Trust Not Trauma: “Student Lockup!”

A recent poll in the SAFE eNews revealed that a shocking 65% of CFIs, at some point, had to physically take control from a student who “locked up” on the flight controls. That is an astonishing frequency of student “fear paralysis” during training. Obviously, we are doing something dramatically wrong in flight training if this number of incidents are occurring. Fear activates the “freeze/fight/flight” circuitry in the human brain and causes startle and lockup. The higher brain functions become unavailable to the pilot in this condition, preventing rational conversation and necessitating physical intervention to assure safety. We need to create trust not trauma in flight training.

The second question in this quick poll indicated that the majority of flight instructors also had never been advised or trained about the possibility of a student “locking up” or “freezing.” Most CFIs were never educated on how to deal with this kind of situation; sad and dangerous. A previous blog described the “CFI Ninja Move” to recover from a frozen student and reduce the angle of attack. Every CFI should have training here and a plan to keep every flight training adventure safe.

Never Scare Them!

The first order of business in preventing a dangerous situation is to simply work very hard to establish a trusting relationship with your learner and never scare them. The brain shuts down and  *no learning* occurs when there is fear. Build slowly into the areas known to alarm new pilots (nose high flight attitudes and stalls). Give every new learner enough time to get comfortable and achieve confident control before introducing stalls. “Let me know if you feel uncomfortable (queasy) or scared.” Create a trusting environment of sharing and communication. Rushing into stalls is just going to terrify your students; creating an unsafe situation and possibly causing them to drop out quietly over time (“I thought this was supposed to be fun?”)

A Diamond A/C doesn’t “bend” but interesting article…

Stalls should be much further back in the syllabus than the usual 141 dogma dictates; at least after ground reference maneuvers.  These added hours before radical maneuvers allow every new flight student more time in the cockpit to become comfortable and competent. It also provides more opportunities to build rapport and trust. Additional practice on the controls allows for independent student mastery of basic coordination, making for safer (and less exciting) stall practice too. Try to remember what your first exposure was like.

When introduced, stalls should be demonstrated and practiced very gently in a power-off descending (clean) configuration (every learner is different here). The nose only has to be raised a little to “normal level” to achieve an excessive AOA and trigger the stall (and the break is gentle). Recovery should be made without power, building the “unload” move as a reflexive action (and also emphasizing AOA). This keeps the first exposure simple and understandable and NOT scary. Build gently into the more extreme variations. I used to regularly see logbooks with spins demonstrated on lesson one or two from a local flying club (old school “weed them out” version of flight training). To repeat; creating predictable terror in flight training is potentially unsafe and causing student dropout  – are we having FUN yet?

But just in case, every CFI should have a training to handle student lock-up. Successful techniques for regaining control need to be discussed and practiced with your senior instructors. Since lock-up most typically happens at the edge of the flight envelope, quick and decisive action is necessary to immediately regain control. A previous blog revealed how your foot on the yoke bar under the front panel (primarily in Cessnas) can easily overpower any student pulling inappropriate backpressure. Find this bar and practice so you are ready. Diamonds and most Piper products do not have access to this yoke connection. An easy way to overpower and break a student’s grip is an upward movement of your clasped hands between their arms. This will quickly remove their hands from the controls without harming them. Stating simultaneously in a loud voice “I have the flight controls” might help prevent and further dispute of control. Who said every day as a flight instructor would be fun? Fly safe out there and often (and stay vigilant)!

About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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