The Better Student

Flight instructors have many obligations, but so do their students. In addition to teaching, coordinating their schedules with airplanes and their students … plus the weather … in the warmer months they’re often on the go 12 hours a day. However, whenever a prospective customer sidles up to the counter, wallet in hand, in addition to the prerogatives of a CFI’s time and an airworthy aircraft, a different sort of responsibility comes into play.

The three greatest student transgressions are short-notice cancellations, showing up late, or not showing up at all. When you cancel at the last minute or worse yet, don’t show up, expensive investments are sitting idly by, and overhead costs still accrue … plus, you’re instructor just lost lunch money. If you’re late, training slots accumulate downstream just like airliners approaching a saturated TRACON with nothing to do but spin around in holding patterns. The school loses potential income, and everyone else loses because eventually, higher operating expenses get passed on to the consumer. In any other profession, being late is inconsiderate. In aviation (when weather isn’t a factor, and you’re still on the ground), it’s incompetence.

Your first responsibility is to learn! This is a new kind of learning, too: you’re learning many very unusual things in a setting quite foreign to your day-to-day life. That combination really does justify a more proactive approach on your part. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll assume you already have your medical and have the commitment, the time, and the money to fly at least twice a week. Beyond flight time, you should spend at least two hours of study for each hour in the air.

If you haven’t started training yet, do some research. Canvas your local airports, investigate instructors from FBOs or flying clubs — consider asking your local Designated Examiner for recommendations on instructors. Always seek opinions from the receiving end of the equation — talk with flight school students and former students. Make a list of questions. When you have a few potential instructors in mind, ask if you can briefly meet with them. (As a potential customer, this is not unreasonable.) Look for someone who appears to have good communication skills, experience (though this isn’t even remotely as important as the first), enthusiasm, creativity, reliability, and professionalism. Also, they should be patient, but exacting. Do your best to spot and avoid potential personality conflicts.

Most flight instructors do not get very extensive exposure to teaching and never attain a guru-level understanding of how people learn. While students are rarely expert teachers themselves, there are some simple things a student can do — beyond studying — to expedite their own education.

  • Know how you learn best: Are you a tactile, kinesthetic, auditory, or visual learner — or some combination of these? Are you analytic, or … holistic? Tell your instructor about yourself; your motivation, goals, concerns, background, level of understanding, etc. This will help your CFI whenever he or she tries to explain something to you.
  • Confess your ignorance: Whenever you don’t truly grasp something, you must make sure that your instructor understands that. Ask them to say the same thing in a different way — there is always another way they can help you see the light.
  • Seek the path of least resistance: If your instructor does not appear to have taken an obvious interest in your instruction, does not allow ample time for pre- and post-flight briefing … find another one. A good learning experience will be the result of a good team effort. Don’t be alone on the team.
  • Maintain situational awareness with regard to your syllabus. Keep track of your progress. Know what you covered (so you can study), what you should have covered (if you missed anything), and what you’ll be doing next (so you can prepare and — you guessed it — study).
  • Anticipate (and demand) homework pertaining to what you did, and what you’re going to be doing next. A thorough learning experience can still be an expedient one.
  • Come prepared: Carry a note pad to keep track of questions that come up in your reading, classroom instruction, and even during flight. Address those questions at your next ground session. Ask brief questions in flight — if you’re confident you can absorb and retain the information while otherwise occupied.
  • Mentally review each flight. I’ve said this before: Experience isn’t just what happens to you — it’s what you think about what happens to you. Think about that particular maneuver, or subject area, what you did, what you saw, what you felt … and what would make it better.
  • Consider recording flight debriefs. After a flight, your instructor should have insights to pass along. Being able to re-live a lesson later on at home can bring surprising benefits.
  • Visit an ATC facility and if possible, an FSS facility. Hear communications between pilots and controllers — how they manage the airspace, how weather products are used…
  • Stay positive. Don’t be disheartened by slumps, setbacks, or learning plateaus. They’re ubiquitous, and inevitable. Think of mistakes as learning experiences. Keep track of the weather, and if the flight school can oblige, consider working out a “backup reservation” system when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

When you’re not flying, be thinking about flying, and be reading about flying (like you are right now). Buy a cockpit poster and put it up over your desk at work. Visualize using the controls again to do what you did during your last lesson, and try to think through what you were taught to do with them, and why. Find some happy medium between being a bookworm and an airport bum. Watch airplanes land, and try and figure out what they’re doing to the controls to make those greasers — or what might be going wrong when someone bounces. Listen in on another student’s debriefing. Fly at different times of the day, experience (safely) different weather conditions, and when you can handle it, different aircraft. (Unless you’re in a total immersion program, you probably will experience different seasons.)

BOTTOM LINE: Aviation is a consuming passion. Be grateful you’re one of the chosen, and justify that honor. Be proactive in your learning. You will learn more. You will learn better … and you will probably save money, too.