Pilot Training | Building and Screening Safe Pilots


Should instructors tell students they’re not suitable to become pilots?

This morning I was greeted by my monthly copy of BugSmasher.  BugSmasher is the newsletter produced by Dick Weinberg, a Flight Instructor, Airport Manager of GWS (Glenwood Springs, CO) and former ATC god.  If you want to get on his mailing then e-mail me and I’ll give you his address so you can subscribe.  I would publish it here, but the spammers are watching!

Anyway, the first item in the February BugSmasher was Dick’s take on an article published in AOPA about how instructors should tell student’s that they’re not suitable material to become pilots.

The following is an excerpt from BugSmasher, February 2, 2005:

I recently read an AOPA article about when an instructor should tell a student that he can’t cut it and should give up his venture of trying to learn to fly.  It was really a good article but I have to disagree slightly with the philosophy.  I firmly believe that anyone can learn to fly.  Sometimes as an instructor I’ve found myself thinking that this isn’t going to work with this student (I’m not thinking of any people from around here – that’s comforting!) because he/she is dumb as dirt or so stressed out that no progress is being achieved.  At that point or perhaps a bit sooner, an instructor should have a serious discussion with the student.

I think the worse thing that can happen is not being 100% straight with a student and or being accused that you are draining his wallet dry.  There is a lot of that going on in the industry – even in this locale.  After all, the student has probably never done this before and he might think the minimum time (40 hours) is what he’s gauging the whole thing by.  It’s not very often that the 40 hours comes into play with 90% of the students.

The conversation should go something like this:  You are not learning as fast as I would like.  It’s only fair to you and your wallet that the process of getting a license is going to take a hell of a lot more time than the average.  I don’t want you to think that I’m quitting on you, but you may not want to put in the extra time or money into this.  Your problem areas are…

The article intimated that the instructor should tell this student that he shouldn’t be trying to learn to fly because he’s not suited.  I personally believe that if a student has a stress problem, that’s the worse obstacle to contend with.  I’ve noticed on a few occasions a student looses practically all of his thought process once he gets into the plane.  I would get no answers from the usual questions I ask as we fly around.  The questions act as a tool for distracting the student and induce him to multifunction.  Talk and fly is a chore for some.  Instructors usually have a pocket full of little tricks to help conquer certain behavior irregularities.  I also have a few dozen of these little tricks.  After using these tricks and I can’t seem to change a student’s behavior, well, that’s when the above conversation comes into play.

Many years ago I had a student from hell.  This kid wanted to fly so badly!  I did the conversation and then he pleaded with me not to abandon him.  I think he ran up over 150 hours for the Private and 240 hours for an instrument rating.  He was single and worked in his Dad’s business.  He put everything into his flying.  He went on to commercial and Multi-engine.  He eventually flew for a small commuter airline and that’s when I nearly stopped flying on the airlines.  He went through more instructors than most people go through underwear.  He was a joke amongst instructors at this large airport.  We thought he had sniffed one tube of glue too many.  It goes to show that if you want something bad enough and you persevere, and have the resources, you can do it.

Here’s my thoughts…

Let’s start with I AGREE entirely with what Dick is saying.  In fact, I would go on to add that flight instructors really don’t have the right to tell students they shouldn’t learn to fly.  That’s not our decision, it’s the students. As you said, the best policy is to be 100% straight forward with students, I completely agree with that also.  I want to take this whole thing one step further and talk about the flight instructors responsibilities.  As flight instructors, our goal should be to produce safe pilots.  If there are obstacles or problems with a student that presents threats then they need to be addressed with the student head on!

Time for an example….

I know a pilot that a long time ago started his training in Colorado – eventually went to Arizona, came back with a handful of pilot and instructor ratings.  Taught flying here in Colorado, eventually left Colorado to work for a larger company.  Numerous instructors made comments over and over about how this person should not be flying.  Eventually this person had a couple incidents, running off the end of a long runway, destroyed a couple engines, one thing after another – lots of messed up airplanes, no injuries.  His last event was a stall/spin crash on short final that left him in the hospital in a coma for weeks, and another person dead.  He’s lucky to be alive, he also wants to go back to flying.

I have ten more examples just like that, where the instructor community identified problems with a particular student and the eventual outcome was death, destruction and injury.  And for those ten examples I can give you 20 more where the instructor community said the same thing and the student eventually became an ace!

So what’s my point?  We don’t have the right to tell students they shouldn’t or can’t become pilots.  We do however have the responsibilities to educate them about aspects of their personality, behavior, motor skills, etc, etc. that may eventually cause them problems.  The student needs to know that if their behavior doesn’t change it may eventually be their undoing.  We have the responsibility to correct the behavior and work out the problems with our students.  We have got to address the issues, without fail, 100% of the time.  If there are issues then we can’t just sign the 8710 hoping the examiner (who only fly’s with them for 1 hour compared our 40+) doesn’t notice the problem, or just overlooks it as check-ride related nervousness.  I think many instructors just don’t get it.  The FAA charges the DPEs with the responsibility of only certifying safe pilots.  At the same time though, the DPEs need instructors to only recommend pilots for check-rides that are truly ready.

Now in a case where an instructor doesn’t want to work with a particular student because of behavioral problems, he or she does have the right to suggest other instructors, or simply say “I don’t want to fly with you because it’s difficult for me to make you a successful pilot.”  Another way to say this is “look, it’s not within my ability to train you as you need to be trained – I can’t get you there, you’ll need to find another instructor.”  Of course, flight instructors don’t like to say that because it’s admitting they don’t have the skill and or time to turn this person into a good pilot, instead many ignore the issues, and try to slide it through with an examiner knowing the person is a danger.  It goes back to Dick’s point that we need to tell the person that 40 hours is out of the question and it may be 200, and then ask them, “do you still want to do this?”

That’s my thoughts on it!