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Are we doing a good job?

CFI Chart The original intent of this piece was to put together a simple checklist to be used to define "good flight instruction." The more we thought about it, the more complex the task became.

Exactly how do we define "good" as it applies to flight instruction? The ultimate test of the quality of our instruction has to be the quality of the students we train. Here too, however, frustration sets in: How do we judge the quality of our students? Is passing the checkride an accurate gauge? The FAA says yes, but is its stamp of approval, which rests solidly on the Practical Test Standards, enough? Many instructors say no.

The PTS is the traditional hip-pocket guide for instructors, but they often use it without considering that the PTS establishes performance minimums. These are the minimums the FAA will accept, and that alone implies we should be doing more. The PTS doesn't address some of the intangibles inherent in learning any skill. It addresses the practical application of the skill but doesn't get into the many factors that make some pilots better than others. That's where we instructors come into play: How far above the minimums are we teaching, and what are we doing to make our students maximize their abilities?

Effective teaching is more than simply passing along information. In our case, it means recognizing that the one-size-fits-all form of instruction that comes out of most CFI courses will work only if we're teaching to the minimums. A new flight instructor figures that out with his second student, when he realizes this one is significantly different than the first one and has to be approached differently. The degree to which we recognize differences between students and the degree to which we are willing and capable of altering our approach determines, to a large extent, how well our students will learn.

Overlaying all the foregoing is our personal approach to the mission at hand. We aren't machines. We are people and, as such, we vary to exactly the same extent that our students do. However, since we're the teachers, we need to try to rein in our emotional highs and lows, flatten out the differences between our good and bad days, and present an even countenance. We also have to recognize that different people are going to react to our personalities in different ways, and that has a huge effect on how students will learn from us.

Think back to the best teachers and the best CFIs you've ever had. Almost all of them will stand out not only because of the quality of their instruction but also because of who they were. You responded positively to their personality and were more attracted to what they were teaching.

Now think about the worst teachers you ever experienced. You'll remember almost all of them as disinterested, flat, nothing-but-the-facts, unexciting people, and that carried over into their instructing. We're all attracted to people (teachers) who are passionate and interesting and who almost always mix in a little humor, or at least a lighter approach, with their teaching. However, the glue that holds the mix together is their enthusiasm for the subject.

We can learn a lot from looking back at the best and worst teachers (CFIs and others) and using those comparisons to help guide our own development as instructors. With that in mind, let's examine some points to consider when judging the quality of our instruction.

Do we really care? Some consider flight instruction the mailroom of aviation: It's where most people enter the profession, and for many the goal is to get through it to a "real" flying job as quickly as possible. At the same time, flight instruction composes the roots of the tree we call aviation. If the roots are weak the tree is weak; so we must recognize that every single student with whom we fly will carry our words and instruction with them for the rest of their flying careers. We will be the single most important influence to the quality and safety of their lives, so we can't treat the hours with them lightly. If you aren't going to approach it this way, you shouldn't be doing it. You shouldn't be building time at a student's long-term expense.

Are we trying to improve? Every single time we fly with a student, we can learn something that will make us better instructors. Did the student ask a question that you thought had already been answered? You need to change the way in which you present that point. Is he having problems performing a maneuver? The method you used to demonstrate or explain it didn't soak in. Students tell us when we're not communicating as clearly as we could be, and any good educator looks for that kind of feedback.

Preparation is everything. The lesson plan concept that the FAA pushes so hard isn't unique to flight instruction--it's basic to all forms of education. We should never climb into a cockpit without a clear plan and goals for the flight. Further, the preflight briefing should clearly lay out the upcoming hour so the student knows what to expect.

Recognize the differences between people. Try as they may, neither the FAA nor flight training academies can prepare us for the huge differences we'll sometimes find between students. The differences are at many levels: intellect, comprehension, motor skills, emotions, reaction times, desire, patience, apprehension; the list goes on. Stir that all together and you can see why every student absolutely requires a unique approach. We're not doing our jobs if we aren't trying to modify our approach to more closely match the student's needs.

Don't fly by the Hobbs. Yes, we're flying to make money. At the same time, we should be doing everything we can to give the student his dollar's worth. Sometimes this means flying shorter, not longer, when he's burned out and no longer capable of learning. If we push into the "no learn zone," we're stealing a student's money.

Recognize bad days and don't make them worse. Some days students just shouldn't be in an airplane. They are not capable of learning and to push them will build apprehension and frustration. Recognize that and land. Yes, it hurts your revenue stream, but you'll make it back in the long run.

Prep them for all flight situations. Make it a point of pride that your students don't fear crosswinds because they can handle them. They are at home on shorter runways because you insist on touchdowns in the first 500 to 800 feet. They've seen marginal weather and know when and how to get out of it. Don't be a fair-weather instructor.

Use the PTS as rough guide. The PTS says what an examiner will ask them to do and establishes the minimums. Ignore the performance levels in the PTS and train your students to a higher standard, and you'll never have one bust a checkride.

Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." The only thing worse than not knowing the answer to a question is to give an answer that isn't correct. No information is better than bad information. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know, but I'll look it up." You'll earn a lot of respect.

Be professional. Showing up late is not professional (or considerate). Arriving unshaven or in a soiled shirt is not professional. Not keeping up with latest training procedures or concepts is not professional. Climbing aboard with no preflight or preflight briefing is not professional (or safe). Refusing to stay and answer post-flight questions is not professional. See the next paragraph.

Treat them as you'd like to be treated. We've all been students, so treat them as you would like to be treated. Be considerate and even-tempered. Refuse to yell or even raise your voice. Put yourself in their shoes and try to see yourself as they see you.

Flight instruction requires that we, to borrow a phrase, be the best that we can be. Sometimes that's not easy, but it's always rewarding. Turning out high-quality pilots is a monument to each of us that will last for a very long time. So, every time you strap in, resolve that this student will be the best you can possibly turn out. You owe that much to him--and yourself.

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 since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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