A winning reputation
Be an instructor your students remember
Some veteran flight instructors have told me they have trouble remembering their first flight, their first landing, or their first checkride - in short, what it was like to be a student pilot.
As a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, I remember vividly being a student pilot. I also remember, as do my friends, which of our instructors were superb and which ones we tried to avoid. Reputation counts.
From an instructor's perspective, getting a good reputation is like a movie getting a good review; the word spreads, and the instructor gains an "audience" of new student pilots. But how does an instructor gain this great reputation? Here are a few common traits of good instructors that I've noted over the years.
As I moved from student pilot through my ratings, I noticed that good instructors adapted their teaching style to my stage of training. In my early days as a student pilot, the best instructors kept in mind that each flight offered challenges completely new to me. In those days, some of my friends had just completed ground school; others were taking ground school, and we all were at different points on the learning curve. Most flight students at ERAU are preparing for a lifetime career and thus are willing to make sacrifices to get the job done. However, many student pilots, regardless of where they take their flight training, are unsure how far they want to go with their flying, so a good first impression is essential to keep them interested in aviation.
The better CFIs laid out the lesson plan from start to finish, right from the beginning. They let me know what would happen in specific detail for the first several lessons, and they told me what I needed to do outside of the cockpit to succeed.
Not all students understand that they need to study systems, checklists, and maneuvers. During the third flight of my private pilot training, the instructor started to do all of the flows and checklists himself, as he had on previous flights. He then asked me to do the runup and told me that everything was mine from then on. I fumbled with some buttons, looked at him, looked back at the controls, and told him I did not know what to do. The tongue-lashing he gave me almost turned me off from flying altogether.
The day after that flight, I studied the flows and procedures for hours so that would never happen again. This was the first of many negative incidents with this instructor - I did not recommend him to others. Good instructors always seem to be direct and patient with their students, and always remember that they too were once student pilots.
Good instructors emphasized "hands-on" training on the ground. They ran a thorough preflight and explained as many components as possible. I wish an instructor had done that when my commercial checkride neared; on that ride, the designated pilot examiner was nice enough to show me how to get to the Piper Arrow's hydraulic pump as well as the location of the J-hooks on the landing gear. Some DPEs are glad to show students various parts of the aircraft, but others will fail checkride applicants for such lack of knowledge. The best instructors keep the second type of DPE in mind when instructing.
Another trait of good instructors is their ability to remain calm while their student is under pressure. For example, when I was setting up for a practice stall in a Piper Seminole over the Atlantic Ocean last summer, my veteran multiengine instructor sipped from a bottle, plaintively looked over at me, and said, "You want to try some of my green tea? It's supposed to be relaxing." Some of my friends report other CFIs who practiced a little crew resource management while en route on a cross-country flight, taking the flight controls while the student handled the radios and checklists. That kind of confidence building is not only good for the student, but also allows the instructor to take the controls a bit.
One of the most stressful times for both flight instructor and student comes during landings. During primary training, I had expected the instructor to help me if a continuation to landing looked dangerous. I could always see my first instructors shifting in their seat as we came in on final, their palms open and slowly inching forward toward the controls. If they had to take the controls away from me on final, it did not faze me a bit. When it comes to compromising confidence in my flying abilities or keeping the flight safe, I would always choose the latter - most student pilots I know would too.
But as I gained more experience, even a necessary control takeover could shatter my confidence. Just when I thought that all that hard work was finally paying off, suddenly a good landing seemed impossible and the instructor had to take the controls. Of course, safety is more important, and I knew that. The good instructors kept their cool, maybe chuckled it off once the situation was under control. They always explained why the controls had to be taken, and what could be done to fix it.
Another common trait among good instructors is their adherence to the pilot mantra, "never stop learning." Every flight is different, and every student brings up different questions. An instructor's ability to answer those questions is quite important to students. Good instructors who didn't know the answer didn't pretend; instead, they found the answer within a reasonable period of time and reported it. The instructor for my Beech 1900 ground school/simulator course was very good at this. Anytime he did not immediately know the answer to a question, he would always have an answer by the next day.
Flight instruction is a fairly fluid career, meaning the job is sometimes a temporary one. The flight school may have to make job cuts, or another job opportunity may present itself for the CFI. The former is a decision usually out of the flight instructor's hands; the latter is a sometimes difficult choice for an instructor to make - whether to stay and continue teaching, or abandon current students and make the jump to an air carrier. The best instructors have the decency and professionalism to either finish all students' flight courses before going into airline training, or, if this is not possible, help the student to find another instructor who can pick up immediately, without creating a three-week gap in a student's training. (New airline hires are sometimes told to report immediately, sometimes in two weeks. They can't stay and finish all students' nine-month courses.)
Every instructor is different, as is every student, but it's good instruction and motivation that help lead a student down the path to a long and healthy flying career.
By Brock Sargeant
Brock Sargeant is a senior at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and earlier this year served as an intern at the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. He is a commercial pilot with airplane single- and multiengine land and instrument ratings.