Safety Publications/Articles

Full-Service Flight Instruction

How Many Hats Can You Wear?

There are lots of different kinds of students out there: short, tall, emotional, mentally disciplined, politically correct, irreverent, loud, quiet, driven, laid back, slow learners, quick studies'.You name it; CFIs see them all. Each has different aspirations, talents, and motivations.

That's why no two pilot training programs, even for the same certificate or rating, can or should ever be the same. Because of the individual differences between students, instructors generally must be student oriented, not instructor oriented. The student is our customer. A big part of teaching people to fly--as opposed to just logging flying time en route to an airline cockpit somewhere--is maintaining that student focus.

The Importance of Motivation

Each of us wants something different out of life. The same is true of our students. Each has his or her own unique motivation. Some have overcome formidable obstacles to get to the airport. I had one student who worked more than 50 hours of overtime in one week--over and above his regular 40 hours--because he needed the money to fly. That's motivation.

The motivation of World War II flying cadets was clear. The country was at war. The draft was on. Movies portrayed a pilot's life as full of glamour and adventure. Washing out was a ticket straight to a front-line foxhole. Not much mystery about why people wanted to fly and tried hard to succeed. In those turbulent days, Air Corps and Navy pilot trainees were allotted a limited number of flying hours to accomplish specific lessons. Do it right and do it on time or you were gone.

But that was then. This is now. The world has changed. Both flight instruction and flight instructors have had to change with it. Instructors nowadays must take as much interest in the people they teach as in the flying skills they teach.

If you're an old-time CFI, you've noticed that people are coming from many more different directions nowadays compared to when you first started teaching people to fly. Those who come to you may pursue flying as one of many hobbies they squeeze into their busy schedules.

The challenge of flight instruction today is to effectively work within the students' constraints and help them to reach the levels of flying proficiency and knowledge required for them to become pilots. It's as simple as that. We get paid to provide full-service flight instruction. That's why our students come to us, the FAA-certificated professionals. If we have to be part-time psychiatrists, teachers, helpers, managers, drivers--and a lot more, too--then that's what we do to serve our customers.

The whole-person concept that crept into our social lexicon a few years ago is more than just a slogan. It is becoming an increasingly critical paradigm in modern life, and we have to keep it ever present in our minds if we are to provide good flight instruction. More than just learning to fly, most students today want to achieve something. We've got to ferret out what that something is for each student and tailor our instruction to accommodate individual needs.

Straight Talk

Where flying students once had only one thing on their minds--flying--today's students are likely to be bogged down in a hundred other concerns. At the end of a long day at the office, there are still workplace deadlines to meet, there hasn't been much time to study for the next lesson, and traffic can make just driving to the airport a daunting experience. We've got to be sensitive to that as flight instructors and remember that we can help.

When you sense that a student is caught up in that kind of scenario, your approach might need to include straight talk about whether the student's goals are attainable and what may need to change to make those goals realistic. Balancing diverse priorities is an individual talent. Some folks don't do it very well. As the old adage goes, they just don't seem to be able to "walk and chew gum at the same time." Unfortunately, that's what a pilot often has to do in the cockpit. Point that out to your students. It's better if they understand sooner rather than later.

Most experienced instructors have had that sort of discussion with a student or two. Professionals know how to do that. If you haven't done it, start thinking about it. You'll have to do it sooner or later. Straight talk is a key ingredient in the teaching-people-to-fly equation.

Straight talk is also essential to providing good service. Not many of us like surprises. That applies to our students, too. A student who has budgeted a specific amount of time and money to learn to fly shouldn't find out at the eleventh hour that his or her certificate will come at 60-plus hours of flight time--not the 35 or 40 hours that the FARs permit--or that it will cost twice as much as originally estimated.

People like to know the rules, the schedule, and what they are expected to do. Don't change the rules after the game has begun. Managing your students' expectations is an important part of your job that requires constant attention both up front and throughout the training program.

Realistic student expectations are possible only when everyone has the big picture and understands the program. With a clear, carefully planned and tailored program of instruction based on up-front fact-finding and sound, agreed-upon planning, success is possible for virtually every student.


Designing the right kind of program for your student begins with a thorough interview, including an assessment of the student's motivation, goals, and any constraints that may affect the student's ability to pursue those goals. Conduct this interview before you start flying with a new student. The guide to the initial meeting on the previous page can help you ensure that expectations and requirements are fully discussed.

For many students, money is a limiting factor. I make it clear to my students that their time is by far the greater investment and they must study before each lesson--otherwise they are wasting time and money.

My standard scenario at the beginning of a lesson is to ask, "Do you have any questions about what you studied and what we're going to do today?" Notice that I didn't say, "What you read." There is a difference between reading and studying. Study involves thought and reflection--not just exposure. If the student has studied the material, there is something to be learned from the expensive flying time that follows. If the student isn't prepared, it makes no sense to fly. Without preparation, we stay on the ground and learn the material that the student should have studied at home.

If the student has no questions, I say, "Well, I have a few for you." The student's responses verify that he or she has the basic knowledge to profit from the flying we are about to do. That way real learning can happen in flight. It serves no purpose to do something in an airplane that the student doesn't at least intellectually understand before the flight begins. Once knowledge is in the head, the hands part--the actual flying--has a reasonable chance of taking root.

However, outside pressures can preclude students from doing the preparation necessary to fly. If that's the case and the student isn't ready, tell him how much money he's saving by not renting an airplane he isn't ready to fly. Then work with him on the ground. He'll be adequately prepared next time, and he'll thank you in the long run.

Charge for every minute of your time and remind your students they are still saving money. Point out that they can prepare themselves at no cost or have you assist at your hourly rate. The smart ones will study; from the others you have developed another revenue stream.

Regardless of how well you plan and your students prepare, there will be difficulties. When you hit them, analyze what's happening, evaluate the cause, and adjust your plan. Help your students to do the same. Reassess motivation, too. With strong motivation, progress will continue despite setbacks. When problems arise, help your students find a way through. I tell my students that I'll hang in there as long as they come prepared and want to achieve their goals.

The Initial Interview

In order to design the best program for each student, you must start by understanding a little about that student. Here's a checklist of topics worth covering in that first interview.

  1. Motivation. What brought your student to the airport in the first place?
  2. Goals. What does your student hope to achieve?
  3. Student expectations. This is a good time to find out if your student is convinced that he or she can have the private pilot certificate in six weeks while flying once a week.
  4. Constraints. Is it impossible for your student to fly more than once a week? Does your student have a set-in-stone budget for this project?
  5. Ground school study options.
  6. Publications and gear your student will need to purchase, including texts, FAA publications, charts, the FAR/AIM, practical test standards, log book, and pilot's operating handbook.
  7. School administrative procedures, including payment plans and expectations, rates, available facilities, scheduling procedures, and record keeping.
  8. Written exams and stage checks. Let your student know that these are a regular part of the training process.
  9. Instructor expectations. Give your student an idea about how long it may take them to earn the certificate, what it will cost, and what they must do to make it happen. Be honest.
  10. The plan. Let your student know that you will use the information from this interview to create a training program to be discussed at your next lesson.

By Wally Miller

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