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WHEN DOES FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR RESPONSIBILITY END AND THE STUDENT'S BEGIN?

By TC FREEMAN

     A flight instructor is nervously milling about the ramp on his student’s first solo flight. Even though an experienced flight instructor, he still got nervous every time he signed off a student to solo an aircraft for the first time. After a several successful landings the pressure was off and the instructor went back to the office to prepare for another customer. Listening to the Unicom on a handheld radio, disturbing news is issued by another aircraft in the pattern that there had been a serious accident just off the right side of the active runway. The instructor breaks out into a cold sweat running out to the ramp, knowing that it was his student. The instructor arrives on the scene to witness his student being pulled from what is left of the aircraft by emergency personnel.

     A couple of hours later a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) representative arrives on scene to take statements from the instructor and witnesses before returning to the finish the aircraft that is now encased behind yellow “Do Not Cross” tape.*


“…the student pilot was a medical doctor and that the day of the accident a "procedure" took longer than anticipated. He further reported that the student pilot's patient, while performing the "procedure," almost expired.” ~ NTSB Report


     The instructor can't keep his mind off the accident and kept close tabs with his student’s family for status updates. With difficulty concentrating on the much of anything he wisely elects to cancel flight lessons for the week. It was learned later that the student died as a result of his injuries sustained in the accident.

     The funeral is what you might expect from a tragedy that took a life from this world too early. He left behind a wife, children and a successful medical practice that helped thousands of patients.

     The NTSB representative called to follow up with a few general questions and stated that it looked like the accident victim’s cell phone had been on the passenger seat and apparently someone called the number just prior to the crash.

The CFI … stated that the student pilot was very focused on flying; however, when his pager or cellular phone sounded, he would immediately reach for it. The CFI provided an example of, while in the airport traffic pattern, the CFI's cellular phone “went off” the student…”started looking like it was for his.” The CFI further stated that "It's my cell phone. Forget it. And he [the student] looked at me like, forget the cell phone? He couldn't imagine somebody just ignoring a cell phone."~ NTSB Report


     After several occurrences the cell phone issue came to a head. The instructor explained the great risk with distractions in the cockpit and suggested he find another instructor if he planned to continue such behavior. The student backed down and promised not to take any more calls from the cockpit, but tried to offer an explanation. According to the student, he stated that he had a stressful medical career as a physician that required him to take calls no matter the time of day. Ultimately, the student seemed remorseful regarding his actions and the instructor agreed to continue as his instructor.

     A couple of months later the instructor searched the NTSB web site for the “preliminary report,” a document published shortly after all aircraft accidents that outlines the basic circumstances behind the accident and, occasionally, clues as to what caused accident. After finding the report the instructor’s mouth dropped open as to what he found.


The student pilot's failure to maintain control and climb the airplane during a go-around maneuver. Contributing to the accident was the flight instructor's failure to provide adequate oversight of the student pilot by ensuring that the cockpit was free of distractions.”~NTSB Preliminary Report


Flabbergasted, the instructor tried to figure out why the NTSB would list him as responsible for the student’s actions, especially in light of the heated argument they had prior to the accident.

As an added insult, the report included “copy and pasted” sections from very basic flight instructor refresher clinic materials regarding “instructor professionalism.” Deeply saddened by the loss, the instructor also felt betrayed by what, in his words, “…was in-part a poor conclusion of the preliminary report.” His only hope was to contact the NTSB representative to voice his deep concern about the findings. It was a long-shot but that might change what shows up in the “final report.”

The question to the readership is, where does instructors’ responsibility end and the students’ begin? Did the instructor neglect his responsibility to adequately reinforce the topic of distractions in the cockpit? Should the student be held accountable for his own actions? **


About the author:

TC Freemanhas been flying since he was a teenager and is now an aviation speaker and author. Being employed as an Aviation Safety Specialist for state government, he has a passion for spreading the thrill of flying just for the fun of it via the website, www.WingsOfun.com.



*http://www.ntsb.gov/_layouts/ntsb.aviation/brief.aspx?ev_id=20130829X32417&key=1&queryId=7344ceb6-6d99-47b5-b38d-e1ef46c3a944&pgsize=50

**This story is a dramatized account based on the outlined fatal accident. The fictional aspect of the story is based on rumored accounts of the accident that can’t be substantiated at this time. Similar to the mission of NTSB, our motive is to discuss the circumstances surround this accident in an effort to initiate dialog and learning. We offer due respect to the victim’s family, our thoughts and prayers go out to them.


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