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Real CFI Learning *Begins* With Temporary!

If you are a new CFI, congratulations and welcome to the challenge of aviation education. If you know someone that just qualified, please share this article with that person since their learning is just starting. Enjoy the aura of accomplishment and the social media adulation for a week or two. But it is critically important to accept the fact that your serious work of *really* learning how to teach flying has just begun. Learning to teach flying begins with the CFI temporary certificate.

No new CFI wants to hear this, but in every other country in the world, a new CFI is only a “student teacher,” or “licensed beginner.” In Canada, new CFIs, Class Four, are required by regulation to be directly supervised. In the US, FAA CFIs can legally teach solo immediately – normalizing risk anyone? Good sense requires learning how to teach for real with some careful supervision. An experienced CFI model or mentor is necessary to facilitate this process. Becoming good at aviation education requires continuous effort and attention (MCFI anyone?)

Real aviation education is totally different from the skills you demonstrated on your FAA CFI test.

Passing a CFI practical test requires continuous talking and handling the controls to demonstrate proficiency to your examiner. Real aviation education requires that you conscientiously do neither – and this is initially very difficult for accomplished pilots. You have some serious “unlearning” to do to be a successful CFI! You will also have to get used to going sideways in the plane and endure awkward communications as you guide your learner. This is the painful reality of teaching – you will live in a world of small errors constantly being corrected; crappy flying and bad comm. And despite what many new CFIs believe, you cannot micromanage your student into perfection by fixing every error immediately (and your learner will not benefit from watching you fly all the time). This is probably the most common “beginner CFI mistake.” Your learner has to discover and embrace the required skills  and operate in the “struggle zone” experimenting with your (hands off) guidance and encouragement. Suffering through some bad flying is, by definition, exactly what you signed up for when you became a CFI (no need, no sale!)

Your real CFI education begins with your temporary certificate.

Just ask any CFI who has gained a couple thousand hours teaching to reflect on their early days of teaching. They will recount with horror stories of “what I did not know…” As a student teacher it is essential to embrace an attitude of “humble learner.” Your goal is to become a “compassionate coach” for your learner; keeping them safe and guiding insights while they are building proficiency and confidence. An inflated attitude of “god of the aviation universe,” common in brand-new academy CFIs, prevents your personal CFI improvement and also eliminates any student progress. Caring and compassion are important skills to develop too. But like many important skills, they are not part of the FAA flight test either.

Allow your learner space to think and do; stop talking incessantly!

This chatter habit was created only for the FAA practical test, where verbosity is necessary to demonstrate knowledge to your pilot examiner. Talking continuously is NOT how we actually teach flying. In a quiet, undistracted environment, human communication is only about 20% efficient. In the cockpit your efforts are like the “dog watching television” and usually distract more than help. (Your student only sees your lips move and perhaps hears 5% of what you say). Teach only on the ground, and demonstrate (briefly) in the air. This allows time for your learner’s experimentation and exploration in the air. If brief verbal reminders are necessary in flight, carefully “chunk” your communication and deliver it only at undistracted times.

Allow your learner to fly, don’t handle (or shadow) the flight controls!

Flying the plane was required for demonstration purposes during your FAA flight test, but this is not how we teach people to fly. Your student should be doing almost all the flying, this is the experience they are paying for. Besides talking too much, most new CFI hog the flight controls preventing any opportunity for their learner to experience flying and grow. It is necessary to work conscientiously at “letting go” and empowering your student. (and yes, you will endure some pretty bad flying as your learners discover more precise control). We must hand over the controls – and increasingly the decision-making also – ASAP. Remember, our job is to get out of the plane and create independent (PIC) pilots. Effective CFIs are quicker at this, acquire a reputation for efficiency, and have more student pilots seeking their services.

Your learner has to learn to talk on the radio (from day one)

As a CFI it is necessary to only talk on the radio if safety is compromised. It takes serious effort to restrain yourself here because we all hate bad communication. Prepare your learners to understand and talk accurately by practicing a script (all the world’s a stage). Make sure they understand we are not just speaking English here but  a unique argot called “aviation speak.” Above all brevity and clarity rule the day, and the NAS is full of pilots who never learned this.

Shred those carefully constructed “CFI prep” lesson plans; every flight lesson is unique!

Well, maybe retain them for reference, but don’t make the mistake of believing these are useful for any individual lesson. Instead, copy a stack of blank lesson plan forms and write a new one for every lesson (include “prerequisites.”) Each hour with a different learner is a unique experience with different requirements and techniques. After you debrief your learner’s actions and improvement on a lesson, also rate your own performance. What could *you,* as a CFI, have done better?  Did you get across the points you intended? Did learning occur with demonstrable improvement? If the student has not learned, the instructor failed to teach.

Transfer responsibility to your learner ASAP.

Your ultimate job as a CFI is to “become superfluous” and we need to “get out of the plane” one step at a time. Transferring skills and responsibility to your learner as soon as they are competent is a great way to build confidence and motivation. This is consistent with the points mentioned above of empowering our learners and not micromanaging their actions. As soon as they can safely check weather and preflight the airplane, that becomes their responsibility. You will fine-tune this as they progress, but make sure they understand they are in charge and PIC for this operation.

Define Expectations and Goals Early On and Revisit Overall Progress Continuously

Most aviation learners cannot accurately tell where they are in the process of becoming a pilot and they become lost. Their motivation will suffer unless there is a continuous view of the bigger picture. Keep you learner informed and motivated with reference to the syllabus and the progress they have achieved. Always encourage reflection and goal setting to inspire progress.

Get Feedback from a Senior Mentor or Master

To be a good educator it is essential to continue learning and remain a passionate student. If learning ever stops, it is too easy to become a self-important “know-it-all.” Learning requires challenges and projects, getting out of our “comfort zone.” Struggle for the educator also creates empathy for your own learners. Seek out a mentor and get regular feedback on your progress as an instructor. Fly safely out there (and often)!


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Author: David St. George

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

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