Learning to fly with laughs

The more enjoyable the learning process, the better a student will retain the material. If you can involve laughter in the process, retention rate soars. This explains why we remember lines from movies such as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but have a hard time remembering how to do algebra. There is a lot to learn in aviation, and no one makes it more fun than aviation educator and humorist Rod Machado.

Machado, who has been flying since 1973, holds ratings from CFI up through ATP, in addition to all ground instructor ratings.

A gifted speaker as well as educator, Machado’s presentations at aviation conventions, airshows and fly-ins are usually packed to standing room only. His aviation training aids in the form of books, audiotapes, CDs and DVDs have helped thousands of aviators earn their wings.

According to Machado, he first made the connection between humor and learning when he began teaching weekend ground school.

MachadoBooks“Humor is a behavior modification tool and I used it in class to help reinforce a point and to help students pay attention to me,” he said. “For instance, I would present a topic and, somewhere during that presentation, I’d offer a funny story, joke, act-out, etc., to support the point I wanted to make. The result was that students paid more attention to me when I did this. There’s no big secret here. It’s simply the pleasure-pain principle in action: Provide someone with pleasure and they’re more likely to pay attention to what you’re saying. Give them pain by boring them with a dull lecture and they’ll head north and throw themselves under a slow-moving glacier.”

There is a difference, Machado stresses, between using humor and telling jokes. For Machado, humor takes the form of playfulness, be it on stage or in the cockpit.

“I am far more playful in the cockpit or classroom than I am a joke teller,” he says. “After all, there are only so many jokes one can remember and tell. If one is playful, then there is a never-ending supply of funny and amusing things to keep students entertained. For instance, if a student is choking up on the radio the first time he or she has to contact ATC, I’ll go into what’s called an act out. I’ll use the voice of a Nazi interrogator and say, ‘Ve have vays of making you talk.’ If a student did a steep turn and it went bad, then I might use my Forrest Gump voice and say, ‘My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.’”

“Being playful puts people at ease, especially in stressful situations,” Machado continues. “Of course, in being playful, you must be wise enough to know the difference between being childlike and childish.”

One of the most fear-inducing aspects of learning to fly is talking on the radio.

“I tend to be very playful in these instances without giving the student the impression that I’m dismissing his or her concerns,” he says. “One time I had a student who was just deathly afraid of making a mistake on the radio, so I tried an extreme measure. While sitting in the airplane, I called ground control and said, ‘Ground Control, this is 2132 Bravo, question.’ Ground control replied, ‘Go ahead, 32 Bravo.’ I said, ‘Sir, if a nervous student pilot makes a mistake the first time they talk to ground control on the radio, what will happen to him?’ As I recall, then controller said something like, ‘Well, we’ll have to send him to an FAA radio reeducation camp.’ We all had a good laugh over that one and the student immediately relaxed. He now knew that any mistake he made on the radio isn’t a death sentence. Of course, this wasn’t much of a risk on my part because the controller would have either provided good advice or humor or even both.”

When he’s not working the airshow and lecture circuit, Machado is churning out books and audio products to facilitate pilot education. Humor is key in the presentation, be in in the form a short amusing anecdote, a photograph — such as the one of the airplane on the ground with the leg of the student hanging out of the cockpit to illustrate the point of “extending your downwind leg” — or a call-out to drive the topic home. He periodically updates everything to include new information, FAA areas of emphasis, and yes, new humorous content. Machado collects amusing anecdotes like other people collect stamps or coins, and often these experiences work their way into his teachings.

There are times, however, when he’s on stage and he realizes that he’s not connecting with the audience.

“When you gain enough experience telling stories, you know what humor will and will not work,” he says. “Since many of the stories I tell about pilots deal with common anxiety themes, pilots always tend to respond positively to these stories. Why? Once again, we tend to laugh at that which makes us nervous. Then again, I occasionally get tripped up. Every once in a while I’ll try new material out on my audience and the joke will pass over their heads at 35,000 feet. These are the times I say, ‘Folks, some of these jokes are just for me.’ I make fun of my faux pas and the audience tends to be very forgiving. I just don’t take myself that seriously when I make a mistake on stage. Everyone messes up at some time or another.”

Machado has advice for the wanna-be instructor who seeks to add humor to their instructional tool kit.

“The very best way for someone to learn how to be playful and use humor as a teacher is to study others who are skilled in that area. Listen for funny quips and sayings. Add them to your personal repertoire of responses. See how people act out different scenarios or behave when telling stories. Try their strategies and see if any fit for you. All learning begins with mimicking.”

For more information: RodMachado.com


  1. says

    I’ve been a fan of Rod Machado ever since I started flying 15 years ago. He is a very gifted teacher with a knack for explaining things in ways I can easily understand. Humor plays a big role in his ability to make a concept “sink in.” These days, I still use his materials as a flight instructor and definitely admit I’ve stolen some of his quotes. A bit of humor can definitely make the flight training experience better for a student.

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