CFI to CFI
Keeping training moving
Flight training, in theory, follows a predictable course from the introductory phase through maneuvers, solo, cross-country, night flight, test prep, and checkride. You present and demonstrate each task, integrate that work with ground study, then guide and critique until you can move on. In this theoretical universe on which your syllabus is based, there's wind when you need wind for maneuvers--and none when it's unwelcome, as for first solo. Students never hit learning plateaus or setbacks, paperwork always flows smoothly, an examiner is always available when needed. Training aircraft never break down or get force-landed in a hay field when you're next in line to fly it.
But you function in the real world of flight instructing, and it's your job to have a new plan ready when glitches and delays crop up. How well you keep things moving will have lots to do with how long it takes your students to earn their certificates, what it costs them, and how well they'll learn.
Even when things seem to be grinding to a halt, there's a way to keep training moving. Improvise! You can't practice crosswind landings if there's no wind. The resourceful CFI has a Plan B. Maybe it's a good time to review minimum controllable airspeed, or introduce flight solely by reference to instruments. Or take a short hop over to a nearby grass strip or tower-controlled airport for an introduction to those flight environments. Depending on how comfortable the student seems with tower communications, spice up the pattern work with some go-arounds, no-flap landings, and--if the tower consents--some nonstandard traffic patterns or short approaches. With luck, wind will come up while you're flying and you can get back on the day's plan with a few crosswind landings. Serve up this dynamic flying and your student will forget any disappointment that the lesson he studied for could not be flown, or was curtailed.
Keeping it moving makes training exciting and fun, but keeping it moving, and moving on, can conflict. If your student just isn't getting it on something so basic that skipping ahead isn't wise, you must find a way to break the logjam. Don't slouch into boring, costly repetitions.
Create a way to move ahead. There are many possibilities. Some are simple, some are sly. What works depends on the student. There's the you-teach-me method, in which you and your student reverse roles and work through the maneuver. This is a good diagnostic tool, often revealing misunderstanding by the student--or by you!--of a maneuver's elements.
There's the observational method. Have the student ride backseat and observe someone else's dual training flight. Not only will the student tell you what he's learned, but don't be surprised if he offers up a critique. (This is a good sign.)
There's the anti-distraction method. If a student practicing airspeed/configuration changes can't stop fixating on the airspeed indicator, cover it up and have her fly by feel. Remind her that if an airplane gives 100 knots at 2,200 rpm, and 70 knots at 1,600 rpm, it will do so whether she can see the ASI or not. Covering the offending gauge (or gauges) cures fixation. Then it's a nice, confidence-building touch to leave them covered until you shut down on the ramp--which will probably be the next time your student remembers that they exist.
If none of the creative techniques you employ is helping, there's the second-opinion method. Have your student fly with a respected colleague who either eliminates the learning roadblock or offers some thoughts on what to try next.
When tackling students' learning problems, it helps to reflect on your own training days. What produced breakthroughs? Long ago the owner and chief flight instructor of a brand-new FBO in New England had a particularly stubborn case: me. My issue was crosswind landings. I'd studied the technique and practiced a bit, but things just weren't working out. What allowed the whole thing to come together for me was one small clarification. That clarification emerged during a casual conversation in the office--reason enough for any instructor to really listen when their students talk offhandedly about their flying.
My novice brain had considered how the wing-low crosswind landing method must work, but it kept running up against what seemed a fatal flaw in the technique: If you held the wing low all the way to touchdown, using opposite rudder to keep the airplane pointed straight down the runway (reasoned my 15-hour flying brain), you would have to land on only one wheel! That seemed like a violation of all that was good and proper. I protested my confusion.
"Right," said the FBO owner. "You touch down on the upwind wheel." Breakthrough! Had I not been prepared to confess my confusion, who knows how long the problem might have persisted? Which brings up a related point: Encourage questions. No one wants to look stupid, but if you create a climate in which doubts can be expressed freely, self-consciousness will not hinder your student's learning.
Speaking of breakthroughs, when taking a student pilot to a new level, timing is everything. Set the stage carefully, especially if a first solo, or even a second or third solo, is contemplated. The more you fly with someone, the better you'll be able to sense when they're hot and when they're not. Some students are emotionally drained or stressed beyond repair after a work day; if that's when a lesson must be scheduled, be alert for signs to go easy or abbreviate the session. Lesson length is a subject in itself. What works best for one student may exceed another's productive limits. But don't mistake perplexity for fatigue. A student pilot temporarily overmatched by a challenging maneuver, wind, or turbulence may bounce back (so to speak) after a short break during which you manipulate the controls.
Keeping it moving has a ground component, too. Making sure your student has a medical certificate and a passed presolo written test early on will let you seize best opportunities for a first solo. Remind the student that the appropriate knowledge test should be in the bag before checkride day. Stay on him about it. In the case of someone returning to training after a long lag, the test score could be nearing expiration (as could the medical).
Make it a point to keep a running tab on flight-time requirements, ensuring that you don't leave your student an hour short on cross-country flight time, solo, simulated instrument, or night flight. Nothing reflects worse on a CFI than having to schedule an extra flight because a logbook detail was missed. Speaking of scheduling, secure aircraft availability well ahead. If your applicant-to-be flies multiple trainers, book the one he likes best. Don't get sandbagged by scheduled maintenance; annual or 100-hour inspections can ground an aircraft for days or weeks. Coordinate with the shop.
Giving your designated pilot examiner a heads-up that you'll be sending a student his way also could head off scheduling difficulty. Is the student the nervous type, expressing dread of the coming ride? Engineer a way for him to meet the examiner in advance under casual circumstances to see for himself that the DPE isn't a three-headed monster. A radical idea for dealing with a seriously checkophobic student (or if the examiner really is a three-headed monster) is to give the student minimum time to fret. Springing the ride on him on an hour's notice (with the examiner's collusion) may seem a dirty trick, but it will get him up and over. He'll thank you for it afterward. And it will make a good hangar tale, down the road.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.
By Dan Namowitz