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Cockpit Chemistry: Choosing the Right Flight Instructor

By Paul Engstrom

Finding a flight instructor is easy. Finding one who complements your personality, learning style, learning pace, and training needs is another matter entirely.

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 skills.

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 http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/field_offices/ for 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 Instructors (http://www.nafinet.org/).
  • 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 terms.

Remember: You're the customer.