For the new flight student, the first flight can be an overwhelming experience.
What can a flight instructor do or say to put students at ease and help them get the most out of their experience? Here are a few tips to help you with any new student.
Take Time to Get to Know One Another
The business of flying an aircraft is a serious one. It’s even more serious when you consider how limited your time with students is and how much material you have to teach them.
But instructors and students have a close relationship, and that has to start somewhere. The most successful flight instructors are the ones that are liked on some level by their students. Contrary to the beliefs of some, flight instruction is a job that involves many “soft skills.”
This isn’t any different than many other professions. Even among airline pilots, crews usually spend a few minutes getting to know one another before getting to work.
Why spare the time?
Because you’re going to work together in close quarters for a while, and it makes sense to know who you’re working with.
For flight instructors, it’s essential to get to know a little about your students’ motivations.
Why are they taking lessons, and what is their history with aviation?
Keep an open mind and try to get to know them. Try to see things from their point of view, as a new person in a new place. What can you say that will make them feel that they can be successful here?
Perhaps most critically, the key is to understand how important it is to listen.
You’ll learn a lot about the person you’re going to be teaching if you take the time to listen to them. Knowing your student better allows you to find points of common reference and understanding.
Establish an “Open Door, Safe Space” Policy
You want your students to feel comfortable coming to you with their aviation-related questions.
Never put down students or make them feel like you don’t have time for their questions.
It’s one thing to say, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” but it’s a more challenging thing to live by this philosophy.
It can often help to find some common ground with your students. Relating your experiences as a new flight student can be an excellent place to start.
Calibrate Their Expectations
Maybe the most productive thing a flight instructor can do on their first meeting with a new student is to set realistic expectations.
Incoming students do not know what to expect. Primary students don’t know what flight training is like at all. Advanced students won’t know what you’re like, or what the new school is like.
Set expectations in the macro and micro.
- Ensure your student knows when and where they should be for flight lessons, and what to expect if the weather is bad for a flight.
- Lay out the school’s no-show or cancellation policies.
- And finally, make sure they understand how much they’ll be expected to prepare for each flight lesson.
It also helps to lay out what their flight training will look like overall. How many hours will it take them, and how much will it all cost? Try to answer the questions that they might not want to bring up right off the bat.
Some new flight students have done quite a lot of research about flying before they land in your office.
It’s important to gauge where they’ve gotten their information and how accurate it is. There’s a lot of crazy stuff on the internet, and as the paid professional, it lands on you to fix any bizarre ideas they might have come across.
Beware of Hidden Fears (and Airsickness)
Some students will come right out and tell you what scares them or makes them anxious.
Other students will not. But every student you fly with has something that they aren’t keen on, just like you had when you started flying.
Maybe it’s stalls, or maybe it’s talking on the radio. Or maybe it’s the fact that they get airsick every time they leave the ground.
As the flight instructor, pressing for the information isn’t the best tactic. If the student comes out and says something, talk it through and give them the facts. If they don’t talk about it, you’ll have to gauge their reactions to figure out what’s going on.
This is all part of setting realistic expectations and making sure that they’re comfortable telling you anything that’s bothering them.
Airsickness is the perfect example.
It’s an embarrassing situation for the student, who claims to want to be a pilot, to become airsick. It’s up to their instructor to put them at ease and to make them understand that many pilots experience airsickness in the beginning.
It’s also up to their instructor to help them mitigate its effects and help them overcome it. Furthermore, it’s up to their instructor to minimize any uneasiness or embarrassment they feel about it.
Flight instructors have a role to play in the lives of their flight students.
They not only teach them how to fly a plane, but they also teach them how to be pilots. Instructors are mentors and role models.
It’s up to instructors to make sure their students fly safely, and many of the habits learned in early training will stick with them for years. Some will last a lifetime.
But instructors are also coaches. You have to show them how to study and what to study. Give them tips for success, like the things that helped you get through your training.
On their first lesson, spend time going over all of the resources available to them.
Walk them through the school’s syllabus and flight lessons, as well as all of their textbooks and supplies.
Then show them any websites you think might help them. Are there any student groups at your school? Is there any tutoring available? Make sure they’re aware of all the opportunities available to them at the school.
Remember the Law of Primacy
On the first flight, a new student’s attention is being diverted everywhere.
Since they aren’t used to the environment, they don’t know what to focus on. The result is an overwhelming, tiring experience. Remember how tired you felt after your first flight lessons?
Very little of what you say on day one will be remembered, so keep it short and sweet.
It states that things learned first make the most powerful impressions. From day one, make sure your students are steeped in safety culture.
Use the checklist every time, do a thorough pre-flight, and follow your company OpSecs to the letter. In other words, make a good impression.
Flight instructors are many things–they’re teachers, coaches, role models, and mentors. Sometimes, they’re good friends too.
It doesn’t always happen, but keeping your relationship professional and friendly keeps your student at ease and keeps them excited about coming to the airport to fly.
It also fosters an environment where they’re comfortable speaking up more often, which is vital in the student-centered learning process.
The first flight should be viewed as an opportunity for the flight instructor and student to connect. Remember, they aren’t you.
They’ve got an entirely different background, and to work with them, you’ll need to find a little common ground to build from.
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Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.