Five Mile Final | A Flight Instructor's Sandbox

Aviation Instructor's Handbook

Human behavior is the product of factors that cause people to act in predictable ways.

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or understanding of a subject or skill through education, experience, practice, or study. Human behavior affects the learning process.

An effective instructor uses knowledge of human behavior, basic human needs, the defense mechanisms humans use that prevent learning, and how adults learn in order to organize and conduct productive learning activities.

Understanding human behavior leads to successful instruction. A knowledge of basic human needs and defense mechanisms is essential when creating an effective learning experience.

The match/mismatch between the way an instructor teaches and the way an individual learns contributes to instructional satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Learners whose styles are compatible with the teaching styles of an instructor tend to retain information longer, apply it more effectively, learn more, and have a more positive attitude toward training.

Students consider instructors authority figures, and they expect the instructor to exercise certain controls. Instructors need to know what controls are the most effective for a given set of circumstances.


Motivation prompts learners to engage in hard work and affects learner success. Instructors discover what motivates each learner and encourages him/her to work hard.

Motivation may be tangible or intangible. Learners seeking intangible rewards are motivated by the desires for personal comfort and security, group approval, and the achievement of a favorable self-image.

Instructors should strive to maintain motivation at the highest possible level and counter any lapses in motivation. Slumps in learning are often due to declining motivation, which can be caused by physical or mental disturbances or inadequate instruction.

Positive feedback encourages learners. Instructors should note milestones and daily accomplishments, and they should praise incremental successes.

With each declaration of success, be sure to present learners with the next challenge.

Every student works toward a goal of some kind, which instructors must guide them to. Some basic assumptions include:

Instructors need to recognize untapped potential in students, even if they at first appear to lack aptitude. The proper set of controls can bring results from most students.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Human Needs

Human needs include primary (innate) and secondary (learned). A common hierarchy of human needs was created by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s, which is a pyramid that includes (from the base):

Instructors should help their students satisfy their human needs within a healthy learning environment.

Narrative: Human Needs

Learner Chad has been flying with CFI Andrew for three months, at least once or twice every week. Before each lesson, Andrew confirms that the briefing room has some energy bars and bottles of water, in case Chad didn't have time to eat or drink before arriving. The met human need is physiological.

CFI Andrew always reserves a briefing room at the flight school. His preferred room is the one farthest from the pilot's lounge, where they are unlikely to be interrupted by other students, and also the most removed from distracting aircraft noise. The met human needs are safety and security.

The flight school's pilot shop includes a few apparel options, including hats and t-shirts that have aviation brands and themes. Chad has purchased a Cessna t-shirt, along with a Cirrus cap, since he likes these brands. He also feels like he looks a bit more knowledgeable and experienced when he's on the ramp. Students and pilots often wear apparel with aviation brands, and his instructor Andrew wears the insignia of the flight school on his jacket and hat. The met human need is belonging.

Andrew maintains a syllabus for his students, which includes room for notes. While Andrew offers constructive, honest feedback during the post-flight debrief, he always writes positive comments in the syllabus after each lesson, and he often includes one or two gold stars. Chad's wife is interested in hearing about his flying, and he often shows her Andrew's comments after each lesson. The met human need is esteem.

At the start of his second lesson, Chad told Andrew that he found the reading on the airport signs in the PHAK. Andrew didn't assign this reading, but Chad explained that he read it anyway because he didn't like not knowing what the signs meant. Now, he understands that red means "stop," yellow is "over there," and black is "you are here." The met human needs are cognitive and aesthetic (primarily cognitive).

Chad started flight training with a Jeppesen kneeboard, which he thinks is pretty cool. He decided to go online and purchase a Jeppesen student flight bag as well, because he liked the idea of the kneeboard and bag being part of a system, rather than disparate pieces. The met human needs are cognitive and aesthetic (primarily aesthetic).

While Chad first was unsure if he would have the necessary skills to become a pilot, Andrew occasionally tells him that all pilots started as beginners, and that Chad himself might be an instructor someday. The met human need is self-actualization.

Daniel Kahneman developed a two-system view of human behaviors that affect decision-making.

Human Nature and Motivation

Human nature refers to the general psychological characteristics, feelings, and behavioral traits shared by all humans.

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, states that two systems of thought compete for control over our decision-making behaviors. The fast system is the automatic reaction that individuals have developed through memory and experience. The slow system relies on logic and reasoning to draw conclusions for the actions one takes.

The assumption that a task is as simple as past, similar, experiences suggest it to be can lead to poor decision-making. However, people use the "fast" system because they are inherently lazy and don't want to concentrate on a problem that appears easy to solve.

Understanding how these systems affect our decision-making can help instructors be more aware of learner pitfalls, such as assuming a complex problem is a simple one, or assuming that because a recent task led to a solution that the same solution can be used correctly for a similar task.

Defense Mechanisms

The biological defense mechanism is a physiological response that protects or preserves organisms. For example, when humans experience a danger or a threat, the "fight or flight" response kicks in.

The ego defense mechanism is an unconscious mental process to protect oneself from anxiety, unpleasant emotions, or to provide a refuge from a situation with which the individual cannot currently cope.

Defense mechanisms are subconscious, automatic ego-protecting reactions to unpleasant situations. Defenses soften feelings of failure and guilt while protecting self-worth and adequacy. They often appear unconsciously, and they tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.

Types of ego defense mechanisms include:

Defense mechanisms solve nothing; they alleviate symptoms but do not address problems. Most defense mechanisms fall within the realm of normal human behavior, while a few indicate mental illness. Other defense mechanisms include aggression, resignation, emotional insulation, regression, and introjection.

Narratives: Defense Mechanisms

Stephen is afraid of flying but doesn't understand why. When he was very young, he was taken on an airplane flight, which frightened him. However, he does not remember this. Stephen is exhibiting repression.

Angela's instructor told her that her altitude during ground-reference maneuvers was too low and that she should practice with him again before attempting to do them solo. However, she continues to fly ground-reference maneuvers on her solo endorsement. She disregarded the feedback — and in fact, if asked later, she can't accurately re-state what her instructor told her. Angela is exhibiting denial, i.e. minimization.

Michael is unhappy that he has not been signed off for his checkride after two years of flight training. However, instead of trying to determine where he should focus his efforts, he proudly tells others that he now has 130 hours in his pilot's logbook. Michael is exhibiting compensation.

Andrew's third attempt at turns around a point did not go well, and it has made him feel that he's not able to live up to the goals that he has set out for himself. After the flight lesson, he angrily tells the driver of a fuel truck that he should slow down and be more respectful of people on the ramp because "pilots are the reason you have a job here!" Andrew is exhibiting compensation and aggression.

Aaron has not been able to do steep turns within +/- 100 feet. He should seek out additional instruction, but instead he has decided that his flight instructor is unqualified. Aaron is exhibiting projection.

Sarah has logged 50 hours but still is not ready to solo. Her time available for training has been inconsistent, and sometimes she allows a month to pass between lessons. However, she has convinced herself that a bad breakup nearly five years ago has made her unfocused. Sara is exhibiting rationalization.

Daniel tells people that he wants to be a pilot, but that he's decided that he won't start flight training until he's put away enough in savings to purchase a Cirrus SR22, which he thinks is the only airplane that's worthy of his (soon-to-be) exceptional flight skills. However, since he works as a barista, he's unlikely to own an SR22 for quite some time. Daniel is exhibiting reaction formation.

Jeremy has assembled a flight simulator and decided that "flying" a simulated Boeing 777 around the globe is more enjoyable than learning to fly a real Cessna 172 where he lives, since he wants to be a 777 captain someday. Jeremy is exhibiting fantasy.

Kevin started flight training, but after struggling with the academic requirements he decided to join an RC club and start flying model airplanes because it's "less expensive." Kevin is exhibiting displacement.

Chad started flight training because his father is an airline pilot and he thought he would enjoy an airline career. However, he had three flight instructors during his first five lessons and has received confusing, incomplete initial training. Despite this, he still continues to show up for his lessons and tries to comply with every instruction. But he is no longer doing any reading and lacks enthusiasm. Chad is exhibiting resignation.

Learner Emotional Reactions

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, often about something that is going to happen, typically something with an uncertain outcome.

Both normal and abnormal reactions to anxiety are of concern to the flight instructor. Normal reactions indicate a need for special instruction. Abnormal reactions may signify a deeper problem.

Anxiety can be countered by reinforcing the learners' enjoyment of flying and by teaching them to cope with their fears. Instructors should fears as a normal reaction, rather than ignoring them. Instructors should introduce specific maneuvers with care, so that students know what to expect and what their reactions should be. For example instructors should review the aerodynamic principles of aerodynamic stalls and explain how they affect flight characteristics. Instructors should then describe the physical sensations to be expected, as well as the recovery procedures.

Learner anxiety can be minimized throughout training by emphasizing the benefits and pleasurable experiences that can be derived from flying. Safe flying practices should be presented as conducive to satisfying, efficient, uninterrupted operations, rather than as necessary only to prevent catastrophe.

Normal individuals begin to respond rapidly and exactly to stress, within the limits of their experience and training. Normal reactions include the "flight or flight" syndrome. Automatic responses to stress highlight the need for proper training in emergency operations prior to an actual emergency. With training, an individual under stress thinks rationally, acts rapidly, and is extremely sensitive to all aspects of the surroundings.

Instructors may be able to observe abnormal reactions to stress. These abnormal reactions may or may not indicate deeper psychological issues, but they require careful instructor evaluation. These responses may be the normal products of a complex learning situation, but they also can be indicative of psychological abnormalities that inhibit learning or are potentially very hazardous to future piloting operations

Abnormal reactions to stress can include:

Flight instructors must refrain from certifying students who may be suffering from severe psychological abnormality, and must assure that such a person does not continue training or become certified. Other instructors, the local FSDO, and an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) can be consulted in this process. This should be considered when taking into account the flight instructor's two primary legal responsibilities: certifying for solo flight, and recommending for flight exam. Action should be taken before these milestones occur.

Narratives: Learner Emotional Reactions

Stephen has requested that CFI Angela delay the introduction of aerodynamic stalls until after he has learned how to land the airplane, stating that he wants "lots of experience" before attempting a stall recovery. Stephen is exhibiting anxiety. Angela explained to Stephen that stalls are not very dramatic, and that the airplane resumes flying with a minimal loss of altitude after the stall recovery.

During a short training flight to another airport, CFI Michael reduced engine power and asked learner Sarah to begin her power-failure checklist, followed by an emergency-landing checklist. Sarah rapidly located her emergency checklists and started her process, as she had been trained. When Michael asked her if she'd written down the weather at a nearby airport, she did not respond and might not have heard him. Sarah exhibited a normal reaction to stress.

While CFI Kate and learner Andrew were in the traffic pattern, the tower asked them to fly a 360-degree turn off the downwind leg in order to make room for an aircraft on a long final approach. Kate reported that they did not have the aircraft in sight. As Andrew started the turn, he began laughing, followed by singing a catchy, upbeat song he'd heard recently. Andrew exhibited an abnormal reaction to stress.

Additional Impediments to Learning

Impatience is a greater deterrent to learning pilot skills than is generally recognized. The instructor can correct learner impatience by presenting the necessary preliminary training one step at a time, with clearly stated goals for each step.

Worry or lack of interest has a detrimental effect on learning. The instructor should be alert and ensure the learners understand the objectives of each step of their training, and that they know at the completion of each lesson exactly how well they have progressed and what deficiencies are apparent.

Physical discomfort, illness, and fatigue will slow the rate of learning during both classroom instruction and flight training.

Fatigue is one of the most treacherous hazards to flight safety as it may not be apparent to a pilot until serious errors are made. Acute fatigue is characterized by:

Chronic fatigue occurs when there is not enough time for a full recovery from repeated episodes of acute fatigue.

Dehydration is the term given to a critical loss of water from the body. Heatstroke is a condition caused by any inability of the body to control its temperature.

Learners can become apathetic when they recognize that the instructor has made inadequate preparations for the instruction being given, or when the instruction appears to be deficient, contradictory, or insincere.

Adult Learners

Certain traits need to be recognized when teaching adult learners, as well as ways instructors can use these traits to teach older learners.

Instructors should:

Flight Instructor Test Questions

Before a student can concentrate on learning, the physical human need must be satisfied.

When a student becomes bewildered and lost in the advanced phase of training after completing the early phase without grasping the fundamentals, the defense mechanism is usually in the form of resignation.

When under stress, normal individuals usually react by responding rapidly and exactly, often automatically, within the limits of their experience and training, and not by extreme over-cooperation, painstaking self-control, and inappropriate laughing or singing, which would be abnormal reactions to stress.

When the instructor keeps the student informed of lesson objectives and completion standards, it minimizes the student's feelings of insecurity.

Practical Test Standards: Flight Instructor

I. Fundamentals of Instructing
Task A: Human Behavior and Effective Communication

Objective: To determine that the applicant exhibits instructional knowledge of human behavior and effective communication and how these impact effective learning by describing:

  1. Definitions of human behavior
  2. Human needs and motivation
  3. Defense mechanisms
  4. Student emotional reactions
  5. Basic elements of communication
  6. Barriers to effective communication
  7. Developing communication skills

Oral Exam Questions

  1. What is the definition of human behavior?
  2. Control of human behavior involves understanding human needs. What are these basic needs, and how are they important to the instructor-student relationship?
  3. What are defense mechanisms?
  4. Explain the eight common defense mechanisms that may apply to students.
  5. What is the definition of anxiety and why is a student's anxiety of concern to an instructor?
  6. How can an instructor help students counter their anxieties?
  7. What are several examples both of a student's normal reactions and abnormal reactions to stress?

Robert Wederquist   CP-ASEL - AGI - IGI
Commercial Pilot • Instrument Pilot
Advanced Ground Instructor • Instrument Ground Instructor

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