The CFI in the Mirror

Thinking like an instructor will help you stay sharp - and save some money along the way


Most people would agree that flying costs a lot of money and, if youre like most general aviation pilots, that cash drains right out of your pocket. Most pilots are willing to pay the price for the rewards of flying, but few want to throw money away on their aerial pursuits.

It only makes sense to try to get the most for your money – and that means maximizing the amount of time you do the kind of flying you like and minimizing the amount of time you spend droning through the maneuvers essential to maintaining your proficiency.

With the right attitude, its easy to do. You can make money while you fly by simply not wasting it. That takes study, preparation, forethought and practice.

Learning something to begin with is one thing. Maintaining those skills during the long term afterward is something altogether different.

Initially, learning to fly involves developing the motor skills to work the controls smoothly and learning all the procedures from scratch. Once those concepts are in place, however, you just need to refresh your memory to keep your head in the game. A little hands-on practice fills out the proficiency tasklist.

In order to do that, you have to follow a systematic plan. You may think you dont have the expertise to develop the plan, but you might be wrong about that.

Ask a hundred pilots who their flight instructor is and most would probably give the name of the CFI who got them their last rating or the one who signed off on their last biennial flight review. Thats a reasonable answer, but its not really true.

Think of your flight instructor as the taskmaster you have to please to count the flight as a success. Think of who presents you with challenges and relies on you to know the solutions. Recall who sets the standards for when an approach was a good one or a maneuver sufficiently precise.

That kind of reflection makes it clear that the person who has the strongest influence on what you learn and how you fly is you. Most CFIs would probably admit that there are those pilots who are harsher judges of themselves than anyone else could be. Theyre the pilots who act as their own flight instructors.

The Price of Experience
Theres an old saying that youll never be as proficient as the day you get your ticket. It doesnt naturally have to be that way, but only if you devote continued attention to the skills and knowledge you developed to get the ticket.

When that initial check ride is over and the certificate is tucked away in your pocket, some people experience a letdown and decide to relax and take it easy for a while. That wont kill you, but remember that if you dont maintain those hard-earned skills, some of the money you spent acquiring them is going down the drain every day.

To maintain proficiency, approach flying as though you were your instructor. Try to think about your flying as your instructor would think about it. Then you can pay yourself the $30 an hour.

Your instructor would tell you that a critical factor in improving and maintaining your flying skills after you first learn them is to keep your head in the game. Therefore, study and think about your flying – especially when you cant spend as much time at the airport as youd like.

Assign yourself homework before you fly. Ask yourself questions. Grade your performance. Develop lesson plans for your flights.

Profiting from Playing CFI
Sit back and reflect about what will naturally happen to your student if you dont keep an eye on him or her and offer encouragement and advice. Think about what will happen if you dont offer some kind of continual training.

Sloppiness is one of the first danger signs you might see. Altitudes and headings will wander. Checklists will get skipped. Approaches will be high-stress guessing games instead of planned procedures.

Pretty soon the standards will start to slip just a bit. Your student will try to get away with whatever you will allow. Is 50 feet close enough on altitude? What about 100 or more?

It takes conscious attention to maintain standards. Whatever you dont require your student to do probably wont get done. Let it go on for more than a brief period and your students performance will degrade over time. Thats not the way to fly safely – or to have much fun. Besides its wasting good money.

If you dont think ahead of time about flying, youll have to climb the learning curve a bit more every time you strap yourself into the cockpit.

Tenuous, timid flying is no fun. You can soon find yourself boring holes in the sky with no plan and less enjoyment. Confident flying, on the other hand, is a real kick. Organize what you do and youll fly with more confidence and also save money big time.

Think about flying when you have a few minutes to daydream. Think precisely about whats happening on the instrument panel. Imagine configuration changes and visualize what that feels, looks and sounds like.

If flying really is 98 percent head and 2 percent hands, thinking really will help you to stay sharp.

The Key to Motivation
Its no secret that motivation is the key to learning.

When a potential student first sits down with me and says he or she wants to learn to fly, one of my first questions is Why do you want to fly and what do you intend to do after you earn your license?

These are important questions because someone who isnt going to maintain their flying skills shouldnt even bother to learn in the first place. An unmotivated, nonproficient pilot is an accident waiting to happen.

Every now and then, ask yourself, Why do I want to keep flying? Whats in it for me? Where does flying fit into my life now?

Motivation is a big part of every CFIs job, so naturally its part of your job if you are your own instructor. If you want your student to maintain the edge, youve got to make sure you are clear about what makes your student want to fly. Without that knowledge, its difficult to do a good job of keeping your student motivated to learn, fly and maintain proficiency.

Pilots who dont fly often make excuses. They dont have the money, or the time, or the energy. For many, it may be that theyve let their proficiency drop so far that flying isnt much fun. In fact, it may be downright scary.

Motivation generally involves challenges. Maybe the goal of a desired license or rating has been fulfilled. If so, go for the next one if you can afford it. If you cant afford the time or money right now, you can at least start studying for it.

In the meantime, dont stop asking yourself questions. Ask a lot of questions. Asking the right questions is a lot harder than just giving answers to someone elses questions. When youre alone in the cockpit, its up to you to ask the right ones.

Make sure your student can answer them. Sometimes its really tough to ask yourself questions in areas where you know youre weak, but its the only way to learn. Besides, if you like flying, its fun.

Think of your questions as checklists to guide your thought and inquiry. One question leads to another … and another. Write them down and youll soon develop guides to save time as you study to continually refresh your knowledge. These checklists are a good way to troubleshoot your flying.

Spotting Trouble
Using checklists effectively is one of the first skills you were taught as you trained to be a pilot. Now youve got to train yourself to use that as an instructor as well.

No one can know or learn it all. Therefore, sort out the elements that are important ahead of time. Reduce them to checklists that you can use for study and checking up on yourself. Look around for examples of where others have already done that, and use them.

When I got my CFI rating, the checklist for the check flight was a simple little FAA Flight Guide with only 18 pages or so. Now, the published CFI Practical Test Standard book is well over 150 pages.

The PTS outlines in detail the requirements for a particular license or rating. Use it as a guide for the level of proficiency you should maintain.

An instructor uses the PTS as the standard to which you are held during training. Use them after training to ensure that your flying measures up.

If it doesnt, have a talk with your instructor and design some ways to get yourself back up to speed. At the very least, keep the objective criteria in mind when you fly, and aim to at least equal the minimum standard for your certificate.

Thinking Like an Instructor
To be an effective instructor for yourself, you have to learn something about thinking like an instructor. Get a copy of Advisory Circular 60-14, the Aviation Instructors Handbook. Its full of checklists, if youll look at them that way.

Some CFI candidates consider the Fundamentals of Instruction test on Advisory Circular 60-14 as just a necessary evil in the process of becoming a certificated flight instructor. I think that view is shortsighted. Ive even heard the comment, I dont have time to fool with this stuff. Whats this got to do with flying? As your own instructor, youll have to answer that question.

I use my copy of AC 60-14 all the time. I review major parts of it with flight instructors at CFI Refresher Clinics. Because its principles are important, I elaborate on it in initial CFI training as more than just something CFI candidates have to take a test on.

Its good stuff if you use it. Its really good stuff if youll use it as a checklist – a troubleshooting tool – when things arent going right in your flying. Its principles can be used to really help you find and fix problems, and it saves you money and time along the way.

The Aviation Instructors Handbook includes a multitude of things that can be useful. You can get information on topics such as the laws of learning, the levels of learning, developing lesson plans, why students forget and the characteristics of a good critique.

While these are very useful to instructors as up front aids in planning their instruction, I think their greatest value to you will be as troubleshooting tips when things dont seem to be going well.

One assumption here is that you do something other than fly straight and level when youre practicing. Try to improve and learn something every time you fly. Practice your landings, do some ground reference maneuvers, try power on and power off stalls and do some coordination maneuvers every once in a while.

If most of your real flying seems to be on instruments, get a safety pilot and go out to shoot some approaches – and not just when your currency is about to expire. Do all of your maneuvers to the standards specified in the Practical Test Standard for your level of license or rating – and evaluate what you do. Note your weak areas and determine to improve your performance.

Fundamentals of Instruction
In your new role as an instructor, boil things down to the two kinds of essentials: things you need to know to fly safely and things to know to be a good instructor for yourself.

One of the first fundamentals of being a good pilot – and a good instructor – is maintaining currency. That includes both the book work and the manual flying skills. Almost anyone can complain of being too busy to practice, but anyone who flies must realize that they have to take the time to do it if theyre going to do it safely.

If you dont know where youre going, any road will take you there. One of the first steps in keeping current is to analyze the kind of flying you do – and what kind you want to do.

Ask your student this question and you may find that you have to spend more time working on instrument approaches. Or unusual attitudes. Or water landings.

Only after you make this analysis can you develop the information and skills required to do it safely and enjoyably. If your student doesnt have a plan to keep proficient in the kind of flying he or she is likely to do, its time to get one.

The complexity of modern general aviation demands that a pilot needs to be able to know and do a lot of different things. You need a plan to maintain your knowledge and skills, without which you cant possibly stay proficient.

Figure out which publications you have to reference and build a plan for reviewing them. Take one book or manual at a time and go through it from cover to cover. At the end of a year, you may not know everything there is to know about flying, but you will probably know where you can lay your hands on virtually anything.

In order to fly well, you need to know the essentials and have the ability to execute them competently. Because some facets of aviation are so complex, a pilot has to keep it simple. The least you should do is know whats critical so that when all else fails you can at least get that done.

A competent pilot follows checklists, follows established procedures when they make sense, has a solid concept of what needs to be happening at a given point in time and executes well.

Troubleshooting Your Performance
Everyone goes through stages where their flying seems to be a little flat. A good understanding of the Being Your Own Instructor concept can save you a lot of money and help to get you back on track. But that also takes some knowledge of what instructing – not just basic flying – is all about.

Imagine that you are an examiner or instructor looking at what your students or license candidates do and how they do it. Identify their weaknesses – things you would like to improve.

When you see those things in yourself, use the resources at your disposal to see why youre making the mistakes you make. Then you can take steps to correct them and stay sharp in the future.

-by Wally Miller

Wally Miller is a CFII and Gold Seal CFI with more than 7,000 hours.


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