Pilot Attitudes in Training

How a few small changes in mindset can lead to much safer pilots.

cessna 152 instructor
An instructor and a student preflight a Cessna 152 before a lesson.Richard Steiger

Pilots are imperfect by design. We’re human, after all. On any given flight, a pilot is faced with dozens of interrelated decisions that guide the airplane to its destination, hopefully intact and without incident. Most of the time, we make good decisions and our flights end safely, even if we execute some elements of the flight imperfectly — a missed radio call or a less than smooth landing, for example. However, multiple mistakes coupled with poor decisions can form “the accident chain” that is the foundation of nearly every National Transportation Safety Board accident report.

If poor decisions are at the root of aviation accidents, how can flight instructors and their students work together to make better decisions on the ground and in the air? Unfortunately, some people are unwilling or incapable of changing their behavior, and it is the job of the flight instructor to recognize these potentially dangerous individuals and use the power of the pen to keep them grounded until they either change or stop flying — for example, refuse to sign off a flight review or endorse a student for solo. Most pilots can learn and change their behavior though, and a good flight instructor will use his or her experience to recognize and correct the following five hazardous attitudes, as defined by the FAA.

Anti-Authority

This is the easiest hazardous behavior to recognize, but by far the most difficult to change. Take, for example, a student pilot who is training in an airplane he owns. He is a natural pilot who handles the airplane with ease and quickly demonstrates proficiency in all of the required pre-solo maneuvers. He takes good care of his airplane and conducts thorough preflight inspections. However, his disrespect for authority became evident when he repeatedly flew solo well beyond his 90-day endorsement. His instructor had several conversations with him about this, but he refused to listen. The student failed his FAA private pilot knowledge test on the first try and gave up on studying after that. Unless he changes his attitude, he’ll never pass his check ride. At best, he might one day get ramp checked, or at worst, he might break a rule that could lead to an accident, like scud-running into an obstacle.

Impulsivity

This is the most common behavior among new students, and fortunately, one of the easiest to correct with proper training. When students are nervous, they often rush through checklist items without really thinking through what they are doing. A good instructor can help the student relax and teach them the benefits of slowly and methodically working through a checklist so that they don’t miss any important items. Pilots who are returning to the cockpit after a long absence might also feel anxious because it’s been years since they’ve worked with an instructor and they are trying to do things from memory. These pilots might have never used a checklist during their initial flight training, so checklist usage may be completely new to them.

Invulnerability

Despite the number of auto accidents resulting from texting and driving, a pilot would be hard pressed not to observe another driver texting while on the way to the airport. The pilot might also be one of those drivers who thinks that because they’ve been texting and driving without incident ever since they got a smartphone, they’ll never become a statistic. This “it won’t happen to me” attitude can lead to disaster if the pilot takes unnecessary risks while flying. A good flight instructor should evaluate a pilot’s ability to conduct a risk-management assessment, and show them examples of what can happen when pilots fly beyond the limits of their airplanes and their own abilities.

Macho

We’ve all met “that guy” at a fly-in pancake breakfast, convention or flying club meeting: the pilot who won’t stop talking about himself and who thinks he’s the best stick in the room. A flight instructor working with such a pilot, regardless of the pilot’s experience level, would be wise to provide him with an opportunity to demonstrate a weakness in his knowledge, skill or both. This is often a challenge for a low-time, young CFI working with a pilot who may have soloed decades before the CFI was even born. But with patience, respect and careful planning, an instructor can show the “macho” pilot that he is not Bob Hoover after all, and in fact, could stand to learn a thing or two about flying.

Resignation

People who are passive by nature and have a hard time making decisions are at risk for getting themselves into situations that they’re not capable of handling. However, with proper training and encouragement from a good flight instructor, these pilots can benefit tremendously both in aviation and in their lives away from the airport. The student who repeatedly asks the instructor for validation before performing an action can learn to be assertive and proactive, and in turn become a much happier and more confident pilot. There is nothing quite as satisfying for a flight instructor as seeing a tentative student pilot blossom into a confident pilot in command.

If instructors are mindful to watch for the warning signs of these common negative attitudes during training, the results can lead to pilots who are safer and better at managing risk.