The CFI notebook
Technology is your friend
One of the most difficult parts about preparing for the initial flight instructor practical test is figuring out where to begin. Just how do you get your mind around the seemingly limitless amount of information, and how do you organize it in such a way that you can communicate it to a student who's never seen it before?
A surefire way to impress any FAA inspector or designated examiner is to prepare a notebook that takes a student from scratch all the way through commercial pilot. Broken down into lesson plans, advisory circulars, and other helpful information, this marks the start of your library and your burgeoning teaching style as a flight instructor. Sure, it's a lot of work. When you finish, however, you'll not only be well prepared for the checkride -- you'll be ready to teach.
I've found that a really big three-ring binder is the best way to organize the information. It's expandable as you accumulate more experience and certificates. And you can easily move stuff around later in a more logical format as the notebook grows.
The good news is that this process isn't as tedious as it used to be. Almost all the information, believe it or not, is available for free on the Internet. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation Web site is open to all pilots, and as an AOPA member, you have access to tons of information on AOPA Online and AOPA Flight Training Online. To simplify things, we've updated our online resources page for flight instructors where all the documents mentioned here and more are available.
Let's start with the basic information that the FAA calls for. The PTS (which also is available on AOPA Online) asks for nine advisory circulars (ACs). They want you to know about weather, collision avoidance, and stall/spin awareness, among other things. Although three of the Acs -- Aviation Weather AC 00-6, Aviation Weather Services AC 00-45, and the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge AC 61-23 -- are available online, you're probably better off buying them for your library shelf. The rest of the ACs are each about a dozen pages long and can be easily printed from a computer. Free ASF Safety Advisors are also valuable additions to your notebook, and, unlike most of the other references, they're in color!
I organized my notebook into 11 sections, starting off with a syllabus and a presolo test section for private pilot students. My syllabus is a blend of syllabi that came from commercial sources and my own ideas, but you can also borrow one from your local flight school to use as a template. Remember that all of this information has to make sense to you; it's more than just passing the practical test if you want to be a good flight instructor. ASF has prepared a presolo test that you can also use as a model to make more relevant for future students. If you live on the East Coast, you might want to focus on airspace, whereas in the West, density altitude might be a higher priority.
In another section I created ground lessons for each of the technical subject areas listed in the PTS. Thanks to computers you can type the lessons, save them, and update them later. AOPA's Handbook for Pilots is a great guide that succinctly covers everything from airspace to emergency operations. It's no longer available in printed form, but you can easily cut and paste helpful sections from the online version into your lesson plans. It also provides useful rules of thumb in the Aircraft Operations section for making quick calculations. If the groundspeed is 150 kt, multiply the distance by four and drop the last zero: 20 miles times 4 equals 80. It will take eight minutes to get there. Simple, huh? When teaching about the national airspace system, consider the NACO Aeronautical Chart User's Guide. It provides a great resource for explaining the symbology on VFR and IFR charts.
In the flight lesson section of my notebook I pretty much followed the PTS as a guide and wrote lesson plans to include the objective, common errors, and completion standards for each of the private pilot maneuvers. I made a separate section for commercial maneuvers. You can go back through the AOPA Flight Training archives and pull useful articles about teaching techniques written by active CFIs.
I made another section called "teaching and learning." This provides a good repository for all those tips you might find in a magazine, a flyer from the FAA or safety group, and stuff on a bulletin board at the airport. It's amazing what you discover when you begin to focus your brain on teaching.
Toward the end of the notebook I included a section on flight instructor responsibilities that covers all the privileges and limitations for different pilot certificates and the dates on which a pilot can be grandfathered for previously logged time in high-performance, complex, and tailwheel aircraft. (The tailwheel one is easy to remember: tax day -- April 15 -- 1991.) I dedicated another section to mountain flying because I do quite a bit of flying out West, and it's a stark contrast to sea-level bug-smashing.
And finally I created two more sections: one for flight reviews that provides a checklist (which I copied from an instructor) for all the areas that need to be covered, and one section on national security. Accept it or not, the skies changed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That section has a copy of ASF's intercept procedures in case you find an F-16 off your wingtip on that long cross-country. The handy form can be downloaded from the Web site and photocopied and distributed to students.
Instructors who teach for a living soon commit most of the information in the notebook to memory, but those who don't teach regularly or haven't taught for awhile say the knowledge becomes a lot harder to retrieve with time. What if you fly corporate or commuter aircraft for several years and start to miss flight instruction? The notebook at least provides something to go back to and a place to store things as your experience grows.
Some CFI candidates show up for the practical test with hardly anything prepared. Imagine how much easier things will go when you remain ahead of the power curve.
Nathan A. Ferguson is associate editor of AOPA Pilot magazine and the AOPA ePilot e-mail newsletter. He holds CFI single-engine airplane and private glider certificates and a commercial rating.
By Nathan A. Ferguson