Confidence thermometer
11 min read

One of the most important characteristics a pilot must possess is self-confidence. Proper self-confidence, along with a desire to be the best pilot possible, is a common trait of good pilots. Certainly this cannot develop into arrogance, but who would feel safe flying with someone who did not have an appropriate level of confidence? In my mind, developing a student’s self-confidence should be one of the main jobs of the instructor. During periods where pilots are not actively undergoing flight training, it needs to be something they work on themselves. I can think back to several experiences which taught me this firsthand.

The first time I felt a serious lack of self-confidence was as a pre-solo student. I was training slowly over the course of a couple years, and as my 16th birthday approached I started to fly more frequently. The lesson on that Saturday morning was to fly from our home airport to another airport about fifteen miles away for some touch-and-go practice.

172 on landing flare

Everyone bounces it in once in a while.

The flight did not start particularly well, and it did not get any better after a few landings. After an especially poor bounced landing which led to a go around, a pilot on the CTAF made reference to the “upwind bounce and go traffic” (that traffic of course being me). I really felt like crap. How was it excusable for me to fly like this? Especially, I thought, after having flown many more hours than most students probably had by the time they soloed.

I was fortunate to have an outstanding CFI who helped me get beyond this lesson. I think he realized that I was more upset with myself than I really should be, and his 100% calm demeanor and confidence made me realize that I should stop beating myself up. I told myself that during the next lesson, I would try to relax, have fun, and just fly the airplane like I knew I could.

The flying was completely different a week later. After one more lesson I flew my first solo, and realized that my instructor had very quietly helped me get my confidence back. When I started instructing a couple years later, I always tried to think back to the demeanor my flight instructor showed during that lesson. I knew several CFIs who occasionally looked and sounded upset with their students on days when progress seemed slow, and it was one of the most frustrating things to see as an instructor.

Ridiculing a student who hits a plateau but is putting forth their best effort does nothing except diminish their already fragile self-confidence. It is certainly the job of the CFI to push the student to get better, but sarcasm, ridicule, or inducing fear should not be the teacher’s techniques to do this. I have flown with several of these types of instructors (as I’m sure most people have at some point), and it is easy to see why their students frequently stop taking lessons.

Another case of a pilot’s somewhat beat-up self-confidence was a renter at our school who took off with a tow-bar attached to one of the school’s 172s. He pulled the airplane to the fuel farm at night, and then decided to tie the airplane back down because the wind picked up a bit. He was talking to a couple buddies as he tied the plane down and forgot to remove the tow-bar. A while later, after another call to the briefer, he was satisfied with the weather. He sumped the tanks and fired the engine up and they flew off into the night on a relatively uneventful flight. None of them realized what had happened until after they landed.

I met him at the airport the next morning. It was clear that this event had really hurt his self-confidence, and there was certainly no need for him to be yelled at to know that he made a mistake. I suggested that we fly together sometime soon; I did not want that event to sit in his mind. The other instructors at the school and I assured him that every pilot makes an occasional bone-headed mistake. Once it is done and you learn from your mistake; there is no reason to put yourself through the agony of thinking you are the world’s stupidest pilot (however tempting it may be to do that). After a couple flights, it seemed like this pilot had his confidence back.

Flight training syllabus

Can a syllabus build self-confidence? Absolutely, but only if used properly.

In my mind there are a few things instructors can do right from the get-go to help their students become confident. First, giving students the proper information regarding the training program gives them the prerequisites to become confident. By this, I mean students should have a clear outline of what they are going to cover in each lesson, and they should have the proper study material in order to adequately prepare for each lesson. This sounds like, and should be, a very simple thing that all instructors learn practically on the first day of “fundamentals of instruction” training.

Unfortunately, I think there are too many students who have instructors that do not provide the proper guidance from the get-go, and this just leaves students in the dark. Students must know how to prepare for lessons, because the knowledge they gain in their own preparation before each lesson gives them “the power to be confident,” as it was put by one of my instructors. If they are blindsided every time they arrive at the airport when they find out that they will be doing, something they have never heard of, can they really be confident?

I also do not believe it is enough to simply give the student a 50-page commercially produced syllabus and say, “This is what we will be doing over the next few months; we will start with ground lesson 1 then go to flight lesson 1, just follow along with the syllabus and it will tell you what to study.” I believe some syllabi are cumbersome even for instructors to read, and it may be more beneficial for CFIs to provide a big picture summary of the syllabus for their students, before they get into the small details that the syllabus says.

They also need to sufficiently explain how the syllabus works, what all the acronyms and terms mean, etc. A student should not show up to a lesson and be surprised at what they are going to learn. Similarly, an instructor should not ask a student, “So what did we do last time?” or “What are we doing today?” This won’t give the student much confidence in the instructor, and it is pretty much impossible to be confident in yourself if you aren’t confident in your teacher.

A proper briefing will help cement the student’s confidence going into the flight because it reinforces their knowledge. As I was prepping for the CFI checkride, a friend of mine told me, “If you ever are feeling impatient or short with a student in the airplane, it is most likely because you did not do a good job in explaining what you are trying to teach them.” That was some of the best advice I’ve gotten regarding flight instruction.

During lessons, instructors need to allow students to make real decisions and mistakes without constantly intervening. I know it can be tempting, especially on the third or fourth lesson of the day, to start “PAR’ing” students through certain maneuvers or decisions when you have already seen the errors happen in the prior lessons that day, but this doesn’t do the student any good.

Two pilots in the cockit

Instruct, don’t fly the airplane for the student.

Instead, if the student’s decision causes problems, the instructor can then provide feedback about an alternate way to try it next time (or of course small bits of information during the particular maneuver for example, as long as the student is not being constantly barked at). When students are really making decisions without instructor intervention, they will start to feel much more confident.

An example of this was posed to me on my CFI checkride. Let’s say it is the fourth or so lesson with a student and he is practicing patterns. On upwind, he looks at you and says, “When should I turn crosswind?” While it may be tempting to give an exact answer, an alternative response would be for the CFI to say, “I’ll make sure we stay safe, you make the decisions and fly the plane.”

Again this can require a lot of patience on the instructor’s part; an instructor doesn’t want to see students fly themselves into painful situations, but it doesn’t do the student any good in the long run to be too directive. This was difficult for me as a young instructor. A lot of CFI training involves talking while flying (during maneuver demos for example), which may set up new instructors with the habit of talking too much. I didn’t realize I was falling into this trap until a buddy finally told me, “Jones, you need to just shut the f*** up more.”

At any rate, once students see they are really making decisions they will become more confident. Having fun during lessons can build a student’s confidence as well. It becomes easy during a learning plateau to forget why you wanted to fly in the first place. Repeatedly practicing a certain maneuver over and over when no progress is being made is not going to help the plateau or make things fun. Sometimes if the “lesson” is put on pause for the sake of just doing some sight-seeing (as one example), the next lesson will go much better.

One quick way to take away a student’s confidence is by frequently taking the flight controls at the first sign of trouble. I was talking to a friend recently who said that he did not even attempt a landing on the first half-dozen lessons because his instructor would always get nervous and take over if things did not look exactly as the instructor wanted it to look. He said this instructor made him almost quit flying, but fortunately he found a new school with a much better instructor. Of course it will be easier for a very experienced instructor to let students work their way out of tricky situations, but it is very important to let students do this even as a young instructor.

A tailwheel CFI at our airport used to let his students go off the side of the runway. While this may be a bit extreme on the other end of the spectrum, I always appreciated how calm he was (and his students certainly did learn quickly when to use near full scale control inputs in situations like this). I have great memories of my first CFI sitting there with his arms folded during some landings that must have lowered the field elevation a bit, and he never seemed nervous or upset.

Confidence thermometer

Somewhere in the middle please…

Debrief technique can have a large impact on self-confidence. An instructor/DPE friend of mine suggested going away from the “sandwich” technique sometimes used in debriefs which involves starting and ending the debrief with positive comments. His rationale was that if you start with positives, then work towards areas of improvement, then back to positives, it almost sounds artificial; like building a hill, knocking it down, then trying to put dirt back on what was the hill a minute ago.

Instead, he suggested an approach he called “you, we, you.” The first “you” involves re-iterating the overall goal of what you (the student) are trying to accomplish on the particular item (whether it be radio communication, crosswind landings, steep turns, pilotage, etc.). The “we” involves what we (the student AND the instructor) are going to do to fix the error (figure out why it happened, then come up with techniques to use next time). The third “you” involves discussing what you (the student) did well during that lesson, with some specifics as to why the performance was good. This last part can do big things for a student’s confidence. Instructors often times can see when students seem more confident than they did during previous lessons, and this is a positive trait to point out when it is apparent.

I also like to let students start debriefs with a “self-evaluation.” This allows the student to practice this with an instructor so that later when they are flying solo (or with passengers) they can be more effective at learning from their own performance. Additionally, it gives the instructor a good bit of insight as to where errors originated. Maybe it was an error that went totally unnoticed by the student, or maybe the student saw the error but did not know how to correct it, or maybe they knew one technique to correct it but there could be an alternative technique to try next time. I always thought I got more out of lessons when debriefing was a very interactive event, rather than having to just sit there silently until the instructor was done talking.

Certainly most pilots have memories about different times they felt very confident, or not confident at all. As an instructor, one of the most rewarding things to see was when students of any level began to exhibit a high level of self-confidence.

Ben Jones
5 replies
  1. Todd Hurlburt
    Todd Hurlburt says:

    Practicing maneuver’s with my CFI the other day I came to the conclusion that a primary instructors duty is to build utmost confidence in students while emphasizing safety of flight at all times. I nailed most of my maneuvers with the exception of one of my short field landings. He introduced a new tactic to help me grease my short field target every time. I came away with a new found level of confidence and a big smile knowing I’m approaching my check ride and I’ll be fully prepared. A good instructor is worth their weight in gold. There are many of them out there and some not so good. To any students that read this don’t give up! Learning to fly is both a dream and a challenge, albeit a rewarding one.

  2. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Good article; one we all need to think about. And I can tell you the problem never goes away no matter how much time and experience you gain. Your confidence levels wax and wane just like the pressure gradients in the atmosphere. Airline pilots, too, experience slumps just like pro ball players. There are times when you seem to go for days and days without being able to make a good landing. There are those times when – after you’ve arrived at the gate and shut down – you don’t even want to open the cockpit door… Great confidence builder. Yeah, right.

  3. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Thank you. I really enjoyed this article, as it exemplifies the quality of my last primary instructor.
    In one way, I was lucky. My initial instructor had health issues making her very terse, and making me very tense. It was her apparent dislike of this field convinced me to, finally, look for another instructor.
    After driving fifty miles, one way, to another airport, I finally found this gentleman. His credo seemed to be “Fly for the sheer enjoyment of it, not just to get from point A to point B.” His ability to get the most out of me, and enjoy doing it, did the trick. Sometime later, I got my ticket, and if it weren’t for the local politicians being so anti GA, I’d still be in the air.

  4. Jim Macklin ATP CFII
    Jim Macklin ATP CFII says:

    Too much bad instruction, too much dual is often a sign of trouble. A flight instructor may be an excellent manipulator of te controls but a poor teacher. Just demonstrating a maneuver is not instruction. A student of any experience level has to be have been told and understand the why and how of a pilot task.
    When they know the why and how they will recognize situations and that leads to confidence.
    Two cases in point. Years ago I was assigned a pre-solo student who had been with another instructor. The student wanted to fly but had been literally driven to tears by “show and berate instruction.” This student was a young woan who needed confidence but the instruction she was getting destroyed her confidence.
    She finally complained to teh boss, as soon as she finally realized she wasn’t really the problem.
    Her instructor took me aside to inform me of “her problem.” “When teh plane buffets in a stall” she panics and grabs me, he said.
    I diagnosed the problem as the instructor who did not explain and teach and set a standard. Her problem developed as a rational fear of death and awareness that she had not been taught to understand what was happening and how to recover from a loss of control, it was lack of confidence.
    On our first lesson together, I explained what to look for to recognize what the airplane was doing and how to recover, in the cockpit before engine start.
    In the air I told her that her problem was that she was afraid of loss of control because “she knew” that she had not been taught, she had been shouted AT. A sure way to destroy confidence.
    I told her what she was afraid of happening and began the lesson with my confidence shock treatment.. I told her she was afraid she didn’t know that she could recover. So I explained that we would be doing cross controlled power on stall and how to recover. I explained what she would see [so she would see it when it happened] and how to recover from the worse thing that would happen. I then demonstrated a cross controlled power on stall, with recovery before a spin was entered but after the bank angle and pitch attitude were extreme. I explained that she had to fly the airplane, she had to control her fear and “pilot” the airplane.
    I demonstrated teh recovery from a 60 degree bank with the nose 30 degrees down [or maybe a bit more.]
    Then she did the same maneuver. Had to do it twice since she grabbed my arm at te initial break. But she did the second stall and recovery without error and her confidence suddenly increased because she knew she could avoid or recover from a spin.
    She soloed soon thereafter and went on to get her private certificate.
    From the news and my interpretation… JFK Jr. had a good airplane and LOTS of instruction including instrument instruction. But he lacked operational instruction and confidence.
    On his fatal flight into VFR at night over water he no doubt hand-flew the climb out and used the autopilot for cruise. Despite visibility being 3-5 miles at night over water, a flight is actually IMC because although you can see and avoid traffic, there is no horizon.
    Twenty miles from the destination, his DME/RNAV told him it was time to start down. I’m guessing he disconnected the AP and pushed teh nose down slightly. That also began an unwanted left turn. When he saw that and snatched the wheel to the right and then back to the left he lost control.
    My probable cause… Instructors failed to teach him about “black holes and over water flight.” Instructors failed to teach him flight management. Too much instruction by instructors following a syllabus and not a lesson plan to develop skill and thus confidence.
    Had JFK Jr. just engaged the AP when he detected the problem, or better just left the AP engaged and used the AP command functions to fly the airplane, he would likely have arrived over te shore and had enough visual reference to hand fly.
    But JFK Jr. [ and many other pilots ] get lots of dual without operational instruction and they rely on the CFI to make plans and decisions.
    One last example, Thurman Munson, the NTSB report.

  5. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    Wonderful! Remembered me of some of my best flight instructors – and some of the not so good too. But to stay with the best ones… flying IMC, intercepting the localizer on a Seneca, he simulates a lost engine. I start doing the drills (“mixture full rich, props full fwd… etc), and when I finish it, he, arms folded, speaks calmly: “ok, we’re dead”. As I look to my attitude indicator, we are on a nearly 90o bank inside the cloud! I fix it ASAP and we continue with the single engine approach. Memorable!

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