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Tips to impress your CFI

Flight schools can be busy places, and your CFI has his or her hands full helping you and your colleagues get to that next phase in your training. Larger schools may have hundreds of pilots pass through their halls in any given year, and the instructors and staff try hard to meet the needs of each individual. Many schools schedule their instructors in back-to-back time slots, with little time in between lessons. Given the hectic pace of many flight schools, just how do you set yourself apart?
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Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

Be prepared. Show up five minutes early for lessons. Five minutes tells your instructor that you respect his or her time. Use the time to do something that furthers your goal of becoming a pilot. Re-read the section in your ground program that applies to that day’s lesson. You might be surprised how much you pick up by going over the material again. Peek ahead to the next section in your reading to see what’s coming.

Never be late. If something comes up and being a little tardy is unavoidable, call and talk directly to your CFI, if possible. Don’t depend on somebody else to pass along the message. Reporting that you’ll be late is your responsibility, and facing your CFI with the news shows you’re not hiding behind other people. If you cannot speak to your instructor directly, get the name of the person you talk to and use his/her name when you see your CFI. Give a brief explanation for why you’ll be late and a simple, short apology. “Sorry I’m late, Jim, I had to jump-start my car this morning. I asked Bob to let you know I was on my way. I hope you got the message.” Above all, try not to let it happen again. Respecting your instructor’s time and demonstrating that your flight training is a priority says you’re focused. Being focused is good, especially for neurosurgeons, bomb defusers, and pilots.

Do your homework (and more). Certain things can show your instructor that you’re not just doing the minimum to get by, that you take your job as a student pilot seriously. For example, most online ground training programs feature links throughout the program to get more in-depth details about the subject at hand. Don’t blow these off; take the time to dig into these additional resources and read them carefully. Don’t think a one-time exposure is enough. Review the content at least twice. Often video links can bring challenging concepts to life, with live footage or graphics to clarify the subject.

In addition to your school’s training program, YouTube is a tremendous resource for videos on virtually every facet of flight training. Can’t quite grasp how wingtip vortices behave? Don’t get what a microburst is? Need a little different perspective on how to land in crosswinds? YouTube and other free online resources will give you all the tools you need to go beyond the basics and get a deeper, fuller understanding. It’s amazing how much more you’ll learn by doing the extras. Your instructor will notice.

Study the maneuvers before you start flying them. There is a right and wrong way to do each of the procedures in your flight training program, from engine start to shutdown and everything in between. Your school’s curriculum will specify the steps in each procedure, and they’re also spelled out in the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook and other official publications. Your training will progress faster with better results if you read and chair fly the maneuvers before you start doing them with your CFI.

Consider creating a “mini checklist” for each maneuver based on the steps and completion standards specified in your training materials. Review your checklists with your CFI, make changes as suggested, then go through them several times at home before trying them in the airplane. When it comes time to do them with your CFI, he or she will be impressed that you have a pretty good handle on the theory behind the maneuvers and can cite the steps from your checklist. Once you’ve seen them demonstrated by your CFI and practice them a time or two in the airplane, you’re ready to fly them at home from the comfort of your favorite dining room chair. Use your checklists, but don’t just read them—do each step as if it’s real. Reach for the imaginary controls, call out clearing turns, and verbalize each step in the maneuver. Flying the procedures is a manual skill that requires physical practice, and doing them at home is a great way to reinforce basic skills. Besides, your chair’s Hobbs meter probably runs a little slower than the one in the airplane.

Start the checklist habit early. A common error that student pilots make is inadequate use of checklists. Most use checklists for engine start, runup, prelanding, and shutdown, but there’s more to the world of checklists than that. Wow your CFI by having a written checklist in hand while you do your preflight inspection. Before starting your engine, go through a written passenger briefing checklist to make sure your riders (in this case your CFI) know how to work the doors and windows, know to stay off the controls and remain quiet during critical phases of flight, and understand what to do in case an emergency evacuation is required.

Do a similar checklist for runup, pretakeoff, climb, cruise, descent, prelanding, after landing, and shutdown. When all the items on a given checklist are finished, state “[type of checklist] complete.”
Getting into the habit of using checklists early in your training will save you heartache and dollars later as you progress through your program. For pilots desiring a professional career, adherence to checklist procedures becomes doubly important. Act like a pro right from the start. Your instructor will notice.

Accept critiques gracefully in the spirit they are intended. Nobody likes to be evaluated by others, but a primary job of your CFI is to tell you in plain English what you’re doing well and what needs improvement. By accepting your CFI’s critiques as a normal and inevitable part of the training process, you’ll demonstrate that you are committed to meeting the required standards without grumbling, and that you understand your and your instructor’s mutual goal of making you the best, safest pilot possible.

If you don’t understand something your CFI said during the critique, speak up. You can’t do a maneuver correctly if you don’t know what right is. Clear and open communication is a basic requirement.

Insist on doing your best. From study habits to flight maneuvers or radio procedures, always do your best. In addition to listening carefully to your CFI’s postflight evaluations, do a little self-review, too. What did you do really well in that last flight? What needs improvement? For the things that need a little extra practice, don’t just think or talk about them, write down exactly how you will do them better next time. Be specific. Keep a personal journal of your thoughts and ideas about each lesson, each flight. You’ll be surprised at how a little self-reflection after each lesson will speed your learning.

Whether you’re learning to fly for fun or as the beginning of an exciting, rewarding career, doing what you can today to excel will pay dividends down the road. Going the extra mile in your training will truly set you apart and best prepare you for what comes next.

William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.

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