Safety Publications/Articles

What Students Need To Know

You Never Know Where A Former Trainee May Show Up

Ten years from now, you and your family are boarding a regional airliner for an eagerly anticipated vacation. As you board the jet you glimpse the captain - and you recognize him (or her) as one of your flying students from 10 years before. Do you:

  • a) Enthusiastically greet the captain, congratulating him/her on the accomplishment;
  • b) Hastily remove your family from the jet, because you remember how he/she flew in the left seat of the trainer a decade earlier - and how you taught him or her; or,
  • c) Continue with some trepidation, figuring that things probably will be OK - but you'd really like to know how the gaps in your former student's knowledge were filled in.

Some of us want to be lifelong educators. We earn our CFI credentials and perhaps add on instrument or multiengine instructor ratings because we love flying and we love to teach. Or you may have just picked up the certificate on the way to something else - a stepping stone to a more lucrative corporate or airline seat. That's OK, so long as you approach instruction with the professionalism and dedication that it demands. You never know where your students may end up. It's up to you to prepare them for the challenges of whatever brand of flying they pursue.

Given time, it's relatively easy to teach almost anyone the basics that'll get him or her through a checkride. To completely fulfill your obligations as an instructor, however - even if you don't plan on instructing for long - there's a lot more you need to teach as a CFI.

What You Must Teach

Few aircraft accidents result solely from failed equipment, or even failed pilot stick-and-rudder skills. Most times it's a bad piloting decision and not something directly spelled out in the Airplane Flying Handbook or the practical test standards that directly leads to a mishap. (Inadequate skill level is the primary cause of takeoff and landing accidents, however, which are the most common cause of dented aluminum.)

In addition to the basics measured by the PTS, in the short time you have with each student you need to teach how to:

  • Minimize distractions. It's hard to fly an airplane with a sick passenger, or with a cabin door open in flight, or with a disorganized jumble of charts in the cockpit. You can teach techniques that will help your students learn how to minimize distractions. Tell them about altitude-critical areas and the "sterile cockpit rule" (see "Listen Up Out There," September AOPA Flight Training). Show them how to properly secure cabin doors, lock seats into place, and configure the cabin for flight - and demand that they use a printed before-takeoff checklist to verify that they remembered everything. Recommend ways in which to arrange charts and approach plates for efficient use in flight.
  • Prioritize actions. Similarly, your students need to learn what's important at any given point in a flight, and what can wait until there's more time. Teach a proper sequence for preparing the airplane for takeoff, establishing cruise climb, and leveling off. Present techniques for efficiently preparing the airplane for descent, approach (whether visual or instrument), and landing. Well-trained students will come to realize that there's very little which has to be done right now, but they'll also know to take advantage of any quiet time to prepare for what's going to happen next. They shouldn't be trying to listen to ATIS at the same time that they're leveling off from a descent, or calling the tower to report "missed approach" before establishing a positive rate of climb. Students depend on you to teach prioritization.
  • Communication. It's important not only to make a broadcast, but also to make the information usable. All radio communication should be clear and concise, using standard terminology from the Aeronautical Information Manual's Pilot/Controller Glossary. The well-coached pilot will communicate confidently and effectively with air traffic control, be able to request additional ATC services as desired, and be ready to get help in an emergency. Just as important, pilots who aspire to airline and other multi-pilot crew positions must be willing to tell their cockpit partner what they are thinking and what the airplane is doing. You as CFI need to teach your students the value of communication.
  • Navigation. Time and time again an airplane comes to grief because pilots (or an entire crew) simply did not know where they were. Today's sophisticated navigation equipment is fantastic for spatial orientation - as long as it works. When it fails, however (boxes break; GPS can be intermittent), the pilot had better have solid "old-fashioned" navigation skills ready to take over. But before GPS or even loran we talked about pilots being too dependent on VOR/DME navigation. There's no substitute for basic pilotage and dead-reckoning skills. You need to teach the full spectrum of navigation.
  • Weather. Weather is a factor in many accidents, but other than collegiate and military training programs, not much emphasis is placed on weather in pilot education. Teach your students to look to the sky and tell you if it's VFR, marginal VFR, IFR, or low IFR. Show how a cloud's shape and altitude provide clues to the hazards they contain. Go over observations and forecasts with your students, and make sure they know the differences (and the limitations) of each. Practice getting weather updates on dual flights so that it becomes natural to your students when they fly solo. Point them to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online SkySpotter program ( ) to learn more about filing and evaluating pilot reports. Your students need to know how to observe and evaluate the weather.
  • Using checklists. We're good about showing our students how to use a checklist for starting the engine, the runup, and getting the plane prepared for takeoff. But in those cases, pilots are under little stress. It's in flight where they're more likely to forget things, to omit critical actions. Teach your students to establish each new flight condition (climb, level-off, descent, approach) from memory, and then, as time permits, to reference the printed checklist - to verify that nothing was missed. You'd be surprised how often even experienced pilots benefit from the use of a printed checklist.
  • From rote to understanding. One of my very first solo students began a go-around. He gave the Cessna full throttle and began retracting the flaps - and immediately started drifting to the left. Soon he was over the grass and pointed at a line of hangars, with me on the radio frantically coaching him to apply rudder and resume control. He made it, and then made a pretty good landing. On debrief, it was obvious that he didn't fully understand the concept of left-turning tendency and its effect in a high-power/high-angle-of-attack condition. In retrospect, it was my failure for letting him solo after achieving a rote ability to make "pretty good" takeoffs and landings, but without demonstrating true understanding. Similarly, you need to be sure that your students fully understand everything they need to know to exercise their current level of flying privilege-from solo student through the ATP - so things like the need for rudder input in a go-around aren't a surprise. Make sure your students develop understanding before being sent off alone.

Your job as a CFI goes far beyond simply preparing a pilot for the FAA practical test. It's up to you to develop well-rounded pilots for a lifetime of safe flying. This isn't about checkrides; it's about survival - survival of the pilot and passengers. Beyond the PTS, there's much more that you need to do to be a "complete" CFI.

Thomas P. Turner is a 2,900-hour single and multiengine instrument instructor and aviation writer who resides in Cleveland, Tennessee.

By Thomas P. Turner

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