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CFI to CFI

The first 500 hours of dual

Where you really learn to fly

Strapping in with your very first student is an experience that generates feelings not that far removed from those we experienced on our initial solo. There is a very clear feeling of nakedness because the other seat has no instructor in it. It's just the airplane and you--except that this time, there's a total stranger in that other seat. You are now expected to take your training knowledge and transfer it into the student.

New instructors react to those first few flights in a variety of ways, ranging from overconfidence to damp palms to an embarrassing inability to remember our own names. However, it takes only a few flights to settle down and come to grips with the entire concept of flight instructing. Then, for the next 300 to 500 hours you find yourself developing your own style. If you're open to the experience--rather than just going through it by rote--you start finding out what you really don't know about flying, airplanes, human behavior, and the process of teaching.

The good news is that the FAA, supported by an endless stream of instructional aid companies, has developed some really excellent teaching methods. The bad news is that none of that stuff will work 100 percent of the time. Or, put another way: 100 percent of the methods are wrong at least part of the time.

Even the FAA can't totally prepare you for every student, much less your first one, because, among other things, they've trained you for the "average" student. This means that virtually everything you learned during your CFI training has to be "adjusted" to fit every student.

With your first couple of students, however, you'll have nothing on which to base those adjustments. You'll be winging it in more ways than one. For that reason, one of the most important attitudes you can adopt is, "The student is a mirror of me and my teaching techniques. If I look in the mirror often enough, I'll see what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong." The student, through his actions and words, is going to give you a report card every time you're in the cockpit. On top of that, he or she is going to be teaching you much more about flying than any instructor you've ever had.

None of this will happen, however, if you're not sensitive to it. If you climb into the cockpit thinking you have all the answers, both you and your student are going to suffer. Don't kid yourself; you never stop learning from students. Never!

All that having been said, we can't expect our student to present us with a concise list of our educational transgressions. Unless you're really abusive, the student isn't going to question your knowledge or your technique. He will, however, let you know in no uncertain terms when you're doing something wrong or not communicating something effectively.

This last point--the student hearing what we're saying differently than we intended--is really what educational communication is all about. We know what we want the student to learn, and we say and demonstrate that as clearly as we can. But it doesn't always come across the way we want, and we can easily gloss over the indications that something in that student's brain didn't receive the message we thought we were sending.

Student feedback can be subtle or obvious. The most obvious feedback is questions. A question of any kind, no matter how trivial or how serious, should be carefully examined. The first thing we want to determine is whether the subject of the question is something we've already covered, or at least something we thought we covered. Or is it something we haven't covered? If the question concerns a past discussion it may say several things about our presentation:

  • We didn't use language that this particular student understood.
  • We skipped over some important points that tie the concept together.
  • We don't understand the concept well enough to present it clearly.
  • We didn't emphasize the subject strongly enough.

If the question is about a new subject altogether, the student is bringing up something we hadn't thought to address. That could mean there's a gap in our presentation. Guess what? We should work that subject into our very next lesson to our very next student.

Listening to questions and using them to fine-tune our instructional pitch is one of the very best ways to accelerate our abilities as instructors. If one student asks a question, there is a strong probability that other students have missed exactly the same point but didn't ask about it. That means those students are wandering around out there with a hole in their knowledge. For that reason, we take every single question seriously and carefully analyze what it's saying about us, and we make sure our students realize that the very best thing they can do is ask questions.

This last point is as much for us, as beginning instructors, as it is for our students. We can't know what we're skipping over or doing wrong unless our students let us know, so we have to encourage them to consider the flight instruction process a two-way information exchange.

Incidentally, students quite often think of the most important questions when they are away from the airport. Then, they are frustrated when they get back in the cockpit and can't recall that question. A cure for that is to make it a policy that every one of our students carry a notebook, or at least an index card, specifically to write down questions as they occur. This may well be the most useful teaching/learning aid we can use.

When we first start instructing it's important we learn to look for nonverbal cues as well as listen to the verbal ones. Frustration, fear, misunderstanding, and a host of inner thoughts can be read in facial expressions and body language. A student doesn't have to say, "Hey, I'm a little apprehensive here," if he seems tense and has a death grip on the controls. Again, we have to be sensitive to these emotions.

We don't need words to tell us we aren't doing a good job of explaining a concept like leveling out in ground effect and holding it off, for instance, when a student repeatedly slams it onto the runway. If a student repeatedly does something wrong, don't assume it's because he or she can't do it. Always assume you didn't explain it in the right way for that particular student. Yes, you may have explained it. In fact, you may have used what you learned while working on your flight instructor certificate, but if it isn't working, it isn't working. You need to look at that student a little more closely and see what you can do to make your presentation more understandable.

One area in which we all fall down is when we don't realize that we're using jargon ("OK, round-out now!") or a vocabulary that doesn't match the student's. Before getting into the cockpit with a student, engage him or her in enough conversation to determine their occupation and general education level and what kind of vocabulary they are likely to respond to. For example, technical types (engineers, builders, and the like) respond to words like "vector" or "critical alignment."

At the same time, as early as possible in our instructional careers, we need to be sensitive to what kind of learning style a student favors. Some absolutely need every concept drawn out in chalk talks before they get in the airplane. Others need to be talked through it while they manipulate the controls. Still others watch our demonstrations and mimic our movements. Most need a combination of these approaches. Clearly, knowing what a student responds to is important.

And then there is what we, as pilots, are going to learn from our students. It's one thing to teach, and it's something else entirely to sit there, letting someone else make a mistake, then giving them enough time to correct that mistake while still maintaining a recovery margin for ourselves. Five hundred hours of that kind of flying and you'll find that your mental, physical, and visual abilities increase a dozen times over. You'll become sensitive to control nuances and aircraft movements you didn't even know existed. There is almost no way you cannot become a better pilot after instructing for 500 to 1,000 hours.

There are dozens of cute little clich¿s about the student-teacher relationship. Things like:

"No one learns as much as one who teaches."

"The best teachers are usually your students."

"Listen closely, your student is teaching you something."

The list goes on and on and, as with most clich¿s, there is more than a grain of truth to them. Clich¿s become clich¿s because they are so true. If you don't believe that, just wait and see what your next student has in store for you.

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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