Safety Publications/Articles


Your students make you a better pilot

Instructing is not for building time

It's unfortunate that flight instructors are usually seen as working in the mail room of aviation: "Go to work there for a while, then after you have logged enough time, you can move on to a real job where you can actually make money." Flight instruction is the foundation upon which the skills for an entire industry are based, but most see it only as a steppingstone to get someplace else in a timelier manner. This is sad. There are a few dedicated professional instructors who have made a career out of instructing, but most instructors are young pilots on their way to another kind of flying.

This view of flight instructing isn't a recent development. Flight instruction has always been considered a transitional phase in an aviation career, and that's not necessarily bad as long as the young instructor comes to work thinking more about his students than his logbook.

All new CFIs must realize that each time they strap in, they are preparing another student pilot for entry into the system, and that pilot is going to carry with him or her virtually every word of instruction the CFI gives. Those words will affect students for the rest of their lives. Good flight instruction instills attitudes and skills that turn into instinctive behavior and make a pilot safer - which, in turn, makes all of aviation safer. Poor instruction does just the opposite. In addition, later in that pilot's life, it is nearly impossible to totally eliminate the difficulties caused by poor basic instruction.

Setting a new student on the right path can't be taken lightly because, among other things, there is some liability exposure here. If an instructor gives haphazard instruction that results in an incident, there's always the possibility that it will come back to bite him legally. The only way to approach being a CFI is to do it as if it's going to be your lifelong career, and get as good at it as you can. That's the best insurance you can give to both your students and yourself.

Teaching of any kind isn't something that can be taught. It has to be learned through on-the-job experience that is layered upon a foundation of basic teaching skills that have been taught. The FAA has done a credible job of formatting its CFI materials, as have other flight training institutions. They've done a good job of pointing out the various pitfalls and giving the instructional tools needed for a CFI to both understand the student and pass along information. They've formalized the lesson plans in an attempt to make all instructors better organized and standardize instruction. This is all necessary, but that's not all there is to it. Flight instructing isn't a cookbook science.

Think back to high school, or college, or when you were learning to fly. You remember certain teachers because they were not only good at what they did, but they also brought something to the classroom that they didn't learn in any instruction manual. They had some sort of intangible attitude that overlaid the basic instruction and made the whole thing work better.

Bare-bones instructing can be a hard-and-fast science, but not if you want to be one of those teachers whom your students will remember. Being a good instructor in any subject is a lot of art combined with a little science. It includes some gossamer magic that comes naturally to some but has more likely been developed through long, hard application of the teacher's own intuitive processes. True teaching can't be taught; it has to be learned because different types of students represent too many variables.

Nowhere is the variation in students more obvious than in the cockpit. Here, on a one-to-one basis, we deal with all of the foibles, characteristics, and traits that make up the individual student, and they are right there in our face challenging us to establish a flow of communication that is optimized for that student. No classroom in the world can teach us what we need to handle every one of those situations. We have to learn it the hard way.

It's tempting to say that it takes experience to be a good teacher, but that's only a small part of instructing. Yes, experience helps, but the number-one attribute of a good instructor is an attitude that says he or she is going to work to communicate with each and every student in the best way possible. That, in turn, means the instructor, new or old, is going analyze every morsel of instruction given to see the student's reaction and then change the next instructional period to make it better then the last.

This is a backhanded way of saying that students create instructors. Not the FAA. Not colleges. Not flight time. Assuming the instructor's attitude is right and she hasn't assumed instructing is a one-way pipeline, the feedback she gets from her student is what will make her an instructor.

Too often new instructors assume they are going to get into the cockpit and immediately begin dispensing pearls of wisdom. They are going to jam this information down a student's throat whether the student is ready for it or not. This, of course, is wrong. In the first place, a new instructor's supply of pearls of wisdom is embarrassingly thin. All such instructors know about instructing is what the FAA or their CFI instructor has told them.

Bear in mind that the CFI who was their primary source of instructional techniques was, in all likelihood, also a low-time instructor. So, although new instructors undoubtedly bring a lot to the table, they can't be considered the ultimate instructional source - nor can they pass along an inexhaustible supply of knowledge pearls. It takes a lot of students before any instructor has seen a wide enough variation in personal requirements that he or she is capable of understanding and dealing with a majority of student types.

That rate at which a CFI improves is strictly based upon his desire to get better and his willingness to listen to his students. The FAA may give you the certificates and your CFI instructor may have given you some of the techniques, but it's going to be your students, combined with your personal attitude, that actually make you an instructor.

If you look at instructing as a guaranteed six to eight hours a day added to your logbook, then you're doing yourself, your students, and aviation a great disservice. If you look at instructing as six or eight hours during which you'll be given an opportunity to not only pass along knowledge but also improve your own understanding of aviation, then you're on the right track.

There's an old saying that you don't really know something until you try to teach it, and that's flight instructing in spades. If you really work at being a good instructor you absolutely won't believe how much it will improve your flying. Even though you touch the controls only occasionally, every hour that you spend in the cockpit with a student moves you a click or two up the pilot skill ladder.

We all want to be better pilots, and that's where the CFI with the right attitude has a leg up on so many others. If you approach instructing with the right frame of mind, you'll become a better pilot. The fact that your logbook is getting fatter at the same time is nothing more than a happy byproduct of the process.

Hours by themselves don't mean anything if you didn't do something constructive during those hours. So, even if you know you're only going to sit on the right side for a thousand hours or so, do it with the goal of producing the best students possible. Your time will be well invested, and aviation will benefit.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 36 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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