Flight Instruction At A Higher Level

This article is contributed by Dudley Henriques, a vastly-experienced retired CFI. It is longer than our usual blog but contains rare wisdom about effective flight instruction from an obvious pro; well worth your time and effort!

We need good instructors in aviation generally and especially in the aerobatic community. Becoming a CFI isn’t really all that difficult for the average pilot but developing into a GREAT CFI takes effort and a love for teaching that goes WAY beyond the FAA requirement.

I’d like to devote this article to the pilots who decide to go into flight instruction by exploring the subject based on my personal experience. It’s my hope that you new instructors out there find this information useful as you begin to build and add to your personal kit bag of knowledge and experience.

Back in 1953 I was one of those rare young pilots who decided early on I simply wanted to be a flight instructor. I sought the rating because I loved to teach and I saw a great need in aviation for GOOD instructors. For me the rating wasn’t a stepping stone on the road to an ATP but rather a calling that promised an opportunity to do something useful in aviation.

So along these lines, I became a CFI and I stayed a CFI concentrating initially on primary students then later on into my aviation life I became a private tutor in aerobatics for pilots owning their own aerobatic aircraft.

Today I’m retired from flying but remain active as a consultant on flight safety-related issues to ICAS, EAC, EAA, and ASSA. I’ve never lost that initial love for teaching people to fly and I still believe strongly in the important role played by flight instructors in our aviation community. My main area of interest these days involves flight safety in our airshow community where we are fortunate to have some of the finest pilots and instructors in the world. Naturally, as we age we will have new instructors coming on board and it is with this in mind that I wrote this article.

Naturally in our airshow community, our main interest lies at the advanced end of the training spectrum where aerobatics is the main issue at hand. But make no mistake, every instructor teaching aerobatics today had to start somewhere by teaching the basics at the primary level and it’s at that level where it all begins for the CFI. It’s here where new instructors develop the methods that define the quality of the job and where they fine-tune those methods into what can develop into the makings of a truly great instructor.

Through my tenure as a CFI, I believe I learned a few things about flying airplanes and how to teach pilots to fly them. My students made me a better teacher as I learned as much about teaching by teaching them as they learned about flying from me.

With this article, I would like to pass on to you new instructors some of what I learned along the way about teaching people to fly in the hope that I can impart some alternate perspectives that you may not find in the usual course manuals available for study as you go for your CFI rating.
This article assumes you have received your CFI certification and are beginning to teach people to fly.

You are a flight instructor. I’d like to help you be an even better flight instructor.

When you begin teaching student pilots to fly you have a choice of what kind of instructor you will be. My experience over time revealed two major types of instructors that stand alone above the others. Let’s take a look at both types.

“Instructor A”

First, you have instructor A. This type teaches mainly by voice and demonstration, always showing and explaining in the air, spending a lot of time personally on the controls, then allowing the student to take the controls.

At first glance, this seems a fine way to teach, and indeed the student can learn to fly this way… “eventually”. But this method of teaching can easily result in the development of a “back and forth” scenario between the student and the instructor where the instructor is constantly demonstrating by flying the airplane, the student is constantly trying to replicate what the instructor has demonstrated, the instructor corrects again, the student retries……….and on and on it goes until the student, through trial and error finally manages to get it right.

Then we have “instructor B”

Basically, instructor B’s method involves the instructor explaining while the student basically ALWAYS HAS THE CONTROLS. This is begun from the very first dual session and continued on through the entire learning curve.
The B method requires that the control of the airplane is accomplished by the student with the instructor providing ongoing verbal advice and encouragement with an absolute minimum of gentle control “assistance” from the instructor.

Let me insert a key point here concerning the first hour of dual. Naturally, the student will need some “help” from the instructor while initially taxiing the aircraft and also through the first takeoff. This is normal but even here the objective of the instructor should be to achieve a minimum amount of time physically flying the airplane. Most good instructors can talk a student through a first takeoff by allowing the student pitch control while they monitor power and rudder control for the student. Trust me. I have done this as a normal procedure for many years without incident.

There is a KEY DIFFERENCE between instructor A and instructor B. Both instructors must naturally be on the controls to demonstrate. The difference is the TIME each instructor physically is involved with the control of the aircraft. Type A spends MUCH more time flying the airplane than type B and it is THIS factor that I’l like you to not only remember but adapt as your our style of teaching. BECOME A TYPE B INSTRUCTOR!

Let’s talk a bit about the type B instructor.

This method recognizes that teaching someone to fly an airplane takes place in a constantly moving and changing dynamic classroom. It recognizes also all the ramifications implied by that scenario. In other words, the “classroom” where teaching and learning is taking place is not stationary but moving at well over one hundred miles an hour or more and exists in an airborne three-dimensional sky.
Teaching in this environment requires dedication and attention from the instructor to what’s happening in real-time not found in the normal stationary ground-bound classroom where teaching usually takes place.

The type B method involves the instructor allowing the student complete access to all the controls from the very first hour of dual.
It’s really quite simple in concept. But make no mistake. The type B instructor will be tasked to a “higher level” than type A.
In concept;
1. The student has all the controls
2. The instructor advises while closely monitoring the student’s actions.
3. The student acts on the controls.
4. The instructor fine-tunes with additional advice and continues to monitor as the student continues to fly the aircraft.

ALL physical interaction with the aircraft is accomplished by the student. The instructor can of course interact with the controls when necessary but ANY interaction by the instructor is done in a quiet and calm manner and kept to an absolute minimum. Every effort by the instructor is made to maximize the building of confidence in the student and this is accomplished by minimal PHYSICAL intervention by the instructor.
THIS is optimized teaching, and THIS is optimized learning!

It’s notable here that there is a difference in retention when a student is allowed to correct an error as opposed to the instructor intervening physically then allowing the student to resume control of the aircraft. If the instructor corrects an error by taking the controls what could have been retained by the student can be easily be lost as what was done intertwines mentally for the student with other errors and corrections made during the session. The student is much more likely to remember what was done and why as it was he/she who physically made the correction.

There is a caveat in this method, however. Using this method requires that the instructor know EXACTLY how far to allow the student to enter into an error before correction is necessary. And right here is where we see that an instructor who uses this method has to be teaching at “a higher level”.

There are two ways an instructor can intervene with a student when teaching this way. The first is a verbal correction that takes place early into an error. This method should be the goal of every instructor. This allows for the recognition of the error by the instructor, verbal interaction by the instructor with the student on how to correct, then physical action by the student to make the correction.

By now I’m sure you are asking yourself, “ But there will be instances while in flight when there is little time for verbal correction by the CFI due to the need for immediate correction”.

This is a valid point. There WILL be moments like this when giving dual to a student but handled correctly they can be stress-free and done in a manner that doesn’t degrade the confidence of the student. It’s during these “moments” that the quality of the instructor either rises to the top or sinks to the bottom.
The answer is that when these moments occur and physical intervention by the instructor is necessary (such as near the ground during the takeoff and landing phase) any and all physical intervention by the instructor should be done gently and accompanied by a stress-free verbal comment with control returned to the student ASAP.

ANYTIME you have physically taken the airplane away from a student QUICKLY you have missed the opportunity to verbally correct and have allowed a degrading of confidence in the student.

This is a very important point for new instructors. The reverse (verbal method) could have been the case and student confidence would have been increased had you acted sooner verbally and allowed the student to make the correction. Naturally, altitude is your friend when it comes to allowing a student complete control access. The timeline to correct any error decreases proportionally with a decrease in altitude. If the student has been taught correctly at altitude by the time you reach the phase with dual involving takeoffs and landings physical intervention on controls by the instructor should be at a minimum level which of course was the overall objective that brought you to this point in the training.

It’s an oversimplification to say that teaching this way can be summed up by saying “Don’t ride the controls on the student”. It’s MUCH more than that. It involves a philosophy of teaching unique to the job of handling education in an airplane which is of course a moving classroom.

Teaching this way requires an instructor who is not only sharp and knows the airplane extremely well but also an instructor who has taken the time to treat the student as an individual, thus knowing some basic things about the student and how the student might react to instruction.

THIS is a CRITICAL POINT for a new instructor to understand. No two students are identical and each one will require the instructor to “adjust” to that individual student’s ability to absorb instruction. In other words, there is no “cookie-cutter” solution to good flight instruction. You can have all the lesson plans the FAA can provide but in the end, good flight instruction depends totally on each instructor’s ability to teach each student on a level and in a manner that each student can understand and comprehend.

So here’s the technical recap for the above:

As an instructor, YOU are flying the airplane mentally in real-time without touching it.( if you’re doing it right anyway 😉

This means that the student’s physical actions with the controls are directly tied to your ongoing mental processing of what the student’s physical control actions should be at any given instant in time. This poses an interesting problem for the instructor.

You’re mentally flying the airplane as though you were physically flying it but you’re not. The student is physically flying the airplane. This means the student is either in sync with your thought process as he/she flies the aircraft, or is behind or ahead of what you would be doing physically with the airplane as it’s being flown. If you’re good…..and I mean GOOD……what happens in real-time is that as you are monitoring and your mind is processing the flight situation at any given instant, you will process what is happening as though your hands and feet were on the controls. Your brain will of course pick up and process what is happening based on YOUR experience. You are processing where the airplane should be in 3-dimensional space and what it should be doing at any instant in time and position in space. These cues are based on YOUR mental processing, NOT the student’s. This is important to understand, as it means you are, or should be at least, way ahead of the student mentally as that applies to what is coming next with the aircraft.

All this going on supplies you with 2 possible scenarios. The student is correcting an error in sync with where you would be correcting it, which is fine, or the student is late which will most likely be the case due to the experience differential between the two of you.

I’ll repeat it once more for clarity. The trick in GOOD flight instruction is in knowing EXACTLY how deep into an error without a PHYSICAL correction you can allow the student to fly the airplane before YOU have to take corrective action.

In fact, if you are doing the job right, you already know the student is behind the airplane and have taken VERBAL action to allow the student time to self correct, which is the proper procedure in good instruction and the basis for much of this article.

You will find that your ongoing assessment of where the airplane should be at any given instant in time and how the student is interfacing with that assessment by his/her physical action flying the aircraft is the key for you in knowing where the student is on the learning curve. In the beginning, the student will be well behind your assessment. You will find yourself anticipating an action by the student that won’t be performed in time. Your ability to use verbal correction instead of physical correction will be taxed to a maximum. As the student gains experience, you will find that your assessment of the ongoing flight situation and the student’s reaction time to correct any errors will become shorter until the time when you notice the student is flying the airplane EXACTLY where your mental processing is telling you YOU would be flying the airplane physically. This results in the student making corrections where you would be making corrections and is the sign you are looking for……a complete co meeting of what the student is doing physically with the aircraft vs what you would be doing physically with the aircraft. The student is now ready to solo!

the learning process: how it’s accomplished when applied to the experience of learning to fly an airplane.

You can read all the manuals on instructing in print and rarely will you (if ever) come across material that informs you as an instructor that much of the retention and real understanding that takes place in flight instruction doesn’t actually take place in the airplane but rather in-between dual sessions.

Yes…..that’s right……IN BETWEEN the times when the student is actually flying the airplane.

As a good instructor, you NEVER want to be teaching theory while giving dual in flight. Spend time on theory with the student both before and after you fly. Explain the what’s, why’s, and how’s for the lesson before flying, then allow the student to do it in the air by ROTE under guidance, then go over the detailed explanation again after the flight.

The student at that point most likely won’t have reached the level of retention and comprehension you want as the instructor, but now after flying the airplane, the student can go home and while relaxed and away from the pressure and tension of physically flying have time to reflect and think and go over in their mind what was done by rote in flight. It’s during THIS period where many things fall into place for the student and a deeper more meaningful understanding of what was done in the air registers. I think you’ll find that after this “between time” when the student arrives for the next hour of dual they will have a better understanding of what was done during the prior dual session and will be ready to take the next step forward. It’s a natural process of learning and something you should encourage students to engage in as they progress along with you on their path to certification.

Stalls and how to deal with them as an instructor.

Reading over the new ACS I’m the last person on the planet who wants to come down hard on the FAA for attempting to make flying safer and save lives, but this doesn’t mean I agree with the FAA all the time on policy, regulation, and especially when it comes to procedure. The FAA has a distinct tendency when it comes to flight instruction to attempt dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.”

Looking at the ACS is like looking at a laundry list that attempts to anticipate every possible situation one can possibly run into while flying an airplane. To be blunt the ACS is one complicated piece of work.
This is all well and good……………..BUT:

What the FAA seems to miss sometimes is the simple fact that flying an airplane is performed in a constantly changing fluid three-dimensional dynamic where absolutely nothing is written in stone because nothing is static. Flying is NOT done in a static environment.

All those I’s and T’s have to be dotted and crossed in different ways at different times as the situation dictates at any given moment; where no two flights are ever exactly the same and occur under identical conditions. In other words, there are NO CONSTANTS involved with the flying of an airplane. Even the wind and its effect on the aircraft change every second while in flight.

Flying an airplane is a fluid and dynamic experience accomplished in a state of constant change!

The stall as IT relates to you the instructor.

First of all, don’t neglect the ACS. By all means, do as directed by the FAA………..but use the ACS as a beginning for what you teach your students, NOT the final lesson plan, ESPECIALLY when it concerns the issue of the stall.

By now, if you have been doing your job correctly your student has been taken out of the cockpit during the very first hour of dual and far away from that ball in the glass tube on the panel. You have shown that ball to the student and demonstrated its usefulness but during the very first hour, you have taken your student’s attention OUTSIDE THE COCKPIT and onto the nose of the airplane and its relationship with the horizon for any and all reference concerning control coordination. Your student has as well been taught how the proper use of rudder in ALL phases of flight is so important, not only in turn entry and exit but as well in climbs and descents where proper rudder use that streamlines the aircraft can actually be reflected in improved airspeed. In other words, your student is “control aware” and has been taught how to “feel” the airplane. This doesn’t mean you have neglected the importance of instrument integration. It DOES mean however that you have taken your student to a “higher level” of instruction and have been teaching the student to fly above and beyond the FAA requirement.

About the stall

The stall is perhaps the most misunderstood and undertaught phase associated with flight training. In my opinion, if you stop teaching at the ACS requirement you are NOT giving your student all of what you could have given them as they enter post-pilot certification life.

As a flight instructor, you owe the student more than the ACS provides concerning the subject of the stall. It isn’t that the material isn’t listed on the ACS. The problem is that too many instructors don’t teach deeply enough about the areas of the stall where the danger actually exists.  In some cases, the instructors themselves are not as comfortable as they should be with a stall to teach it properly. I don’t want you to be one of those instructors.

The entire purpose of this article was to convey to you the concept that it’s possible to make a student feel comfortable in an airplane and STILL teach the student to fly at a “higher level”. This is never more pertinent than when we start dealing with the subject of stalls.

I have never had a problem making a student comfortable in an airplane while at the same time teaching stall “beyond the test requirements” and I don’t think you will either. It’s all about knowledge, training, and most of all…….ATTITUDE. My suggestion to you new instructors is to first and foremost make YOURSELF more competent, comfortable, and knowledgable about stalls generally and practice stalls until you feel at home with them in all areas of the aircraft’s flight envelope. Unless YOU are confident with the stall in all flight attitudes your instruction will reflect this and will be far less than the desired result.

The technique when teaching stall

I highly suggest using the gross weight 1g power-off stall simply as an entry point from which you will be teaching stalls. This stall is perfect for establishing exactly how comfortable your student is with the stall. When you are satisfied the student is relaxed and ready to proceed, explain that the real danger associated with stall has little to do with that 1g power-off stall but rather with stall above 1g, at higher airspeeds, in-flight through all three dimensions, and especially when and if control coordination is crossed. THIS is the area where you want to take your student for stall training and THIS is the EXACT AREA of stall training where some instructors spend the least amount of time with the student. Don’t make this mistake. Be careful and prepare the student properly. When (and ONLY WHEN) you feel the student is ready,  take the student to where the REAL training in stalls will serve them well after the license has been obtained…… TO WHERE THE DANGER LIES……….in the accelerated and crossed control flight regime. Spend enough time in this area to allow your student to become completely familiar and comfortable there.

NOTE; Your objective as a good instructor in this area is to make the student comfortable AND PROFICIENT with a stall above 1g.

Do that and your student will never have to worry about stalling from a skidding turn or any other flight attitude. You will have trained a pilot who not only understands what to avoid but also has a genuine “feel” for where the aircraft is at all times in relation to the critical angle of attack. You have trained a pilot who is ANGLE OF ATTACK AWARE! You have trained a pilot who can “FEEL THE AIRCRAFT” and fly the airplane above and beyond the FAA requirement.  Your student can now fly the check ride with an examiner to the FAA standard and obtain their pilot certificate and that student can ALSO fly the airplane well beyond the FAA standard and into that “higher level” of the standard that YOU the instructor have provided.

Knowing when a student is ready to solo

As instructors, it goes without saying that all of you will be dealing with the issue of deciding when a student is ready to solo, and what to do when this stage of training is reached.  There are many methods a CFI can use to determine when a student is ready to solo. You will develop your own criteria for doing this.

Let me explain one method to you that I’d like you to consider. This method has never failed me. As you form your own solo decision process, it might give you a starting block in understanding the issue at a “higher level”.

At some point during the takeoff and landing stage with your student, you will reach a point where you determine the student is about ready to solo. At this point, if you are using touch and goes, stop doing them and start making complete landings. Doing this allows much-needed time while taxiing back for the next takeoff for you to critique and fine-tune the student’s pattern and takeoff and landing performance while the student is relieved of the pressure of flying the airplane. It’s a critical time for both you AND the student. It’s valuable time needed for the student to relax and listen.

As the solo decision is reached, you should inform the student in a calm and quiet manner while taxiing back to take off that in your opinion, solo is now possible WHEN THE STUDENT FEELS READY AND TELLS YOU SO!!!. This is stage one of the solo process. It informs the student and begins the student’s mental preparation for what is to come next.

Stage two now begins. By informing the student of possible solo, you have effectively changed the student’s thinking process from a dual scenario into a solo scenario so that as the airplane takes the active for the next takeoff, the student is now thinking in that all-important solo perspective. You might now repeat to the student, “I feel you can fly this airplane. When YOU feel you can fly it, let me know and I’ll get out”. I have always considered this comment from the instructor extremely important to the solo equation. Telling the student that they are ready to solo opens the door for the student to a change from dual thinking to solo thinking….and that change is a CRITICAL step !!

Now stage three. The student is now on the active runway and ready to take off. In his/her mind due to what you have told the student about solo you are not really there. The student, whether realizing it or not, is thinking as though you were not in the aircraft.

At this juncture you should make it a point to avoid all or very little physical contact with the airplane; letting the student do everything. If the student has a question, instead of answering it ask the student what the answer should be. The student should be required to solve and perform with you keeping a watchful eye but not interfering. You are now engaged in transferring all pilot in command decisions from you to the student. Any physical interference by you with the aircraft at this point constitutes a solo abort consideration until the problem that causes it can be addressed with further instruction.

I should note here that if such a situation occurs, you have made an initial error in your solo judgment process and you should seriously evaluate your own performance! Assuming no CFI error at this point, as the student applies power to the airplane after being told that solo is his/her choice, the student’s entire mental process should now be focused at the solo level. Mentally, the student will now be filling in the gaps in confidence that must be achieved before a safe solo can be accomplished. Some students will breeze right through this process, but some need this last step to firm up what YOU should already know…that they are ready to fly the airplane without you being there!!! The key here is that although the student is thinking on a solo level, YOU are still in the airplane.

This last time around the pattern is of course critical. You should make every effort not to interfere PHYSICALLY at this point. Encourage and point things out gently and quietly. Basically, you want to convey the feeling that you are just a “passenger” to the student. You want to transfer the “Pilot-In-Command” thinking completely onto the student.

Allow the student to solve any and all problems encountered during this last pattern. Give the student wide latitude in solving for altitude/airspeed/ configuration/ and position.

Assuming a good landing; while taxiing on the way back you should inquire with a smile, “Well, what do you think?” If the answer is positive at this point, (as well it should be ) the student can be soloed.

This procedure is what I have used with all the students I have soloed and it has never once failed to produce a good result. You of course as I have said, will find your own method for making the solo decision. The solo decision by a CFI is one of the most important decisions made by any pilot at any time in aviation. It deserves careful and serious consideration and a constant self-evaluation by you as an instructor to fine-tune the factors that go into the making of this decision.

In summation;

I sincerely hope that this article will fill in some gaps for you new instructors and serve as an aid to a better understanding and possibly inspire you to;

and get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) This supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

10 thoughts on “Flight Instruction At A Higher Level”

  1. very good advice. I believe Henriques’ methodology and philosophy of teaching is, like a lot of knowledge from aviation, applicable to teaching in many other fields. Great read!

    1. Thanks John. I agree, Dudley has very succinctly summarized the whole art of instructing with an important focus on the critical elements like solo and teaching stalls!

  2. Couldn’t agree more, especially about the stalls. However the testing requirements (incl CFI) don’t include all of these stalls and even make turning entries an option. All long as that is the case, I don’t think instruction will reach the level to which Mr. Henriques aspires and with which I agree. David – the CFI PTS requires the Examiner to select at least one of the four demonstration stalls (cross-controlled, elevator trim, secondary, accelerated). What usually happens – is the minimum one done or are all four done?

    1. Those tricky FAA standards! Always check the front of a PTS and the back of an ACS (appendices) for the whole story. The CFI PTS allows “sampling” at the discretion of the evaluator (others require *all* skill items). And remember FAA standards specify only MINIMUMS and in no way imply “excellent performance!” An applicant can be mediocre on everything but is entitled (by reg) to a certificate: “perfection is not the standard.”

      “With the exception of the required Tasks, the examiner must not tell
      the applicant in advance which Tasks will be included in the “plan of
      action.” The applicant should be well prepared in all knowledge and
      skill areas included in the standards.”

      “The examiner *must* select at least one proficiency stall
      (Task B or C), at least one demonstration stall (Task D, E,
      F, or H), and Task G (spin – usually by endorsement and DPE
      oral quizzing)

      In stalls the cross-controlled is usually done and one other. The flight portion on CFI is often shorter that a PPL (but the oral is endless). CFI evaluations focus on teaching skill not esp. flying skills (flight tests simultaneous talk/fly – multitasking)

    2. Always teach beyond the test. Give the student what the FAA requires of course but never allow that to become YOUR standard of instruction. ALL students deserve better than the FAA standard. Remember; when you take on a student it’s YOU as their instructor who is responsible for what they carry with them as they enter their post student piloting experience. All the FAA does is check to see if your student meets their criteria on the day they take the flight test.
      Many instructors put WAY too much emphasis on what the FAA wants and not enough emphasis on what the student NEEDS.

      1. This is close to 20 years back. I had a student whom I soloed, but before we got too much further, his college year started pretty far from home. He continued his flight training there, and reported to me that they stayed away from stalls from turning entries – school policy. In some cases, the CFI isn’t the decision maker.

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