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The Fifth Element

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most From Your Flight Training, Oct, 2008
IFR Navigation:   General Info Instrument Rating | Instrument Rating Lesson Plans | 7-day IFR Rating | IFR Adventure | Instrument Ground School | Safety Pilot | Holding | IFR Risk | Trip Reports | Flight Profiles | After the IFR Rating | Checkride Reviewer | Are you really ready?

I've found a secret a flight instruction that's been wearing on my mind since 1997.  Remember that year the Bruce Willis / Milla Jovovich film The Fifth Element was released. In the movie, ex-special forces member Korben Dallas got pulled into defending the earth from the great evil that descends upon the earth every 5000 years.   The only weapon that Korben Dallas can use to get the job done is a collection of five elements. Those elements were earth, air, fire, & water (sounds like Feng Shui don't it).  Oops, I forgot to mention the 5th element was love personified in the character of Leeloo.

If you're not already totally confused why a movie review has been posted on a Flight Instructor website, let me draw some parallels for you to the world of learning how to fly and being a flight instructor.  This little secret has been wearing on my mind since the movie's release and I think I've finally figured out The Fifth Element of Flight Instruction. 

It occurs to me after years of Flight Instructing that we spend a disproportionate amount of time on the negatives discovered during a flight lesson. The other challenge is once a skill is believed to be accomplished, we add another immediately.  After all, we want to maximize the bang for the buck on behalf of our students.  Most students feel that pressure too, the cost of flight instruction is higher than ever, and it's never going to get cheaper.

Effectively, students show up for a flight lesson and beg you to flog them and beat their weaknesses out of them.  Later they walk away licking their wounds.  Receiving flight instruction is tough because our weaknesses as pilots are completely exposed and the number of new mistakes we make are a double whammy:  criticism and it's personal.  Believe it or not, perfectionists thrive on this method of flight instruction.  Thousands of airline pilots have been trained this way. 
Thousands of private pilots have been trained this way.  Traditionally, the best instructors believed that it's good to overload students to see where the break (look at Yerkes Dodson someday).  Certainly an instructor can use this to destroy confidence which is already at risk while you're both in the airplane.  Focus on the positive, speak up about the critical safety items, and save the hard stuff for later.

Not all personality types take to this kind of instructing.  Traditional flight training is not necessarily kind & gentle.  In fact, it's brutal. 
It's time tested and proven -- this is the way it's done.  In the new world order that I'm suggesting, Flight Instructors would adapt to different student personality types.  This requires instructors to borrow skills that may not come natural to them.  This ultimately means not focusing as much on the negative performance.  I'm not suggesting an instructor side step the issue completely but momentum is critical.  As instructors, we have a lot of control over a student's momentum.  Students don't nearly make as many mistakes in the air when they know what is expected of them.  The debrief is a great opportunity to handle the negatives, and take the time to instruct the negative elements to return the student to progress in their training.

Building on small successes allows students to solidify skills before moving on to the next learning element.  Mastering cross wind landings is going to be more difficult if normal landings haven't been accomplished to the standards. 
For the students reading this, allow yourself a little time to get things settled and build on small successes until you complete your goal.  If the pilot can't perform cross-wind landings to the standard, he shouldn't be seeking an instrument rating.  The skills from discovery flight to ATP checkride are cumulative.  We simply must build on the successes of achieved skills to be able to transfer higher order skills to the student.  The student must in turn show up prepared, confident, and ready to progress.  These elements are the foundation.  But taking it further means integrating the Fifth Element.

To recap what we've discussed so far, we're going to adapt our technique to match the students we teach.  The traditional methods and techniques, while time tested and proven, don't necessarily reach all students.  I recommended building on small successes to be sure learning transfer has occurred. And finally we're going to start using The Fifth Element. 

You can put all the elements together, the air, earth, wind, and water, but the fifth element makes it all work.  A student can bring his preparation, confidence, motivation, and desire but requires the CFI -- the fifth element -- to bring it together.  Just like the movie, the Flight Instructor, through thoughtful instruction brings the ultimate solution to the training session.

If you're a CFI, you are the Fifth Element.

"I write differently from the way I speak, I speak differently from the way I think, I think differently
from the way I should think - and so it goes on into the darkest depths of infinity"
- Kafka

Reader Comments

Thursday, October 22, 2009 9:32 PM  Name = Jim P
Comments = ..."through thoughtful instruction"...  Well said... thoughtful instruction is so important to teaching the fundamentals of learning to fly... I mean by this, instructors should 'think' beyond the hundreds of 'facts' required for a license, and focus on developing novel (but safe)teaching techniques for their student. Such requires a real thought process and involves 'coming-up with' approaches to explaining a topic, manuver or procedure. Of course, safety is job-1, but I think you've captured the spirit of the 'fun' in flight instruction. Thanks, good note. JP

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