Safety Publications/Articles

What is the 'right stuff'?

The CFI practical test is no cakewalk

Editor's note: The story you are about to read is true. An experienced designated pilot examiner (DPE) related it to the author several years ago. Only the names have been changed to protect those thoroughly rotten with guilt.

About a half-hour into the practical test for an initial flight instructor certificate, the examiner turned to the applicant and said, "This isn't working. Let's return to the airport." The applicant was stunned and responded, "But what am I doing wrong? I thought my maneuvers were nearly perfect." "They were," said the examiner. "But you don't seem to understand what flight instructing is all about. Get your instructor and have him meet me in my office as soon as we are on the ground."

The instructor was nervous as he approached the examiner's office, imagining a reexamination ride in the offing. "Come in, sit down. We need to talk," said the examiner. The examiner looked the instructor straight in the eye and said, "You have done your student a real disservice."

"How so?" asked the instructor. "My student could fly those maneuvers perfectly from the right seat, and his takeoffs and landings were almost flawless during our last flight together. He must have had a bad day."

"It wasn't a bad day," the examiner responded. "He flew fine, but that's not the most important thing I'm testing. Your applicant can't teach! His lesson plans were disorganized. He had trouble expressing himself. He seemed to know the material, but he had difficulty explaining it. In the air, I asked him to demonstrate and teach me turns around a point. He performed the maneuver perfectly but couldn't explain it, tell me why we were doing it, or teach it to me. As far as I'm concerned," the examiner continued, "the CFI is the most important step in aviation certification, because the safety and welfare of future pilots depends on the quality of those who train them. It is much more than just another step to build time to qualify for the airlines. I'm looking for quality teachers. That's why this checkride is so rigorous and takes most of the day."

Thinking back over instruction he had provided the applicant, the instructor realized that he had concentrated on perfecting the applicant's right-seat flying skills and hadn't spent a lot of time on how to teach those skills to someone else.

"Now that I have your attention," the examiner continued, "let me explain to you some of the problems initial CFI candidates have during the practical test, so that when your applicant returns for the retest he may be more successful.

"First of all," the examiner said, "think about the best teachers you ever had in school and the traits that made them so good. They were probably enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and they possessed superb communications skills. Flight instructors must exhibit the same traits as these master teachers." Using his chalkboard, the examiner discussed just a few teaching techniques that make superior CFIs:

  1. Use a syllabus and a lesson plan. It's hard for students to learn when they are surprised at every lesson. There is nothing more unprofessional than asking the student, "Well, what did we do last time?" It's difficult to use the building-block method of instruction when you don't have a plan.
  2. Use precise terms when teaching. Instructors often use phrases such as "pull that out," "put in flaps," "push forward," "take out some bank," and "pull it back," instead of "turn on the carburetor heat," "lower the flaps one notch to 10 degrees," "lower the pitch by pushing forward on the yoke," "reduce the bank by 10 degrees," or "reduce power." The instructor knows what is meant, but often the student doesn't.
  3. Compare more difficult concepts with something that is familiar to the student. For example, when explaining the operation of controllable-pitch propellers, compare trying to climb with a low rpm setting to trying to drive up a hill with a stick shift in high gear. You need to "downshift" when climbing. And, you don't drive at highway speeds in first gear; accordingly, you should use a lower rpm setting when in cruise.
  4. Use illustrations. Many people think in visual terms. The adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," is pertinent when teaching someone to fly. It helps to draw a diagram to explain the traffic pattern, illustrate aerodynamics, or clarify VOR navigation. A blank flip chart or small chalkboard should be essential equipment for the oral portion of the CFI practical test.
  5. Learn to be a multitasker when teaching. While demonstrating a complex maneuver in the air, there seems to be a short circuit in the wiring that goes from the brain to the mouth, causing the instructor to be mute during the maneuver. After the maneuver is over the circuit is restored, and the instructor tells the student after the fact what happened. This is caused by the instructor's having to spend most of his or her mental energy flying the maneuver and looking for traffic, leaving little capacity for speech. The more comfortable you are with flying the maneuver, the easier it is to teach. This can be resolved through practice, both on the ground and in the air. On the ground while alone, one can imagine demonstrating a maneuver to a student while explaining out loud the various steps in clear, concise language. People who overhear you may think you have taken leave of your senses, but the method works. In the air, again alone and from the right seat, fly a maneuver while teaching out loud the various steps involved. After awhile, teaching will become natural to you. Granted, the cockpit is a rotten classroom, but instructors must be able to fly and teach at the same time.
  6. Use scenario-based training. Examiners often use a "what if" technique with CFI candidates as well as applicants for other certificates. A typical question would be, "What if your student was having trouble judging the time to flare during landing? How would you help the student overcome this problem?" Another question: "What if your student consistently stared at the instrument panel instead of looking outside? How would you break that habit?" Instructors can successfully use scenario-based training with students as well. A scenario: "You are on a solo cross-country flight, and you become lost. What do you do?" This technique has proven to be a great aid to learning that provides practical, real-world situations.
  7. Always set a good example. Often an instructor's actions are as important to teaching as is the use of precise language or a lesson plan. Students quickly pick up on an instructor's attitude toward flying. If the instructor rushes through the preflight or consistently makes straight-in approaches to save time, the student will remember and form bad habits after he or she gains a certificate.

The FAA is probably more thorough and demanding in its evaluation of CFI applicants than with any other practical test it gives. The CFI is considered the gatekeeper for the development of skilled, knowledgeable, and safe pilots with whom we all share the airspace. The training we give must be the best, and the FAA evaluation of your applicant will be thorough.

Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He may be contacted by email.

By Richard Hiner

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