Super-Learner: Head, Hands, and Heart

To be an effective educator, it is essential to honestly and accurately assess every learner in terms of capabilities and potentialities, starting with the very first meeting. Each new and unique learner is a potential project embodying the burning question: “are we, working in partnership, going to be able to successfully get this “pilot project” over the goal line of full and safe pilot certification in a reasonable amount of time?” Also, though they may achieve an FAA minimum passing grade, will they become a safe member of the pilot community? Remember, some CFI created every one of Dr. Bill Rhodes’ Scary Pilots. There is the two-edged problem of being both honest while also remaining open-minded; “surprise me!”It is our professional duty to be honest. We do not want to close the door of possibility too soon, but we also do not want a 200 hours solo. After years of facing this question, with numerous diverse learners, I realized I tend to break this question into the three categories of mental capacity, skill, and motivation; head, hands, and heart.

From the beginning, we have to accept the fact that a few people for reasons of physical skill or mental capacity, are not capable of becoming safe pilots. And others are not willing to honestly invest the required time and money and effort; the “immediate results” group. The sooner the educator (hopefully in consultation with other CFIs) determines these functional problems and honestly conveys this bad news to the potential learner, the less grief and anxiety you will experience attempting “mission impossible.” The good news is that this represents only a very few people. And it is almost impossible from even the first five hours to know this for certain; initial impressions are frequently wrong. People can endlessly surprise you and make up for very limited physical and mental capacity with great motivation and grit.

The erroneous initial assessment of pilot capability – “I can tell if someone is pilot material in the first hour” – is one of the classic “instructor fallacies.” Usually, this rapid determination is more a demonstration of a “self-fulfilling prophesy” than an honest assessment. Patience is everything in these early lessons. But being very honest is also essential; revealing to the learner that compared to averages, this person may not be gifted in coordination or rapid uptake…this is going to take “more time and money.” Honesty is essential.

My most gifted early learner never became a pilot. He had classic “golden hands” but was basically a “box of rocks” upstairs. This client was a heavy machinery operator and could easily have soloed (beautifully) after only five hours. “Bulldozer Bob” had spent his life jumping onto different machines and making them do exactly what he wanted; classic “golden hands.” As soon as I demonstrated what was needed, he could make it happen (apparently without fear too). The long-term prognosis was not good though because he really was not running a real fast processor and money was also limited.

Another learner possessed the most brilliant mind I have ever seen (Nobel prize level) but also was so painfully scripted and almost autistic that anything out of the ordinary pattern made him totally unhinged and confused. Visualizing this person alone facing a challenging and ever-changing environment aloft brought this project to a close. We had “the talk.”

Lastly, every educator’s enigma is the seemly unmotivated learner. Many times a pilot spouse or an over-eager parent desperately wants a candidate to be a pilot. But working this learner daily, it becomes painfully obvious that there is no personal motivation. Achieving success in aviation takes a little “fire in the belly.” Nothing is more frustrating as an educator than dragging an unmotivated person through the required maneuvers while continually attempting to light this fire.

Over the years, the most important qualities in learning well seem to be a passionate curiosity, easy humility, coupled with a personal honesty that easily admits to error. These qualities can make up for some pretty severe deficiencies in other areas. Add all these qualities combined with some confidence – hopefully some hand-to-eye coordination and mental capacity – yields the proper “head, hands, and heart.”

An eager learner who is not ego-driven but instead is ready to reassess and reformulate in the face of contrary evidence is a powerful learner. They are largely self-powered and as an educator it is like watching “Jack’s magic beanstalk” grow. These people progress the fastest and usually become the best eventual pilots. Unfortunately, the classic “pilot personality” trends the other way toward surety and overconfidence. Jamie Beckett had a great article on this in GA News available here. As both educators and pilots, we too often make a decision and stick with it dogmatically past a realistic point; “mission mentality.” As in most educational pursuits, a healthy dose of emotional intelligence again rules the day. Fly safely out there (and often)!

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See you at EAA Airventure (Oshkosh)  in Hangar B booth #2092 for renewal benefits and a chance to win sweepstakes prizes. Our dinner will be 6PM on Thursday (more info TBA soon).

Author: David St. George

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

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