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Proficient Pilot: Creative Instructing

New approaches to training challenges

A month seldom passes without someone asking me to recommend a flight school. My response is always the same: The school is not as important as the instructor. I am then asked to recommend a good instructor. I’m usually unable to do that either. I am acquainted with many CFIs, but I haven’t flown with them and cannot judge their instructing abilities.

A good way to find a good instructor is to ask other students. Another is to ask designated pilot examiners who can rate local instructors on the basis of how well or poorly the students they test have been trained.

There are, of course, significant differences between instructors. The least effective are like drill sergeants barking orders. They demonstrate a maneuver and require the student to repeat it over and over again until satisfied with the results. The best instructors are far more creative. They analyze the needs of their students and tailor their teaching methods accordingly.

Some instructors, for example, teach stalls in the time-honored tradition of having their students raise the nose of the airplane until it points as high as the sun at noon. The predictable result is a student who develops a justifiable fear of practicing such a maneuver.

The instructor’s responsibility is to teach stall recovery from attitudes during which inadvertent stalls are most likely to occur. Recognizing that such steep entries can frighten and discourage new pilots (and almost never occur inadvertently in the real world), the enterprising (and considerate) instructor simply asks his student to retard the throttle and bleed off airspeed by maintaining altitude (or climbing slightly). The airplane will eventually and obviously stall but in a more gentle, realistic manner.

One of my pet peeves is an instructor who seems more interested in having the airplane flown perfectly than in having his student learn to fly it. Such an instructor is in too much of a hurry to correct a student’s mistakes and does not give his student an opportunity to make mistakes and profit from them.

All students should realize that their job is to learn and the instructor’s job is to teach.All students—whether presolo or checking out as an airline captain—should realize that it’s their job to learn and their instructor’s job is to teach. If a student becomes frustrated by a lack of progress (regardless of the type of training), he or she should speak up and suggest that the instructor adopt a new approach to the training challenge. If the instructor is unable to adapt to a student’s needs, it might be time to change instructors.

As an 18-year-old instructor in 1956, I prided myself on being innovative, but my creative efforts were not always appreciated.

Although I do not think that he knew it, Tom Paris was my first student. Because of his seemingly natural ability to fly, he made remarkable progress and was ready to solo after only seven hours of instruction in the Aeronca Champ. Every one of his landings was a squeaker. The problem was that Tom never needed to demonstrate that he could recover from a bounce.

Before I could allow him to solo, I had to determine that Tom could safely recover from a botched landing. So while in the pattern I told him that I was going to bounce the little taildragger during the next few landings. His job was to take over and recover. As expected, he recovered each time without difficulty.

After three such landings, I advised the tower that I was about to release a student for his first solo flight and then climbed out of the rear seat of the tandem taildragger. This apparently got the controller’s attention. He later said that he had never before seen an instructor release a student for solo after a series of such horrendous landings. In fact, he alerted the emergency equipment to stand by (really!) and called the inspector at the local FAA office on the field after clearing Tom for takeoff.

The familiar gray Ford with the federal markings pulled up just as Tom made his first landing—a greaser, as was the second and the third. (The inspector pulled me aside and suggested that I consider tempering my creativity.)

I learned to fly in that same airplane (N81881), and my instructor, Mike Walters, had his own creative method of teaching. He would express displeasure with a student’s performance by whacking him on the back of the head with a rolled-up sectional chart. I measured my progress not by his praise—there never was any—but by how long his chart would last before having to be replaced. My reward was not as much the joy of solo as it was the escape of his dreaded chart.

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years.

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