A CFI Manifesto

After 8,500 hours of total flight time, with at least 3/4 of that time giving instruction, I officially qualify as a career instructor.  My journey into flying didn’t start off with a dream of teaching pilots every day, but when I was nearing the end of my college career at LeTourneau University in 2009, the airline path didn’t seem very appealing (very low pay and a sorry schedule).  After a few flight school jobs, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching.  I also discovered that there was a way to make a living as a flight instructor by becoming a specialist in training pilots who flew certain types of airplanes.  

Fast forward to now and I have found my niche in the Piper PA46 series, the TBM series, Cirrus and Columbia aircraft.  All fabulous airplanes that fit different missions and different budgets.  All are a lot of fun to teach in too.  

In my time instructing, I’ve learned a few things that I wish I knew as a young flight instructor.  These things would have improved my teaching early on had I realized the importance of them, or known them period.  The below 10 items can greatly benefit any flight instructor, no matter if it’s your first day, or you’ve been teaching for a lifetime.  I do these things every day and my customers are better for it.

Implement these things into your every day teaching, and your customers will learn quicker and become better pilots.

Without further ado, here are 10 things that will make you a better CFI.

  1. Primacy
  2. Plan the Flight Ahead of Time
  3. Briefing & De-Briefing
  4. Use Proper IFR Clearances
  5. Know the Avionics
  6. Don’t “Save” Mistakes
  7. “I Don’t Know”
  8. Ask Questions
  9. Have a Learning Mindset
  10. Professionalism

1. Primacy

We all learned primacy in our initial CFI training, but I didn’t realize it’s importance until I was many years into my teaching career.  First, a definition:  Primacy is the first way a person learns to do something which creates a strong, almost unshakable impression.  Simplified and applied to flight instruction, the way a pilot learns to do something the first time is the way his/her brain will always default to performing that action.

I can’t stress this enough.  Teach things to your customers the right way the first time.  This means that you as the CFI need to know the right way to do something before you can teach it.  Have your procedures memorized, but also know the reason why the pilot needs to do it that way.  Learning something in isolation leads to confusion, whereas when the task is applied to a scenario, it makes sense.

Have your customers memorize their procedures.  Have them recite those procedures to you on the ground before you ever do the maneuver.  Then, explain why you are teaching that way and what it applies to.  Slow flight, for example, in and of itself, seems pointless.  However, when the pilot understands that the reason that we do slow flight is to teach them how to control the airplane on final prior to landing, it begins to make a little more sense.

Using scenarios to teach, especially to teach safety, helps understanding immensely.  Human brains love stories and remember things better if told in story form, which is what a scenario is.

Summary:  Teach each and every detail correctly the first time.  Always explain the “why” and use scenarios whenever possible.

2. Plan the Flight Ahead of Time

When working at a flight school, I never planned ahead.  Admittedly, when I had 3-4 flights a day, planning ahead was rather difficult.  Typically, I pulled the customer’s syllabus out when he/she arrived at my desk, then we would formulate a plan on the fly based on what the next lesson was.  

This works okay, but, as I continued to progress in my instructing career, I discovered that customers performed better if they knew what to expect.  So, I began creating flight plans in advance and emailing those to my customers.  This is a bit less work when you are flying with 1-2 customers a day, but vitally important nonetheless.

This is especially helpful for instrument training.  When a customer has the approaches ahead of time, he/she can familiarize themselves with the approach plates so briefing on the day of the flight takes less time.  

It’s also applicable to VFR training, as it gives the customer time to memorize and chair fly procedures.  Leg by leg plans with each maneuver and approach spelled out is the best way to plan a flight.  This also gives customers a leg up on checking NOTAMs and weather.

Summary:  Send detailed, leg by leg flight plans to customers a day or two prior to their flight lesson.

3. Briefing & De-Briefing

A pre-lesson briefing is one of the most important parts of a training session.  It should contain, in detail, each maneuver and instrument procedure, the specific steps and power settings for each item, as well as completion standards for that day.  When I fly with someone for either a half day or full day, my briefings are usually 45 minutes to an hour.  Don’t rush this process.

This is an excellent time to practice primacy too.  Make sure each procedure is briefed in the proper order with the proper steps.  Use whatever procedures guide you have and show the customer where the procedures come from.  This way, the customer knows that you aren’t just pulling numbers out of the air.

Customers aren’t going to remember each item in detail, but that’s okay.  They will have heard the procedure once so the basics of it are rattling around in their brain.  If training for a whole day, split the briefing up into morning and afternoon briefings, then do the afternoon briefing after lunch.  This way, the customer isn’t completely overloaded to start off the day.

My de-briefs are typically shorter than my pre-flight briefings.  I like to focus on a self-critique by the customer.  Typically, he/she will point out things that I was going to point out that need work, but sometimes an item will be brought up that I wasn’t going to touch on.  This allows me to get a glimpse into the customer’s mind so that I can either tell them how to improve or encourage them that they accomplished the task satisfactorily.

In a good self critique, always ask three things:  What did you do well?  What needs more work?  What did you learn?  Typically, the customer will focus on the negative, but the positive is very important to include.

Summary:  Spend a lot of time on the pre-flight briefing.  Always ask the customer to self critique in the de-brief.

4. Use Proper IFR Clearances

When conducting instrument training, talk like ATC.  As a CFI, I will never be able to talk as fast as ATC, but I want my customers to hear the clearances coming out of my mouth just like they will hear the same clearance coming over the radio.  This allows them to practice and is a good use of primacy.  If they hear it slower coming from the instructor’s mouth, it will be easier to understand coming from ATC.

Two important clearances that I always practice a lot with instrument customers are: CRAFT for the initial IFR clearance and PHAC instrument approach clearance.

C-Clearance Limit

R-Routing

A-Altitude to maintain and expect

F-Frequency for departure

T-Transponder code

P-Position from the fix (distance)

H-Heading to fly to intercept (or direct to the IAF)

A-Altitude to maintain till established

C-Cleared for the approach

When practicing basic attitude instrument flying, ensure that you give headings and altitudes like ATC would:  N12345, turn right heading 080, climb and maintain 4,000.

Summary:  Know ATC jargon.  Use proper jargon when working with instrument customers.

5. Know The Avionics You Are Teaching In

There are a variety of glass panels and GPS units in airplanes these days.  It is an absolute necessity for the instructor to know the avionics before instructing in planes with those avionics, especially for IFR training.  If you don’t know the avionics, educate yourself as thoroughly as you can.

Garmin has iPad apps for the G500TXi and the GTN 750/650.  Avidyne has an app for their IFD GPS units.  For G1000 and G1000NXi, use an online training course like The Aviator’s Academy (www.aviatorsacademy.com).  Get customers access to training tools they can use in the airplane, like quick reference guides they can put on their iPads (The Aviator’s Academy has a great Garmin G1000 Cheat sheet:  https://aviatorsacademy.com/#cheat-sheet).

Again, I mention primacy here.  If you don’t know that avionics, you will teach your customer the wrong way to do something, which then leads to confusion, bad habits, and a lack of confidence as they continue flying.  Do your customers a huge favor and know the avionics that are in that airplane.  Be willing to say no to someone who has avionics that you don’t have experience with yet.

Summary:  Know the avionics you are teaching like the back of your hand.  If you don’t know them, use iPad apps and online courses to educate yourself.

6. Don’t “Save” Mistakes

Customers will make mistakes.  As a CFI, don’t jump in and save them every time.  Obviously, there are times when a mistake could lead to a safety issue (inadvertent spin, impending runway excursion, etc.) where you need to step in, but let customers make mistakes and learn from them.

A bouncing landing?  Go Around after a bounce or two.  Don’t save that.  

Too high over the final approach fix?  Go missed and try it again.  Even if it means you’ll be late getting back to the airport.

Overshooting final?  Don’t save that, go around.

Bad radio call?  Or better yet, misunderstood radio call?  Have the customer call ATC back and ask them to repeat slower.

Don’t be afraid to re-demonstrate a maneuver multiple times if it is obvious the customer isn’t doing it right.  Repetition is the key to learning.  Primacy steps in again, here, too.  Demonstrate the maneuver correctly the first time and each time after that.  

One side-note:  Try teaching landings by doing full stop landings and taxiing back instead of touch and go landings.  You’ll find the customer takes fewer landings to get proficient because you get to de-brief each landing on the taxi back (and it gives them a chance to calm down!).

Emphasize safety and good habits, but don’t grab the yoke or that radio whenever your customer messes up.

What are they going to do when you aren’t in the airplane?  You want them to be able to fix their own little mistakes and ere on the side of caution for the big ones.  Then use the de-brief to explain what they did wrong and how they can improve next time.

Summary:  Don’t jump in every time your customer makes a mistake.  Use those as learning experiences and talk about them in the debrief.

7. “I Don’t Know”

Don’t be afraid to use this phrase.  As a CFI, you really don’t know everything there is to know about flying.  There are going to be questions that you don’t know the answer to.  Say, “I don’t know”, but then go the extra mile and find the answer.  

Your customer will quickly realize when you don’t know what you are talking about.  This leads the customer to not trust the CFI, which leads to a poor pilot/CFI relationship.

Go look it up, or ask someone more knowledgeable then you, and you will learn something too.

Summary:  Memorize this phrase:  “I don’t know, but I know where to find the answer.”

8. Ask Questions

Along the same lines as being willing to say “I Don’t Know”, always ask questions.  Take more experienced instructors out to lunch and pick their brains.  If you are having a specific issue with a customer, ask other instructors for advice.  

When something breaks, find out from maintenance what the problem was so you can help diagnose in the future.  Even better, spend some time with mechanics and ask questions about engines or electrical systems or anything else you want a better understanding of.  

Don’t be prideful.  Ask questions.  There is a lot we don’t know.  There are no stupid questions!

Summary:  Ask tons of questions.

9. Have a Learning Mindset

Always be open to learning.  There are always ways you can improve your instructing technique, your customer service, your knowledge.  Never pass up an opportunity to learn something new.

There are a variety of ways to do this.  Seminars, conferences, spending time with more experienced instructors and pilots in the industry.  As I stated before, questions always lead to learning, so don’t be afraid to ask.  

Summary:  Jump at any opportunity to improve your aviation and teaching knowledge.

10. Professionalism

I could write a whole article on professionalism as a CFI.  I’ll give you the cliff notes version here.

Dress the part.  Look professional.  Your customers will respect you more in a polo and jeans than in cutoffs and a T-shirt. 

Don’t talk down to your customers.  Treat them as equals.  This leads to a better learning environment.

Never yell at someone in the airplane.  Yelling will cause them to immediately shut down and no more learning will take place.

Recognize learning plateaus and don’t be afraid to stop the lesson if the customer has hit one.

Get to know your customers, your customer’s missions, your customer’s learning styles, and about their life.  You’ll find that the better you know your customers, the better you will be able to personalize your instruction for them.  This leads to better learning.

Finally, have fun in your teaching.  At times, training feels like work.  But, if you are relaxed and keep things relaxed in the airplane, this will allow your customers to be relaxed, learn more, and enjoy the experience.  It’s supposed to be fun after all!  Keep a list of airport restaurants nearby and go fly to lunch at one of them often with your customers.  This keeps things fun!


One more thing to note.  It is possible to make a good living as a CFI.  If the airline world doesn’t appeal to you and corporate jobs seem less than ideal (and you want to actually sleep in your own bed most nights), become a career instructor.  There is lots of room in the industry for more Cirrus factory instructors (CSIP, Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilots), Piper PA46 instructors, and TBM instructors.  In the latter 2 airplanes I mentioned, you’ll have to put your time in building hours in the make and model, but once you get a couple hundred hours, build your syllabus and systems slides, then start going to insurance companies for approval.  We need more good instructors who are passionate about teaching in these airplanes.

CFI’s who implement the above 10 items will find that they will become better instructors in the day to day, teach better, and put out safer and more proficient pilots.  

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