I once was the instructor for a high fashion student. Her day-trading job had recently netted her a lot of money. Her hard work paid out handsomely and she wanted everyone to know it. If that meant stepping out of the pilot’s seat of her own airplane in stylish high heels, so be it.
Her determination to train in haute couture stressed out more than a few flight instructors at the FBO where I worked. They were frustrated by her lack of progress — the result of poor rudder control — and her dismissal of the many other dangers of flying in heels.
The first time she and I went flying, I complimented her on her looks and her awesome outfit. Then I asked her to jump into the left seat and close the door. She did, while I backed away from the fuselage a little bit.
“You look good in that plane,” I said. She opened her side window. “What?” “I said you look good in that plane.” She smiled.
“And you know what else?”
“From here, I can’t see what shoes you’re wearing.”
She smiled and shook her head. I continued. “That means no one can ever see if you’re committing a fashion faux pas by wearing sensible shoes or even hiking boots while flying. Quick change before you deplane and no one will ever know. Your feet might even thank you.”
She laughed. She got out of the plane and went to her car. When she hadn’t come back after several minutes, I thought I’d misread her. But when she returned wearing sneakers, I knew I’d reached her.
She steadily improved with each lesson. The other CFIs who’d failed to coax her out of high heels asked me how I did it. I just told them that I spoke her language.
From my experience, flight instruction is not just about learning how to teach someone. It’s also about learning how to reach someone.
Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen says, “We all know we are unique individuals, but we tend to see others as representatives of groups.”
On the one hand, people attracted to flying have certain characteristics in common: An independent spirit, good problem-solving skills and a sense of adventure. On the other hand, we’re all still people with distinct personalities and quirks. On top of all that, we come from different geographic regions, each with its own set of idioms.
Recently recounting my high-heeled student pilot story to a friend got me to wondering how many reports had been filed with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System related to miscommunication in the cockpit — between pilots or with Air Traffic Control. I stopped counting at 57 reports.
Who Is In Control?
One student pilot filed a NASA after a porpoising event in the airplane with an instructor onboard:
“Instructor said… ’Uh, you can have control if you, uh, want it.’ I probably replied, ‘OK,’ rather than the usual ‘I have control.’ I began to pull the nose up slowly when I thought I felt my instructor push forward on the wheel [and] relaxed… Nosewheel touched down first and we bounced… Fortunately we walked away…with an undamaged aircraft. ‘Wishy washy’ coms played a major role in this.”
It’s imperative that as CFIs, our communication be clear and concise. We’re taught to demonstrate a procedure, perform the maneuver together and then watch the student demonstrate the procedure for us. When progressing from the second to the third phase, it’s our duty to confirm two things. The first is that the student is ready to demonstrate the maneuver to the CFI.
The second is known as the positive aircraft control exchange procedure: “You have the controls,” to which the student states, “I have the controls.” Some might call “your airplane,” “my airplane.” Either is acceptable because both leave no doubt as to who is controlling the aircraft.
One instructor filed a NASA after failing to heed the sterile cockpit rule while taxiing:
“We took off on Runway 24 instead of 30, as the Tower subsequently informed us. As I reviewed the event later with my student and in my own mind, I realized how I may have added to the uncertainty. I was busy pointing out airport markings and critiquing the flight to this point. The priority should have been communications with the Tower and standard procedure.”
I, too, have had to file a NASA for this transgression, only going the opposite way. I was on Initial Operating Experience at my first airline, on approach into KRIC. My IOE captain spent the entire approach giving me airline procedure pointers. When Tower cleared us for the visual, I just lined us up straight into the downwind leg with the nearest runway. Neither of us cross-checked our instruments. Sunny day, severe clear. Great day to go flying. We landed and Tower pointed out our error. Fortunately no one else was in the pattern of any of KRIC’s six runways.
Still, statistically, a study of FAA general aviation citations revealed 75% involved some ATC-related infraction. Furthermore, 13% resulted in aircraft damage. The takeaway that day for both of us was there’s a time to instruct, and there’s a time to fly the plane.
Another CFI filed a NASA after “playing macho” with ATC during a dual instruction flight. The approach under demonstration was a VOR-A involving a holding pattern course reversal instead of a procedure turn. The flight was conducted in actual instrument meteorological conditions to an airport unfamiliar to both the instructor and the student.
“I was not equipped with a DME but did have a yoke-mounted VFR-certified GPS on the left side that was hard to see unless you faced it directly. The altimeter was partially blocked by the yoke of the left side as seen from the right flying seat side (his position).”
Strange airport. IMC. Improper equipment for approach. Blocked instrumentation. Perfect time to talk through an unfamiliar approach, right?
That’s what this instructor thought. Instead of demonstrating the approach, he decided it was a better idea to narrate it. Rather than ease his burden and accept a radar vector from ATC, he declined for the sake of training the IFR applicant.
“I acknowledged the lowest altitude permitted until established on the published approach segment, and I acknowledged I was cleared for the approach. I mistakenly thought I was close enough to the VOR to descend to 2,700 feet as published on the approach procedure.”
That’s when ATC stepped in and cautioned the pilot that he was 500 feet low for that segment of the approach.
The instructor immediately climbed back up to 3,500 feet. That’s when he saw he was actually still seven miles south of the VOR, too far away to have descended to 2,700 feet. The CFI completed the rest of the approach correctly while still giving dual instruction throughout.
The great thing about this CFI is his humility. He wanted to make sure the student knew his mistake and how not to repeat something like that again. The bad thing about this CFI is his need to prove a point. That’s why he kept verbally reviewing his mistake, throughout the approach.
My IOE instructor and I had learned there’s a time to instruct, and there’s a time to fly the plane. This CFI didn’t learn that lesson until the postmortem in his NASA.
Finding that balance between communicating and over-communicating is itself a learning process. Quoting again from Deborah Tannen, “The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation.”
If the CFI in the first report exemplifies ambiguity, the CFI in this last report is the epitome of hyperbole:
“I was pilot in command giving dual instruction. The student and I were flying a VFR pattern at night. We were on the base leg of the pattern. Another airplane joined the traffic pattern behind us. Suddenly, that pilot clicked seven times on the UNICOM frequency, 122.7. The runway lights jumped from medium to full brightness.”
The pilot behind them had done the unthinkable, the aviation equivalent of flashing the CFI and his student with high beams. The CFI found that action extremely rude. Because he felt the other pilot had displayed “poor etiquette,” the CFI decided to teach him a lesson.
“Seeing this action as unsafe, I reacted by stating that we had ended upside down in a snow drift. When the Aircraft Y pilot queried, I continued by stating the airplane was upside down in the middle of the runway at Plattsburgh as a result of flash blindness caused by the sudden intensification of lights while I was on short final.”
Lying?! Really?! In the words of NFL star Brian Orakpo, “Come on man! What we doin’ out here, man?!”
Sure the CFI was correct. You don’t seven-click the runway lights when someone in front of you is on short final. But of all the ways to communicate a lesson, let’s agree to avoid bald-faced lying.
Here’s to communicating the truth and to truth in communication.