Trust Not Trauma: “Student Lockup!”

A recent poll in the SAFE eNews revealed that a shocking 65% of CFIs, at some point, had to physically take control from a student who “locked up” on the flight controls. That is an astonishing frequency of student “fear paralysis” during training. Obviously, we are doing something dramatically wrong in flight training if this number of incidents are occurring. Fear activates the “freeze/fight/flight” circuitry in the human brain and causes startle and lockup. The higher brain functions become unavailable to the pilot in this condition, preventing rational conversation and necessitating physical intervention to assure safety. We need to create trust not trauma in flight training.

The second question in this quick poll indicated that the majority of flight instructors also had never been advised or trained about the possibility of a student “locking up” or “freezing.” Most CFIs were never educated on how to deal with this kind of situation; sad and dangerous. A previous blog described the “CFI Ninja Move” to recover from a frozen student and reduce the angle of attack. Every CFI should have training here and a plan to keep every flight training adventure safe.

Another important contributing factor in student “fear paralysis” is that many recent CFIs were trained when stalls were recovered at “first indication” and are not fully trained in high AOA flight; they are scared too! Their fear is transmitted to new students so both are on edge practicing stalls. SAFE created the CFI-PRO™ program promoting Extended Envelope Training for CFIs (and their students). This program develops proficiency in the entire flight envelope (required for airline pilots). We need more comfort for all pilots in high AOA flight to inoculate them from startle incapacitation.

Never Scare Them!

The first order of business in preventing a dangerous situation is to simply work very hard to establish a trusting relationship with your learner and never scare them. The brain shuts down and  *no learning* occurs when there is fear. Build slowly into the areas known to alarm new pilots (nose high flight attitudes and stalls). Give every new learner enough time to get comfortable and achieve confident control before introducing stalls. “Let me know if you feel uncomfortable (queasy) or scared.” Create a trusting environment of sharing and communication. Rushing into stalls is just going to terrify your students; creating an unsafe situation and possibly causing them to drop out quietly over time (“I thought this was supposed to be fun?”)

A Diamond A/C doesn’t “bend” but interesting article…

Stalls should be much further back in the syllabus than the usual 141 dogma dictates; at least after ground reference maneuvers.  These added hours before radical maneuvers allow every new flight student more time in the cockpit to become comfortable and competent. It also provides more opportunities to build rapport and trust. Additional practice on the controls allows for independent student mastery of basic coordination, making for safer (and less exciting) stall practice too. Try to remember what your first exposure was like.

When introduced, stalls should be demonstrated and practiced very gently in a power-off descending (clean) configuration (every learner is different here). The nose only has to be raised a little to “normal level” to achieve an excessive AOA and trigger the stall (and the break is gentle). Recovery should be made without power, building the “unload” move as a reflexive action (and also emphasizing AOA). This keeps the first exposure simple and understandable and NOT scary. Build gently into the more extreme variations. I used to regularly see logbooks with spins demonstrated on lesson one or two from a local flying club (old school “weed them out” version of flight training). To repeat; creating predictable terror in flight training is potentially unsafe and causing student dropout  – are we having FUN yet?

But just in case, every CFI should have training to handle student lock-up. Successful techniques for regaining control need to be discussed and practiced with your senior instructors. Since lock-up most typically happens at the edge of the flight envelope, quick and decisive action is necessary to immediately regain control. A previous blog revealed how your foot on the yoke bar under the front panel (primarily in Cessnas) can easily overpower any student pulling inappropriate backpressure. Find this bar and practice so you are ready. Diamonds and most Piper products do not have access to this yoke connection. An easy way to overpower and break a student’s grip is an upward movement of your clasped hands between their arms. This will quickly remove their hands from the controls without harming them. Stating simultaneously in a loud voice “I have the flight controls” might help prevent and further dispute of control. Who said every day as a flight instructor would be fun? Fly safe out there and often (and stay vigilant)!

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

7 thoughts on “Trust Not Trauma: “Student Lockup!””

  1. Hey David,

    I think your technique for teaching stalls is great (very similar to how I teach it), and I definitely agree with need to talk about what happens when a flight student freezes up on the flight controls. I disagree with the placement on when to teach stalls. I find that avoiding anxiety associated with stalls is best done by introducing them early in the training. I had an aerobatic instructor who also was a licensed physiologist who did a majority of my CFI training show me to teach a falling leaf stall first lesson. She did this simply to show the student that there was nothing to fear about the airplane falling out of the sky due to misconceptions about what a stall actually was. I think the majority of problems based on teaching stalls have to do with how they are taught vs. when. If you have an instructor who is super anxious or a cowboy about teaching stalls then you will have a student who feels the same way, unconfident. I find that if a student knows why the airplane is doing what it’s doing using the “instructor teach instructor do, student teach instructor do, instructor teach instructor do” method then they seem to adapt relatively quickly to the challenge set before them. Pushing it down the road seems to let the anxiety about that maneuver build in the students mind instead of shedding the light on it to show them there is nothing to fear as long as you use the proper technique.

    Thanks for the great content you put out and I hope to see you at Oshkosh again!

    Austin Brumfield
    Flight Coaching

    1. I agree the method of introducing stalls and slow flight is more important than the timing. But in lieu of attempting to retrain many CFIs to be smarter (and gentler) we need to create a “buffer” here. Attempting first stalls with better coordination makes the experience much more palatable. We have created a generation of terrified pilots it seems?

      You bring up a critical point I did not mention in the blog. Many instructors are (secretly) scared of slow flight and stalls and transmit this fear to their students; a great combination at 3K in a trainer? We developed the SAFE CFI-PRO™ seminars to bring CFIs (and their clients) comfortably into the edges of the flight envelope; fear causes cognitive shut-down (in addition to “lock-up”) and “startle” is the root cause of most Loss of Control Inflight.

  2. Wow! Reminds me of a time……. I had to elbow an applicant off the controls in a high rate spin at 3000 AGL in a C150 with full flaps. Come to find out, the school had decided to “demonstrate” actual stalls once per student, then after that just recover at the stall warning horn. The results were predictable and well demonstrated by this fellow. And this was before the FAA decided to make this stall training paradigm mandatory!

    1. I was totally amazed that 65% of CFIs have had an experience like you describe Charlie. We obviously need to rethink this experience and how to present stalls without scaring new pilots.

  3. Apparently people are not being taught how to stall a plane anymore, just first indication, and recover. So when they get a real stall, they freak out. This seems to be true for pilots at all levels now, including ATP. People fear stalls if they haven’t experienced them enough for the fear to move to understanding.

    1. Yes, Richard, that is exactly the case. Recent CFIs in many cases have never experienced a full stall and transmit their fear to their students!

  4. A technique I learned at the beginning of my CFI training is to use a hand to obstruct the student’s vision. The natural, fear driven instinct is for them to reach up to pull your hand front m in-front of their face, allowing the instructor to regain control.

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