After my group was hired the chief pilot at Mauna Loa told us that we should strap ourselves in because we would be launching off into space. He was talking about the steepness of the learning curve during the first hundred hours of instruction given and it was no overstatement. Even though I believed what he told me it was still a shock to see just how much my flying improved during those first hundred hours. The obvious question is why? Why are one hundred hours of instruction given seemingly worth so much more than two hundred hours of instruction received? I have some theories and that will be the focus of this post.
To begin I must acknowledge that we cannot fairly compare the one hundred hours of teaching to the two hundred hours of training. This is simply due to the fact that without the foundation of training there would be nothing to improve upon! But what is it that makes the initial hours of giving instruction so impactful? My personal feeling is that it is all about having the freedom to sit back and simply watch. When you are flying a helicopter, or doing any other complex task, there is a certain amount of brain space occupied with simply carrying out the basic functions. The brain has to think about what input to make with the cyclic, collective, and pedals. Then we must register and analyze the results and make corrections. This is an ongoing loop that takes a certain amount of our attention, in the beginning a huge portion of it, leaving precious little space for analyzing why things are happening.
Sitting in the left seat as an instructor is a completely different exercise. The goal is to provide useful feedback to a student so she can improve. To understand how to improve we must first understand what is going wrong. I found this to be one of the greatest challenges during the initial transition to teaching. You might know your student just flew a terrible approach, but what did he do wrong!?! While giving instruction all the brain power is free to focus on understanding why the helicopter is behaving the way it is and then articulating that understanding to the student. Many instructors will admit that once they are in the left seat and simply watching they can finally see the mistakes they have been making in their own flying; and more importantly they finally see how to fix them! I know this was the case for me and I think my biggest breakthrough came in finally seeing the impact the attitude of the aircraft has on each maneuver.
As I would sit back and watch my students try a maneuver I could take the time to watch for the subtle changes in attitude and see the big impacts on the final result. It wasn’t like I was unaware of the effects of attitude on my flying when I was training, but it was hard to really focus only on my attitude because there were simply too many distractions. What kind of distractions? Well, as I mentioned just trying to fly the helicopter was one! Another was the almost constant critique and advice of the instructor. This was given with the best possible intentions, but I think in the end it often became another distraction to overcome. For example there were times when I felt as though I was only reacting to what my instructor was saying as opposed to reacting to what my own brain was processing. As a simple example, if your instructor says “You’re too fast,” then you will slow down. You’ll just react to his words without even thinking. But if you didn’t recognize the problem yourself then you aren’t really learning how to improve, and coincidently you also won’t know how much of a correction to make! And if there is constant verbal input about what to do I believe it can become a block for creating your own opinions and decisions.
I certainly found myself guilty of overdoing it when I first began giving instruction. I offered too much feedback too often and did not simply let the student fly without creating another distraction. I also realized after some time that I had to try to boil down a maneuver into two or three things that had to be done right to create the foundation for success. If I could tell my student one or two things to change on the next attempt that generally helped. If I gave too complex of a critique it usually created confusion. In the end I believe that trying to break down the maneuvers into two or three critical functions allowed me to create better understanding and from this improve my own flying. I also believe that because instruction necessitates the formation of your own opinions and decisions concerning why a maneuver is or isn’t working it becomes a much stronger learning process. With no one to tell you why an approach didn’t work you must formulate your own thoughts and then put them to the test. It would be interesting to see if this responsibility could be transferred to the student earlier in the learning process.
One final factor I’d like to mention is comfort. There is certainly a degree of comfort that comes from 200 hours of flying around during training, but perhaps it is always limited to some degree by a student’s deference to his instructor. Just ask any pilot about her first experience flying solo and there is no doubt they will talk about how different it feels being all alone and responsible for everything that happens. Taking on a student creates a similar, if not stronger, feeling of responsibility. With this responsibility comes confidence and with confidence comes greater comfort and with this comes a degree of danger. And this is the last thing I would like to touch upon. The chief pilot at Mauna Loa had also warned us that our egos would inflate at a sometimes dangerous rate. He specifically mentioned 300 hours, 500 hours, and 700 hours as particularly dangerous times. From my experience thus far I would have to agree with his assessment. After reaching 300 hours and completing the first 100 hours of instruction everything suddenly seemed so simple and straightforward. This feeling of comfort and security came back again around 500 hours once I had built a fair amount of experience within my job as an instructor. It was at this point that I shifted over to tours and I can say that after 200 hours of flying tours I am once again feeling a dangerous level of confidence. While trying to gain and build that solid foundation of experience it seems we are often on the brink of knowing just enough to get into serious trouble. As a result we must attempt to stay humble and respect the very real limits of our experience.