In the last issue of Flight School Business we reported on the euphoria that filled AOPA headquarters after our newest flight instructor successfully soloed her first student. We also discussed the difficulty of deciding whether a student is ready to go it alone, particularly the first time you have to make that decision, and the value of conducting stage checks in assuring your decision is soundly based.
A more general question is how to best bring a new instructor along in the profession. Ideally, he or she will gain experience as quickly and safely as possible while providing useful training to students and producing revenue for the school.
One obvious idea is to start the fresh CFI off doing flight reviews on the assumption that a certificated pilot’s less likely to kill you than a student. It seems logical, but in an earlier issue of FSB we documented that accidents during flight reviews tend to be nasty, with an unusually high proportion of fatalities. The problem seems particularly acute when a new instructor, or one unfamiliar with the make and model of aircraft being flown, goes out with its owner. Too much deference on the part of the instructor can lead to too much ambiguity over who’s really acting as pilot-in-command—and thus ultimately responsible for the flight.
That suggests a couple of rules of thumb. While they’re still getting used to the process of teaching, it makes sense to reduce the number of variables by having them do it in the aircraft they know the best. Quite likely, these will be the same models they flew during their own training or on their checkrides. If that’s not possible or the school needs them to teach in something else, a really thorough check-out is essential—not just what a renter would need, but an exploration of all the corners of the flight envelope that are likely to be reached with a student. Detailed knowledge of systems and procedures is just as important as airmanship: Does the electric fuel pump need to be on during take-off, or will that flood the engine? Must fuel tanks be switched in flight, and if so do they need to be used in any specific order? When should carb heat be used, and what’s the in-flight engine restart procedure? (For that matter, how do you do a hot start on the ground? It’s awfully embarrassing for everyone when the instructor can’t even manage to get the engine started.)
On the other hand, the combination of an inexperienced instructor in an unfamiliar aircraft is one to be avoided, especially if the student likewise lacks make-and-model experience. Ugly accidents have resulted. Case in point: the 180-hp Piper Arrow that ended up in the Mohawk River after attempting to take off from a 1,850-foot grass strip with three people on board. The CFI had all of two hours in the airplane, and the student was his first.
While there’s no good reason not to have them give primary instruction, a new instructor might be a particularly good match for a commercial student. The required maneuvers (which many CFIs don’t get to practice all that often) should still be fresh and sharp, and you might expect a commercial candidate to be a little more attuned to matters of discipline and safety than either a student or an established pilot.
Of course, you might also be wrong. Every one of the rogue CFIs who’ve broken up airplanes doing unauthorized aerobatics, stalled in showing off how hard they could bank in the pattern, or taken friends for unapproved joyrides was once a commercial candidate. Veteran instructors may be able to take care of themselves, but before assigning a student to a new instructor, it’s worth taking the time to evaluate that student’s personality. Whether the training is primary or advanced, it makes sense to match the novice CFI with students who are stable, mature, and patient enough to listen and learn. Even if the new instructor’s also strong-willed, domineering personalities are better paired with someone more experienced. Keeping the student from taking over the lesson without letting it degenerate into a contest of wills is one of those things that goes a lot better with practice.
Age disparity can be a problem if it’s a problem for the student. The economics of the business are such that many instructors are under 30, while many prospective students are middle-aged. Some may find it difficult to accept anyone that much younger as authoritative, while the lack of respect for those professional accomplishments can in turn frustrate the instructor. The best remedy will probably be found in the air. Once it’s clear that the youngster can really handle the aircraft and teach, respect should no longer be an issue.