Flying Lessons: What Pilots Know about Mentorship
Do you remember how nervous you were on your first moving surveillance? The first time you picked up a large and angry bail skip? The first unwilling witness you interviewed?
Don’t you wish you’d had an experienced professional to help you get your bearings?
If you remember that feeling well, you can be that person for someone else — a strong and empathetic mentor who not only helps rookies avoid common mistakes, but serves as a counsellor of sorts, and sets the tone for a mentee’s long and productive career.
Because of the risks we take, I’d argue that private investigators need great mentors. PIs work long hours in high-stress environments. The burnout rate is high, and the pay, not so much. And a lot of what we know, we learn on the job and on the fly — because the majority of our work is done solo.
Whether you had a mentor or not, you can play that vital role for someone else — if you remember what it felt like to be a nervous rookie. And in guiding a young PIs professional and ethical development, you’ll have the opportunity to shape our industry for the better.
Mentorship for Dear Life
Great mentors can offer their protégés plenty of benefits — such as access to a professional network, or insider knowledge of how an industry works. But when it comes to less quantifiable outcomes like job satisfaction and work-life balance, the influence of mentors can be tougher to evaluate.
Those intangibles might seem less important than harder measures of career success, such as salary and promotions. But in high-stress professions like aviation, medicine, and law enforcement, where young professionals face life-and-death decisions long before they may feel ready for them, healthy attitudes toward work can become a literal lifesaver.
In her book, Mentoring in Academic Medicine, Dr. Holly Humphrey points to a risk many young doctors face: a downward spiral of exhaustion, mistakes, shame, isolation, and burnout. “Young physicians receive little training in how to deal with their personal reactions to medical errors,” she writes. “As physicians slide into burnout, the risk for severe depression, substance abuse, anger, loss of personal relationships, and, ultimately, suicide, rise.”
The Federal Aviation Administration was apparently so concerned about sending ill-prepared new flight instructors into the skies, they published a manual entitled Best Practices for Mentoring in Flight Instruction. “Too many pilots come to grief because the lessons of experience are harsh and sometimes fatal,” says the introduction — ominously. “But … newly certificated flight instructors are mostly left to learn on their own.”
Impostor syndrome can be a lonely sensation in a small plane (or on surveillance).
I remember that feeling well. My transition from pilot-in-training to flight instructor was abrupt: Volker, my longtime instructor, had sold me his Cessna and moved across the country a few months before I took the flight-instructor exam, a notoriously difficult flight and oral test that can last a full day or more. I felt Volker’s absence acutely on test day, but even more so in my first months of instructing.
Suddenly, I was to be the mentor, making rapid-fire decisions a few feet above the earth about how much to help a new student during those dangerous seconds just before landing. Even trickier was striking a balance between reassuring eager newbies that they were safe in my hands, while also admitting that I didn’t know everything. If I were honest, I had more questions than answers, but I didn’t yet trust my fellow instructors enough to ask. My mentor was on the West Coast, I was the lone female instructor at my Nashville flight school, and I wanted to convince my new colleagues that I deserved to be there.
Impostor syndrome can be a lonely sensation in a small plane (or on surveillance). But as my experience overtook my insecurities, I began to focus more on my students than on myself — and to remember that their fears far exceeded my own. Here are a few lessons I learned about effective teaching and mentoring in the air, and pretty much anywhere at all.
1. Remember that being a beginner is scary.
Once, after a student of mine panicked on a solo flight and banged up a Cessna 150 on landing, a senior instructor gently suggested that I may have turned her loose too early. “Student pilots are like babies,” he told me. I’d thought my student was ready to fly without me, but I hadn’t grasped how afraid she still was.
When you’re a veteran at something, it’s easy to forget how it felt to know nothing. I taught plenty of student pilots older than me by decades. Some were doctors, attorneys, or CEOs. But in the airplane, they were newborns, and I had to start from the beginning: This is an aileron. It moves like this. Throw too much information at them all at once, and they might give up on flying before they get a taste of it.
When you’re a veteran at something, it’s easy to forget how it felt to know nothing.
That’s why I always kept the introductory lessons basic and fun — a little information, a lot of hands-on flying. The students would go home energized and confident: I can do this thing! And they’d usually return for lesson two.
In any mentoring relationship, there’s no place for ego. Showing off your knowledge and skill won’t teach your protégés anything. It’ll just remind them that they’re in over their heads. Which, of course, they are — but you don’t have to rub it in.
2. Hand over command a little bit at a time.
We have a legalistic term in aviation — “pilot-in-command (PIC)” — which essentially describes who is in charge of a flight. When I taught student (i.e., unlicensed) pilots, I was always PIC, whether my hands were on the yoke or not. But as students gained skill and confidence, I gradually transferred responsibility (if not “command”) to them, from the physical act of flying to making safety decisions about the flight.
With me riding along, a student could push the boundaries of her skills and stretch her “personal minimums”— i.e., she could try flying in windier or lower-visibility conditions than she was prepared to handle on her student solo flights. Those “adventures” with me beside her gave her valuable experience flying in marginal weather, but minimized the risk. Slowly, those lessons would expand her personal minimums and prepare her to assume the role of PIC the day she passed her private pilot exam.
A strong workplace mentor offers protégés opportunities to push their limits and gradually take command — with supervision — until the time comes for them to leave the nest.
3. Expect excellence, but not perfection.
In The Elements of Mentoring, Charles R. Ridley and W. Brad Johnson outline 65 essential traits of good mentors, gleaned from decades of scholarship on mentoring relationships. Item #29 is “Do not expect perfection.” Perfectionism, they point out, “is motivated by a fear of failure … rather than enthusiasm for the creative process.”
Instead, the authors conclude, great mentors “convey patience, tolerance, and an abiding expectation that the protégé will rise to the mentor’s challenge for excellence.”
As an instructor, it was hard for me to let go of wanting my students to fly perfectly. So much was at stake: I worried about another student tearing up a plane — or far worse. And when I sent students to take flight tests, I wanted them to succeed — for them, and for me.
I eventually came to understand that the instructor-student relationship wasn’t about me, my reputation, or my students’ pass-fail record with the FAA. It was about giving new pilots the tools they needed to take to the skies safely and learn much more on their own than I could ever teach them. And in the long run, it was also about sharing my love of aviation with them — an enthusiasm they might carry with them throughout their flying lives, and even pass on to other students one day.
“Emotional intelligence may be one of the most underrated and unexplored characteristics of great mentors,” write Johnson and Ridley in The Elements of Mentoring. After all, modeling healthy attitudes toward work and life can help set the tone for a protégé’s entire career — and those are high stakes, indeed.