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Perfect Match

Picking a person to teach you to fly

Finding a good flight instructor has to be one of the more important tasks for the new student pilot. Sometimes it can be even more difficult than mastering the public’s benchmark of aviation—those smooth, seemingly effortless landings. Given that you need to be comfortable with and have confidence in your certificated flight instructor (CFI), it’s worth spending some time to find the right match. What’s important as you begin your search? What should you look for? Whom should you avoid? Does it really make that much difference?

I recall finding my first CFI through a pilot friend who got me interested in aviation. We went to the airport in November 1968 and stopped at the hangar whose sign read “Piper Dealer.” I plunked down my $5 and took an introductory flight from the chief flight instructor, who just happened to be minding the store when I walked in. I was lucky; I stumbled upon a good instructor during my first visit to the only FBO on the field.

After that first flight, which my logbook shows was on November 6, 1968, in a Piper Cherokee 180—N9216J—from Gnoss Field in Novato, California, I was definitely hooked—on something that I’d always wanted to do. I was itching to get started, so my friend wisely suggested that I continue training with the same CFI, even though his limited availability meant he would be harder to schedule for lessons. I see from those rather yellowed pages that I took all my training with Tom Treadwell except for one flight, and then passed my checkride on June 22, 1969. I was very lucky to find the kind of instructor we’d all like to have: an experienced pilot who enjoyed teaching and could easily convey his knowledge to beginners.

Other instructors in my career have ranged from the good and not-so-experienced to the bad and quite experienced variety. From those who were there to teach while they built up hours to those who loved flying and truly enjoyed sharing their knowledge, it was obvious that the best ones were those who loved to fly and loved to teach. They taught their students not only the information they needed to know, but also why and how something works. They helped students integrate the information into everyday flying. They enjoyed seeing those big smiles that occur when bits of learning began to register and finally made sense.

When you’re asked about finding a good instructor, it’s easy to say, “Just look for the most experienced pilot around and choose him or her for your CFI.” Sometimes, however, that can backfire just as easily as deciding that you’ll rent the newest airplane on your FBO’s flight line thinking that it will surely fly the best. Neither age nor experience is the sole indicator of a good CFI. We’ve all seen combinations of both that make for great, as well as ghastly, instructors.

As a new student pilot, you may not be quite sure of what to expect since it’s likely you have no basis for comparison. As long as you’ve got no serious learning problems or personality conflicts with your CFI, you’ll probably get a good aviation education. Fortunately, the FAA has seen fit to return the job of initial CFI certification to its own Flight Standards District Offices, so you can be assured that your instructor is a competent pilot and teacher—but the fact remains that some flight instructors just like to teach more than others.

As you progress in your training, you’ll be able to judge the quality of your instruction by reading different aviation publications, talking with other students, and comparing your experiences with other pilots. Ask them how they get along with their instructor, what techniques he or she uses, and how they handle any problem areas that they may have encountered—landings or stalls, for example. Give your CFI some time to work out any problems that may develop, but if you don’t get results after a couple of lessons, suggest that you go up with a different instructor for a flight or two, to see whether a change of perspective or teaching method helps you to iron out the rough spots.

Probably the most important part of learning any phase of flying is having a teacher you feel comfortable with, and whose style of teaching meshes with your style of learning. If conflicts occur, be they mental or verbal, it’s time to resolve the problem now. You’re paying a lot of money to learn this new skill and it’s important that you have the instructor who works with you, not against you. (For more on how flight instruction can be tailored to a specific learning method, see “The Other Left: Understanding styles of learning,” February AOPA Flight Training.)

As a new CFI at a large flight school in Northern California, I always made sure my students knew that I’d never be insulted or offended if they changed instructors. Everyone learns at different rates, and various styles of teaching can easily affect your progress. If you are uncomfortable with your present CFI, I say “switch, don’t fight.” Also, one instructor may be great for primary flying and then fail to live up to your expectations as you progress through subsequent certificates and ratings. My suggestion is to give it a chance, but if it doesn’t work out after a few lessons, change instructors.

One of our local pilots almost gave up flying completely when her instructor led her to believe she was incapable of learning the material. Figuring it was her fault, she put flying aside and began to avoid our local flying club’s meetings. When I asked her how her instrument rating was coming along, she made various responses designed to avoid the subject. Probing a bit further, I learned from her husband that she’d virtually given up on the idea of ever being able to handle the airplane in the clouds and was quite distressed over the whole matter. After talking with her, I suggested she try a flight school in the Los Angeles area that emphasized simulator training and specialized in instrument flying. She subsequently resumed her instrument training, finished up her rating, and told me, “This new instructor’s great—he doesn’t yell at me!”

Needless to say, anyone whose instructor yells at her should run, not walk, to the nearest exit and find a new CFI who uses normal speaking tones for communicating. Patience, understanding, and good communication skills are the keys to successful teaching.

How do you find a good CFI? Well, you saw me do it by having a friend accompany me to the airport for my first lesson. He helped me pick a good instructor (albeit one of very few available), based on his own aviation experience. If you’ve got a friend who flies, ask him or her for assistance, even if he or she doesn’t know any of the staff at the local FBO.

Take an introductory ride (or two) at each FBO until you find an instructor whose pace matches yours. You may sample several instructors at the same flight school before you find a good match, but remember, all that flight time counts toward your new certificate or rating. Be sure to purchase a logbook after your first lesson to record all your find-a-CFI flights. For any phase of training, look for someone who’s easy to talk to, listens to what you say, speaks clearly, and explains the terminology as he goes. There’s nothing worse than someone who tries to impress a novice with “aviation-ese.” The old KISS principle works just as well in aviation: Keep It Simple, Sky King!

Avoid the “Right Stuff” types who see themselves as God’s gift to aviation. Anyone who intentionally speaks over your head, trying to impress you with his vast knowledge, should be left to ponder his own greatness while you head back to the front desk to get a list of other available instructors. Be sure to ask for references, too. Request a list of their current students, particularly those working at your level, and call them to find out what they like and don’t like about their instruction.

Your instructor should give you thorough preflight and postflight briefings with every lesson. An airplane is the worst classroom in the world: noisy, bumpy, and certainly not the place to receive your first introduction to a maneuver. Before every lesson your CFI should tell you what you’ll be covering that day, along with descriptions of the maneuvers and what you’re expected to accomplish by the end of the lesson. (Ideally you will know the lesson plans days in advance so that you can read up on the planned maneuvers well before flight time.) After each flight, the instructor should review what you learned, how well you performed, offer suggestions to improve your performance, and preview what your next lesson will cover.

You want a CFI who is competent, conscientious, and prompt. Good instructors know the material, and if it’s something they’re not sure about, they’ll admit it and look it up for you. Your instructor should expand your horizons by recommending reading material and providing you with copies of articles she finds valuable. Look for someone who looks and acts as though she is serious about the business of instructing. That means neat, clean, and dressed appropriately, as well as knowledgeable and well-spoken. They must put you first when it’s your lesson and be well prepared for each session.

Now that we’ve covered your instructor’s obligations, let’s focus on your responsibilities as a student. They start with showing up on time when you’re scheduled for a lesson and calling to cancel when you can’t make it. Doing your homework assignments goes without saying, but more important is taking the time to write down the questions you have, however silly or dumb you think they are. Remember, no question is a dumb question if you don’t know the answer. What’s dumb is not asking the question, but nodding yes when you really don’t understand—since the answer may one day save your life.

Instrument flying in particular requires discussion before and after each flight. This kind of teaching makes the in-airplane learning occur as rapidly as possible, allowing you to make good use of that expensive flight time. Expect to pay for the pre- and postflight briefings; they are a crucial element of your flight instruction, even though they occur without the airplane’s Hobbs meter running. I tell my students that I charge them for the total time I’m with them, because I work just as hard on the ground as I do in the air.

A good CFI makes each new concept a logical extension of the last. There are no complex or mysterious subjects. Instead, every subject is a building block that is added to your current aviation knowledge, rounding out your understanding of the field. Learning should be fun and easy if the subject is presented properly.

Good instructors enjoy teaching serious students. Demonstrating your interest and enthusiasm for learning to fly is an excellent way to accelerate your training sessions. If the opportunity arises, ask to ride along with other students (assuming a four-place trainer is being used) to observe their training. This can be particularly helpful as you move up to the IFR training arena, where observation of required maneuvers can shorten your own training cycle.

In closing, let me recommend that you pick your CFI as you would choose your lawyer, CPA, doctor, or dentist. You want someone who can give you good professional service. Your instructor should be someone whom you enjoy, fits your style, and works well with you.

Plan to budget your time and resources to keep a good CFI on retainer, scheduling time regularly, and reviewing periodically when you’re not working on a certificate or rating. Think how much easier your next flight review will be if you’ve spent two hours every six months brushing up on your flying. Let the instructor know what you expect from him—how often you want to fly, what you want to work on, and how best to schedule your time.

Help the rest of us as well by speaking up when you find a good—or bad—CFI. And encourage your pilot friends to become flight instructors; they’re a dwindling resource, and we need all the help we can get. Perhaps you should consider becoming a CFI yourself. It’s a wonderful way to really learn about flying.

As originally published in May 2003 edition of Flight Training magazine.


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