What Makes a “Great” CFI (and Can We Teach It)?

First things first, what is a “great” flight instructor? Is it the instructor with the most ratings, the most dual given or is it the person with FAA National Accolades and many Master CFI Levels? Personally, I would argue it is a passionate, professional educator who consistently prepares safe, confident, skillful pilots at many levels from a diverse pool of clients. This person does not seek the limelight but clearly stands out because they consistently develop superior, safe pilots…it’s their attitude, demeanor, and the success they create daily that makes them “great”.

Professionalism in flight education obviously requires a mastery of the mechanical skills of flying and a huge reservoir of technical knowledge, but I would argue that the critical “secret sauce” that makes an instructor “great” are the abilities of communicating, compassion and successfully conveying  consistently high standards. Incidentally, the word “instructor” implies the transfer of mere technical skills, whereas a professional “educator” implies teaching the whole person at a higher level than rote. Even the most prodigious knowledge and the best hands on the controls are useless in a CFI unless you can share these effectively and consistently with a variety of people at the highest levels of understanding for durable retention.

The “greats” are also the ones who really enjoy working with a diverse group of people and eagerly undertake that daily creative challenge of educating them. There is an obvious joy here and true passion here. Another characteristic is an immense reservoir of patience to work through the many problems and plateaus that student pilots encounter.

A “great” flight educator also has a clear vision for what the finished aerodynamic product should look like at every certificate level and they have the ability to create that from the raw material of many varying personalities. They need to inspire, motivate, cajole and create every day and successfully coach each student over the goal line to certification. The last attribute of a “great” CFI is a commitment to always learning and pursuing excellence. (Spoiler alert for next blog; hours alone are useless *if* you accept “good enough”)

From what I have seen running a flight school, the “soft skills” are the most common missing ingredient in new CFIs. Because of the technical nature of our profession, pilots become CFIs usually due to their superior talent and a passion for aviation (the flying part). They often become confused and disappointed when, as new CFIs, they realize their major daily challenges are no longer landing in a vicious crosswind or shooting an approach to minimums in turbulence. Their new challenges are instead helping a scared housewife through power-on stalls or coaching a lazy college student through subjects they should have mastered at home on their own. Many CFIs also cannot even comprehend a lack of motivation or what is “wrong” with slow learners. This is where patience, compassion and emotional intelligence are the real important educational tools. Aviation is expensive, time consuming and initially scary for many people. Coaching people through these obstacles to a level of mastery, confidence and skill is what great educators do daily.

Dave McVInnie 10X MCFI and Lifetime SAFE Member

The next (very important) question is can we successfully educate beginning CFIs to be “great”, and accelerate their learning curve so they can be successful (and happier) with less struggle and fewer hours/years on the job? Does every CFI need K. Anders Ericsson’s famous 10,000 hours to reach a level of mastery? That would be unfortunate, because in our current aviation market a CFI is considered “ancient” if they accumulate even 1000 hours teaching. Your comments and suggestions are welcome (and needed).


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

To Err is Essential (For Learning)!

The art of the “teachable moment” requires opportunities for self-correction and growth.

There is a critical balance of control and freedom in teaching (or learning) flying. Obviously we do not want to proceed entirely by trial and error. But on the other extreme, too structured an environment, with no breathing room for error (entirely modeling perfection), does not create efficient learning either. To achieve optimal progress, a careful balance of structure and freedom is essential. Room for errors but with protected boundaries is the goal. The art of providing this optimal environment for experimentation while maintaining safety is the critical job of the professional CFI. It requires both the confidence and skill to provide a “loose but safe” learning environment for your student. “Why did that happen, and what can we do to fix this unhappy situation” is the hallmark of an experienced educator rather than taking the controls away and lecturing.

The strongest learning situation is created when small goofs happen that result in self-correction with guided feedback from the educator. Often called “teachable moments” these experiences have been shown to be the strongest learning tool. Mistakes should be viewed as “opportunities to learn” not shameful missteps. Controlling an instructional period so tightly that nothing can drift is most often an error of the newest, way-too-nervous CFI. The looser, scenario and correction method leads to faster, more durable (and higher level) learning. I love the Jeppesen Curriculum title of “Guided Discovery” for this reason. Obviously, in critical areas of flight, or with a inexperienced or unpredictable student, to much freedom would be unwise. Discretion and educator skill/comfort in each flight regime are essential for safety.

Some other advantages of self-analysis and correction are building a more resilient pilot, capable of pushing through problems and persevering when difficulties occur (and we know they will!) Perfectionists unfortunately tend to crumble when their plans turn to mush and unanticipated circumstances wreak havoc with a flight. We need fully-functioning error-correcting pilots for safety when the fertilizer hits the fan. Also, the courageous spirit of error correction fosters a “growth mindset” of a lifetime learner, so essential in our continually evolving aviation world.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Free Tech Tools for CFIs (and Students)!

Turbocharge your teaching (or learning) with these free online demonstrations.

Perhaps the greatest source of humor around our flight school is watching CFIs attempt to convey aeronautical concepts on the white board. “This is a plane” is usually where the laughing begins. We aren’t paid (or trained) to be artists. And though your acquiescent student usually plays along, they often derive nothing from these time consuming efforts. Great news though: Bold Method has some wonderful animated CFI tools that work for either the student or for the CFI (and they are FREE online). Access these tools and turbocharge your teaching (or learning)!

These play nicely on your phone or your tablet device and immediately provide usable, transferable learning to your student. No time is wasted explaining “what you meant” with your white board artistry, and the concept can be put to work in the plane and debriefed again later. For students, these tools can be replayed for complete comprehension.

Thank-you Bold Method. The whole collection with links is posted on the SAFE homepage and free for everyone to use; let’s all work together to build better, safer pilots!

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

The Dangers of Aviation Automation: Rust!

Why “fat, dumb and happy” is a bad formula for safe flying; turn off “the magic” occasionally!

We all enjoy the benefits of technological tools while flying. This can be a full up autopilot coupled to a navigation system, or just the wonder of a fully loaded iPad providing nav, weather and traffic over the ADS-B network. The paradox of automation is that as these wonderful systems do all the work, our piloting abilities inevitably erode. My weekly personal wake-up call is getting out of the Pilatus PC-12NG I fly daily and into my 1947 Champ (nothing automatic there!) 

Our charter company policy in the Pilatus is to allow the automatic system to do almost all of the flying; pilots inevitably get rustier! The complexity and reliability of modern aircraft automation has made these systems opaque to the pilot, and taken pilots completely out of the operational loop (pilots are seen as a “source of error”). But automation also inevitably fails and throws control back into the hands of the pilot(s). The poster child for the perils of automation dependence is the Air France 447 accident where three tired and rusty pilots flew a perfectly good Airbus 330 into a full stall and into the ocean.

There are three basic interrelated problems with automation operating a machine in the place of humans (and this pertains also to nuclear reactors and self-driving cars). First, automated system mask incompetence in the operator; they make operations easy and fool the pilot into a false sense of capability and induce complacency. Second, as mentioned, automation continually makes us less skillful by removing the need and opportunity for practice. Third, automation “tunes out” minor irregularities in the operating machine, masking these anomalies until the point of failure (or disconnect) when the problem is larger and the challenge greater (as in airframe/prop ice accumulating). These are all nicely cataloged in “Crash” a longer article by Tim Harford. The antidote is obviously more hand flying and a humble attitude toward personal piloting skills. I prefer to fly the plane and use the automated system as the back-up or “relief pilot”.

There is another more subtle implication of automation identified by the decision researcher Gary Klein. Not only is manual skill and control being erased by automation, our cognitive decision-making abilities are increasingly replaced by computer algorithms. In the face of automation we stop analyzing, working the brain and trying to get better! This is a problem with all forms of diagnosis and decision. A savvy technician will very adamantly avoid any suggestion of what a solution might be to avoid tainting their diagnostic skills. These experts only want to hear the symptoms; “please don’t tell me what you *think* it is!” Veteran meteorologists are the same way. They sometimes can generate a much more accurate forecast *without* the automated assistance (but this requires a highly-skilled thinker). The automated system performs better than the beginners every time. But you never get good if you don’t do the work; another harmful paradox.

So how do we gain and retain human excellence in operational and cognitive challenges? The answer is simple: practice more hand flying, calculating and just plain thinking. We all can be lazy, but it is essential to get out there and do the real work, make some mistakes and fix them. Practice is the only answer to keeping your edge; grab that yoke, make the decision, work the calculation or operation and use the automation as a back-up. Once you have the manual skills back, work the interface with your automation so that is also smooth and familiar. You will stay sharper and be ready when the “magic” inevitably fails!

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

“Unlearning” is Essential for Pilot Education!

As educators, we often stumble right out of the starting gate if we begin with “this is how it works…” By doing this we fail to address (and help unlearn) preconceived notions already present; how it does *not* work! It might be better to first ask your student how they *think* a complex process (like a climb) works and once this is exposed, carefully modify and correct any errors and build from there. As Mark Twain said;

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

As educators we have to dig deep to discover these misconceptions and aggressively correct them. This fascinating field of “unlearning” is finally being popularized and elaborated at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Dr. Chris Dede.

As an example, I am sure you have been “entertained” at social events by friends and associates trying to explain aerodynamics in untrained, and usually totally inaccurate, terms. Since we evolved walking the earth, this long history has deeply embedded an intuitive operating theory that is badly flawed (and dangerous) in flight. What could be more natural (and wrong) than just pulling harder to get away from the ground rushing up to meet us? Or that automobile habit of cranking the “steering wheel” left and right to make a turn? Obviously, a little more nuanced understanding is essential for safety. It is illuminating to finally understand that every new pilot you attempt to teach already has this bad code rattling around somewhere in their head and hands. BTW; I find that many pilots approaching certification on flight tests still retain badly flawed versions of aerodynamic reality.

I am also convinced this is one of the root causes for many loss of control accidents that plague aviation. Everything is working fine until a pilot is forced out of their “comfort zone” of normal and thoughtful flight and into an area where immediate, accurate response is necessary. In their startled reaction they often revert to their more primitive (and flawed) subconscious reactions and lose control of their plane. We absolutely must rewrite this deeply embedded code with correct habits and reactions.

As you delve deeper into adult learning, you will find that at every level there are ideas and habits that need to be “unlearned” to import new knowledge. Every experienced educator knows the horror of “fixing” a person with flawed instruction or habits (if it can really be done at all?). It is often painful to even establish the need for this correction (“buy in” is only step one in this twelve step program). The purging of entrenched knowledge and habits seems to take forever. Try to discover misconceptions before you “build” and let me know how that works? Thanks for reading and fly safely.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Pseudo Teaching; Excitement but No Learning!

Modern technology is fueling a lot of great learning tools but also “pseudoteachers”

Bad teaching is usually easy to spot with the obvious lack of learner engagement, no improvement and performance problems. But pseudoteaching is increasingly a problem in academia (and aviation) because it is exciting and fun for the student (and looks great in reviews) but unfortunately fails to accomplish any real learning goals for the students.

Pseudoteaching is a growing problem due to whizbang technological presentations and the “ratemyprofessor” celebration of simple popularity as a metric of pedagogical success. In aviation this same problem is fostered by valuing simple social media popularity as a substitute for credibility, honest content, and actionable learner results. And unfortunately, though a failure to “get it” in math will cause a simple failure of the test, in aviation this could have a serious safety implication for you!

We all live in an accelerating world of media and technology. Much of this is unfortunately only “intellectual fast food” with lots of bulk and not much real content. Much of what becomes popular and masquerades as “true learning” is unfortunately mere showmanship or even false hopes conveyed by less-than-honest “pseudoeducators.” Those YouTubes of amazing performances are often created with clever desktop video assembly after infinite failures (don’t try these things on your own). In aviation, the test comes down to simple consistent learner performance since aviation is a ruthlessly honest activity; you either have it or you don’t. Our asymptotic safety record demonstrates the price of doing aviation poorly.

My former Chief Pilot used to continually frustrate me, as a new CFI, with his (very honest) recitation “If the student has not learned it, their instructor has not taught it well enough.” Credentials like Master Instructors and the General Aviation Awards are very useful tools to sort out the real educators from the imposters. Adhering to an industry accepted vision and mission statement is also a great tool to insure honest instructional credibility. Despite many technological advances and amazing on-line tools, achievement in aviation still is somewhat medieval in it’s requirement for hard work and time spent working though difficulties to achieve hard-won success. Find and trust an honest and compassionate coach willing to work through your difficulties and celebrate your successes. Anyone that is selling a “quick magic solution” to success in aviation is hawking you snake oil in a modern YouTube container…buyer beware!


BTW: I *do* love YouTube and as an iOS Developer thrive on modern technology; misuse is my bête noire.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

 

Amazing Vision and Mission Statements

Perfection may not be possible but “Striving for Excellence” is a worthy and continual goal. Learning is a lifestyle, not an event!

SAFE Vision Statement:

Promoting Excellence in Aviation Education

SAFE Mission Statement: 

The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) works to create a safer aviation environment by

  • Supporting aviation educators with mentoring opportunities, educational resources, and other benefits 
  • Inspiring professionalism through promotion and recognition of excellence and enhanced education
  • Representing aviation educators through interaction with the aviation industry and government 
  • Promoting learning in all areas of aviation for everyone at every level

Organizations are defined by their Vision and Mission. Some have a life-limiting reach and die off when meeting their goals. Others redefine their goals as they achieve each new milestone. Then there are some that never have goals but only a vision that is beyond reach. So, I looked at the Vision and Mission of the S.A.F.E. organization and was so heartened.

Let me explain what I mean. The five words define an ongoing endeavor. When does one achieve excellence in aviation education? That is the question. Does that happen when the finite number of members and other stragglers who happen to hit the website learn a thing or two before tuning out from the digital universe. Partially, it does, but not at a sustainable level. Indeed, one should always think this through a bit for achieving excellence in perpetuity. Ask any aviator if he or she has achieved the pinnacle of their abilities and the answer, if they are honest about it, will be no. Why do people like Sean Tucker or Peggy Wagstaff continue towards the journey to redefine themselves with their ever increasing knowledge of the finite bounds of the aerodynamic envelope? Because there is an infinite incrementalism yet to be achieved. It is akin to the Zeno’s Paradox, you never really get there. So, S.A.F.E. as an organization seems to have a vision that forever will shine like a beacon that can never be reached, yet the pursuit will always remain worthwhile. But if someone comes along and professes that that vision has been achieved, then the game of excellence is over and the organization like many others might cease to exist.

I also happen to belong to the MAPA Safety Foundation as one of the director. The motto of that organization is “Safety is No Accident.” That motto was coined by one of the directors, Theodore Corsones. Now if you look at that Vision, you will find a similarity to one at S.A.F.E. . Safety is defined as “NO” accident. But as we all know, that is impossible. As one safety-oriented pilot drops off from the role of flying another one not yet well versed in the nuances of flight takes over. Add that to the “To err is human” adage and the fact that errors are universal and inevitable then you have recipe of never really achieving that vision. But you try and keep trying, finding new mechanisms and tools to educate and fill the starved human mind with ideas of safety. You get closer and closer but never get there. And that is the pursuit of excellence. At S.A.F.E. the vision is aligned in the same vein as well. Educate the mind to veer away from the unsafe acts. Keep educating with the latest of tools and methodologies for they are in flux all the time!

At S.A.F.E. as a fledgling organization that is seeing a blossoming growth in its membership roster, we are fortunate to have a vision that defines the infinite view of safety in flight through education. As long as, we continue to view that vision as something worth hunting down and achieving, the prospect for sustainability as an organization will remain in the mission.


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!