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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Aaron. I can only speak for myself when I say that I still grapple with severe check ride anxiety. More now than ever, as any negative checkride outcomes can directly effects my future career endeavors. I've sat next to pilots who are smooth and calm throughout the entire checkride. It's almost as though they're about to take a Sunday afternoon drive in a beautiful convertible. Consequently, they almost always do better than I. It's all in how we are psychologically 'wired' I suppose.