Creating Productive Scenarios; “Struggle Zone”

 

Scenario-based training has acquired a stigma in aviation though misuse. But if done properly, these experiences can be the most powerful tool in an experienced educator’s arsenal. And scenarios are the required core focus of all modern FAA ACS testing (what your good DPE is going to use during every evaluation). Every CFI must be an astute evaluator to be an effective educator. Proper application of scenarios requires discretion and creativity. Using the right tool at the appropriate time creates the most effective educational experience. Properly constructed scenarios add  a world of valuable challenge and motivation to training and more accurately resemble the real flight experience. Deployed properly, scenarios expand a small geographic area into the whole country (with no added cost!) and build higher level judgment skills making safer pilots.

The Misuse…

The misuse of scenarios comes primarily from imposing unimaginative (generic) scenarios onto every student without customizing the challenges to the proper level. Many scenarios are applied too soon and exceed the learner’s skill level.  Every flight operation requires some level of fluid skill – often acquired by drill and repetition – before the scenario can be effective (why piano scales are taught before Haydn!) Failure to consider the unique needs of each student wastes valuable time and money. “Learning opportunities” instead become “play time for instructors” building hours. Complex and inappropriate scenarios become an expensive burden for the pilot-in-training; 50 hour solos and 100 hour X-C levels.

The critical skill for the aviation educator is evaluation so the proper level of challenge is achieved. The heart of a successful scenario is customizing each learning experience to achieve optimal challenge (struggle zone). Creative generation and applicatiion of new experiences creates rapid skill acquisition, excitement and judgement (higher level learning). The result is versatile, resilient pilots (and often at a lower cost through efficiency). But in every case the pilot-in-training needs the prerequisite skills to adquately meet the scenario challenge -again – initially learned by rote and embedded through muscle memory, then extrapolated to each creative challenge with a scenario.

The Necessity…

The proven necessity of scenarios is simple. Your new pilot, or “rusty recurrent pilot”,  has the FAA privilege to fly day or night, anywhere in the country, for the rest of their life.  And this is despite being only trained in a small geographic area on good weather days, mostly in daylight.  To safely meet the challenge of real life flying, a student and educator must engage together in some “active imagining.” If done correctly, scenarios challenge the pilot and transport your learner to all the places and challenges they may encounter as a pilot.  Working together, you must mentally extrapolate from the local area to the challenges of the whole country, in different terrain and weather, encountered over the span of a lifetime.

Scenarios Done Properly…

If properly constructed and executed, a scenario puts your student into the “struggle zone” or what educational psychologists call the “zone of proximal development”.  An effective scenario presents the optimal level of personal challenge for an individual learner and enables an educator to both teach and evaluate at the highest correlation level of learning.  Done poorly, scenarios merely run up the flight training bill and become an excuse for extraneous trips to exciting lunch destinations on the client’s dime. Buying specialized scenario books or apps to deploy cumbersome generic scenarios usually fail; to be successful, each scenario must be personal and challenge each unique leaner. To present an effective scenario, it is essential to your student well so you can craft realistic challenges appropriate to their level of skill and realm of experience. Remember, a solid relationship of trust is the #1 ingredient to success in any learning situation.  Let’s unpack the “why” and “how to” of SBT  and also provide a sales pitch for this creative way to turbo-charge your teaching.

How to…Let’s get started!

Scenario training can be as simple as scrolling on Skyvector ( or ForeFlight) to a far off state and “mentally relocating” your student to a certain unique and surprising location with a mission and set of weather conditions. Active engagement and “buy in” from the learner is essential so adding a personal need to the mission is essential; make it personal! “You’re transporting your sick dog to the clinic and need to know what airspace we are in? And what viz and cloud clearance (radio/nav equipment) are required? Who do I talk to here and how will the plane perform at this altitude?” The more personally relevant and realistic each scenario is, the more actively your student will engage and the more effective their learning. (A previous blog revealed the learning benefits of practicing in the “struggle zone“) And all this can also happen effectively (and economically) on a bad weather day when flying might not be productive at your student’s level. If you have a simulator you obviously have an even better tool and the scenarios created for the EAA-PPC are available now on-line and available for FAA WINGS credit on faasafety.gov

So  if I am dealing with a Cornell aerospace student, a plausible scenario might start with “You are back at the Mohave Spaceport for Cornell and suddenly have an opportunity to do some personal flying in Mohave…how would you unpack the challenges of mountains and high density altitudes, unique “traffic”?” Or present the “Oshkosh Fly-In Challenge” with the Fisk arrival (this and others are in the EAA-PPC list) And remember these are also exactly the kind of challenges a good DPE is going to present during a practical test. Scenarios build a flexible, thoughful pilot that can unpack challenges and manage risks with skill, knowledge and imagination.

Creating mountains…

And how do you create those mountains? Perhaps after some low level ground reference maneuvering, impose a hypothetical “service ceiling” on your plane in MSL (2000 over the terrain but below the hilltops) Then limit the airplane power to 2100rpm (density altitude) and now transit the “mountains”. “Can we safely transition through the hills to our home airport?  Should we divert instead>”  Similarly you can impose a solid cloud ceiling and  leave the weather decision to the student. Then accept the client’s decision -good or bad- if conditions are within your minimums and you can keep the flight safe and legal. Once  you are flying with too much wind or too low clouds, the client experiences the consequences of their folly (and perhaps log some actual or get some good crosswinds) within a safe environment (watchful eye of the educator). Share your favorite scnarios in the comments below.

The essential element in all scenarios is allowing your client to make mistakes (while carefully maintaining a margin for safety) and supplying only minimal guidance.  Allowing this famous “learning opportunity” to unfold is critical and easily ruined by too much “helping” from the CFI. As errors add up, their struggle will clearly demonstrate the consequences of bad decisions and the “accident chain”  without the safety risk.

Motivating for students and educators!

Scenarios are exciting for both the pilot and the educator adding fun and variety to the training experience; this is how Master Instructors are built. Good scenarios beat “going to the practice area for some steep turns” hands down for learning efficiency and motivation. And there is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. Attend our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop and  acquire expert instructor skills more rapidly (are we still learning as educators?). Fly safely (and often!)


 

Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the CFI as evaluator. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to address the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Congratulations New CFI!

Congratulations and welcome to this new world! I hope you enjoy your profession as an aviation educator. Here is what I can tell you that you may want to ‘file away.’  I started out as you did: an “Independent CFI” in a state clear across the country from where I had done all my training and with absolutely no friends, contacts, ‘network,’ or anything like that to give me a ‘leg up’ in my new ‘Home State.’ Ready for take-off?

1) Don’t Fly Junk! By this I mean that if you find that the Owner/Operator of said aircraft seems to have either a cavalier attitude about maintenance or is reluctant to take your ‘squawks’ on necessary repairs/fixes/equipment troubles/etc. seriously and address them pronto or tends to do maintenance ‘on the cheap’ or appears to be skirting or flouting the regs…walk away. There are other good, honest, flight operations out there.

2) Your time is valuable. Don’t ‘give it away.’ Flight Instruction is worth whatever you charge & ground Instruction is too. Establish that early on. Ergo, if you charge $50/Hr & have a typical 2 Hr block booked & WX precludes you getting ‘air time’ with your Student, have a 2 Hr Ground Session instead & it is not a ‘Loss’ for either of you.

3) Don’t be timid about establishing your PIC authority;  when you say, “I have the Controls!” or “My Aircraft!” your Student’s feet & hands must IMMEDIATELY come off the controls. This needs to be established before you ever set foot in the plane. Accept No ARGUMENTS here‼️ A lot of these students today are well-heeled execs, Business Owners, Doctors, Lawyers, etc. and some have a tendency to regard you as their “inferior” as if you are merely a Doorman, Barista, or Valet. Squelch that Attitude politely but firmly very early on, or it can become a Nightmare for you. Any trouble with a prospect who prefers to take his/her Grandiose Delusions into the air with you…’cut them loose’ to go find someone else to fly with & ‘Don’t let the door hit ‘em’ in the ass on the way out.

4) Always show up early & fully prepared for each lesson. Dress, speak and conduct yourself as a professional. Respect yourself, & treat others with respect. Observe the Golden Rule.

5) DO NOT discuss Politics. Half your Students will be ‘on the other side’ – in some places that will be more like 80 or 90%. Too bad. Not your problem. Just be yourself & don’t get drawn into the ‘Vortex’ where there are No Winners.

6) Your first Student to ‘Solo’ will be ready before you are‼️😅 No problem. It’s pretty much true with all of us… that ‘second-guessing’ & thinking 🤔 💭 ‘Did I cover EVERYTHING?!’ Don’t worry about it. In time & with greater Experience you will know when the Student finally ‘clicks’ & clearly is ready for ‘three times around the patch!’ Just be aware that in the beginning, you will feel pretty anguished standing there on the sidelines watching your fledgling out there on his/her own for the first time. Make sure to ‘Celebrate’ afterward! This is a ‘Big Deal!’ for all concerned‼️

7) Try to have the Student feel good about SOMETHING after the completion of each flight. What do I mean? Example: the student is having trouble with Steep Turns. Okay…break it off and do ‘Turns Around a Point’ or practice ‘Slips!’ Give your student an opportunity to feel ‘Wow! I DID IT‼️’ instead of returning to the field dejected because they ‘failed’ at one particular task.

8) Don’t be too eager to ‘jump on the controls’ with every deviation from ‘perfection.’ You weren’t perfect either when you were starting out. Try to just get them to be aware of things they can do to help themselves, instead, like say releasing that ‘Death Grip’ on the yoke & holding it instead like a Stradivarius violin 🎻 or a beautiful romantic partner. Use some gentle humor in the cockpit to de-stress the Situation.

9) Beware ‘Experienced Pilots’ who need a Flight Review or who are ‘Rusty’ They May surprise you with Totally Mondo Bizarro behaviors that defy any expectation!

10) NEVER become Complacent in the Cockpit! It can kill you.

Also, remember you are just starting…there is a LOT to learn. Join our professional organization (Join SAFE); we provide resources, camaraderie and mentoring.

Your membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!