itsallaboutsafetyThat is a wonderfully over-used statement in aviation; of course, the danger in over-statement is the eventual effect of dulling it’s impact. Safety as a bottom line is the sum of so many links in a chain: equipment, maintenance, training, quality of training, situational awareness, currency, weather conditions, other operators, managing distractions, risk management, crew resource management, and more.
I would like to focus in on a critical safety concept that is embedded in one of the above items: quality of training. This is impacted by the preparedness and expertise of the trainer, the quality of the material, and the readiness of the learner to learn. This brief article will focus on the trainer’s impact on the learner’s readiness.

One of the key concepts absorbed by Certificated Flight Instructors is the Hierarchy of Human Needs as realized by Abraham Maslow.
This five tiered pyramid is an excellent tool for understanding what generates the best outcomes in learning and it is the responsibility of the trainer to pave the way for success.
The first, or base, level is the physiological well-being of the learner. There are numerous points of influence at this level, some of which can be controlled by the trainer and others that are not directly controlled but should be used to inform the appropriateness of selected tasks or topics. For example in the first category are simple things like hydration, hunger, and comfort of the learner. Having healthy snacks and bottles of water as well as coffee and tea go a long way in setting the learning environment up for success. Comfortable chairs, sturdy tables, and well lit rooms also have a big impact. The latter group of considerations, those not influenced by the trainer, should be observed as considerations for the type and intensity of training. If the student arrives well rested and focused, have at it; but if he is lethargic, admits to coming directly from an overnight shift, or is distracted by home or other life stress, then select only appropriate, likely review, materials. Perhaps even a demonstrative lesson on the effects of stress and distraction and application of the IMSAFE checklist.

If we focus on delivering our syllabus to our learners, our mentees, in positive exchanges that enhance their confidence and their self image as members of our community, they will be better prepared to make good decisions as pilots in command.

It is the second level of the pyramid that is the inspiration and focus of this article, SAFETY. We have enormous impact on this level and it is malpractice to ignore its importance. It goes far deeper than the belief that one is not going to meet their fate in an airplane today, rather it gets at the extraordinary courage it took for this person to present themselves to you in pursuit of a dream. Becoming a pilot is no small goal, especially to an outsider. Its easy, sometimes, to forget or minimize the status we hold as pilots in the eyes of the beholder. Nowadays, in order to stand before a licensed pilot instructor, one must also navigate tall fences and signs that inform of a federal government that will descend on the first person who dares enter these gates unescorted.

Here’s where our responsibility begins. This prospective learner possibly also called ahead to the school and was hopefully met by a friendly, attentive, empathetic voice who has contemplated the importance of this first contact. The caller shyly states that she would like to become a pilot. Imagine if the representative of the school is dismissive, or worse, gives the distinct impression that one has to earn that kind of aspiration. (school owners: see how critically important it is that we control who answers the phone on our behalf?!). Conversely, it is possible to embrace the caller with genuine excitement at the idea of inducting a new pilot, and a new member of this warm learning community which you have created. Now that you have warmly greeted and embraced this new friend the real work begins. Every interaction from here and beyond needs to be filtered with an eye toward supporting the student’s belief that its okay to be here, to want to become a pilot, and to make mistakes. One false move on our part and the student is shut down.

Here’s one sample interaction that may seem innocent but can have devastating impact on the learner: “Beverly Tower November 12345 ten miles out, inbound for landing.” (instructor interjects to the tower) “Tower, 12345 is ten miles to the East and we have information Charlie.” Now, it is conceivable that a busy environment would necessitate this interjection, but in that case the instructor should have offered an opportunity to rehearse the call beforehand. In most situations it would be better for the instructor to give the learner the chance to realize their error and wait for the controller to request the clarification. This way the learner not only fixes the problem, experiences the procedure for making the correction, and retains PIC-esque responsibility, but they emerge with their sense of safety in being able to handle the situation without intervention. When the instructor jumps in, the learner is jolted into a reality where they are not up to the task. Positive transfer of learning has stopped.


Just as a side note, there’s a perfectly good reason for the instructor to want to jump in. He is human too, and has the need to fit in, and control his surroundings. We sometimes even want to elevate ourselves at the expense of the learner, just to put them in their place. In the best of us this is purely subconscious but that is still self serving and denies the learner an important opportunity. Worse, it knocks him down a peg. Not our immediate goal.

The third tier is love and belongingness. This is perhaps the simplest, but only works if it is genuine. You simply can’t fake this one and it separates the great instructors from the time-builders.
These first three levels of the pyramid is where the rubber meets the runway. The final two pinnacle levels are ego and self actualization. When we succeed, the ego is in tact and the learner is set up to succeed at the appropriate task we have chosen for them today. Hopefully we have been able to identify the important nature of how our actions can influence our learners’ experiences.

The final statement here is to tie the importance of these concepts into the importance of the quality of our training on overall safety in aviation. If we focus on delivering our syllabus to our learners, our mentees, in positive exchanges that enhance their confidence and their self image as members of our community, they will be better prepared to make good decisions as pilots in command.

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About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 25 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane and several jet type ratings. He recently earned his 13th renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job!

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