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Learning from each other

Sometimes the truth is sitting right next to you

The temperatures had been in the high 90s over the past few days, and I'm struggling to coax a Piper Arrow to perform in the thin mountain air. My flight instructor checkride looms in less than a week, and my instructor isn't letting me get away with anything. He points out that the airplane is the worst place to learn. It's hot, noisy, and expensive.

But, as I later find out, there is a way to turn this busy environment into a better learning experience. Most of us who move through ratings and certificates at local flight schools typically fly with only one other person on board: the instructor. We go off on solos, and aviation becomes kind of an antisocial endeavor. Then comes, possibly, a stage check and finally the checkride, marking the first time you get to fly with somebody other than your flight instructor.

Introducing a new person into the equation at the right time alters the dynamic. This is why topnotch athletes change coaches every once in awhile when they hit performance plateaus. What I discover is that this can be done in a variety of ways and levels of experience to greatly improve the efficiency of the airborne classroom. It also reduces costs by allowing pilots to share expenses-depending on the way the flight school bills students-or cut the time it takes to achieve a goal through improved efficiency.

During preparation for my checkride, I'm exposed to the value of the buddy system-or what could be called group learning-at OK3 AIR in Heber City, Utah. The school is run by former Navy Top Gun instructors, which is where they got the name. "OK3" is Navy jargon for an excellent carrier landing in which the pilot catches the third arresting wire. The school adopted the name to represent a high degree of precision.

After spending months preparing for the oral part of the test and doing some flying from the right seat of a Piper Archer with an instructor on the East Coast, I head to Utah a week before the checkride for intensive training in the Arrow. Luckily, there are two other CFI candidates at the same stage. Our instructor, Jim Ardnt, who was actually civilian-trained, puts us all together and gives us an office. Two of us spend a week of our vacation time creating lesson plans and role-playing; the third divides his time between working on the line for the FBO and bringing a local perspective to the table.

When we aren't flying with Ardnt, we fly together-two at a time because of the high density altitude that takes a big bite out of aircraft performance and limits the useful load. One acts as the student and the other is the instructor. I find it's easier to pretend to be a CFI with another instructor candidate rather than trying to stay ahead of an actual instructor who knows more than I think I'll ever know. When the other guy is sweating through a maneuver, you see small mistakes that you wouldn't have noticed had you been practicing by yourself.

Central to Ardnt's teaching is mastering the art of the preflight brief to give students the background they need and the objectives desired. Back on the ground we analyze each other's lesson plans on the white board. By using the group scenario you learn to communicate to a variety of personalities instead of trying to pretend your instructor is a student. The group scenario also provides a springboard for criticism.

Ardnt tries to make his briefs both eye-catching and humorous. He draws eyeballs looking up or down to show the student when the eyes should be looking in or out of the cockpit. "A good pilot brief is one that is interesting, easy to follow, concise but informative, and enjoyable to the listener" reads Ardnt's course outline. "Of most importance, a good brief is the forerunner to a good flight lesson. Theory is learned in the classroom; mechanical application is practiced in the airplane."

As I take to the board, my shortcomings become readily apparent to the group. I tend to clutter the board with extraneous information, and skip over seemingly simple concepts. "Why did you draw the runway in green ink instead of black?" Ardnt asks. We break down everything into digestible chunks, such as explaining that the effect of crosswinds on an airplane in flight is like trying to swim across a fast-moving stream in relation to the ground. Next come other lessons such as how to communicate landing an airplane to a private student and the chandelle to a commercial candidate. Once you get your mind around the basic information, then you delve into the dramatic side of things: raising your eyebrows and adjusting the tone of your voice. By teaching each other, we teach ourselves.

Ardnt is always trying to improve his briefs. When I talk with him a few months later, he's excited to tell me how he's touched up his ground reference and weight and balance lessons. "I try to create a warm and fun atmosphere," he says.

Another popular way pilots can learn from each other is by using a certificated pilot as a safety pilot during instrument training. Every time I've done this I couldn't help but learn something. With the other guy paying for the ride, you also get to log time for free as a required crewmember, a good way to build up that total time figure.

Now let's talk about primary students. Large flight schools and colleges like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University call it the Gemini program where two people benefit from the same process; a student and instructor sit in the front and a second student sits in the back. Ken Doucette, chief flight instructor for ERAU's Daytona Beach, Florida, campus, says the Gemini concept has been a longtime staple of the school, and they push students to use it as often as they can from private pilot all the way through flight instructor candidates.

Cessna Aircraft was very aware of this concept when it restarted single-engine production in 1996 after a decade-long hiatus. Many were wondering why the company didn't bring back the 152. Cessna figured it would cost just as much to build the 152 as the 172, and flight schools wouldn't have the option of putting an observer in the backseat.

But the motivation isn't always educational at Embry-Riddle. Daytona Beach International Airport is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the United States. Doucette says that by having two students on board they can share the responsibility of arrival and departure procedures and, along with the instructor, can use three sets of eyes to look for traffic. For those who want to pursue professional pilot careers, this is the beginning of crew resource management (CRM). On the ground students also work on group projects. Increasingly, Embry-Riddle is using flight simulator technology to enhance learning. In twin-engine models, for instance, students can occupy both front seats.

So how do we apply all this on the local level? Ardnt said that it works best when two students have similar learning styles and are at the same stage of their training. This might not happen every day at the smaller flight schools, but Ardnt suggested that the instructor should ask each student separately about flying together so as not to put either on the spot. For glider operations, involving students can be as simple as having them work the flight line. As for instructor candidates, you may have to look a little farther over the horizon, especially to find people at your stage. But if you can at least get some people together to work on lesson plans, it will pay rich dividends during the oral exam.

There are situations, however, where this might not make sense. A student might get queasy in the backseat during unusual-attitude or steep-turn training. Ardnt personally doesn't like to take another student along during light-twin training, which can be among the most demanding and riskiest of flight instruction.

In the end, all three of us pass our checkrides, and two go on to become paid instructors. It's one more step on the way to becoming effective teachers. As Ardnt puts it, flying is simply the subject matter.

Nathan A. Ferguson is a contributing editor to AOPA Flight Training magazine and associate editor of AOPA Pilot. He holds CFI single-engine airplane and private glider certificates.

By Nathan A. Ferguson

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