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Teaching Sheila During Able Flight: A Flight Instructor's Perspective

Able Flight CFI Colleen Finnell with newly minted Sport Pilot Sheila Xu.

Editor's Note: This is the experience of one flight instructor working with a deaf student pilot who both uses sign language to communicate and wears a cochlear implant (CI) to assist in verbally communicating. Not all CI Users are able to hear and/or understand what they hear to the same degree, or speak. Some can hear and understand very well with it, and some use it for the singular benefit of sound awareness. Some of our pilots also wear hearing aids. But a majority of us at Deaf Pilots Association are profoundly deaf in both ears and use sign language and written English to communicate. As such, keep in mind that the experiences between instructors and student pilots of varying degrees of deafness and speaking ability will be different, and please refrain from attempting to obligate your deaf pilot or student pilot on the use of radios. It is not always prudent or safe to force their use, nor is it required by the FAA when flying out of non-towered fields or in uncontrolled airspaces. There is a reason for the limitation on the use of radios on our certificates. If they are able and willing to learn, then great...have at it.


By Colleen Finnell

Able Flight is a program near and dear to my heart because through it I got to work with Sheila! Once I became a flight instructor, I knew I wanted to participate in this program. So when I got the opportunity to apply for it last Spring, I jumped at the chance. I knew it was going to be a life changing experience and it definitely followed through on that hunch.

I initially got asked about teaching a deaf student a couple weeks before the program started. Not having taught for Able Flight previously, I wasn’t aware how the pairing of students and instructors worked and when asked if I would be able to teach a deaf student, I was honestly very intimidated but also excited for the challenge. The idea of having to teach someone without speaking seemed impossible to me, so I immediately started thinking of new ways to communicate. In the early setup of Able Flight, we did not know how much Sheila could hear, if at all. I don’t know sign language and wasn’t sure if I would be good enough at communicating to teach her.

Once meeting Sheila, I got a much better idea of how teaching would work. We sat down and got right into the questions. How are we going to communicate and what works best for both of us. I learned quickly I would have to put a lot of emphasis on pre-briefs and de-briefs. These are a common form of instruction when working through flight lessons but there would have to be a lot more time dedicated to each than a traditional student may experience. We had a lot of trouble when it came to the headsets. The first couple of flights Sheila couldn’t hear me at all when flying. I would have to write down all instructions or just point to things and act out the motions. Once we tried a couple different headsets and figured out that mine fit best with her [cochlear] implant, we finally got to really start accomplishing flight tasks. She didn’t have to read my lips while flying which meant her eyes could focus on other controls more. That was really cool to experience. I could tell she was really understanding me because I no longer had to constantly repeat instructions, she would just complete them automatically.

Once she started to progress through the lessons, I got the hang of seeing what styles worked for her. I would take extensive notes while flying, since trying to talk through and explain things in the air was not an option for us. I could also tell how tasking trying to fly and listen to me talk was for her. It’s one thing to learn how to fly a plane, but to do that while also trying to hear over a roaring engine and constant radio chatter only through a cochlear implant seemed insanely hard. So we instead opted for hour to two hour debriefs walking through every step of the lesson. I couldn’t correct her in the air like I was able to do with previous students so the best way to fix mistakes was talking through them on the ground after the lesson, then reminding her about them and our changes to fix them before the next lesson we flew.

I also think that people either have a knack for flying or they don’t. After teaching many different students its pretty easy to see if they have it or not right off the bat. Sheila definitely had that knack. So that was great to work with. Once I corrected something, she wouldn’t make that mistake again.

The biggest hurdle we faced was getting the landings down. This is very regular for students to have trouble with. But instead of talking through it in the air I knew I would have to come up with a system to tell her when to use the air brakes and flare. I decided to hold up fingers 1-3 to tell her how much airbrake usage she needed. 1 for little and 3 for full. That definitely helped her get the sight picture down to where I would no longer need to hold up my fingers and she would use the correct setting.

Another note on the technical side would be radio usage. Besides being able to communicate in the air with Sheila, my next biggest concern was radio usage. Having to think ahead I knew the principal difficulty would be once she soloed. How is she going to communicate with tower, other planes, and ground operations? Most of these answers came in the form of non-towered airports. It was decided after a couple of flights that all of Sheila’s solo operations would be from non-towered airports where radio communication is not required. We didn’t know how much Sheila would be able to hear on the radios but we found early on it was very limited for her and that I would work all the radios when it came to the towered airports.

Although this option worked great, I still wanted something to calm my own nerves when it came to her soloing and avoiding traffic in the pattern. Since non-towered airports can be a bit unpredictable, I wanted her to be able to say her position in the pattern for other pilots to hear. Unlike other students, this would be her first time on the radios. We talked through when she should make her calls and what they should sound like since she hadn’t heard any before, or I had been making them for us. She picked it up quickly and was able to even recognize some key words from other aircraft transmissions. This gave me the confidence for sending her on solo cross countries and she could announce for others in the pattern. I would have her say phrases like “deaf student pilot” and “cannot respond” in case there was confusion from other pilots.

Sheila was a total trooper during flight training and even stuck with me after experiencing an engine failure together. She wasn’t scared to try my new ideas and it was so cool working through our unique obstacles. I’m really proud of Sheila and so excited for her to continue her training!

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