Student Emotional Reactions

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



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. Anxiety also is a factor in maintenance training because lives may depend on consistently doing the job right the first time. The following paragraphs are primarily concerned with flight instruction and student 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 students’ 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 student pilots is usually associated with certain types of flight operations and maneuvers. Instructors should introduce these maneuvers with care, so that students 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.

Student 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.


Normal Reactions to Stress

As mentioned earlier in the category, 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 students 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 student 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 must carefully examine student responses and their own responses to the students. 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 1-5]

Figure 1-5. A student with marked changes in mood during different lessons, such as excellent morale followed by deep depression, is indicative of an abnormal reaction to stress.

Figure 1-5. A student 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 Students

A flight instructor who believes a student may be suffering from a serious psychological abnormality has a responsibility to refrain from instructing that student. 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 student may have a disqualifying psychological defect, arrangements should be made for another instructor, who is not acquainted with the student, 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 student 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 student may have a serious psychological deficiency, such endorsements and recommendations must be withheld.