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CFI to CFI

Why do we instruct?

Remember that the PTS establishes minimums

Flight instructors, ask yourselves: Who are we? Why are we instructing? What is our purpose in that role? Although those may seem simple questions, they are anything but--and for the sake of our students, our answers should be brutally honest.

This little exercise is aimed at identifying what attracted us to flight instruction and how we're approaching the job. Your answers will vary depending on whether you're a part-time or full-time instructor and whether you're teaching as a career, or as the necessary first step to launch your flying career. We'll take this last point first.

Only a small percentage of flight instructors will pursue this as their career--for their entire lives. Unless you're working for one of the big flight academies, the hours are either long and back-breaking and the pay short, or you're sitting around hoping someone will walk through the door--and the pay is short. Either way, pay is not the reason a career instructor teaches.

What is a career instructor going to see in the mirror? Some people are hard-wired to be educators. They can't not teach. With flight instruction, there is the additional narcotic effect of flying. So, if you're a career instructor and say, "I do it because I like it," don't feel guilty. It's OK to say you like your job. Plus, there's a good chance you sense that there's a higher calling at work here.

Now, think only about the teaching part. Flying jobs are everywhere. So, being paid to fly isn't the reason you teach, is it? That's just a happy by-product. But, teaching? That's only found in the aerial classroom, and a career instructor has willingly made that choice: long hours, constant frustration of trying to break through to that one student who just doesn't seem to "get it." And it's all worth it, isn't it?

If you're just breaking into aviation, look closely at your reasons for teaching. For the vast majority of newcomers the answer is obvious: to build time. Aviation initially evaluates a pilot using hours as the yardstick, and you need the hours to open the door. Once inside the door, the true evaluation process begins. Still, the evaluation process has to start somewhere, and the assumption that the more a pilot has flown, the more he'll know is at least partially valid. And flight instruction sometimes suffers because of it.

At the end of each workday, is the reward you anticipate the number you write in your logbook? Or do you get a kick out of thinking back to a student who exclaimed out loud, "I see it! I see it! Now I know what you're talking about!" Outside of the flight instruction arena there won't be many instances in which you have the sure realization that you changed a person's life in a way that will stay with him as long as he flies.

In so many ways, the reward is much larger than it appears. It doesn't matter whether you're a career instructor or just passing through. If you give yourself over to the experience and set goals beyond flight hours, you'll be the richer for it. No one teaches who doesn't also learn. And yes, our logbooks get fatter in the process.

If you're just instructing for the hours, then you're shortchanging your students and yourself. You're just going through the motions.

What about part time versus full time? The part-timer definitely isn't in it for the money; for every hour in the cockpit, you invest another 90 minutes going to the airport, briefing, debriefing, and driving home. So, the pay per hour invested is nearly at minimum-wage levels. A job in a fast-food restaurant carries neither the risk nor the responsibility of flight instructing.

And then there are the "what" questions: What is our mission? What does each student expect? What do we owe him?

On the surface, it would appear as if our mission is simply to teach a person to fly, which should be exactly what the student expects, and that's all we owe him. But, is that really true? The answer is yes. And no.

The phrase "teach a person to fly" is open to definition. It's obvious that there are varying degrees of knowing "how to fly." The most obvious ingredient is the ability to operate the controls. Another is the skill with which those controls are operated. Yet another ingredient is having enough background knowledge that not only can the controls be operated, but also the student truly understands why he's making a specific move.

More than most education processes, flight instruction has all sorts of federal mandates and standardization attached to it. In addition, the government, or its representatives, conducts the final exam and issues the graduation certificate. Very few other teaching processes are so tightly monitored. And this is only right. The FAA, through the practical test standards, gives us minimum standards that our students have to reach. They do not, however, establish maximum standards. Individual instructors decide how far above the minimums they are going to set their goals.

When we ask ourselves what we owe the student, do we automatically think of the PTS and passing the checkride? If so, then we should try to remember exactly what it is that the PTS is doing and the purpose of the checkride. The PTS and checkride guarantee every pilot wannabe can jump a hurdle of a given height. Those standards are a ticket to get out into the world and really start learning, and the hope is that the minimums they've learned will let them continue flying until experience gives them what they'll need to survive.

Regardless of an instructor's personal experience, we should recognize the minimalist nature of the PTS and ignore the carrot that passing the checkride represents. We should be training for the real world that lies beyond the checkride.

Who are we, what do we do, and what do we owe our students? We are educators who enable the realization of a student's dream. We do our very best to make that student the most skilled, most knowledgeable pilot possible. Simple, right?

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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