In a perfect world, all flight instructors would be smiling, retired airline captains who would patiently and benevolently impart the benefit of thousands of hours of safe aircraft operation to the eager minds of the less experienced. Unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world. Most Aviation Safety readers are already certificated pilots, but we all need a CFI for recurrent training and required flight reviews.
If you transition to a new type of airplane, want or need an instrument proficiency check (IPC) or pursue a new certificate or rating, you need a flight instructor. Your favorite CFI may have retired or been picked up by the airlines (they’re hiring in China). He or she may have been perfect to help you prepare for your last checkride, but not have the background for your type-specific checkout or the new rating you want to earn. As your needs change, how do you find a flight instructor that’s best for you?
Commodity or Coach?
We often tend to think of flight instructors as commodities—find one at the airport or look up a name and number online, make an appointment and go fly. Your choice of flight instructor, however, determines how long it will take to achieve your goal…and therefore, how much it will cost. More importantly, whether you (or your CFI) is conscious of it or not, he or she will set the level of safety you’ll maintain for perhaps your entire flying career—you’ll pick up his/her good habits, and bad; What the CFI knows and knows how to teach, but where his/her knowledge and instructional skill is lacking will leave a hole in your own capabilities.
A flight instructor is a personal trainer, a life coach and a risk-management mentor as much as a technical trainer. Your CFI literally has your life, and the lives of your future passengers and the people you fly over, in his or her hands. Put in that light, the way you select a flight instructor may be in need of a major overhaul.
So, what criteria might you use to make such a critical selection?
Myth: Time in the Logbook
Instructing can be boring, repetitive work (try flying VFR traffic patterns with seven pre-solo students on a single day). It’s usually done in low-end equipment, and generally devoid of discovering new life and new civilizations (I joked that I held a Pettis County pilot’s license when I first taught in central Missouri because I rarely flew far from the home airport). In part because of these limitations on the career, flight instruction is usually an entry-level job—full-time local instructors have three-digit numbers in their logbook’s total time column.
Don’t automatically dismiss the local CFI, however. Low total time does not rule out the local flight instructor as the perfect person for your next flight review, IPC, certificate or rating training, or a few times around the pattern to “brush off the rust” after a period of down time. Some of the best aviation instructors are those just beginning their flying careers. They may be more likely to be caught up in the beauty and élan of flight than a grizzled veteran. And they’ve recently run the gauntlet of pilot certification and practical tests themselves, so they might better empathize with your learning plateaus and guide you through the tricks and tips of making that perfect landing flare or riding the needles all the way to decision height.
So, as you’re considering who’ll be your next CFI, look not just for the old-timers. Find someone who has been teaching what you want to learn. More importantly, check around for an instructor who is prepared and ready to teach.
Myth: Military Model is Best
My very first flying lesson was with a former naval aviator who had flown AD-1 Skyraiders (a huge, single-engine dive bomber) during the Korean War. We took off from a cold, central Ohio airport in a Cessna 150 Aerobat and were flying along in the crisp, clear air when my instructor spotted a friend’s Piper Dakota scooting along a couple of thousand feet below us.
“Watch this,” he said (yes, he actually muttered those oft-fateful words), as he hauled back on the little Cessna’s controls, rolling through vertical and into a dive toward the Piper, gaining speed in the descent while he transmitted a hokey imitation of a machine gun over the local Unicom frequency as the Dakota grew rapidly larger in our windscreen. It was an impressive display of airmanship, to be sure. But was it appropriate for an introductory flight lesson? Or was the instructor doing what he wanted in the airplane, not what I needed?
Despite our romanticism of military flight, the services’ pilot training is designed for a different outcome. As I was told in Air Force officer training, the goal is not to turn out pilots, it’s to develop a part of a weapon system that uses aircraft to deliver bombs and cargo. Absolutely, some of the most enthusiastic and skilled general aviation pilots and instructors have military backgrounds.
But the nature of military training is that a lesson is presented quickly, sometimes quite roughly, and the student is challenged to pass quickly or be eliminated. Military necessity and the extreme cost of military pilot training don’t always permit time for the repetition and life-coaching skills needed for civilian flight instruction. My point is that military time does not automatically make a good flight instructor and the absence of armed services flying time does not automatically put a flight instructor toward the bottom of the list.
Myth: Full-Time vs. Part-Time
There are those who deride part-time instructors as not being “professional.” Other decry that all full-time CFIs are “time-builders” grudgingly paying their dues in the right seat just long enough to qualify for some other flying job.
In reality, part-time and time-builders are no less likely to teach flying “professionally” than anyone else. In fact, most part-time instructors teach flying because they love to teach—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t put in the extra hours on top of a “day job.” Time-builders, too, can (and often do) have an aero-educator attitude, even if their career goals are aimed at the far more lucrative world of the airline or corporate cockpit. So a flight instructor’s work schedule alone isn’t always an indicator of whether he or she is the right person to help you meet your next goal.
Myth: The CFI is The Boss
When you’re engaging a flight instructor to help you meet your goals, remember you are hiring someone to work for you. The path you take from here to your next certificate, rating, review or checkout completion should be spelled out for you ahead of time, so you know exactly what it’ll take (in terms of tasks to be completed, not necessarily time or cost, which vary based on how well you learn). Given a review of your experience and a flight or two covering the maneuvers and tasks needed to reach your goal, your instructor should be able to develop a personalized, written syllabus to meet your needs. You should be able to gauge your own progress and know what’s left to be done at any point in your training.
As long as you hold up your end (study, practice and performance), there should be no “secrets” and no surprises. Any instructor unable or unwilling to put together a written plan to meet your goals is not worthy of your employment.
Stick Time or Ground?
Many instructors like to send the student out to preflight the airplane, show up when the inspection is complete, jump in and fly. After landing they’ll debrief a little as you taxi in, then jump out before you tie the airplane down or put it away.
In part this is because many CFIs are paid only for that time when the propeller is turning. Some will tell you that hands-on experience is preferable over any other training, so they want to maximize your time in the airplane. But both these ignore the fact that effective flight instruction requires time spent in the classroom before and after each session.
A Teacher of Flight
We all know pilots (and financial planners, and computer programmers, and on and on) who are superb at their craft, but are not good at patiently presenting it to others in a way they’ll understand. You want an accomplished pilot as your CFI, but it’s even more important that he or she can impart that knowledge to you. In short, you aren’t looking for a pilot, you’re seeking a flight instructor. Although experience is important, in order for you to earn your certificate, rating, review or endorsement, and more importantly, so you’ll be competent both as a stick-and-rudder pilot and a cockpit decision-maker now and into your flying future, you need to find a teacher of flight.
The teacher you’re looking for will be calm and respectful. He or she will dress and act like a professional (even summertime shorts and a T-shirt can be clean and presentable), with a professional attitude and a lesson plan to go with it (i.e., a schedule with steps and clearly defined goals).
A good instructor is one you can get along with and learn from. You’ll be paying good money to learn sound piloting skill and judgment. It is within your right to demand to be taught how to fly by someone with the attitude and tools of a professional educator. Legend-in-their-own-mind-pilots are on notice that you’ll take your business elsewhere.
Although some instructors charge (or are paid) only for the time the airplane is running, it’s a cliché that the cockpit makes a poor classroom precisely because it’s true. Ask how much time you will be spending discussing your lesson on the ground before a flight, and how long you will debrief and critique afterward. What media (discussion, videos, software, simulators) will you use, and why?
A professional instructor realizes that even the quietest and most comfortable of cockpits is not a good classroom. He or she should be prepared to preview lessons on the ground beforehand, constructively review your performance afterward to include suggestions for improvement, and introduce the next lesson before you leave so you can study at home. He or she can reasonably expect—and you should be willing to pay—full salary for instructional time on the ground as well as in the airplane. You’re not paying to the instructor to fly, you’re paying him/her to teach, whether in flight or on the ground.
Safety and Risk Management
Ask your instructor how he/she and you will decide whether it’s safe to fly? When and how will you inspect the airplane, check Notams and the weather? What is “allowable” weather for each type of flight lesson? What is the difference between being legal and being safe in an airplane? Whether you’re new to flying or an experienced pilot taking a flight review or IPC, making safe fly-or-not-fly choices is one of the most critical things you’ll ever learn about flying an airplane. And the CFI is the person to teach it to you.
The professional instructor should allow you to inspect the airplane, check weather and NOTAMs, and make your own go/no-go decisions. He or she should never completely delegate that authority to you, but should let you make your recommendation, and why, before a final decision. Your CFI should accompany you when you preflight the airplane, regardless of your level of experience, you’re paying him or her to answer any questions you may have.
Ask your CFI what books, magazines, Web sites, etc., he or she recommends for your present level of pilot education. Ask what you should add as you gain experience or move on to more advanced work? Ask the instructor what worked best for him or her at your level of training, and what wasn’t very helpful. And what does the CFI currently read, watch or do to continue his or her aeronautical education? The teacher of flight will constantly be learning, and should be able to recommend additional sources of information to round out your study both now and after you’ve reached your goal.
Choosing the right CFI is critical to reaching your goal and safely flying for years afterward. The time your instructor has logged or the number and size of airplanes he or she has flown isn’t nearly as important as the attitude and knowledge exhibited in teaching you to fly this airplane. Take time to choose an instructor who’s right for you.