Choosing Your Instructor

Your choice of instructor determines the time it takes to meet your goal — therefore, how much money it’ll cost — how safe you’ll really be on completion, and whether you’ll ever earn that certificate or rating at all. How do you pick an instructor when you know nothing about learning to fly? Who’s your best choice for “checking out” in a high-performance airplane? What makes a good instrument instructor? So… how do you choose an instructor pilot?

MYTH #1: Hours
In a perfect world all instructors would be smiling, retired airline captains who’d patiently and benevolently impart the benefit of thousands of hours of safe airplane operation to the eager minds of aero-neophytes. Unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world. Instructing is sometimes boring, repetitive work (try flying VFR traffic patterns with seven pre-solo students on a single day), usually in low-end equipment, and mainly devoid of the pleasures of discovering new life and new civilizations. I joked that I held a “Pettis County pilot’s license” the first two years I instructed in central Missouri, because I rarely flew far from the home airport. Although some instructor jobs do include flight in high-performance airplanes over a wide range of geography, most pilots fly most of their instructional hours with the local Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) in entry-level airplanes. Despite extraordinary exceptions these instructors tend to be at the beginning, not the end of their flying careers.

Thousands of Flying Hours Does Not (Necessarily) A Good Instructor Make
Low total time does not necessarily rule out a CFI as the perfect person to get you started on a lifetime of safe and enjoyable flight. Some of the best aviation instructors are those beginning their flying careers — despite their low total time, they may be more likely to be caught up in the beauty and élan of flight. They’ve recently run the gauntlet of pilot certification themselves, so they might better empathize with your fears and concerns with the process.

Strategy: Check around the local airports and look for an instructor who’s ready to teach.

You know he’s a tyrant when he…

  • yells and screams at students,
  • hits charges over the head with a clipboard or a rolled-up aeronautical chart, and
  • publicly belittles students over their lack of flying ability or good common sense.

Such “instructors” are leftover legends of the Second World War, when pressure was on to turn out a large number of pilots who could handle extremely stressful combat situations in a very short period of time. They taught in noisy airplanes with crew communication systems so limited that sometimes a swat on the back of the head was the only way to get the student’s attention from the instructor’s back seat of a tandem-seat trainer. Those days are gone.

The teacher you’re looking for will be…

  • calm and respectful; the professional instructor today should use some kind of intercom and headset to make clear communication possible without shouting … or the need for physical violence.
  • a professional, with a professional attitude and lesson plan to go with it (i.e. a schedule with steps and clearly defined goals).

Important: A good instructor is one you can get along with and learn from. You’ll be paying good money to learn the basics of sound piloting skill and judgment. It is within your right to demand to be taught how to fly by someone with the attitude and tools of a professional educator. Tyrannical legend-pilots are on notice that you’ll take your business elsewhere.

MYTH #2: Full-Time vs. Part-Time
There are those who deride part-time instructors as not being “professional.” Many others decry that instructors are all “time-builders,” grudgingly paying their dues in the instructor’s seat just long enough to qualify for some other flying job. In reality, “part-timers” and “time-builders” are no more or less likely to teach flying “professionally” than anyone else. In fact, most part-time instructors teach flying because they love to teach — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t put in the extra hours on top of their “day job.” “Time-builders,” too, can and often do have an aero-educator attitude, even if their career goals are aimed at the far more lucrative world of an airline or corporate cockpit.

MYTH #3: The Instructor Is The Boss
You are hiring someone to work for you. So it’s not unreasonable, but rather appropriate, to interview candidates. Treat it like a job interview — that’s what it is, isn’t it? Here are some sample questions for your potential hires:

  • Syllabus. What’s your plan of action for me? What’s the sequence of events in earning my certificate or rating? You should be able to gauge your own progress as you add hours to your logbook, by following a sequence of events laid out by your professional CFI. A professional instructor will have a well-thought-out syllabus for teaching toward your goal — not the canned-lesson-plans CFIs have to develop for their instructor’s checkride, but a true syllabus. It doesn’t have to say “in your thirteenth flight hour you’ll be doing X, Y and Z,” but it should state that you’ll first learn and master skill X before working on skill Y, and after you master Y you’ll combine X and Y to learn and master skill Z.
  • Ground time. How much time will we spend discussing our lesson on the ground before a flight, and how long will we debrief and critique afterward? What media (discussion, slides, videos, software, simulators) do you use, and why? A professional instructor realizes that even the quietest and most comfortable of cockpits is not a good classroom. He or she should be prepared to preview lessons on the ground beforehand, constructively review your performance afterward to include suggestions for improvement, and introduce the next lesson before you leave so you can study at home. You should expect this as part of your aviation education, and plan to pay the instructor for his or her expertise on the ground as well — it’s all part of the service that opens the skies to you.
  • Safety. How do you decide whether it’s safe to fly? When and how do we inspect the airplane, check Notices to Aviators (NOTAMs), and the weather? What is “allowable” weather for each type of flight lesson? What is the difference between being legal, and being safe in an airplane? Making a safe fly-or-not-fly choice is one of the most critical things you’ll ever learn about flying an airplane, and the CFI is the person to teach it to you. The professional instructor should allow you to inspect the airplane, check weather and NOTAMs under his or her supervision, and make your own go/no-go decisions, but should never completely delegate that authority to you. He/she should accompany you when you preflight the airplane. He should review your NOTAM and weather check and make a point of confirming your decision, or be ready to explain why he overrules your decision if experience shows the student made an uninformed choice.
  • Continuing Education. What books, magazines, web sites, etc., do you recommend for my present level of education? What should I add as I gain experience or move on to instrument or other work? What worked best for you, and what wasn’t very helpful? What do you currently read, watch or do to continue your aeronautical education? The professional CFI will constantly be learning, and should be able to recommend additional sources of information to round out your study both now and after you’ve reached your goal.

Maybe you’re ready to earn your instrument rating, or you want to check out in a complex or high-performance airplane, or a twin. Interview your candidate instructors with the same sort of questions, slanted toward your specific goal and using the benefit of your prior flying experience. Ask things like:

  • Do you train in “actual” conditions? If no, why not?
  • Are there any “gotchas” from the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) for the airplane we’ll use?
  • How much experience do you have in this particular make and model of airplane, and how did you get checked out in it?

Inside Information: If you’re checking out in an airplane you just bought yourself, your aircraft insurance will likely specify the time in make and model your instructor needs to provide any required training. Ask your insurance agent — and get and answer in writing — if you can’t find the information in your policy. Accept an instructor with less experience, and you might not learn the “tricks” to that specific design. Your insurance company may not recognize your training (and void your policy) if you use a less-experienced CFI!

The professional CFI will be able and happy to answer questions about the sequence of training, insist that you allow time for pre- and debriefing with lessons, and include you from the start in making go/no-go decisions. He or she will demand you approach flying with an attitude of safety and professionalism, no matter what your ultimate flying goal, and will recommend and demonstrate use of continuing education throughout your flying career. A true professional will turn down the chance to check you out in an airplane he/she is not qualified to fly, and to refer you to someone who can … even if he or she really wants to log time in your airplane.

BOTTOM LINE: Choosing the right CFI is critical to reaching your goal, and safely flying for years afterward. The time your instructor has logged or the number and size of airplanes he or she has flown isn’t nearly as important as the attitude and knowledge exhibited in teaching you to fly this airplane. Take time to choose an instructor that’s right for you.