New instructors—even middle-aged ones—have to start somewhere. Often it’s by giving flight reviews and instrument proficiency checks, putting those first few hours into the “flight instructor” column of the logbook.
It’s easy to understand why primary students might prefer to learn from someone who’s already shepherded dozens of others through training, but a freshly minted CFI also has a lot to offer, beginning with technical mastery of the curriculum. After all that practice and study preparing for the toughest checkride of a pilot’s career, the new instructor should be razor-sharp on the maneuvers and letter-perfect on the regulations.
Of course, this polish comes at a cost. A novice CFI won’t have had much time to get used to the teaching environment, or much practice dealing with the attitudes and behavior of honest-to-goodness students as opposed to instructors or examiners playing students. It makes a difference—indeed, several kinds of differences. One of the more subtle is the distinction between flying with someone more experienced and suddenly becoming the final authority on everything in aviation. It’s also one of the most crucial. Neither your own instructor nor an FAA examiner will take the role-playing far enough to let you endanger the aircraft, but a student can’t be expected to recognize when you’ve wandered dangerously close to the edge of your expertise. Even one who knows enough to have misgivings is liable to defer to a flight instructor’s presumably greater wisdom.
On June 14, 2009, a 180-hp Piper Arrow (PA-28R-180) sank in the Mohawk River after attempting a soft-field takeoff from Runway 33 of the Mohawk Valley Airport (K13) outside Scotia, New York. Up front were a 42-year-old student pilot and his 52-year-old instructor; the student’s 11-year-old son was riding in back. Despite the efforts of a witness who swam to the airplane and tried to open the cabin door, all three drowned before they could be rescued.
The single runway at Mohawk Valley is 1,840 feet of turf, described as being in good condition. The accident occurred halfway through the airport’s regular 10-day mowing schedule, and the NTSB investigator found the grass to be three inches long. Though it had rained the night before, there is no suggestion that the airplane’s takeoff roll had been impeded by any soggy spots. However, witness accounts make clear that it hadn’t accelerated with authority:
He started a normal takeoff and tried to get the aircraft into the air. It appeared to me at this time he did not have enough speed to get the aircraft flying. He got off the ground a couple of feet and then came back down on the wheels. He continued and tried again, but was more aggressive, striking the tail on the ground. Again the aircraft stayed in the air a little longer but came back down again. He continued to roll further, pulling the airplane into the air for the third time. By now he was further down the runway, this time staying in the air, clearing the brush at the end of the runway. He had the nose a little high this time. The whole airplane then begins to settle down into the river.
The 180-hp Arrow is a fine aircraft in many ways. It offers simple, robust systems, good parts availability, predictable handling, and a reasonable trade-off between economy and speed. But while it has many admirable qualities, short-field performance isn’t one of them. Three thousand feet of level pavement feels uncomfortably tight on a warm day, and the Arrow is an awkward soft-field airplane thanks to a heavy nose that comes up abruptly when the elevator becomes effective. Some experienced Arrow pilots would view a 1,840-foot grass strip as suitable only for an emergency landing—and plan to have the airplane trucked out afterward.
The accident instructor had a fair amount of flight experience—his medical application, submitted six months earlier, claimed 1,600 total hours—but he wasn’t an experienced CFI, and he wasn’t experienced in the Arrow. Though he’d passed his checkride the previous October, he didn’t work as a flight instructor; he was, in fact, a highly skilled professional in a much more lucrative field. His logbook showed only two hours in the Arrow, and the student with him was his first.
The student, on the other hand, had 85 hours in the PA-28R-180. This might have been enough to give him some inkling that short-and-soft operations weren’t its strongest suit, but if so, his faith in the instructor’s expertise apparently overcame his doubts. That time should, however, have given him a reasonable working acquaintance with the owner’s handbook (the airplane was a 1969 model that didn’t come with factory checklists). Page 24 notes that “…for short field take-offs, and for take-offs under difficult conditions such as deep grass or on a soft surface, distances can be reduced appreciably by lowering flaps to 25 degrees (second notch).” Aftermarket checklists likewise specify 25 degrees of flaps for short- and soft-field takeoffs. Piper estimates that on dry pavement, this reduces the ground roll by 250 feet and obstacle clearance by 350.
Divers recovered the airplane from 18 feet of water the next day. The flaps were up and the gear was down. Once it dried out, the engine started and ran to full power without hesitation. If poor decision-making created the risk, bad technique cemented the outcome.
Aviators are rarely served well by great leaps into the unknown. Professional test pilots proceed incrementally through the flight envelope, with each step carefully planned. A new CFI is almost back in the position of a student flying solo. They know—or ought to know—how much they don’t know. Safety depends on their good judgment, and if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be their fault.