“CFI Pro!” The Critical Element in Pilot Training!

Our last blog post was a contribution from Rod Machado profiling “Bad Flight Instructors.” Though the majority of CFIs are hard-working, mostly underpaid, and diligent, there are some amazing abuses in our industry. The article before that examined our 80% drop out rate in aviation education. Both of these posts inspired a firestorm of comment and speculation. And all this comment and concern is wonderful news!  We obviously have many dedicated pilots and educators with a real passion to fix problems in aviation education. Some very successful aviation educators and schools are succeeding so well they reported “no completion problems” and are models for the rest of us to learn from. IN this post I hope to extract some of the goodness from all these posts and comments (especially the successful educators) and generalize some “best practices” that can help all of us be more successful in aviation education. Our next several posts will be on aviation educator professionalism.

From what I have seen and heard, what we need first in aviation is better honesty throughout the flight training industry. Flying is clearly expensive and it takes a commitment of time and effort to succeed. Accomplishment in aviation is not a sprint but requires sustained effort and a lifetime commitment to learning. This fact argues directly with our current social climate of immediate gratification. Industry improvement and each instructional session requires a serious initial discussion to both sell the value of safe flying practices and make clear the rewards of this total accomplishment. Honest aviation has little use for a fast superficial flight courses; selling “faster, cheaper” is just not part of the serious aviation formula for long-term success. An honest assessment of value will interest the proper people and cull out many “tire kickers” for whom flying is “cool” but too much work or expense. Offering discounted (or free) initial lessons without revealing the true cost and effort involved in learning to fly is not a sustainable solution.

One FaceBook posting advocated a new definition of STEM  for aviation education; Study-Time-Energy-Money. Indeed, aviation requires all these things and some personal grit and resilience. Additionally, the personality trait of PIC, being in charge, is difficult for many people raised in our modern culture, to develop and sustain. There is a lot of discipline and responsibility required to be successful in aviation. And the payback is not immediate gratification but hard won achievement. For those who persist (currently the 20%) it provides amazing rewards and satisfaction. We need to discuss these traits and the full process with potential students before we get fully involved.

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-7-59-47-amIt was also clear from all the postings and comments (and again from the highly-valuable AOPA polling) that a caring compassionate CFI is an essential component for motivating and retaining flight students. Those students lucky enough to discover this knowledgeable and compassionate CFI will stick out the tough times and progress faster. If this lucky chemistry is not available, a caring aviation mentor or some club camaraderie is a wonderful buffer for getting through the difficult setbacks and plateaus we all know occur in aviation. Learning to fly is not always an easy journey. Greg Brown, who wrote the original (and newly updated) Savvy Flight Instructor, curates a very active FaceBook site assisting aviation students with their struggles and problems. From the amazing activity on this site I would guess Greg is donating his full time to assist aviation students. Compassionate people like this will surely go to aviation heaven.

Rod Machado has analyzed current IACRA data and revealed the average number of hours for completion of a private pilot certificate in the US is now at 105 hours (2.5 times the FAA minimum). But in one online forum an experienced (and busy) CFI is regularly educating fully competent, safe pilots that pass their flight tests in 40-45 hours. This veteran CFI had definitely “cracked the code” and I spent some time analyzing his success so we all could benefit.

This successful educator insisted on an honest, up front interview about the costs, effort and duration of the process of learning to fly. Again, this saves everyone time and disappointment. (If you do not have enough pilot candidates to be honest, I will reveal a way to double your intake in a future blog post!)  Another element of his method was including future assessments along the way and an honest, no guilt termination if the project looked like it was not going to work for either party. We all know some people just do not have the required skills, aptitude or judgment to become safe pilots. A serious professional must terminate training when it is obvious it is not going to work. Too many CFIs and schools avoid this discussion because of the emotional pain (or financial incentive to continue) and end up perpetuating a losing battle. This dishonest practice always ends up ugly and painful for everyone.

Another important element gleaned of this CFI’s amazing success was the benefit of years of experience so he could efficiently convey the important and necessary skills and knowledge elements. And though aviation education is not rocket science it does take time on task to become an efficient flight educator. (not *quite* the 10,ooo hour rule of Anders Ericcson but close) To speed up this process and become a pro CFI faster, a good relationship with your local DPE is highly recommended. Most DPEs are desperate to help eager, honest CFIs learn the necessary elements to successful flying and teaching. They will always share “what went right (or wrong)” with curious recommending CFIs. The key to receiving this valuable feedback is being emotionally mature enough to receive the good (and bad) news. As a CFI you will still be learning every day you teach. Some of this is technical knowledge but most is psychological techniques and pedagogical skills. I guarantee your passing percentages as a CFI will improve if you learn to listen and grow your basic teaching skills. I highly recommend this book (not in the FAA CFI list) for all serious educators.

A final element of CFI success is always using a shared flight syllabus so both student and CFI have a clear road map of skills and elements clearly laid out and leading to the final flight test. The famous question “Who are you and what are we doing today?” would be the ultimate sign of disaster for any flight student. (Review again the Ralph Hood video of the “evil flight instructor video”) Every instructional episode must have a clearly defined plan with the lesson and instructional elements clearly stated. Aviation is too expensive to squander useless hours in the air wandering around without a plan. If you are a student and your CFI is not using a syllabus RUN AWAY…you are wasting your money! If you are a CFI and do not have a syllabus, here are some resources for you.

Being a flight educator at any level is a huge responsibility. To just keep each flight operation safe is a large and time-consuming mandate. To additionally teach in this distracting environment and allow your student to make small self-correcting errors is challenging. This task requires experience and supreme organization. To this end, an efficient ground school and complete pre and post briefings are essential to reducing the total hours in training. It should be mandatory before going airborne, that every element is discussed and understood. The real goodness of a lesson comes after the flying with a thorough debrief. In this calm time after each lesson the student and educator can mutually determine the essence and meaning of each success and develop a plan for improvement and “next steps”. This review is essential so each student can personally code their experiences into meaningful insights for future success. A thorough debrief also keeps both student and instructor motivation charged up and moving toward improvement and future goals.

From what I hear/see online and in all the flight schools and CFIs I visit, some parts of this ideal process are usually violated when we witness unsuccessful pilot candidates or excessive hours to completion. Revisit the Rod Machado blog on the “bad CFI” soliciting reader input. Let’s fix all these unsuccessful practices and commit to keeping every honestly dedicated aviation student in the process and make sure they reach their goals in aviation. Your feedback and techniques are eagerly solicited here. We need every (safe) pilot!


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Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

2 thoughts on ““CFI Pro!” The Critical Element in Pilot Training!”

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