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Flight Training Scare Tactics | Does Fear Really Help the Learning Process?

Posted 4 years 28 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

By definition, a scare tactic is a strategy using fear to influence a reaction. Instructors may use the fear of failure, injury, or death as well as other scare tactics to motivate students to emphasize a point. The fear of a negative outcome is one of the leading problems in students today and the data has yet to show a valid reason for flight schools and other organizations to continue using fear. Instructors are supposed to encourage flight students to learn, not scare them to the point of anxiety or indecision.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect nearly 25% of those engaged in educational programs. This is very real data and highlights the potential negative behavior for a pilot of an aircraft. For those pilots not affected by scare-tactic anxiety, the constant threat of failure, injury, or death may delay an action, especially when their flight experience is minimal. 

I remember years ago when the Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 73 for the Robinson R22 was published, Robinson Helicopter Company produced a video to support the required training of the SFAR. The data provided by Frank Robinson was compelling on its own merit, however the accompanying crash videos provided to “make the point” were simply scare tactics. Was the training less effective without those videos? Did the visual or emotional effect of the video ever cause delay or distraction of a pilot when a critical decision was to be made?

Not all people are adversely affected by scare tactics and not all negative information, either in visual or other forms, are considered scare tactics. There is a line between having a training benefit and causing mental and emotional harm to a student. 

A few weeks ago, I was conducting confined-area training for a pilot in their newly acquired helicopter. On final approach, the pilot was hesitant to lower the collective to maintain the approach angle. As the maneuver progressed, the helicopter reached the desired point of landing. However, at an altitude of approximately 50 feet, the student continued the descent into the confined area vertically to the ground. 

At the completion of the maneuver, I asked the student to critique the maneuver. He was proud to tell me that he had not exceeded any of the flight elements required to enter Settling-with-Power and had made the intended point of landing. When I queried about stopping at 50 feet above the spot and descending vertically into a confined space unable to see obstacles below, his response was, “There is a lot going on around the helicopter. I must focus on the most critical and the threat of SWP is the most critical during a confined-area landing.” This pilot had nearly 1,000 hours in helicopters, most recently as a flight instructor.

Folks, if we effectively train pilots to be proficient at their craft, you will not need scare tactics. Emphasis on correctly executing maneuvers where data reflects high accident rates will provide much more benefit in reducing accidents than scaring someone with theory causing them to second guess a decision, or worse, completely miss the real risks of a maneuver.

Videos and other historical training aids are fantastic to include in a measured, controlled training program. Scare tactics where abstinence is the only solution, ignore the many complexities required to safely operate a helicopter and is a disservice to our pilots. 

Teach effectively and hold your students to a high standard of proficiency and decision making. A heightened awareness will prove much more beneficial to a pilot than developing a fear of flying!                

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.