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Professional CFI: Avoiding the Cookie-Cutter Mentality

Meeting the needs of individual students

Every flight student is a unique, special human being. Sometimes that's easy to forget, given the ever-increasing emphasis on standardized flight training. But recognizing the varying needs of our students is important, not only for delivering the individualized training each deserves, but also because understanding the differing objectives of our customers leads to increased business opportunities for us.

Not so long ago flight training came basically in just two flavors-civilian and military. From World War II until the mid-1980s, major airlines mostly hired pilots from the armed forces, so in many respects civilian flight training was made of different stuff than it is today. During that period most civilian aviators acquired their skills at the local airport through a simple master-and-apprentice relationship, much the way music students learn to play the piano-sign up with an instructor and take private lessons.

This sort of one-on-one training didn't vary much between pilots aspiring to different types of flying; those bound for professional positions simply continued adding ratings and hours beyond those earned by their pleasure-pilot counterparts, until the appropriate combination allowed them to fly for compensation.

Without today's highly organized programs, flight training at the time was also a much slower process-pilots often invested years to achieve flight instructor level, rather than the nine to 18 months expected today.

The FAA didn't publish "Knowledge Test" questions in those days, so aspiring pilots studied laboriously for their written exams directly from FAA-source publications including the Federal Aviation Regulations, Aeronautical Information Manual, Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, and Aviation Weather. And since students rarely encountered instructors other than their own during training for a rating, educational quality for each pilot depended almost solely upon the dedication and abilities of his or her specific instructor.

Even the practical test standards as we know it has not existed for long; older versions listed flight test objectives in a very general way, pretty much leaving the character and content of each checkride to the whims of the examiner.

Once the airlines began hiring many more pilots trained outside of the military, the civilian training process rapidly became more organized and refined, resulting in today's system in which professional pilot training is certainly more rigorous, predictable, and efficient than before.

So what does all this dull history mean to us as flight instructors and to our students?

Well, for one thing, pilot training options have multiplied. Possibilities range from traditional one-on-one training by freelance CFIs, to intensive and highly structured ab initio programs at universities and private flight schools of every size and description.

To prepare for written (actually computerized) tests, students may choose from a variety of wonderful study materials, including everything from books to videotapes to computer-based training materials.

These are all great developments, but while the students of the past mulled over questions of how to properly prepare for written exams and checkrides, today's students increasingly face new challenges created by all of the rapidly changing learning options. How do aspiring pilots with little aviation background make the right choices for their education? And in structured learning environments, how do we as instructors tailor the learning experience to best meet each student's individual needs?

The bottom line is that despite today's sophisticated training environment-or perhaps because of it-now more than ever we must regularly and thoroughly analyze the individual needs of our students and carefully guide them to success. They desperately need our help to support their progress and to keep their objectives clear. Despite pressures on us to treat every student the same way, good training must still be built around the individual flying objectives of our charges.

Tailored training starts with each student's first visit to the flight school. Does your prospect plan to fly for pleasure or professionally? The answers may set the tone for entirely different angles on training.

For example, while aspiring professional pilots must be well-indoctrinated in crew resource management, those planning for personal flying must instead learn to make good cockpit decisions on their own, correctly interpreting all available information in a given situation.

And from a technical standpoint, aircraft systems training for future professional pilots should be rigorous with an orientation toward future learning, including studying the workings of training aircraft in the context of more sophisticated aircraft to be flown next. But pleasure flyers benefit most by emphasis on practical knowledge that applies directly to the aircraft they are likely to use. This means examining light aircraft systems in a much more focused way.

For professional pilot trainees, is the career objective airline captain or corporate pilot? Tour operator or professional CFI? Flying piston-engine aircraft or turbine? Knowing the answers helps you to tailor the learning of each student.

Private pilot candidates face plenty of choices, too. Do they dream of cruisin' low and slow in a Cub? Or of flying all-weather business travel in a high-performance single or twin? These days many prospective pilots want to build and fly their own aircraft. How should our training programs support that interest?

As CFIs our job is to identify what each student seeks, then to deliver appropriate training to meet his or her aviation dreams. Sure, the core requirements must be met for every flight student, but the slant and emphasis should be different based on the background and objectives of each individual.

Keeping tabs on student interests can help us too, by providing market intelligence for growing our businesses. Trends we observe allow us to tailor our services to the needs and desires of specific pilot groups. When enough pilots come through with common interests, the opportunity exists to develop and promote special niche market programs just for them.

Today's marketing buzzword in pleasure-flying, for example, is adventure. Increasingly pilots stimulated by the romance and history of flying are responding to boutique training, such as learning aerobatics, flying taildraggers from a grass strip, or training on adventure vacations where the student's family comes along to a fun destination to join in the excitement. Such opportunities appeal to well-heeled adventure-seekers who can afford to invest a good deal of money to do something different, such as learning to fly in a new Waco.

Sound wacky? Just look at the success of other adventure activities such as whitewater rafting and rock climbing. A few flight schools are beginning to offer adventure programs of one kind or another, with encouraging success. There's room for a great deal more innovation in that area.

As for professional pilot training, there are many untapped opportunities to save students money while better meeting their needs. Commercial students on the fast track to a flight instructor certificate, for example, should be training for and taking their commercial checkrides from the right seat. Few schools teach it that way, but CFI students can save five or more hours of transition time if they're already sharp at flying from the instructor seat.

Another surprisingly rare time and money saver is using multiengine airplanes to meet the 10 hours of complex-airplane instruction required for the commercial certificate. For students planning to earn their commercial-multiengine anyway, this approach accelerates progress on multiengine training, while reducing the amount of complex single rental otherwise needed to meet the requirement. (Part 141 instructors should research unresolved issues on this topic, arising from recent rewrites of the regulations.)

Of course, those of us who instruct for FAA-approved programs cannot blithely go about changing the syllabus to meet the needs of every individual student. But we can apply creativity to better transfer each lesson's content to individual students, illuminating required skills and knowledge in new and better ways.

Sure, many of the tried-and-true methods that have served us well through years of flight training will continue to do so in the future. But at the same time, there simply must be new and better ways to convey difficult maneuvers and concepts to our students.

One instructor whom I admire constantly explores new ways to get his points across. One of my favorites is the way he introduces his students to ground-reference maneuvers. "First thing we do," he says, "is take them out to the parking lot and drive a car in circles around a lightpole. That allows us to introduce the concept of constant-radius turns, while demonstrating the effects of speed changes on the maneuver. When students get out to the airplane, they already know what to expect."

As the flight training industry continues to grow, our challenge will be to continue providing dedicated support to individual flight students, while moving more of them through the training process and raising their levels of understanding and proficiency at the same time. That won't be easy, and it will take innovation to do it.

We CFIs have the power to impact flight training in bigger ways than one might think. Let's not proceed drone-like, teaching flying the way it's always been done. Rather, it's up to us to innovate in new directions and provide true industry leadership in advancing the science of flight training. Measuring our success begins and ends at the same point-fulfilling the flying dreams of our individual students.

If you're doing some innovative teaching at your own flight school, please e-mail me at flighttraining@aopa.org with the details, and perhaps we can incorporate your ideas in future articles.

By Greg Brown

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