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!

 

Master CFI; Every Student Is Different!

Once you discover, respect and honor these differences, your teaching becomes much more effective (and fun!)

There is a very dangerous assumption built into all our CFI instructional materials and techniques. This starts with developing the “standardized lesson plans” we are required to create for our initial CFI evaluation. If not checked, this standardization can quickly lead to the “Army Chow Line Approach to Instruction.” e.g. “This is Lesson 3, step up…here is your slow flight (blop), turns right and left and intro to stalls (ready or not!)” Everyone rolls their eyes at this analogy but our modern aviation delivery system is built on the military and is still not too different! But teaching a millennial post-doc college student aviation is completely different from coaching a young mother discovering aviation for recreational purposes. Every student requires creative instructional techniques on the part of the CFI to be effective. If you are a brand new CFI, take those lesson plans you carefully prepared for your FAA checkride and shred them (or use them for reference only).

I call the FAA approach “the myth of the blank slate” when working with new CFIs. You are never going to get to teach that “idealized lesson plan!’ One of the initial challenges of being a flight instructor “for real” is accepting this fact and being able instead to adapt rapidly, effectively and safely to each new learning situation as it evolves. Though developing a curriculum and lesson plans, for an “ideal student” has value, imposing that structure on a  unique learning environment (and person) is one of the biggest errors in flight instruction.  Creativity and adaptability are the key skills of a masterful CFI.

When you meet a new student, whether it is their first lesson or midway through a curriculum (with “history” and “issues”), it is essential to immediately discover their unique strengths, weaknesses, background and learning style in a very intentional manner. With apologies for this glib generalization, every successful student in aviation needs some combination of the “hands, head and heart” capabilities to succeed. Some people are extremely dexterous and blessed with tremendous “hand to eye coordination.” Others will require more practice to succeed. The sooner you discover these (and other) unique characteristics, the more efficient and fun the training will be.

So now when I meet a new student (at any level), I insist on some time to work out all of these issues clearly before flight. I personally would not recommend an “interview” since this formality can impose a frame which creates tension and discourages true discovery. But a casual sit down discussion allows you both to gather information and dispel myths (in both directions). This is a time to establish a common bond and make sure you find out: first, “what are your goals in aviation and what is your motivation for learning aviation?” Teaching a recreational flier to be a future airline pilot is a common (and unsuccessful) modern mistake. Second, “what are activities you enjoy and are already good at? (What psychologists call “privileged domains”) Third, “how much do you know about aviation already?” (from a parent or friend who flies?) This “naive rendition” or what they think they already know about aviation is critical. These existing impressions might be a positive (or negative) but they are the basis for all future learning.

One last essential trait you need to discover about your new client (and questions are not necessary or recommended on this one) is determining their disposition and learning style. All learner’s personalities fall somewhere along the spectrum between “OCD engineer” to “skateboard dude” (this is not a currently accepted psychological scale!) Discovering their disposition and learning style will be essential to creating an effective learning environment. Interestingly, in my experience, neither end of this personality spectrum makes a better pilot, but that is another article…fly safely!


Please join us on July 12th for a live discussion of these and other CFI issues. Rod Machado and Greg Brown are true leaders in aviation education. We will be offering actionable CFI techniques. Please register on the FAA Safety site so we know who is watching *and* we will give out some exciting prizes!


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!