seat time.  Holding yourself to high standards is the key to success.  After all, you will be riding around with Mark and Ryan watching over their decisions and performance.  The Epic is a fantastic airplane, as you know, demanding attention.  When we meet again, I know that you will be able to fly within PTS standards and hold the centerline”.

 

When I received this note I laughed and shook my head. As the tables were turned on me, I realized that while it is important to master this airplane, I’d missed the heart of the lesson I was learning. The real message, and the importance of this experience, was that we are all students. We all must be comfortable being uncomfortable. I am no different from the pilot I’m training. What really matters is that I need to be more patient, more kind, more peaceful and better at managing expectations, both for myself and those that ask for my guidance.

 

The reason that I am sharing these thoughts with you is that if my experiences can open your eyes to the importance of being patient, managing expectations, listening carefully and recognizing the value of regularly moving from teacher to student, as a way to grow personally and professionally, the experiences steadily compound over the years enriching the educational process for all.


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