September 2008Features

Same Dance, Different Partner

Is your CFI leaving you? How to cope and move on


Stop me if you've heard this one: "I've gotten a job at No-name Regional Airline, and after next week I won't be your CFI anymore."

Many student pilots won't complete their primary flight training with the same certificated flight instructor who first took them aloft on an introductory lesson. In fact, unless you're working with one of the relatively few instructors who have chosen flight training as their career, odds are good that you'll have more than one CFI during your training. That likelihood increases if you choose to pursue an instrument rating or commercial certificate.

Pilots who want to fly for the airlines must accumulate hours in their logbook before they can submit a résumé. The magic number of hours has dropped in recent years, thanks to 2007's hiring boom, but it's still a substantial amount of flying--several hundred hours--that must be done. Teaching from the right seat of a training airplane as a CFI is one of the most expedient methods to log those hours. It's called "building time," and it's a traditional rite of passage in aviation life.

Of course, not all CFIs are in it strictly to build time. Many instructors teach for enjoyment, and the satisfaction of helping others to earn their wings. And just because a flight instructor is trying to build up hours doesn't mean he or she isn't a good teacher.

In recent months the airlines have cut back drastically on their hiring, and you may not notice as rapid a turnover in flight instructors at your particular flight school. Still, instructors change jobs for reasons other than an upwardly mobile path to the airlines. If that happens, you're the one who may be left behind.

Switching instructors midstream can seem disruptive and distressing, particularly if you've found a CFI with whom you have a good rapport. But it isn't a death knell for your training. Flying with different instructors is a good thing. Pilots do it all the time--during check phases in primary and instrument training, for checkrides and flight reviews. Different instructors can give you new perspectives, and they may spot weak areas that you can tackle together.

Find out up front

Your flight instructor could move on at any point in your training. It's best to recognize that and discuss the possibility before you get that fateful phone call or e-mail.

Ask your flight instructor about his or her career plans and time frame. The answer may have a bearing on your decision to hire the person.

"Absolutely you should ask," says Robert Meder, an instructor with Skyline Aeronautics at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in St. Louis, Missouri. If you don't know how to broach the topic, Meder suggests something like this: "Are you actively seeking employment with a corporate flight department and a check hauler, or a medical service? A Part 135 or Part 121 operation? And if so, if you find that opportunity, what is your plan to take care of me?" Keep it positive, he suggests, but don't hesitate to ask.

A younger flight instructor may never have considered such a transition plan, Meder points out. If you can't get a satisfactory answer from your CFI, talk to the chief flight instructor or the owner of the flight school or fixed-base operator.

Does the flight school have a procedure for transitions? If so, find out the details. How are students assigned to instructors? Does personality (yours or his) play a role? Will you be turned over to the senior flight instructor because you're farther along in your training? Do you get any say in the matter?

If you're training at a flight school that operates under Part 141 of the federal aviation regulations--meaning that it is required to follow more structured paperwork and adhere to curriculum requirements--you're likely to find such a transition plan in place. "The FAA keeps an eagle eye on the [Part] 141 schools and there's a process you follow for the transition," says Margaret Riddle, a flight instructor with a flying club in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has worked for both Part 141 and Part 61 operations.

But that may not be true of your local Part 61 school. "If you're going to a flying club or to an FBO that does not have a 141 school...there's more onus on the student to make sure he gets the right instructor," says Riddle.

I survived 23 CFIs

Brook Heyel of Apex, North Carolina, took her first flight lesson in April 1999. She completed her private pilot checkride in December 2006. Her logbook contains signatures and signoffs from 23--yes, 23--flight instructors.

She recalls meeting AOPA Flight Training columnist Rod Machado at an aviation event, and telling him the magic number. Even Machado, who has probably heard it all, was taken aback. "The most he'd ever heard of was 16," she says.

Why so many? It was a combination of factors. Some instructors didn't click; others worked out but decamped for the airlines. She had to stop training at times because she ran out of money. But even when she had to put flying on hold, quitting was never an option for Heyel. She is currently working on an instrument rating (with her second CFII, but she is adamant that history won't repeat itself). Eventually she'd like to become a flight instructor. "I would like to help people so that they are not in the same boat," she says.--JWT

Meet your new CFI

If you do learn that your instructor is moving on, when should you meet your new CFI? As soon as possible. Arrange for a sit-down before a formal lesson so that the two of you can get to know each other. (This is also an opportunity to ask about his career plans.) Find out if he or she uses a syllabus (if training at a Part 61 school). This is a very important benchmark for your progress. "A lot of people are taught without the use of a syllabus, and they never know what's coming up," says Riddle. Use this "interview" as an opportunity to determine if you two are going to communicate well. "Not everybody is on the same wavelength," says Riddle. "It's like a marriage in that cockpit, and if you don't communicate, you don't learn."

If you're switching instructors but staying at the same school, it's likely that your old instructor will have reviewed your training record and discussed your progress with your current CFI in advance of your first flight together. (Nobody likes surprises, and your new CFI is no exception.)

When you meet your new flight instructor, be sure to discuss your learning style with him or her. Don't be shy! If you need to have maneuvers demonstrated so that they'll click before you try them out, your new instructor should know this. If stall recovery is not one of your favorite things, he needs to know this as well.

When Riddle inherits a student, she talks with the individual about his or her background--this is important because "you would communicate differently with a liberal arts major than you would with a computer science major," she explains. "The lesson plans in aviation are tailored to each individual student, and each student is different. The instructor needs to know as much about that student as possible to gear the lesson to that student as much as possible." She'll probe as to why the student is learning to fly, his or her aviation goals, and what he or she likes to do when not flying. And she'll ask how much time the student expects to devote to the training.

Your first time together

Now it's time for you and your new instructor to get into a cockpit for the first time. Here's where your expectations may part ways. "I'm ready to solo," you say, and perhaps you are. But your new instructor can't know for certain until you get up in the air with him and demonstrate your prowess. His name and certificate are now on the line. So, expect that you'll have to show him you are where you say you are in the program. That may take an extra lesson (or two) so that he can gauge your skills and see if there are any gaps in your training. "We are legally responsible for the student with both the presolo endorsement and the cross-country solo endorsement, and I want to make extremely sure that the student is capable of doing it," says Riddle.

As you and your new flight instructor get to know each other, bear in mind that he or she may use different teaching techniques than your previous CFI. "All instructors are trained to the same level of proficiency," says Meder. "All instructors have the same knowledge. However, we all have slightly different techniques."

Let's take a moment to distinguish procedure--that which is taught in aviation books, the federal aviation regulations, and the Aeronautical Information Manual, for example--from technique, which is the method employed to complete a particular task.

You know, for example, that you should complete your prelanding checklist well before your training airplane's wheels touch the runway. That's procedure. One flight instructor may insist that you use a paper checklist and call out each item on the prelanding portion. Another may want you to add a mnemonic such as GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, propeller, seatbelts). That's technique.

The best thing a student can do is take that as an opportunity, Meder says. "Pick and choose what works for you as long as it doesn't go outside safe practices and the [Practical Test Standards]," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Riddle says she tries very hard not to change a student's habits that have become ingrained unless it's a matter of safety.

Settling in with the new CFI

Expect a certain amount of settling-in time as you and your new flight instructor get to know each other. You'll both be doing a lot of evaluating over these first few flights together, and that's fine.

What if you can't stand him (or her)? Do you have to fly with this person? No. Your options are plentiful. As Meder said, it's your money and your time; find another instructor, or another flight school if you have to. You'll repeat the getting-to-know-you process, which could mean another delay for your training (see "Bad Instructor or Bad Match?" April 2008 AOPA Flight Training). But if the goal is to make you a happy, safe, and proficient pilot, then it's a delay you can easily manage.

Jill W. Tallman is associate editor of AOPA Flight Training and AOPA Pilot magazines. She is an instrument-rated private pilot with approximately 500 hours.


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