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Here's a question

Getting a second opinion

More than one student pilot has asked his CFI this question: "Do flight instructors talk to each other about their students?"

The inquiry has a number of meanings, depending on who's asking. Sometimes the query translates to, "Do flight instructors gossip about their students?" The more common meaning is, "Do flight instructors brainstorm ideas about flight training by discussing the students they are flying with, and the issues that arise?"

As you know, the answer to both questions is yes. The gossip is usually harmless, and there can be benefits if a hangar tale about a close call alerts a fellow CFI to an unanticipated risk. The conversations focused on brainstorming are the ones more students express curiosity about. Their aviation universe is small; they want to know if its players interact. And here, the answer is very much that they do.

Sometimes these conversations are conducted between instructors of equal experience, working in similar training environments and comparing notes. Sometimes they take the form of protégé-and-mentor conferences focused on helping a working CFI find a way for one of his students to achieve a learning breakthrough or solve a problem of low confidence or declining motivation. The second party may be the person who trained the CFI, or it may be a senior colleague, designated examiner, the CFI's employer, or some other veteran of the local scene. Students are often happy to learn that many instructors attend, by regulatory fiat, refresher clinics every two years, during which spirited discussions often break out about training subjects and methods.

If you're a working CFI without a ready answer to the question of who you're going to call when your students test the limits of your skill or patience, my advice is to find someone quick. Chances are, you'll begin tapping your new information resource right away.

Sometimes the answer you seek is so obvious that you wonder why neither you nor your student saw it. So much the wiser next time. It's great fortune if your address book contains the name and number of someone you'd consult on almost any training question that comes along. More likely, you'll have one source of instrument training insights, a taildragger tipster or two, plus a colleague competent to convey constructive commercial-pilot criticism, or provide private-pilot pointers.

My most influential instructor/mentor drilled into me the importance of sensitizing students to the feeling of slipping and skidding flight from the first flight hour of training, thereby promoting the proper use of rudder. The drills he recommended were simple but effective. But the real key was the frequency and extent of their use. Another of the grizzled veterans confided the way he used to break nervous students of the tendency to hold a death grip on the yoke: He had them hold a pencil between the fingers of the left hand. I thought it corny until I tried it on a jittery prospect, and it worked.

Second opinions don't always have to be sought to solve problems. After receiving an inquiry, you might send a student or a certificated pilot to a colleague with special experience in a particular make and model aircraft, or with real-life short fields or mountain flying. That gives the student the benefit of experience and spares you the risks of teaching outside your expertise.

It's not always the flight instructor who decides that a referral will help things along. You could get a call from a student pilot concerned that his or her relationship with the current CFI isn't working out. You may be acquainted with the CFI whose client is calling, or you may not. In either case, your assignment--should you agree to accept it--is to listen carefully, then reduce the story you have heard to its essential question. That might be something easy to handle like "Shouldn't I have soloed by now?" Or it could be a more challenging case: "I think I need a new instructor. What do you think?" Neither inquiry is always possible to address over the telephone--unless it's clear from what you are hearing that the student has hooked up with an entirely inappropriate teacher, perhaps someone who is abusive or obviously disinterested in the training program. If that's not the case, suggest an evaluation flight.

Many flight schools formalize the role of a second opinion in flight training with a syllabus that calls for phase checks with a chief pilot or another instructor at one or more points in the curriculum. Some independent flight instructors use a variation of that technique by sending up a student with a colleague shortly before the checkride, simply for an overall assessment. If you were the only CFI to fly with your student from Day One, doing this can have the added benefit of making the student comfortable with a new presence in the cockpit before the designated examiner comes aboard.

No matter what kind of second opinion you are asked to provide, stay objective. Avoid any temptation to criticize someone else's teaching method just because it doesn't happen to be the same one you use. It can do more harm than good to attempt to "unteach" habits or methods acquired by a student that aren't part of the problem you have been retained to address. However, if you can add something to what has been learned without introducing conflicting ideas, that's constructive.

Such as? Here's one from personal experience: Teaching a student (especially an instrument student) to "bug" every heading to be flown cures the tendency to wander off course, and instills discipline. It's worth mentioning that I was the student, not the CFI, in this instance. Bugging my heading--by rotating the card on a spare ADF or twirling the OBS on an unused VOR head if necessary--is a habit I never forgot.

Before sending a student off for some expensive second-party counseling, remember that many problems with performance of advanced maneuvers trace back to a lack of proficiency with the basics. Ask yourself if another hour of practicing coordination exercises, or slow flight, or some serious straight-and-level, will get the program back on track. Keep a sharp eye out for trim abuse, fixation on instruments--
if so, cover them--or the urge to chase needles in turbulence, before sending the student to outpatient care.

Problem solved? Congratulations on your diagnostic skills. Now ask yourself how to do a better job of teaching the fundamentals next time. Actually, that might make a good question to ask a colleague the next time the two of you are sitting and talking about your students.

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

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