While it is not necessary for a flight instructor to be a certified psychologist, it is helpful to learn how to analyze learner behavior before and during each flight lesson. This ability helps a flight instructor develop and use appropriate techniques for instruction yet to occur.


Anxiety is probably the most significant psychological factor affecting flight instruction. This is true because flying is a potentially threatening experience for those who are not accustomed to flying and the fear of falling is universal in human beings. While anxiety is a factor associated with aviation activities where lives depend on consistently doing the job right, the following paragraphs are primarily concerned with instruction and learner reactions.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, often about something that is going to happen, typically something with an uncertain outcome. It results from the fear of anything, real or imagined, which threatens the person who experiences it, and may have a potent effect on actions and the ability to learn from perceptions.

The responses to anxiety range from a hesitancy to act to the impulse to do something even if it’s wrong. Some people affected by anxiety react appropriately, adequately, and more rapidly than they would in the absence of threat. Many, on the other hand, may freeze and be incapable of doing anything to correct the situation that has caused their anxiety. Others may do things without rational thought or reason.

Both normal and abnormal reactions to anxiety are of concern to the flight instructor. The normal reactions are significant because they indicate a need for special instruction to relieve the anxiety. The abnormal reactions are even more important because they may signify a deep-seated problem.

Anxiety can be countered by reinforcing the learners’ enjoyment of flying and by teaching them to cope with their fears. An effective technique is to treat fears as a normal reaction, rather than ignoring them. Keep in mind that anxiety for learner pilots is usually associated with certain types of flight operations and maneuvers. Instructors should introduce these maneuvers with care, so that learners know what to expect and what their reactions should be. When introducing stalls, for example, instructors should first review the aerodynamic principles and explain how stalls affect flight characteristics. Then, carefully describe the physical sensations to be expected, as well as the recovery procedures.Learner anxiety can be minimized throughout training by emphasizing the benefits and pleasurable experiences that can be derived from flying, rather than by continuously citing the unhappy consequences of faulty performances. Safe flying practices should be presented as conducive to satisfying, efficient, uninterrupted operations, rather than as necessary only to prevent catastrophe.


Impatience is a greater deterrent to learning pilot skills than is generally recognized. For a learner, this may take the form of a desire to make an early solo flight, or to set out on cross-country flights before the basic elements of flight have been learned.

The impatient learner fails to understand the need for preliminary training and seeks only the ultimate objective without considering the means necessary to reach it. With every complex human endeavor, it is necessary to master the basics if the whole task is to be performed competently and safely. The instructor can correct learner impatience by presenting the necessary preliminary training one step at a time, with clearly stated goals for each step. The procedures and elements mastered in each step should be clearly identified when explaining or demonstrating the performance of the subsequent step.

Impatience can result from instruction keyed to the pace of a slow learner when it is applied to a motivated, fast learner. It is just as important that a learner be advanced to the subsequent step as soon as one goal has been attained, as it is to complete each step before the next one is undertaken. Disinterest grows rapidly when unnecessary repetition and drill are requested on operations that have already been adequately learned.

Worry or Lack of Interest

Worry or lack of interest has a detrimental effect on learning. Learners who are worried or emotionally upset are not ready to learn and derive little benefit from instruction. Worry or distraction may be due to learner concerns about progress in the training course, or may stem from circumstances completely unrelated to their instruction. Significant emotional upsets may be due to personal problems, emotional problems, or a dislike of the training program or the instructor.

The experiences of learners outside their training activities affect behavior and performance in training; the two cannot be separated. When learners begin flight training, they bring with them their interests, enthusiasms, fears, and troubles. The instructor cannot be responsible for these outside diversions, but cannot ignore them because they have a critical effect on the learning process. Instruction should be keyed to the utilization of the interests and enthusiasm learners bring with them, and to diverting their attention from their worries and troubles to learning the tasks at hand. This is admittedly difficult, but needs to be accomplished if learning is to proceed at a normal rate.

Worries and emotional upsets that result from a flight training course can be identified and addressed. These problems are often due to inadequacies of the course or of the instructor. The most effective cure is prevention. The instructor should be alert and ensure the learners understand the objectives of each step of their training, and that they know at the completion of each lesson exactly how well they have progressed and what deficiencies are apparent. Discouragement and emotional upsets are rare when learners feel that nothing is being withheld from them or is being neglected in their training.

Physical Discomfort, Illness, Fatigue, and Dehydration

Physical discomfort, illness, and fatigue will slow the rate of learning during both classroom instruction and flight training. Learners who are not completely at ease, and whose attention is diverted by discomforts such as the extremes of temperature, poor ventilation, inadequate lighting, or noise and confusion, cannot learn at a normal rate. This is true no matter how diligently they attempt to apply themselves to the learning task.

A minor illness such as a cold, or a major illness or injury interferes with the normal rate of learning. This is especially important for flight instruction. Most illnesses adversely affect the acuteness of vision, hearing, and feeling, all of which are essential to correct performance.

Airsickness can be a great deterrent to flight instruction. A learner who is airsick or bothered with incipient airsickness is incapable of learning at a normal rate. There is no sure cure for airsickness, but resistance or immunity usually can be developed in a relatively short period of time. An instructional flight should be terminated as soon as incipient sickness is experienced. As the learner develops immunity, flights can be increased in length until normal flight periods are practicable.

Keeping learners interested and occupied during flight is a deterrent to airsickness. They are much less apt to become airsick while operating the controls themselves. Blowing fresh air across the face also helps reduce symptoms of incipient sickness. Rough air and unexpected abrupt maneuvers tend to increase the chances of airsickness. Tension and apprehension contribute to airsickness and should be avoided.


Fatigue is one of the most treacherous hazards to flight safety as it may not be apparent to a pilot until serious errors are made. Fatigue can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Acute fatigue, a normal occurrence of everyday living, is the tiredness felt after long periods of physical and mental strain, including strenuous muscular effort, immobility, heavy mental workload, strong emotional pressure, monotony, or lack of sleep.

Acute fatigue caused by training operations may be physical or mental, or both. It is not necessarily a function of physical strength or mental acuity. The amount of training any learner can absorb without incurring debilitating fatigue varies. Generally speaking, complex operations tend to induce fatigue more rapidly than simpler procedures do, regardless of the physical effort involved. Fatigue is the primary consideration in determining the length and frequency of flight instruction periods and flight instruction should be continued only as long as the learner is alert, receptive to instruction, and is performing at a level consistent with experience.

It is important for a flight instructor to be able to detect fatigue, both in assessing a learner’s substandard performance early in a lesson, and also in recognizing the deterioration of performance. If fatigue occurs as a result of application to a learning task, the learner should be given a break in instruction and practice.

A flight instructor who is familiar with the signs indicative to acute fatigue will be more aware if the learner is experiencing them. The deficiencies listed below are apparent to others before the individual notices any physical signs of fatigue.

Acute fatigue is characterized by:

  • Inattention
  • Distractibility
  • Errors in timing
  • Neglect of secondary tasks
  • Loss of accuracy and control
  • Lack of awareness of error accumulation
  • Irritability
Another form of fatigue is chronic fatigue which occurs when there is not enough time for a full recovery from repeated episodes of acute fatigue. Chronic fatigue’s underlying cause is generally not “rest-related” and may have deeper points of origin. Therefore, rest alone may not resolve chronic fatigue.Chronic fatigue is a combination of both physiological problems and psychological issues. Psychological problems such as financial, home life, or job-related stresses cause a lack of qualified rest that is only solved by mitigating the underlying problems before the fatigue is solved. Without resolution, human performance continues to deteriorate, and judgment becomes impaired so that unwarranted risks may be taken. Recovery from chronic fatigue requires a prolonged and deliberate solution. In either case, unless adequate precautions are taken, personal performance could be impaired and adversely affect pilot judgment and decision-making.

Dehydration and Heatstroke

Dehydration is the term given to a critical loss of water from the body. Dehydration reduces a pilot’s level of alertness, producing a subsequent slowing of decision-making processes or even the inability to control the aircraft. The first noticeable effect of dehydration is fatigue, which in turn makes top physical and mental performance difficult, if not impossible. Flying for long periods in hot summer temperatures or at high altitudes increases susceptibility to dehydration. High altitude is an issue since dry air at high altitudes tends to increase the rate of water loss from the body. If this fluid is not replaced, fatigue progresses to dizziness, weakness, nausea, tingling of hands and feet, abdominal cramps, and extreme thirst.

Heatstroke is a condition caused by any inability of the body to control its temperature. Onset of this condition may be recognized by the symptoms of dehydration, but its recognition may occur too late if it results in a sudden complete collapse. To prevent these symptoms, it is recommended that an ample supply of water be carried and used at frequent intervals on any long flight, whether the pilot is thirsty or not. If the airplane has a canopy or roof window, wearing light-colored, porous clothing and a hat helps provide protection from the sun. Keeping the flight deck well ventilated aids in dissipating excess heat.

Apathy Due to Inadequate Instruction

Learners can become apathetic when they recognize that the instructor has made inadequate preparations for the instruction being given, or when the instruction appears to be deficient, contradictory, or insincere. To hold the learner’s interest and to maintain the motivation necessary for efficient learning, instructors should provide well-planned, appropriate, and accurate instruction. Nothing destroys a learner’s interest as quickly as a poorly organized period of instruction. Even an inexperienced learner realizes immediately when the instructor has failed to prepare a lesson. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Poor preparation leads to spotty coverage, misplaced emphasis, unnecessary repetition, and a lack of confidence on the part of the learner. The instructor should always have a plan

Instruction may be overly explicit and complicated, too elementary, or so general that it fails to evoke the interest necessary for effective learning. To be effective, the instructor teaches for the level of the learner. The presentation should be adjusted to be meaningful to the person for whom it is intended. For example, instruction in the preflight inspection of an aircraft should be presented quite differently for a learner who is a skilled aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) compared to the instruction on the same operation for a learner with no previous aeronautical experience. The instruction needed in each case is the same but a presentation meaningful to one of these learners might not be appropriate for the other.

Poor instructional presentations may result not only from poor preparation, but also from distracting mannerisms, personal untidiness, or the appearance of irritation with the learner. Creating the impression of talking down to the learner is one of the fastest ways for an instructor to lose learner confidence and attention. Once the instructor loses learner confidence, it is difficult to regain, and the learning rate is unnecessarily diminished.

Normal Reactions to Stress

As mentioned earlier in the site, when a threat is recognized or imagined, the brain alerts the body. The adrenal gland activates hormones, which prepare the body to meet the threat or to retreat from it—the fight or flight syndrome.

Normal individuals begin to respond rapidly and exactly, within the limits of their experience and training. Many responses are automatic, highlighting the need for proper training in emergency operations prior to an actual emergency. The affected individual thinks rationally, acts rapidly, and is extremely sensitive to all aspects of the surroundings.

Abnormal Reactions to Stress

Reactions to stress may produce abnormal responses in some people. With them, response to anxiety or stress may be completely absent or at least inadequate. Their responses may be random or illogical, or they may do more than is called for by the situation.

During flight instruction, instructors are normally the only ones who can observe learners when they are under pressure. Instructors, therefore, are in a position to differentiate between safe and unsafe piloting actions. Instructors also may be able to detect potential psychological problems. The following learner reactions are indicative of abnormal reactions to stress. None of them provides an absolute indication, but the presence of any of them under conditions of stress is reason for careful instructor evaluation.

  • Inappropriate reactions, such as extreme over-cooperation, painstaking self-control, inappropriate laughter or singing, and very rapid changes in emotions.
  • Marked changes in mood on different lessons, such as excellent morale followed by deep depression.
  • Severe anger directed toward the flight instructor, service personnel, and others.

In difficult situations, flight instructors should carefully examine learner responses and their own responses to the learners. These responses may be the normal products of a complex learning situation but they also can be indicative of psychological abnormalities that inhibit learning or are potentially very hazardous to future piloting operations. [Figure 2]

Figure 2. A learner with marked changes in mood during different lessons, such as excellent morale followed by deep depression, is indicative of an abnormal reaction to stress

Flight Instructor Actions Regarding Seriously Abnormal Learners

A flight instructor who believes a learner may be suffering from a serious psychological abnormality has a responsibility to refrain from instructing that learner. In addition, a flight instructor has the personal responsibility of assuring that such a person does not continue flight training or become certificated as a pilot. To accomplish this, the following steps are available:

  • If an instructor believes that a learner may have a disqualifying psychological defect, arrangements should be made for another instructor, who is not acquainted with the learner, to conduct an evaluation flight. After the flight, the two instructors should confer to determine whether they agree that further investigation or action is justified.
  • The flight instructor’s primary legal responsibility concerns the decision whether to endorse the learner to be competent for solo flight operations, or to make a recommendation for the practical test leading to certification as a pilot. If, after consultation with an unbiased instructor, the instructor believes that the learner may have a serious psychological deficiency, such endorsements and recommendations should be withheld.