Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Failure Is An Option

Why do applicants fail checkrides?

I think I'm a pretty decent instructor, and I'd like to believe that my students and the Designated Pilot Examiner I typically use agree. But this week, I've had two students fail first-attempt checkrides on eerily simliar manuevers. Bear with me---I'm not writing this for a pity party or trying to call students out. You'll see I'm going somewhere constructive with this.

Well-prepared applicants don't fail checkrides because of lack of knowledge or poor instruction. That's not self-insulating rationalization---I've observed the phenomenon enough to consider it a fact. Other things get in the way. Fatigue and stress are two of the biggest factors.

Students get pretty worked up and wired prior to checkrides and forget to take our advice to take a chill pill and get some sleep. They have to be aware of that, because fatigue is something that sneaks up on you and steals your situational awareness and self-control when you're not expecting it.

Stress over minor mistakes also adds up. People who are attracted to aviation are usually at least borderline perfectionists, and they don't take mistakes lightly. The danger with that personality type (and I'm one of them) is that you can let a mistake on one manuever or task bug you until it becomes a mental snowball that derails a whole flight.

The bottom line is that we can prepare a student to the best of our abilities, and then it's out of our control. We're flight instructors, not psychologists, despite our efforts at trying to be observers and modifiers of human behavior. It's obviously useful to teach a few testing strategies before sending a student off to the judges, but you have to ask yourself how you're really helping them become a better pilot by expending that time. Do you teach them how to be a pilot, or how to be a test-taker?

A rock and a hard place

So then, we have a choice. Forty hours with a student is not a very long time. We can spend that forty hours trying to teach them with scenarios, teach them good judgement, and make them safe, effecient, everyday pilots. Or, we can spend that time teaching them the checkride. I think that the latter mindset is an overlooked cause of a symptom that's been all-to-present in the public conscience due to events like the Colgan accident in Buffalo and the subsequent Congressional actions on airline training and safety.

I want to be careful about making a big generalization, but it's beginning to occur to me that those two mindsets are in many ways mutually-exclusive. We're supposed to employ scenario-based training (thinking your way through a situation and controlling/solving it with knowlege you've gained) and then send them on their ways to dog-and-pony shows where they string together manuevers and tasks that would never on their face be linked together in the course of an operational flight. Operational, as in the important ones with passengers and family members on board.

There are a lot of challenges to the future of aviation right now, but maybe the link between an instructional mindset and a practical test mindset is more of a challenge than we think.

I choose the rock

As for me, I made my choice a long time ago between teaching pilots and teaching checkride applicants. I get my nose bloodied occasionally (and more often than I'd like) for it, but down the road I'm betting that my students who passed on the second try are less likely to make the six o'clock news than many who were "taught to the test" and passed on the first try.

That old advice on leadership holds true to flight instruction: There is a difference between doing everything right, and doing the right things.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Day in the Life

I was told by a prospective customer (who happens to be a VERY casual pilot, like 10 hours a year casual from what I gathered) last week that I charge too much for instruction. Nevermind the fact that this is my living; how could I possibly ask $xx an hour for what I do? I got to thinking about how I spend my time. Here's a little window...

Aviation is such a noble profession. We eagle-eyed pilots get to look down at the rest of the world from such a lofty perch, and leave any and all problems behind with those poor terestrial suckers. A perfect life. We'd all just do it for free if we had to. Right?

January 19, 2011

5:30 AM

My alarm clock was supposed to wake me up for a 7 am flight to check out a renter in our Cessna 150. Apparently this does not happen.

6:50 AM

Alisa wakes me up and I text the renter to let him know I'll be there as soon as I can.

7:10 AM

I'm in the car, waiting for the deep freeze-sized layer of frost to burn off the windshield.

7:15 AM

Still waiting.

7:35 AM

Arrive at the airport to find the airplane (you guessed it) covered with frost. Answered questions from the renter about the plane and squared him away on the preflight and systems (he wasn't used to the stone-age systems of a 150).

8:15 AM

Strapped in and ready to go, and the plane won't start. The 0-200 engine just doesn't like the cold, the battery is weak, and I allow him to succumb to the temptation of over-priming. It finally turns over and runs for about 30 seconds. We know we flooded it because the fuelish smell of an overly-rich start is obvious.

My renter swears he smells something burning, and when we investigate the nose we find the fiberglass moulding around the engine air inlet on fire. We get it extinguised with little damage except for the foam air filter and some soot.

8:45 AM

Air filter changed and our mechanic standing by with a fire extinguiser, just in case. Battery is now exhausted, so our mechanic hand-props the airplane (I do this all the time to our Cub, but it's not often in 2011 that you see a flight school 150 being "propped.").

Airplane starts and runs great, with no fire this time, but now the intercom has failed. Flight is cancelled.

9-11:30 AM

I fly with one of my favorite students. He's turned out to be a loyal customer and something of a business mentor to me, but he's often too hard on himself and today was one of those days. It's hard to convince a perfectionist that a private pilot checkride isn't about perfection. Not sure about my street cred as an amatuer psychiatrist today. We'll be re-flying that mock checkride again.

11:30-1 PM

Check in with the boss, check up on work on the 150, and try to answer a few e-mails.

1-1:20 PM

Scarf a Subway sandwich and shotgun a Coke.

1:30-3 PM

Mock checkride #2 for the day. This student lets stuff roll off of his back, and did well. He's almost ready.

3-5 PM

Unusual attitudes and partial panel work with one of my instrument students. He's a great student, and unusual attitudes are fun from the right seat. Basically, we have the student close his or her eyes and then we maneuver the airplane so they lose track of "which end is up." They, they recover the airplane to straight and level flight using only the's good training for accidentally flying into a cloud. Anyway, while we're "maneuvering" it's one of the few excuses a CFI has to really yank and bank on an airplane. Good stuff.

Capped it all off by a well-flown partial panel VOR approach on the part of my student. Maybe I do know what I'm doing.

5-5:30 PM

Paperwork. I'm about to hire at least one instructor, so all the standards and procedures that have only needed to dwell in my head (as "chief" of one at the old Waco Flight Training) for the past two years now need to take up residence on paper. As you can tell, I have tons of time for that.

5:30-7:30 PM

Mock oral exam with a student who, for the most part, is prepared. We worry about when we have to "drag" responses out of a student and he did a little of that, but less than last time. I just sent him home with follow-up items to study on, and I'm finally done for the day. Tomorrow at 8 AM, I'll start it all over again.

Why am I sharing this? Today was a typical day in the life of a working flight instructor (well, except for the whole fire thing...I wouldn't be cool with that being typical). As with anyone working in any other profession, I had some moments of brilliance and some "why do I put up with this" moments. I try to learn from both, and I think that one of my favorite things about this job is processing that learning.

All things considered, I'd rather have a long, tiring, brilliance-punctuated day here than the best day ever behind a desk.

And that $xx an hour? Totally earned.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Writers block or just lazy?

Back on the writing wagon

It's kind of embarrassing to realize that it has been a year since my blog was updated. It's been on my mind since my friend Jerome got really active on his again, and is writing some good stuff. Not that I haven't had plenty to write about, I just haven't been good about making the time to do it.

To make things easier, I changed the title of the blog a little bit to broaden the focus. Maybe I needed to give myself permission to write about whatever I wanted to. Maybe you don't care about that thought process, or maybe you do since you're still reading.

Plenty to write about

There have definitely been changes at work in the past year. I've now soloed 12 more students since that last blog entry, and had 10 (about to be 11) students successfully complete checkrides. And, I crossed the 1,000 hour mark as a pilot. I've really learned my craft and feel like a true pro. I knew once these things began happening, I'd inevitably face a fork in my professional road.

That fork came this month when the little one-airplane flight school Parker and I started got bought by a mutual friend. I stayed on with the new company as chief flight instructor and am in the middle of getting our instructional methods standardized to 3 types of airplanes, gearing up to hire another instructor, and continuing to teach a full student load in the airplane. Life is busy!

I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. The opportunties as the new flight school begins to grow will get interesting (I'll share more about that as good things progress), and there of course remains the ever-present temptation of an airline career. Surreal though it may be, I'm only months away from qualifying for interviews with most regional airlines.

More to come

Stick with me as I share flying stories and random thoughts. I'm not going to make it my new year's resolution to write more, because we all know what happens to those. It's simply a commitment.