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CFI to CFI

Who's teaching whom?

Lessons I've learned from my students

Every flight instructor has a different series of tales about situations in which we learned something new from a student. In fact, you don't have to be more than a few hundred hours into the CFI profession before you realize that as much learning is happening on the right side of the cockpit as on the left.

Students teach us in several ways, the most obvious of which fall under the heading, "You wouldn't believe what a student did to me today." A student does something unexpected (or wild), and we all learn something from it. Those are hangar stories we all love to swap.

There are, however, more subtle forms of CFI learning that often go unnoticed. A case in point could be that we use one of our tried-and-true presentations about a subject, but a student asks a question that we haven't heard before. We could just answer the question and let it go at that, but we really should be asking ourselves why that question was asked in the first place. What part of our presentation isn't as clear as it should be? It's these kinds of exchanges that guide the way in which we instruct.

It's the exciting stuff we remember

Under the heading of "Wow! What just happened?" are those sometimes lightning-fast events in which our instincts may have been the only thing between a bent airplane and us. It's those kinds of incidents which remind us that students are, well, students. They aren't supposed to know what they are doing or they wouldn't be students.

The crossover slip. Maybe you've heard about the "crossover spin" in aerobatics in which a pilot is too exuberant in the recovery of a spin and causes an inverted spin in the other direction. But how about applying the same mistake to a forward slip?

In this case, the student was doing a hard left slip with a slight turn needed at the bottom to line up with the centerline. I said, "Recover," and instantly the ailerons went from left to right to level the wings and the rudder snapped from right to left to continue the turn. The airplane obediently went from a left slip to a hard right slip. Its trajectory toward the ground didn't change a degree, and the rate of descent stayed constant. Whoa! Full power, level wings, slight pitch up, and we contacted the ground harder than usual--but nothing compared to what could have happened if I'd recovered a nanosecond later.

Even though the crossover was a logical thing for an airplane to do, I'd never given it a single thought, yet that student clearly showed me the potential was there. Now, part of my slip recovery verbiage includes "...and smoothly ease rudder and aileron out, while watching the nose attitude."

Shut it down/go around. We need to listen carefully to the words we use. Early in my career, as we were coming to the end of a long, power-on approach to a major airport, I said, "Shut it down," meaning "power off." The student heard "Go around," and he went to full power and launched us right into the path of an airplane landing on a crossing runway.

More bad words. I found out the hard way that "milk the flaps up" doesn't mean the same thing to a student as it does to me. He snapped them up fast and early, and the Piper Cherokee barely missed settling onto the ground.

Not the window! This is a warning to all tandem taildragger CFIs: The old trick of having a nauseated student breathe fresh air from an open window has its drawbacks. Picture sitting in the back of a Citabria watching a student lean out the window and rather than taking a breath, he tries to hurl his breakfast into a 115-mph wind. Need I explain the result?

Beware of nervous big feet. I had a habit of stopping my taildragger students from walking back and forth on the rudder by pushing with both of my feet and freezing the pedals solid to illustrate the point that the student was working harder than necessary and didn't need all that rudder movement. I attempted that with a burly bulldozer operator, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop the pedals. He simply lifted me up against the belt. Now I say, "Stop moving your feet, and I have the airplane. Watch and see how my feet don't move."

Look out below! Did you know that if a student yanks as hard as he can on the elevator of a Cherokee during the flare, the nose barely moves before it stalls and drops like an anvil? My student had been doing well, and I was being a little lax about my hand position on the yoke, so I had no warning. Bang! The yoke slammed against the stop; the airplane shivered like a wet dog and dropped the remaining four feet. Luckily, no damage was done. Now I'm right there with a fingertip on the controls on every approach.

The subtle stuff

Far too many times the things that we learn from our students are so subtle that we have to watch and listen carefully to make sure we don't miss them. Other times, the things they teach us are anything but subtle.

Blue and brown. During my first year as a CFI, I was growing impatient with a student who couldn't see what was obvious to me: We were sinking too fast and would settle onto the ground well short of the runway. "Can't you see what's happening?" I said in a firm, vaguely irritated adult-sounding voice (I was 20 at the time).

The student turned to me and snapped, "See what? When you're a student all you see is blue and brown. Don't ask me for details, I don't see squat."

Out of the mouths of quasi-babes. The word that applies here is empathy. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to see it the way they do. Beginners' first few hours in an airplane are rooted in sensory overload, and it takes four to six hours before their visual references become anything other than the basics--sky, ground, runway. Those are all they see, and you have to work hard to introduce them to the myriad details out there.

Rudder when?

Keep your butt connected to the lesson in progress, looking for erratic moves of the seat and the skid ball that tell you the student doesn't truly understand what the rudder is for. Maybe he'll roll into a turn and you'll feel your butt move to the outside because rudder is being held in the turn. Generally in that situation, there's also a matching amount of outside aileron that isn't needed. In other words, the student is making cross-controlled turns-an excellent setup for a spin or, at the very least, sloppy flying.

Or maybe you'll be climbing out and the ball is to the right, and when you tell him to center it, he uses the wrong rudder. Or, in a climbing left, full-power turn, he'll add left rudder as if it was a normal turn, when all he really needed to do was ease up on the right rudder that's correcting for torque.

Most often, illogical rudder use indicates that the student doesn't have a firm grasp on the concepts that require rudder. The first of those would be adverse yaw, the rest being gyroscopic precession, torque, and P-factor (spiraling slipstream is generally hidden within the others). If we see that kind of behavior in our own students, then we know that when we originally explained the concepts to them, either we did a lousy job or we haven't been diligent in making certain the students always use the rudder the right way in the right place. Students only know what we teach them, so if they routinely get some of the basics wrong, it's our fault, not theirs.

Often we erroneously assume that the student not only hears and understands everything that we say, but also remembers our golden words forever. That'll never happen. Most often, just the thinnest layer of understanding is deposited on the first pass, and we don't realize that until the student does something wrong. As in the old advertising theorem, we have to tell them, then tell them again, then come back to tell them what we told them. It's the height of optimism to think it'll sink in the first time. But we can always dream, right?

We could write a book about the student as teacher, but the bottom line is that we have to listen to students as much as we hope they are listening to us. Quite often, what they aren't saying or asking is more important than what they are verbalizing. We have to encourage them to ask questions and make comments because that's the best way we'll learn how well we're doing as instructors.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 37 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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