Motivate With “Incremental Mastery!”

Most new CFIs, with all good intentions, try to help too much. They consequently micromanage and monopolize the flight experience, eliminating most “learning opportunities” for their students. The greatest gift an educator can provide after presenting a lesson outline is allowing a safe place for their learner to independently make and correct their small errors; “flub it up and fix it.” This creates the critical “learning opportunity” essential to building confidence and proficiency. For the new CFI, this sloppy flying can be excruciating since every pilot wants perfection. But humans learn by doing, trying, and experimenting.

This “experimentation” obviously needs to be guided carefully, but the savvy CFI carefully avoids helping too much once the learner has achieved a level of basic competence. The ultimate goal in flight training is to get out of the plane. The CFI is there to coach and assist; guiding the learning situation with a velvet glove.

From the AOPA FIRC

A striving for perfection is built into good pilots, and new CFIs can easily fall into the micro-management habit. It takes conscious effort and commitment to overcome this tendency and allow space for errors. The new and scared CFIs most commonly exhibit “over-control” and never release the yoke (or the mic) for this “experimentation.” They can create an oppressive environment and also never stop talking long enough for a learner to process and assemble information. The end result of micromanaging is a pathetically nervous and dependent pilot with no “command authority” or true skills – a “mouse in a maze.”

Instead, I personally advocate putting training pilots “in charge” as early as confidence and proficiency allow. A major part of aviation safety is assuming responsibility (rare in modern society). I call the building process “incremental mastery,” and the reward for every student is a “half solo”  as soon as a learner is in command of the basics. This challenge is carefully briefed and designed to be fun and diagnostic – for both parties involved. The lesson allows a new pilot to handle *everything* all the way out to the practice area (pre-flight, taxi, run-up, radio, etc) with no assistance from the CFI (arms folded, mouth shut). This experience validates the training and immensely empowers the student. If the CFI is a micro-manager they squirm and suffer in the right seat but often discover some new personal strengths also – trust takes time.

Rod Machado’s archive of “Bad CFI” stories

By 3-5 hours in the air, most eager learners can accomplish this “half solo” with no problem.  Briefing and accomplishing this “half solo” is amazingly empowering and educational for the learner. They immediately see the result of their time, money and effort. Encourage them to debrief their own performance after the flight – you will be surprised!  This debrief also builds the essential safety habit of “after flight assessment” that every pilot should perform.Your learner is then ready (and confident) for experiencing slow flight stalls and emergencies.

This process of “incremental mastery” should continue right up until the check ride. Every time your learner exhibits competence in a maneuver or area of flight, they “own it” and command the process from that time forward – e.g. “show me your stall series.” Of course, polish and correction can be added to tighten accuracy and enhance understanding all the way through training. But it is vital to allow your learner to fly  “in command” as early as feasible.

By the time a pilot in training departs the nest, fully alone for real “solo,” they are more confident, skilled, and safer. They already know they can climb, turn, and descend accurately because they have continuously demonstrated this component of the flight. Full “solo landing” is just another incremental challenge in the full continuum of becoming a pilot in command. And for confident, empowered flight applicants, the FAA checkride is much less intimidating and they generally excel. By contrast, evaluating a cosseted candidate attempting true control is painful on so many levels. This is made worse by the realization that the CFI who recommended this person actually created these problems rather than solved them.

More ideas and techniques for flight instructor excellence are part of our  SAFE CFI-PRO™ Workshops now offered all over the country (call us). Fly safely (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

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

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