At our airport, we frequently see one particular student sitting on the porch, staring wistfully at the sky. One day I asked him what he was doing. He said, "I'm waiting for my instructor." Now it's become an airport joke. Whenever someone goes by the student, they say, "Waiting for your instructor, huh?" The reply: "Yep."
The impression this leaves with the student is that his time isn't important. His flight lesson isn't important. So what if we have to cut the lesson short because the instructor was late? The instructor is being inconsiderate, and the student, who may be upset because of the rudeness, is not going to be very receptive to the flight lesson. In fact, the student may dump the instructor and get a new one, or quit flying altogether.
This is very similar to how some medical doctors run their practices. They are exceedingly poor at time management, overbook patients, and then complain that they don't have time to do a proper job. If you don't allow two hours for a one-hour flight, the odds are good that you will be chronically late.
Ever had an instructor say at the beginning of a lesson, "What would you like to do today?" or "What did we do last time?" Without a syllabus or lesson plan, the instructor takes the student through a flight lesson based on what comes to mind at the time. Students pick up on this lack of lesson planning and begin to feel as though there is no rhyme or reason to their training. It is painfully obvious that the instructor hadn't thought one iota about the flight lesson until he or she climbed into the airplane.
Every instructor should use a lesson plan and ensure that the student knows what to expect before the lesson begins. At the end of the lesson, the student's performance should be reviewed, and he or she should be told what to expect for the next lesson. Students need a blueprint to know where they are going and to gauge their progress. There is no excuse for not being well-prepared - most commercially available programs include lesson plans and course syllabi. You have them, so use them.
Fortunately, you don't hear too much these days about instructors who yell at their students or bop them on the head when they do something wrong. These stories come mostly from experiences with military flight training. But this behavior does exist in civilian flight training and is evidence of a lack of confidence on the part of the instructor to cope with the student's deviations from the norm while in the air.
Yelling shuts down the learning process. Fear and intimidation do not promote learning. In fact, yelling is the best way I know of to have a student go elsewhere or quit entirely. I've only experienced this behavior with one instructor. I coped with the situation by telling him that he wasn't ready to fly today, and I turned the airplane around and went back to the airport.
If controlling your temper with students is not your forte, then try out for an airline job and try that technique with the captain. The results are guaranteed to be interesting.
Occasionally, an instructor will take advantage of an instrument student by putting on the hood, turning the student into a safety pilot, and shooting an approach to help maintain his or her currency. This is fine if the student agrees and the flight time and instructor time is deducted from the bill. But to do this under the guise of instructing the student in instrument procedures is questionable.
Going to an airport you otherwise wouldn't visit with a student to pick up something or to see a friend is also questionable unless the student agrees and credit is given. It is best not to combine your personal schedule or proficiency with a student's lessons.
One complaint that I frequently hear from students is that the instructor takes over too early and doesn't give them an opportunity to make mistakes. Making mistakes and correcting them is a time-honored way to learn. But there are those who will not let students deviate at all from the norm.
Instructors must develop the skill to let the student make mistakes, while at the same time maintaining control of the flight. How to know how far to let a student go before intervening is a skill that comes with experience. Landings and takeoffs are the most critical moments of flight, so you may need to be ready, but try to wait long enough - but not too long - before intervening.
Some instructors need to show their students what great aviators they are by spinning the aircraft before the student is prepared, flying near thunderstorms, flying in ice, or waiting until the last minute to execute a go-around during an emergency landing into a farmer's field.
This is one of the best ways known to drive a student toward taking up boating as an avocation or hobby. Many students don't appreciate these antics unless they have a tendency to be reckless themselves. In that case, you are setting a terrible example and chances are good that there may be an accident in this student's future.
As a young student pilot, I once came in from a solo flight and complained to my instructor that a fuel gauge wasn't working in the Cessna 150. He said, "If you don't quit your whining, I'll have the mechanics take out all of the instruments. Then you'll know how to be real pilot."
I contemplated that for a while, realizing that Part 91 required certain instruments to be operable prior to VFR flight. But, I thought for a moment that maybe it was all right to fly without the required VFR instruments if that's what it took to be "a real pilot." A more professional response would have been to explain that the operating fuel gauges are required by regulation and this one should be fixed, but not to depend on them because they could be wrong. The only foolproof procedure is to know how much fuel you start out with by looking in the tanks - then calculating fuel burn to determine what's left. This instructor missed an opportunity to reinforce the critical necessity for careful fuel management.
Quite often a student's question will reveal confusion about an important aspect of his or her training. If you don't listen carefully, you will miss this opportunity to clarify and reinforce. Bottom line: Don't blow them off. There is no dumb question.
Most instructors are professionals who care about their students and strive to give top value for every dollar that their students spend. At a time when there is an instructor shortage and lots of discussion about increasing instructor pay, it is incumbent on all of us to be as professional as we can be.
Remember, the system requires a lot from us. We must be superb teachers in addition to being excellent pilots. If we can't communicate our skill and understanding to the student pilot, and if we can't treat students with consideration and respect, then our exceptional aeronautical prowess doesn't amount to much.
Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation