Cockpit Chemistry: Choosing the Right Flight Instructor
Finding a flight instructor is easy.
Finding one who complements your personality, learning
style, learning pace, and training needs is another matter
Take it from someone who, after four CFIs
and coming this close to throwing in the towel, finally
graduated from aviation's School of Hard Knocks, ticket in
hand: Student-instructor chemistry can make or break your
aspirations to fly or earn an advanced rating.
If only I'd known that from the start!
What exactly is cockpit chemistry? More
importantly, how do you choose a suitable instructor?
First, symptoms of bad chemistry: a CFI
who yells, threatens, demeans your skills, shows impatience,
doesn't understand you as a person or student, has a
one-style-fits-all training method, doesn't take time to
explain and re-explain things clearly, has a Top Gun
attitude, seems bored or more interested in moving on to an
airline job, or rides the controls at your expense, both
money-wise and in terms of lost opportunity for you to build
We all have foibles, of course; the
perfect instructor, like the perfect student, simply doesn't
exist. And two students may have completely different
relationships with the same instructor.
Furthermore, good chemistry is a two-way
equation. If you show up for flight lessons unprepared,
can't handle constructive criticism, are a passive rather
than active student, or can't admit to or learn from
mistakes, a bumpy ride may be in store no matter who
occupies the right seat.
But you can and should demand the best fit
possible. After all, you'll be spending major bucks and
countless hours in close quarters with an authority figure.
You deserve great service.
While a CFI's level of experience is a
criterion, it isn't necessarily the most important one.
Countless students realize this too late, after their
flight-training misery has already reached a crisis point.
My first instructor had logged thousands
of hours behind the controls of various single- and
multi-engine aircraft. His vast experience was awesome. Yet
as time went on, his boredom and impatience became all too
clear (maybe he needed a career change) and our relationship
began to fray.
My last instructor, in contrast, was about
as green as they come. He had just earned his CFI rating and
I was his first student, which, as you can imagine, made me
skeptical at the outset.
I quickly discovered, however, that he had
an infectious enthusiasm, loved to teach, was flexible,
would do everything within his power to meet my particular
training needs, and seemed thoroughly up-to-date on aviation
topics. Our two styles dovetailed perfectly.
Here are tips from veteran aviators that
will boost your chances of finding the right match'hopefully
sooner rather than later:
- Ask around. Speak with one or more
flight examiners at the FAA's local Flight Standards
District Office (see
the office nearest you). They know who the best instructors
are. Also seek recommendations from pilots who are familiar
with your personality and style. A starting point for
contact information is the National Association of Flight
- Interview. Meet several instructors. Key
questions to ask: How much actual flying does she let
students do? Would he describe his teaching style as
hands-on or hands-off, firm or gentle? Why did he become a
CFI? Might his instruction schedule change in the near
future? Will she still be instructing six months from now or
flying for an airline? That last question is important
because many instructors teach as a way to build flight time
and experience that will further their career in aviation.
- Trust your instincts. Does it feel like
the right fit? Look for attitudes and personality traits in
an instructor that might conflict with yours. For example,
if he's the military type and you're a shrinking violet, the
relationship could be a bust.
- Go for a spin. Cockpit time is where the
rubber meets the runway. Some FBOs offer a reduced-rate or
free introductory lesson, which enables you and a CFI to get
up-close and personal at little or no cost.
- Switch, don't fight. Success dictates
that you find another instructor'now'if your current one
doesn't meet expectations. Otherwise, you may end up
spending far more money and time, and expending far more
blood, sweat, and tears, than necessary to complete
training. It's OK to part company on polite and professional
Remember: You're the customer.