Millie, who stood 4 feet, 6 inches tall, became my student after spending more than 30 flight hours (without soloing) in the clutches of a bad certificated flight instructor. During our first lesson, Millie preflighted the Cessna 150, hopped into the left seat, and promptly disappeared from sight.
Oh, she was still there, but you couldn’t tell from outside the cockpit. All you could see from that vantage were tiny hands gripping the yoke and the tip of a human head perched just above the panel—much like the drivers you see in Florida. Millie never used booster cushions because her instructor told her, “Real pilots don’t use cushions.” Really? No wonder she hadn’t soloed. No wonder she was so good on instruments. Yikes!
Millie knew the end of that relationship was near when her instructor tried to give her a big, wet kiss during a steep turn. After hearing the phrase, “Who’s your daddy?” one too many times, Millie fired Mr. Casanova. That’s when she showed up on my flight line.
For several decades, I’ve written extensively about the skill and professionalism of the many—many!—good flight instructors teaching today. What I’ve not written about are bad CFIs—the ones that make good instructors look bad. Unfortunately, a bad CFI can ruin a student’s aviation experience for the rest of that person’s life. It’s knowing what bad instructor behavior looks like that gives students in training the confidence to say, “Stop”—or, “I’m ending this relationship” if and when bad behavior appears.
Here are a few poignant examples of bad CFI behavior recently offered by our fellow pilots.
Mr. D, who just retired as an airline captain, had his first instructor clamp a view-limiting device (hood) on his head during his first lesson without mentioning the concept of vertigo. When Mr. D reported his discomfort, the instructor screamed, “You are such a loser! Why can’t you hold your heading?” Color me a skeptic, but I don’t believe the FAA recommends using the phrase, “You are such a loser,” as a tool for motivating students.
Mr. J told me about doing commercial multiengine training with a younger instructor who suddenly grabbed the controls of the Seminole and began doing barrel rolls. Mr. J took the controls away from Skippy and told him that he would “throw his happy [rear end] out of the airplane if he ever attempted to do something so stupid again.” Skippy stopped the mischief once he visualized both lobes of his gluteus maximus being forcefully ejected from the airplane.
Then there’s Ms. P, who wrote, “My first CFI used to sleep in the back of the Citabria—when he wasn’t texting! He also made me cry on more than one bad landing. Another CFI…yelled at me during the entire private prep-ride, screamed during my first landing, cussed me out, then told me he’d never fly with me again and [that] I needed to give up and go home to my kids! Ha, I persevered!”
Mr. O wrote, “During my initial training, I didn’t feel comfortable with power-on stalls. I was afraid of getting into a spin. One instructor used to make fun of my situation…then he would tell other instructors and students in the school how afraid I was, making jokes about me.”
Ms. T wrote to say, “At first, I thought my instructor was extremely considerate because he always let other airplanes go ahead of us while taxiing. After my fifth lesson, I realized that he was just trying to rack up extra time on the Hobbs meter.”
The question is, How does one avoid ending up in the clutches of a bad instructor? Let’s assume you’ve done your homework and feel that you’ve found someone with whom you’d like to train. If so, arrange to fly with this person for no more than three lessons up front. If, after three lessons, you feel that this is the instructor for you, then you can extend your flight training commitment for another three lessons, or more. It’s much easier to break off a bad relationship with a CFI after three lessons than after 30.
Hopefully you’ll never hear an instructor say, “Who’s your daddy?” or “You’re such a loser!” or cuss at you, or take the controls away to do illegal aerobatics—much less make fun of you or use you as an ATM for a steady income. If you do, now is a good time to search for one of aviation’s many—many!—good instructors.
Rod Machado has been an active flight instructor since 1973.