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Click Air: Clicker Trained Flight Instruction, Part 2

Filed in - Off the Beaten Path

by: Michael Pryor, President, Click-Air

Moving from the simulator to the sky

I was convinced that clicker training works in the flight simulator environment, helping the instructor to be very precise in reinforcing all the "microtasks" or small behavioral skills being asked of the student. Now, I wondered, how would it work in the air? I was working toward becoming a flight instructor. I looked forward to adapting the methods of clicker training (a.k.a. operant conditioning), to the flight training industry, while still working within the Federal Aviation Administration directives and guidelines (which, interestingly, actually propose use of techniques developed by B.F. Skinner…)

Thanks to the dual controls in most little aircraft, I could allow friends of mine, without cost, to experience a little about flying while I, at all times, remained "pilot-in-command" of the aircraft. My first attempt at clicker training was essentially what is termed "cold shaping," which means the animal knows nothing about the behavior being shaped, and the trainer does not lure, prompt, or guide the movement being shaped, but just builds it by clicking from "zero."

Clicking without verbal instruction: Scott

Scott, my first guinea pig, had not flown before and I didn't tell him what we were going to do. In flight, I would say, "See if you can fly level, without the wings tilting left or right." When the aircraft was centered (not that easy on the first flight) I would click him. He got the idea. We tried a few more simple things and did some sightseeing and went back to the airport.

On the drive home I asked him his thoughts on being clicked. His response was that he enjoyed it, but he just wished he knew what he was doing. As a student being clicked in the simulator, I had already had at least 30 hours of instrument training in aircraft, while doing approaches to busy urban airports; and I had passed my knowledge test on the subject. So, my clicking instructor was really conducting an orchestra that could already read the music. If "Skill" is the ability to use knowledge (Webster's dictionary) then I needed to start there next time. I resolved to take a more traditional approach in the next flight, by building up the knowledge a little, first.

Daniel was my next passenger (hey, no partiality; the gals aren't asking to go flying.) He is very bright and teaches design at a university here in L.A. My plan was to use the drive to the airport to explain a little about aerodynamics and the use of the controls, assuming that he would get more from the session that way. (Some of this is, of course, textbook teaching methodology, but I am in my "search and discover" mode and wanted to watch it all unfold.)

Can you shape "attitude?"

This time, I also decided beforehand on some other behaviors I would like to see in a pilot. These might be behaviors which have nothing to do with flying but everything to do with being a safe pilot, such as:

  • A willingness to ask questions
  • A willingness to experiment
  • Showing initiative
  • Being on time for our departure
  • Come ready to learn
  • Come with high expectations.

I think these things are both fundamental and within the trainer's realm of influence. As an instructor, can I shape my students (through positive reinforcement of course) to show up on time, prepared and eager for the day's experiences? As a cabinet maker, do I get repeat business and referrals? Yes I do, and the principle is the same. If the flight instructor makes it a rewarding experience, the student will want to come back. (Seems simple enough, but I am amazed to see how often flight instructors treat their clients with disrespect!)

The learner leads the training

I determined to let Daniel ask the questions and to reinforce that behavior as I answered. I'd forgotten the clicker, so I used the backup…praise, gestures, clapping. He asked the best questions! I directed the session, but he directed the learning. What I wanted to avoid was me reciting facts and my student pretending to understand them. If he asks the questions, and I can enlighten him at HIS pace, then he is learning. But the timing is the timing of a clicker trainer.

In flight, not having a clicker, all I did was to say "Good" or "There" or "Yes," or I clapped. The key of course was in the timing. Click the behavior DURING the behavior and the frequency of the behavior will increase. Click only the best of those increasingly frequent behaviors and the accuracy will increase. Ahh, we're heading for "fluency."

Shaping tough tasks

Instrument pilots of all types experience what is known as "getting behind the airplane." This means that the rate of completion of required tasks is slower than the rate of the aircraft's changes. An instrument approach is a big pile of little tasks, and if the rate of completion is not high enough, the tasks go undone, sometimes with fatal results. It's a little like the pictures of Lucille Ball playing a new employee at the cake factory conveyer belt. Everything is fine until the belt speeds up, the cakes start to fly by, and everything gets iced except the cakes.

So one of the ideas I wanted to explore was finding a way to reward the pilot for periods of intense, demanding work with a short period of "free" flight: a kind of play break, as a reward for giving me full effort. I hadn't suggested it yet, but at the end of a period of intense effort at level flight, Daniel spontaneously did a lazy climbing turn to the right. I looked over at him. He shrugged and indicated that he was just having fun. I cheered and clapped! I can put it on cue later, I thought, but wasn't that exactly the behavior I was looking for?

What a concept: have fun.

In the syllabus I am now designing I have made space for the student to do some fun things, within the confines of his cross-country training. I think having some fun is a reinforcer for being a pilot in the first place. While the FAA spells out exactly what they require of a pilot, and suggests positive ways to teach it, the macho culture surrounding aviation actually contradicts those FAA directives on providing positive, safe and rewarding experiences for the student. The Aviation Instructors Handbook (AC60-14) says: "Insecure and unpleasant training situations retard learning," and "Students are like all other workers in wanting a tangible return for their efforts. If such motivation is to be effective, they must believe their efforts will be suitably rewarded. These rewards must be constantly apparent to the student during instruction" (italics mine.) Sounds like clicker training to me.

Mike Pryor

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