Mindful Flight Instruction

NAFI NOTAMs #13

Mindful Flight Instruction

The definition of mindfulness according to Webster’s dictionary is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” This is a relatively new concept for me that I learned during my recent graduate studies. The intent of mindfulness is to periodically take stock of what you feel, think, see, or hear that might affect the quality of your current state of being. Sounds quite ethereal but let’s unpack this regarding flight training.

I started in general aviation marketing communications in 1990 at a large association to run their commercial graphic arts management and purchasing operations. At the time, they offered staff flight training as an employee benefit. Since I came there to handle printing, learning to fly never occurred to me so I maintained focus on my work.  As I began to develop friendships, more and more of my co-workers encouraged me to give it a try. It was a very tough decision for me, not just because of my own reluctance but also that I had a three-year-old and three-month-old daughter. My mind played a game of “what it” all over the place, but I finally acquiesced and headed out to the tarmac.

The instructor was one of my buddies who had a wonderful reputation as a marvelous flight instructor and, at the time, 9,000 hours as a GA pilot – how could I go wrong! I put my full trust into this aviator not once doubting anything about the process. That first flight had me – the pre-check, walking around the airplane (C172), checking the fuel, the flaps, and ailerons; getting into the cockpit buckling up, testing the headset, radios. Then, the coolest thing so far, yelling ‘CLEAR’ and watching that propeller turn and feel the plane getting ready to move – like it couldn’t wait!

The next amazing thing was the take-off – general aviation airplanes are something else, the plane simply begged to get off the ground. What an exhilarating experience! The first two lessons included checking the sky’s for other planes, nice 30 degree turns and lots of straight and level flight. I could feel myself gaining confidence. To make it even better, the CFI used musical rhythm as a metaphor for how flying should feel, perfect strategy for me because I often heard “you’ve got rhythm Lauretta!” I remember thinking if all I ever did in an airplane was take off, fly straight and level with nice easy turns like a waltz, and land I’d be happy!

Then came the third lesson and this is where the notion of mindfulness comes in. Everything was as it had been adding a few more tasks along the way and broadening my understanding of flight. At about 3,500 feet the CFI asked me to slow the plane down so I moved the throttle, and he said go slower. I felt anxiety rising but he continued to insist all was well. Then he instructed me to pull back on the yoke ever so slowly. And that’s when any chance of my continuing as a pilot stopped. The plane stalled, the nose dropped instantaneously and I panicked. “Let go of the yoke,” he said, “it’ll be just fine, not to worry.” It was too late – the maneuver scared me so bad, I was terrified. Here’s the rub – I had no warning, no briefing on the ground, no demonstrations of the aerodynamics involved, nothing.

To be honest, I didn’t understand what happened, I had no idea how to respond or what to say. Mindfulness, likely for both of us, may have changed everything. Had he been conscience of his style relative to what he knew about me, had he paid attention to me and not some notion that it was “ok,” had he thought beyond how easy it was for him…it’s hard to say. And what about me, did I think about more than just the experience, was I inquisitive enough to tease out more detail, could I have recognized things in his personality that might affect my decision to fly…hard to say.

My fourth and final lesson was miserable. He kept asking me why I was so tense, why couldn’t I get into the musical rhythm. Why I wasn’t able to articulate how the stall affected me still leaves me at a loss even to this day. I shared this story with many pilots and instructors during my career and most say they could do better; they would never let it happen and I believe it to be true. However, think about the student starts relative to the number of new private pilots each year? I believe there’s a correlation here, certainly not for all since there can be many factors at play. But at one point, a potential pilot did the research, saved their money, and headed out to the airport to learn to fly, dropped out and never came back.

The moral of the story – CFIs, be mindful of how what YOU see, hear, feel, and think on any given day at any given moment affects your students. Build trust though honest self-assessment clearing your mind to focus on learning about, empathizing with and understanding your students.

I haven’t flown an airplane since, my girls are grown, married, and living their lives and I am more mindful and clearer about my status moment by moment. I think I’ll try again. I’ve been with NAFI for over 4 and a half years, gotten to know and become friends with instructors that are likely the best of the best CFIs in the country. I’m ready to trust again…I wonder who the lucky CFI will be?

Lauretta Head Shot Marketing Director

Lauretta Godbey
Director of Marketing Communications
NAFI# 216773

 

 

 

 

Blogs are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace independent, professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the author individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinions or position of the National Association of Flight Instructors. NAFI does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented. Readers should note content may appear in various media, including print, email, enews without further notice.
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Comments on "Mindful Flight Instruction"

Comments 0-5 of 3

Lauretta Godbey - Monday, November 16, 2020
1002529079

Hi Gary, Thanks for the comment - to be honest I struggled with the association too, but the notion of mindfulness wouldn't leave my thoughts as I wrote this piece. The connection I made associates with the idea that maintaining a clear sense self in a non-judgmental fashion helps tease out a more substantive understanding of any given situation one faces. In this case, I believe had the CFI understood the benefit of mindfulness to one's self he may have made more well informed choices in his approach. Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch, but it's what drove me to unpacking the situation without judgement in an effort to understanding how the situation. His concept of self convinced him he made the right choice ignoring the effect it might have.

John Niehaus - Friday, November 13, 2020
1002529080

Gary, Thank you for your comment! The general connection I sensed when I read the post as a fan of mindfulness practice myself, is less about the practice, and more about what the practice can do for those that participate in it. Mindfulness teaches you to be more understanding of people's needs, expectations, and vulnerabilities; and an instructor who is able to better sense those things is in a better position to avoid situations like Lauretta experienced. I think that this is a gateway into a much larger discussion on the positive impact for both flight instructor and students that a mindfulness practice can have. Maybe look for a future NAFI Briefing Room episode on the topic! (I may even twist your arm into being on the instructor panel ;)

Gary Moore - Friday, November 13, 2020
1005261570

I am a fan of both mindfulness practice and quality flight instruction and I just don't see the connection here. It seems to be a sad story about a crappy flight instructor. That you were introduced to stalls with zero warning or prep is simply inexcusable. I am terribly sorry this happened to you......

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