Your friend in the right seat
Considering the CFI factor
A certificated flight instructor (CFI) is probably the most influential element in a student pilot's flight training experience. A recently released AOPA study found that a vast majority of student pilots drop out, citing the perceived value of training, quality of instruction, and relationship between student and CFI as critical determinants for success or failure.
All CFIs don't teach flying in the same standardized format; they bring differing perspectives to the art of instruction. A variety of factors—including education, personal experience, and logged hours—serve to craft each CFI into a pilot maker or a pilot breaker.
Lubomir Gueorguiev, PhD. is looking for a few good students. He's concerned that many don't pay attention to details and let procedures slip after getting comfortable behind the yoke. And he should know; Gueorguiev is the chief pilot at Beaver Aviation, located at Page Field in Fort Myers, Florida, and has 2,500 flight hours and multiple certificates. He held the rank of major in the Bulgarian army and was granted the same rank in the Civil Air Patrol; his approach to training reflects both the discipline of military service and the exactness of scientific procedure.
Gueorguiev expects students to be able to attend to details such as the preflight inspection and runup without additional guidance, because that's what pilots do. He finds that many students don't grasp the theoretical aspect of flying. "Flying an airplane is intuitive; most students don't fail on basic piloting skills. What's lacking is an understanding that flying is based on a sequence of procedures, and that these procedures don't change. Accidents occur because pilots—students and those holding their certificate—get lazy. They start to think that they can do what they want in the sky. Make sure that your CFI drills the importance of following procedures and constantly challenges you on them. Their job is to make sure that you're as alert as you are comfortable," observes Gueorguiev.
Gueorguiev also finds, as did other CFIs, that many people become enamored of flying and start down the path of becoming pilots—only to run out of funds. "You'll also find people who start flying, stop for a while, then resume. They'll never develop the skills to pass a checkride that way," he adds. Have a candid conversation with your (potential) CFI after that first lesson; unless you're ready for the total commitment, flying might not be for you.
To hear Spencer Sudermen talk about private pilot training, you'd think that he has the most unique student base in the world: "One hundred percent of my students come to me eager and ready to learn!" That's because Suderman, chief pilot at the Torgeon Academy of Flight located at Camarillo Country Airport in Camarillo, California, specializes in aerobatic and spin training. Suderman's students have just attained or are about to attain their private pilot certificate, and believe that additional training is necessary for complete mastery of the airplane.
Suderman believes that most CFIs don't tackle the scary parts of flying: stalls, spins, and unusual attitudes. But it's these maneuvers that can keep a pilot alive in the air during an emergency. "I encounter people on their way to or just coming out of their checkrides, and they're usually scared as hell to do stalls and spins. Most instructors will bring a student to the stall horn then push the nose down. It's just not enough. Let your CFI know that this training is critical to you. If they're not willing to get you comfortable with unusual attitudes, find someone who is."
Airplane manufacturers are continually improving their equipment to help minimize the stall/spin experience and make flying safer, thereby attracting more people to the activity. Suderman believes that while this move is a good thing, it leaves most students unprepared for emergencies. "Schools use stable airplanes like Piper Warriors. They're easy to fly. But what happens if the weather changes or a VFR pilot suddenly finds him or herself in an IFR situation and gets into trouble? How about equipment failure? The pilot who has prepared for the worst usually can survive it," he says emphatically.
CFI Carol Stephans, who has logged 9,000 hours at fields between Wisconsin and Indiana, amplifies Suderman's thoughts with her observation that modern airplanes—with their advancements such as GPS—are a good thing, but students who rely on technology too heavily are lost without it. "Understanding and mastering the basics will prepare a pilot for any situation, including manually determining positions, plotting a course, and getting un-lost," she adds. In short, make sure your CFI doesn't overemphasize reliance on technology. Your instructor should make you confident not only with the basics, but also with flying that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Jonathan Clear finds "there's a common assumption that a student will learn everything there is to know during the two-hour flight, hence they come truly unprepared." He teaches aviation at Hyles-Anderson College in Crown Point, Indiana, and is a CFI at Griffith Aviation located at Griffith Airport in Griffith, Indiana.
"When a student comes with questions that relate specifically to what we're doing that day, I know they're motivated and have done additional self-directed learning," he says. "There's a wealth of additional information online; take advantage of it."
Other problems Clear cites include not flying often enough and having preconceived notions on flying. "The hard things like simulated engine failures, stalls, and emergency landings seem to be lumped into the it will never happen to me category. And part of that misconception comes from what people are being told about airplanes these days—that they can practically fly themselves," says Clear.
Clear stresses good aeronautical decision making and having a process in place for making the right choice. "Students need to routinely ask themselves things such as: Is it a safe day to fly? Is my health OK? Do I have a process for this emergency? Your CFI should tell to you continually address the risk factors, then have fun."
Greg Morris, chief pilot for Gauntlet Warbirds, at Aurora (Illinois) Municipal Airport near Chicago, helps pilots transition from civilian airplanes into warbirds and is in agreement with Clear: "Let your CFI know that you want to be challenged, that you're prepared to learn, and soak up as much information as you can on the subject; people who truly want to fly are self-motivated," he says. Morris is also concerned that many students can't handle the concept of being pilot in command of something like a Cessna 152, let alone a T-6 Texan. "Spending the time to understand how and why an airplane works is critical. Know the physics of flight, know the aerodynamics. The wind and the weather and the sky should not be a mystery," he adds.
Morris stresses that flying can and should be fun, but that fun is had at a price: "If you want to truly have fun flying, you need to be comfortable with the knowledge base and the technical aspects of the sport. Your CFI should continually up the challenge. That's the only way a student will hone a skill set. Don't avoid things like windy days—how else will you learn tasks like crosswind landings?"
understanding the kinds of things that CFIs are concerned with will allow you to extract all that they may have to offer. Use these insights to take a proactive approach to your relationship with your instructor—ask questions, bring research to the table, demand challenges. At the end of the runway, if you're not in sync with the person in the seat next to you, you'll never be truly comfortable in the air by yourself.