Running a successful flight school would be challenging enough if you could at least count on your own people to consistently be on your side. Alas, that’s not a safe assumption. While the industry’s image has long been tarnished by the stereotype of the green CFI whose principal interest is not teaching, most of these people inflict more damage on student motivation than on aircraft or human bodies. That’s a problem, but it doesn’t compare to the damage done by so-called instructors who can’t resist the temptation to play with company aircraft—sometimes destroying aircraft, students, and other instructors alike.
In 2004, for example, two CFIs managed to break up a Piper Saratoga in flight. Both were employed by the same Georgia school, and one was supposed to be giving the other a check-out in the airplane so the second instructor could begin teaching in it. This should have been a careful but routine review of systems, procedures, and maneuvers, but apparently that program was too dull and they decided to have some fun instead. One witness who was both a pilot and mechanic told investigators that he “heard the engine slow down then speed up and start popping, then [it] stopped. Sounded to me like it was doing a loop or some kind of high G-load maneuver.” After hearing a couple of loud bangs, he looked up in time to see the pieces of the airplane fluttering down from the sky. The NTSB’s Materials Lab found the fracture signatures consistent with overstress, with no evidence of any pre-existing damage or corrosion. While we don’t know for certain that they’d attempted aerobatics, it’s not easy to break the wings off a Saratoga performing normal maneuvers in good weather.
An even clearer case of a young CFI trying to do unapproved aerobatics in a school airplane came up in central Texas in 2007. This time the victims were a student, a low-time foreign pilot, and a hard-working Piper Arrow, which broke apart at almost 12,000 feet and wound up scattered over a half a square mile of prairie. The flight was supposed to have been a dual cross-country of about 130 nm each way, but how much fun is that? Even though the terrain is low and relatively flat, the airplane made a series of five climbs to altitudes between 11,000 and 13,000 feet, each followed by a dive and rapid acceleration. On the last, its airspeed increased to almost 20 knots above maneuvering speed before the airplane began to climb and then disappeared from radar. Other students and other instructors both told the investigators that the CFI in question liked to do spins and rolls in school airplanes without much regard to center of gravity or certification standards. The rolls would typically involve a dive to build speed to 140 knots before pulling up and rolling; at maximum gross weight in the Arrow, maneuvering speed was 116. The primary instructor of the student who was killed actually had lunch with the accident CFI just before the flight and asked him “not to do any funny stuff” with her student on board. Sorry—no such luck.
Aerobatics aren’t the only way that exuberant instructors wreak havoc. Witnesses agreed that a Citabria had been making exceptionally steep turns in the traffic pattern of a towered field in Michigan; a 2,700-hour CFI was giving instruction to a 370-hour commercial pilot. When the tower cleared them to reverse course and land in the opposite direction, they stalled it in trying to make the 180. A California instructor on a time-building dual cross-country let his student fly a Piper Warrior into a box canyon; they hit the ground while trying to turn. An instructor in New York taking three passengers on a discovery flight stalled a Cessna 172 in slow flight at 300 feet, narrowly missing the Coney Island boardwalk, while in Maine, a CFI with a history of doing steep turns and zero-G maneuvers at low altitude got a little too low and killed three Air Force Junior ROTC cadets on an orientation flight.
Since most dual instruction takes place away from the watchful eye of the owner or chief flight instructor, and most people who are smart enough to earn flight instructor’s certificates are also smart enough to hide their antisocial tendencies during job interviews and check flights, how are you supposed to prevent this kind of mayhem? Great question! Too bad an equally good answer is elusive. But close communication between management, students, and the line instructors has to be one key. The propensities of at least two of the CFIs were well known around their schools, but no one thought to tell the people in charge. Plainly, they should have.
Regular lesson reviews with students should help bring inappropriate activities to light, and students benefit from learning that a chat with the chief flight instructor is an opportunity, not a punishment. A close working relationship with all your instructors makes it easier for them to bring up any concerns—and despite the loyalty that binds pilots in general and the CFIs within a school in particular, those who take a sober, responsible view of flight safety have to be made to understand that this includes the refusal to tolerate those who don’t. Their colleagues aren’t there for their own entertainment; they’re supposed to be raising the next generation of safe and proficient pilots. Despite what it says on the bumper sticker, flight instruction is one situation where it’s not okay to have too much fun.