Start Honest; “Engagement Letter!”

An “engagement letter” is a simple statement of professional responsibilities, duties and expectations. Most often lawyers insist on these agreements as a first step before beginning any professional relationship. And that is because most lawyers have extensive experience with human suffering and “misunderstandings.” Start with the facts and expected outcome but also imagine what might go wrong.

The primary purpose of an engagement letter is to assure a clear understanding on both sides; standards and expectations. We know every person’s perspective is different several months into any relationship – but especially after lots of time, money and effort are invested. I think a document like this could go a long way toward curing the ridiculous 80% dropout rate in aviation training (it can provide protections on both sides if properly constructed). Better to start honest with defined terms and also a commitment toward a mutually agreeable outcome.

The flight training relationship is almost comically one-sided favoring the flight training provider. They have significant overhead and capital investment, bonded with a very thin margin in an unstable business environment. The over-eager flight student, usually ignorant of the true difficulties and hidden expenses can be an “easy mark.” Unfortunately, it is also easy to fool yourself (the provider), into believing you are helping an eager client by getting them flying immediately. But aviation is a long game, for everyone involved, and I recommend serious honest appraisal and planning at the start. Lay out the facts, but also sell the sizzle – we all became pilots and obviously still love it.

The whole aviation industry suffers when you promulgate the “big lie” of “faster/cheaper/easier.” People sold a bill of goods quit as quickly as they start and give our business a bad reputation. And sometimes blood gets shed when incomplete learning and lower standards lead to stupid accidents. Ultimately, educators do better with honesty – working with students who fully “buy in.” An honest relationship from the start builds clients who do their homework and ask for another hour to really master control. The good students accept responsibility and honestly want to be better (not just “get by”)! These are the people you actually like and want to fly with.

So “start honest” and reveal the wonderful opportunities; the challenge and adventure, the satisfaction of real achievement. Share the passion and some amazing experiences. But also reveal the facts; it costs a lot, takes real effort and the at times mother nature holds all the cards. Appeal to their sense of happy longevity and safety; it kinda sucks to suffer in a hospital bed.

In the final analysis, honesty is the essential ingredient for safe flying, for both yourself and others. Physics is not “bendable” or “forgiving.” Pilots who are sold a lie and succeed anyway often display “magical thinking” in their flying activities. These are the pilots who try to “stretch gas” and “cheat weather.” And we all know this only works for so long until the luck runs out -“what were they thinking?” They got sold a lie right from the beginning. Start honest with real numbers. It wasn’t easy, or cheap, but it was worth every penny. Fly safely out there (and often).


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Teaching Maneuvering – The Hardest Job in Aviation!

Why are newest, inexperienced CFIs usually tasked with teaching the most vital lessons on basic aircraft control? Loss of Control is the leading fatal accident causal factor - maybe we should rethink this? The status quo in aviation education is unacceptable!

Tradition seems to dictate that the first couple of flight lessons are relegated to the newest, least experienced flight instructors. This mistake probably comes from the theory that these are the “safest lessons” (?) where nothing can go too far wrong. In reality, this first exposure to flight is the most difficult and complex educational experience to manage properly. Early lessons require endless patience and an astute ability to read and react to different problems and personalities. Most CFIs with more than 500 hours have become too frustrated and have lost their ability to cope with the glacial pace of initial learning. Ironically, this original exposure to flight control is the most vital learning experience. These lessons require the most experienced and careful educator to succeed. Older CFIs who are parents are often the best people for these first lessons (emotional intelligence). The missing elements they supply are patience and empathy. The “type A” go-go pilot personality is actually poison to successful pilot education.

If this initial instruction goes wrong, your new flight student will either quit (common) or they will learn incorrectly and forever be uncoordinated and unsafe. As a result, many pilots fly with incomplete understanding and control, sometimes contributing to our LOC-I statistics. These early flight lessons are where an educator has the greatest opportunity to make a difference and move the needle on safety, but it is also the hardest job in aviation.

A brand-new person learning to fly is in a completely alien and frightening environment. As adult learners, they are competent in other pursuits but are suddenly an awkward beginner in a potentially dangerous new world; exciting and scary all at once. The educator must understand this and commiserate with this new pilot-in-training to create a bond of trust. This process needs to go slowly; exploring and adjusting expectations to this new (and potentially frightening) world of flight. Adult students will seldom admit to their fear, but instead carefully mask their emotions. Every person taking flight training has some expectations of what this experience will be like, but just about every person also needs to recalibrate, and psychologically adjust as they assume control of the airplane and assimilate these new experiences. Every new student also has the burden of negative transfer from driving and “naive rendition” (established false beliefs) to unlearn and overcome.

There is nothing intuitive about aircraft control. The only paradigm most pilots-in-training have from life is their driving experience and this is a totally negative transfer. Not only do we not control or “point” the airplane with the “steering wheel” but a driver is numb to the force of yaw from sliding in a car seat for years. A pilot has to learn to sense and cancel yaw from lesson one. It is vital for any careful and caring flight educator to explain and eliminate any similarity with driving, right from the beginning.

The first required task in flying, a straight-ahead climb away from the runway, is like starting a course in mathematics at calculus – one of the most difficult maneuvers to understand and master is first. A straight climb requires a lot of explanation to understand the required canceling of yaw and maintaining wings level.  Though most educators do a passable job of explaining the “why” of the left-turning tendencies, very few explain that rudder application also creates roll just as aileron application creates yaw. Pilots need to understand this interrelationship right from the start. Most pilots with incomplete understanding and training, climb out (occasionally) coordinated but seldom with wings level. It takes aileron against the rudder (cross-coordinated) to climb level. This effect is largely masked in low-wing trainers, especially the “marshmallow” PA-28 series. For this reason, the ideal platform for teaching pilots coordination is a high wing or tailwheel aircraft. If you have ever taught power transition to a  glider pilot who has mastered cross-coordination spiraling in thermals, you will understand how valuable this skill is to a new pilot-in-training.

When level at altitude, the first essential lesson is stability and trim. Nervous new pilots strangle the yoke (or stick) in their nervousness and need to learn to relax and learn to trust the airplane. Demonstrate straight and level, all trimmed up and then also a 30 degree banked turn all trimmed hands-off (arms folded). A good trainer will happily maintain a constant bank, hands off, until the plane runs out of fuel. This demonstration is a real relief for most new pilots.

Next up is the “ugly turn.” Demonstrating a turn with no rudders (driving) results in the nauseous swinging of the nose opposite from the intended direction due to adverse yaw (eyes outside directly over the nose). We all see this mistake even in rated pilots flying high-performance planes – they never learned coordination! Most pilots bring the driving habit with them and are at first looking in the direction of the turn and never see (or feel) the adverse yaw caused by aileron. Make sure your pilot is looking straight ahead when initiating any turn. Rolling back and forth on a point with eyes straight ahead, outside, is a great practice to develop a sense of rudder and aileron harmony.

Also essential in these early demonstrations is ensuring your pilot-in-training has their back against the seat and is sitting straight up, not leaning to compensate for yaw. A critical takeaway from these early lessons is “sensing yaw.” It is amazing how accepting we can be of yaw from driving and sliding sideways in the car seat.  We cannot “accept yaw” in controlled flight – we need to cancel it for efficiency and safety.

Next, demonstrate how sudden power application or firm pitch up both cause a force to the left. Your new pilot will now begin to understand the challenge of the initial climb off the runway. You should combine these in a straight climb with enough rudder to cancel the yaw force and also some opposite aileron to fly wings level (cross-coordinated). “Patterns at altitude” are essential to master all the basics of control away from stress of a busy runway pattern. This drill and repetition will take several hours to achieve a reliable imprint. Usually, for the first lesson, straight, coordinated climbs and descents is enough. The turning climb would usually be added and refined in the second lesson.

It is an unfortunate fact that just about every pilot skids around the left-hand traffic pattern. Few pilots understand that right rudder is essential to achieve a stabilized left climbing turn – many pilots never realize this until they attempt the more aggressive chandelles. In your second lesson, you need to fly lots of climbing turns emphasizing this counter-intuitive requirement for right rudder. It is perfectly OK to just keep turning in a spiral to give your pilot-in-training time to achieve and feel the benefit of coordination (evident in performance as well).

It is also surprising to new pilots that a stabilized climbing turn to the right (with right rudder) will overbank and require aileron to the left (again the integrated effect of the ailerons and rudders). Pilots will naturally assume that the same control pressures that work turning left can be applied to the right – NOT! At the heart of all the confusion is the inter-related control effects, the fact that the P-factor and spiraling slipstream always pull left. In a stabilized turn in either direction, lift is equal on the wings and the left pulling force is at work creating yaw. A non-symmetrical pilot action is required and “cross-coordinated” is seldom explained fully.

To a flight instructor, all this early control practice can seem tedious and boring, but it is absolutely essential that pilots achieve full understanding and coordination or they will forever be a dangerous pilot. Actively empathizing with the challenge helps keep these early lessons exciting. Celebrate each step toward mastery and true control, but do not accept incorrect procedures or a rushed syllabus. If you proceed too quickly into stalls – before coordination is natural – the result will be some ugly and scary experiences for your pilot-in-training (where most people quit!). Get enough sleep and breathe slowly; early lessons are absolutely the hardest – for both CFI andpilot-in-training. Good “parental patience” – with a dose of compassion – makes this work. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership 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).

 

Creating Productive Scenarios; “Struggle Zone”

 

Scenario-based training has acquired a stigma in aviation though misuse. But if done properly, these experiences can be the most powerful tool in an experienced educator’s arsenal. And scenarios are the required core focus of all modern FAA ACS testing (what your good DPE is going to use during every evaluation). Every CFI must be an astute evaluator to be an effective educator. Proper application of scenarios requires discretion and creativity. Using the right tool at the appropriate time creates the most effective educational experience. Properly constructed scenarios add  a world of valuable challenge and motivation to training and more accurately resemble the real flight experience. Deployed properly, scenarios expand a small geographic area into the whole country (with no added cost!) and build higher level judgment skills making safer pilots.

The Misuse…

The misuse of scenarios comes primarily from imposing unimaginative (generic) scenarios onto every student without customizing the challenges to the proper level. Many scenarios are applied too soon and exceed the learner’s skill level.  Every flight operation requires some level of fluid skill – often acquired by drill and repetition – before the scenario can be effective (why piano scales are taught before Haydn!) Failure to consider the unique needs of each student wastes valuable time and money. “Learning opportunities” instead become “play time for instructors” building hours. Complex and inappropriate scenarios become an expensive burden for the pilot-in-training; 50 hour solos and 100 hour X-C levels.

The critical skill for the aviation educator is evaluation so the proper level of challenge is achieved. The heart of a successful scenario is customizing each learning experience to achieve optimal challenge (struggle zone). Creative generation and applicatiion of new experiences creates rapid skill acquisition, excitement and judgement (higher level learning). The result is versatile, resilient pilots (and often at a lower cost through efficiency). But in every case the pilot-in-training needs the prerequisite skills to adquately meet the scenario challenge -again – initially learned by rote and embedded through muscle memory, then extrapolated to each creative challenge with a scenario.

The Necessity…

The proven necessity of scenarios is simple. Your new pilot, or “rusty recurrent pilot”,  has the FAA privilege to fly day or night, anywhere in the country, for the rest of their life.  And this is despite being only trained in a small geographic area on good weather days, mostly in daylight.  To safely meet the challenge of real life flying, a student and educator must engage together in some “active imagining.” If done correctly, scenarios challenge the pilot and transport your learner to all the places and challenges they may encounter as a pilot.  Working together, you must mentally extrapolate from the local area to the challenges of the whole country, in different terrain and weather, encountered over the span of a lifetime.

Scenarios Done Properly…

If properly constructed and executed, a scenario puts your student into the “struggle zone” or what educational psychologists call the “zone of proximal development”.  An effective scenario presents the optimal level of personal challenge for an individual learner and enables an educator to both teach and evaluate at the highest correlation level of learning.  Done poorly, scenarios merely run up the flight training bill and become an excuse for extraneous trips to exciting lunch destinations on the client’s dime. Buying specialized scenario books or apps to deploy cumbersome generic scenarios usually fail; to be successful, each scenario must be personal and challenge each unique leaner. To present an effective scenario, it is essential to your student well so you can craft realistic challenges appropriate to their level of skill and realm of experience. Remember, a solid relationship of trust is the #1 ingredient to success in any learning situation.  Let’s unpack the “why” and “how to” of SBT  and also provide a sales pitch for this creative way to turbo-charge your teaching.

How to…Let’s get started!

Scenario training can be as simple as scrolling on Skyvector ( or ForeFlight) to a far off state and “mentally relocating” your student to a certain unique and surprising location with a mission and set of weather conditions. Active engagement and “buy in” from the learner is essential so adding a personal need to the mission is essential; make it personal! “You’re transporting your sick dog to the clinic and need to know what airspace we are in? And what viz and cloud clearance (radio/nav equipment) are required? Who do I talk to here and how will the plane perform at this altitude?” The more personally relevant and realistic each scenario is, the more actively your student will engage and the more effective their learning. (A previous blog revealed the learning benefits of practicing in the “struggle zone“) And all this can also happen effectively (and economically) on a bad weather day when flying might not be productive at your student’s level. If you have a simulator you obviously have an even better tool and the scenarios created for the EAA-PPC are available now on-line and available for FAA WINGS credit on faasafety.gov

So  if I am dealing with a Cornell aerospace student, a plausible scenario might start with “You are back at the Mohave Spaceport for Cornell and suddenly have an opportunity to do some personal flying in Mohave…how would you unpack the challenges of mountains and high density altitudes, unique “traffic”?” Or present the “Oshkosh Fly-In Challenge” with the Fisk arrival (this and others are in the EAA-PPC list) And remember these are also exactly the kind of challenges a good DPE is going to present during a practical test. Scenarios build a flexible, thoughful pilot that can unpack challenges and manage risks with skill, knowledge and imagination.

Creating mountains…

And how do you create those mountains? Perhaps after some low level ground reference maneuvering, impose a hypothetical “service ceiling” on your plane in MSL (2000 over the terrain but below the hilltops) Then limit the airplane power to 2100rpm (density altitude) and now transit the “mountains”. “Can we safely transition through the hills to our home airport?  Should we divert instead>”  Similarly you can impose a solid cloud ceiling and  leave the weather decision to the student. Then accept the client’s decision -good or bad- if conditions are within your minimums and you can keep the flight safe and legal. Once  you are flying with too much wind or too low clouds, the client experiences the consequences of their folly (and perhaps log some actual or get some good crosswinds) within a safe environment (watchful eye of the educator). Share your favorite scnarios in the comments below.

The essential element in all scenarios is allowing your client to make mistakes (while carefully maintaining a margin for safety) and supplying only minimal guidance.  Allowing this famous “learning opportunity” to unfold is critical and easily ruined by too much “helping” from the CFI. As errors add up, their struggle will clearly demonstrate the consequences of bad decisions and the “accident chain”  without the safety risk.

Motivating for students and educators!

Scenarios are exciting for both the pilot and the educator adding fun and variety to the training experience; this is how Master Instructors are built. Good scenarios beat “going to the practice area for some steep turns” hands down for learning efficiency and motivation. And there is a real difference between “one hour 2000 times” and “2000 unique hours of real teaching experience”. Attend our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop and  acquire expert instructor skills more rapidly (are we still learning as educators?). Fly safely (and often!)


 

Our SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop covers the CFI as evaluator. We also cover “client-focused” flight training to address the 80% drop out rate in initial flight training.

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Reflect and Redirect; “Double Loop” Learning!

Pilots are a “different breed of cat” as you well know. As a personality type we are confident, higher than average in intelligence, tend toward dominance and are almost never wrong about anything! (ask my wife…) “Never wrong” is “sort of” a joke but you know our tribe; pretty self-assured and assertive, with perfectionist tendencies. And though it takes confidence to pilot effectively, pilots also hate to admit to errors (as do most professionals in all fields). This very feature makes pilots and other high-performance professionals remarkably bad at learning. And as experience and hours pile up this problem gets worse not better; success becomes an impediment to further learning. This is a well-known problem in the “C-suite” of business too. Read Teaching Smart People How to Learn by Chris Argyris (a Harvard Business Review Classic) for a great analysis of this problem. Experts and professionals are remarkably good at problem solving but amazingly bad at learning.

Double loop learning is part of action science — the study of how we act in difficult situations. Individuals and organizations need to learn if they want to succeed (or even survive). But few of us pay much attention to exactly how we learn and how we can optimize the process.

Even smart, well-educated people can struggle to learn from experience. We all know someone who’s been at the office for 20 years and claims to have 20 years of experience, but they really have one year repeated 20 times.

Finding and trapping errors is only the first basic feedback loop where we analyze, correct and revise our plans or techniques. This “problem-solving” level is characteristically directed outward, largely analytical, and psychologically painless. Creating and following SOPs or regulations is part of this process. Compensating for changing conditions and  “re-trimming” our activies back to the desired flow is all part of a normal day.

Real progress and improvement (learning and not just problem-solving) occurs at a higher level and involves tweaking the mental models and preventing the error in the first place. This requires time to reflect critically on our own behavior and failings, solving deeper thinking/scripting problems. Level two or “double loop” learning freely admits to errors and fixes our inner OS that is usually the root cause. Every error should be viewed as a “double loop opportunity” to dig deeper and reflect on our assumptions and test the validity of our hypotheses. Only though “reflective learning” can we access and correct our normally invisible implicit level of learning.

For professionals, inward directed reflection can be initially psychologically painful. Professionals and expert performers are used to being “competent and correct” but “double loop learning” requires we admit, accept and correct personal failings. In addition, this is often only the first step. Accepting instruction, taking wise counsel humbly (and happily) is the key to real and rapid improvement. So we need to soften that pilot wall of confidence a bit and admit to personal failure to achieve growth. Learning happens at the “double loop” reflective level. A sure sign of this is when a good pilot say “thank-you” when an error is pointed out, and in the debrief not only makes a “note to self” to correct the obvious goof going forward but also resolves the deeper assumption/hypothesis that was the root cause.

     Highly skilled professionals are frequently very good at single loop learning. After all, they have spent much of their lives acquiring academic credentials, mastering one or a number of intellectual disciplines, and applying those disciplines to solve real-world problems. But ironically, this very fact helps explain why professionals are often so bad at double-loop learning.
     Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

As humans, evolving over millions of years, we are internally hardwired with all kinds of implicit reactions and biases that serve us amazingly well in survival against primordial threats and historical environmental challenges. Unfortunately, this deep imprinted learning is subconscious and only becomes visible in action. We need to reflect, accept, adapt and rewire these internal systems with double loop learning if we want to function accurately under pressure in each specific aviation environment.

As aviation educators, it is also essential to develop these”double loop” corrective abilities in our clients. Once they are competent and approaching independent flight, it’s necessary (and initially excrutiating) to allow our these pilots the time and opportunity to discover (struggle) and correct their own errors! The #1 beginner CFI mistake is to immediately intervene and correct every mistake and not allow a “learning opportunity” (genius in the right seat). Your pilot will never develp the metacognitive capacity to self-correct and improve ; they will need a CFI forever. Our educational goal should be to create confident, independent, lifetime learners in every pilot.

And as educational professionals, we all need to continually learn and improve. Join us for the CFI-PRO™ workshop on October 2-3, 2019 at AOPA (KFDK) Pursue personal improvement and excellence in your flying (and teaching), we have your back! See you at AOPA-Fly-In TN (get a free Sporty’s FIRC with sign-up) and enjoy 1/3 off Foreflight (member benefit) which more than pays your annual dues. Fly safely (and often!)


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! 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 Secret of Pattern Safety!

We all know a majority of accidents occur in the traffic pattern; especially during descent and runway line-up. But the burning question is “why?” Basically, we fear the wrong things. Most pilots don’t understand the basic flight dynamics of descending turns and the real consequences and risks of unstabilized flying. With a little knowledge, practice and a committment to artful flying excellence, we all can do better and fly safer.

But instead pilots try to achieve safety by never banking over 20 degrees, flying huge patterns and becoming increasingly timid.  Others advocate oval patterns to eliminate the steeper corners of the pattern (but fly a constant turn). Why not just “learn to turn” correctly and safely in the first place? I watch in amazement as pilots horse their planes around to final with varying bank angles and wildly changing airspeeds (hold on partner!) exhibiting a lack of stability, ground track control and overall discipline. The physical problems with patterns are obvious but they are driven by a lack of understanding risk and knowledge of the forces at work.  This lack of stability and control continues directly into professional piloting where unstable approaches and overrun accidents are the #1 cause of accidents in corporate jets. As aviation educators (and pilots) we need to do better. Understanding some basic flight dynamics is critical to success.

Safety and a passion for pattern precision starts with an understanding of the invisible angle of attack (AOA) where the real risk hides. Simply presenting and thoroughly explaining  a set of pictures like the ones above  can jump start the conversation and clear up some very common misunderstandings. When asked which aircraft depicted above has the greatest angle of attack (AOA) almost every pilot (and many CFIs) pick the nose-high Cessna. The “a-ha” learning opportunity is that the AOA is the same on both of these aircraft. And that means the airplane in the glide is just as close to a stall as the nose-high plane on the left (now risk becomes clear). If we never demonstrate a stall with the nose *below* the horizon a new pilot in training will never understand AOA and how accidents occur. There is a “natural” (but erroneous) assumption that with the nose low, we are “safe” and “all stalls occur with a nose-high flight attitude” – wrong and reason #1 for pattern accidents! Even if this error is not stated verbally, practicing and demonstrating only nose-high stalls builds this myth and masks the true danger of descending turns.

In our initial flight instruction teaching the basic level turn, we emphasize that when a plane is banked, the lift vector is redirected to the horizontal (to create the turn) and no longer entirely opposes gravity. Consequently, some back-pressure is necessary to maintain altitude in a level turn. And during initial flight training, we build up this rote, muscle memory “bank and add pressure” response through repetition. But when we move on to the descending turns, is essential to emphasize this previously memorized script is incorrect.

A descending turn is completely different and requires “bank and release” because the added load of the bank will add drag and cause a decrease in airspeed (and greater AOA) unless back pressure is relaxed (and trim is a wonderful and underused tool here). Pilots descending tend to lose airpseed on every turn; they are banking and inappropriately adding back pressure (or failing to appropriately release). This is reason #2 of the “why” that explains many pattern accidents. This failure to understand the basic flight dynamics of the turn and AOA (also probably add some initial “ground fear” of being low) causes pilots in training bank to mishandle AOA. And once bad habits are extablished in training, they never go away.

How “eyeball friendly” is your trainer?

Outside visual reference and proper trimming are also vastly undervalued in modern flight training. If the airplane is trimmed properly and the pilot in training knows the proper, predictible flight attitude for a descent in various configurations, the stabilized control of the aircraft is much easier. Unfortunately, many pilots in training are inappropriately focused inside on the panel chasing the airpseed indicator instead of setting a flight attitude with outside references. Personally, unless my pilot in training can fly the whole pattern visually, with eyes outside (and the instrument panel covered) I hesitate to even consider a solo. Fly safely out there (and often).


And of course, more on this and other key educator tools at our Oct. 2/3 SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop at AOPA in Fredrick, MD. The registration form will be live in a week. This will have Hilton and Marriott rooms at a discount and a networking dinner at the National Aviation Community Center!

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Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (like 1/3 off your annual ForeFlight subscription)! 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 specifically for CFI professionals (and is the best value in the business).

Start With Basic Honesty!

As a flight instructor have you been guilty of telling eager beginners that “learning to fly is easy”? Do you personally really believe that often used phrase? If you think back to *your* initial training don’t you remember those dark moments of discouragement and disappointment that are inevitably part of this process? Learning anything complex is not all sunshine and light. Struggle, disappointment and personal growth are all a necessary part of learning to fly. But if you were successful, at some point some caring person helped you through those  dark times of doubt – a mentor or hopefully a compassionate, honest aviation educator? We know from survey data that a caring and compassionate CFI is  the essential magic element responsible for success in flight training. In our enthusiasm to sell flying we might be doing damage by describing learning to fly as “easy.” I think we all would benefit more by being honest; the result would be a better completion rate and more happy pilots in training. This would help to insure the health of our aviation industry and give us many more lifetime clients.

In our eagerness to sell flying we have  failed our future pilots- it all starts with that initial interview. I personally believe this is a major reason we see the 80% rate during initial pilot training; we need to more accurately communicate the challenges and control the expectations here.  Present the honest story, with the future benefits.  Certainly “sell the sizzle” but do not diminish the challenges.

My personal formula for introducing the subject goes something like this; “Learning to fly is a great challenge and provides amazing adventure and fun. This process does require hard work, effort and your time and money. In addition to acquiring the obvious physical skills it also requires personal growth and assuming responsibility; it rewards a ‘take charge’ personality and some courage. Your investment of time, money and effort will be paid back a hundred fold if you stay the course and work through the process; being a pilot opens up so many worlds of fun and adventure. And the learning and discovery can be fun and rewarding; we’ll work through the difficulties together”

The professional aviation educator has to commit to being more than just a technician in this learning process. A great CFI is a coach, motivator and practical psychologist in addition to guiding the skills part (did you know you signed up for this?). If you are a pilot seeking a CFI look beyond the badges, patches and accolades. Look for a true committed professional, a warm-hearted “people person” who cares about your success and has a track record of happy pilots.

50KsoloEvery initial interview between potential pilot and educator is similar to an “engagement letter” that any lawyer would write.  This tool should be part of any professional relationship involving a lot of time and money (and its usually in writing). Unfortunately in flying, honesty is rare, we tend to sell sunshine and light and diminish the struggle. And if we present the FAA “40 hour myth” we are also lying. I have certainly finished some very talented students in 35 hours (141 school), but we all know that is not the “average” and not an expectation I would promote to the general public. Doubling the 40 is a more reasonable target (and I don’t embrace other FAA minimums – like VFR in “one mile clear of clouds” either). Someone for whom completion is not possible (or will take excessive time) should be informed early in training (and gently terminated if the project is not going to work). Again AOPA survey data reveals that the reason people drop out of flying is not the cost, it is the unrealistic expectations presented in the early interview and a lack of value. If you initially told them $12K to be a pilot and we are passing $18K and still in X-C you are going to have problems. This is no different than  remodeling contractor promising your new bathroom for $20K then proceeding to charge $35K (and its still not done).

The critical part in flight training that differs from other professional models is the level of personal commitment and caring required of the effective aviation educator. We are not just technicians who perform a sterile service or twist a few screws to create a performance. We need to be personally involved and coaching our pilots in training to get them through the goal posts. It requires caring and compassion and that is rare in our modern world of aviation instruction. I don’t think they teach empathy or compassion during initial training at our “puppy mill” CFI academies. This is acquired with life experience and comes with time. But it is the essential trait if you want to be a successful aviation educator; you have to care. This is the magic that makes flight training work. Fly safely out there (and often)


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FAA “License to Learn!”

There are some critical misunderstandings – and lots of unfounded “tribal knowledge” –  regarding the pilot examination system. CFIs and flight school owners sometimes approach a DPE after a checkride with surprise and ask “you tested [this person], and they passed, so why can’t they land in a crosswind?” Well clearly because this is not on the test!  (Does anyone read this book?) If  the FAA wanted to assure crosswind capability in the ACS, this maneuver would be required to be demonstrated. Instead it says: “If a crosswind condition does not exist, the applicant’s knowledge of crosswind elements must be evaluated through oral testing“.  And just about every applicant finds a nice blue-sky, calm-wind day for their evaluation (didn’t you?)   But I totally agree with the flight school – based on accident data and experience – crosswind capability *should* be part of every pilot’s mandatory tool kit. But clearly, the responsibility to create the total, capable, safe pilot rests with the aviation educator not the DPE

In many other areas also, the FAA’s DPE testing system represents only the “minimum viable product” of pilot performance and competency. The FAA has left the creation of a safe pilot to the CFI, with the DPE only testing the very basic “required elements.” DPEs are strongly counseled not to deploy “a higher personal standard” or an attitude about “what a pilot should really look like” on their evaluations!  These “creative” FAA evaluators are (rightfully) removed from the DPE pool. But I can assure you, every pilot examiner is elated when an applicant exceeds the standards and demonstrates superb skill, knowledge and judgment. The superior pilot applicant is what all of us >should< be trying to create in flight training (this goes beyond the ACS). As far as I can tell, the official FAA evaluation or “check ride” was designed to be a perfunctory and redundant “check”  of the CFIs training of an applicant. The checkride should only be an operational filter, or a second opinion to intercept a potential safety problem.

Understanding the FAA testing process in this manner also clearly argues against the practice of sending a problematic and unqualified pilot applicant to a DPE to “see how it goes.”

Imagine if this poorly prepared applicant happens to pass the FAA checkride; they definitely will not be safe or truly competent.  In such a case, both the CFI and the DPE have failed to assure the ACS standards (and the future safety of this person and their passengers). CFIs and DPEs have to understand this process better and work as a team to create safer pilots. And even for a successful new pilot, we have to honestly embrace the time-honored advice every new certificate or rating is “a license to learn“.

One last point to remember is the DPE usually has less than two total hours in the plane to run through a rigorous  set of maneuvers and evaluate a whole catalog of knowledge and judgment elements. The recommending CFI, by contrast, has 40-50 hours of time with this person and must be the true arbiter of excellence. DPEs are also strictly forbidden from handling the controls to demonstrate or teach from the right seat during an evaluation. The current FAA guidance on this point is very clear and has led to the removal of many DPEs. You will not find any “added value” imparted during a flight test from the senior aviator in the right seat; that is FAA policy!

Your input on this issue is certainly welcomed here in the comments (and by the FAA at this e-mail). I know there are professional aviation educators who think the ACS and some of its requirements are too stringent and restrictive; “we are making aviation too expensive and difficult.” This could be an indicator that we are at a good point of compromise (and everyone is equally unhappy)? The real news here is ultimately, the professional aviation educator is at the heart of aviation safety and assures that every pilot is thoroughly trained and safe. Fly safely (and often)!


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