Flight instructor
4 min read

During my nearly six decades of flying, I’ve had more good instructors than bad. But beware: there are bad ones. The worst instructor I ever had was in a Pitts S2A. I learned nothing from him except how to keep from redecorating the interior of his airplane.

After attaining modest proficiency in basic aerobatics in a Great Lakes, I wanted more advanced maneuvers in a higher performance aircraft. On the appointed morning, the instructor took the controls of the S2A after we reached altitude and said, “Okay let me show you a snap roll.” Fair enough. I’d never done a snap roll. Wham, bam, around we went.

Flight instructor

Flight instructors come in all flavors. How is yours?

I expected him to then describe the sequence of control inputs and say, “Okay now you try it.” But instead he said, “Okay now let me show you a hammerhead.” The nose came up and up, straight up, edge of the stall, left rudder, and down. Then instead of having me try one, he said, “Let me show you a loop with a snap roll on top.”

And so it continued with “let me show you.” After 15 minutes of riding through aerobatics, I maxed out on my tolerance scale and said we should return to the airport. “Okay, but first let me show you…” I kid you not.  That’s what he said.  And this continued for another agonizing 10 minutes with me just barely keeping it together. After he landed the airplane (I was incapacitated), I spent the next two hours in the restroom. That’s my definition of a really bad instructor.

Compare that to my primary instructor, Francis Williams, at KZZV. I was not feeling so good after he demonstrated a couple of high speed stalls in the Cessna 140. He recognized my plight and said, “Let’s head back to the airport. You fly the airplane.” I spent some time in the restroom after we landed, but Francis had handled the situation right. He’s in my Instructor Hall of Fame.

A not-so-good instructor was my multiengine instructor. He did a good job of honing my reflexes to deal with engine-outs at the most inopportune moments. But when I presented myself to the examiner, he looked at my license and said, “You’re instrument rated. Good. We’ll do the checkride under the hood.”

I was stunned. Some of my dual time had been under the hood, but the instructor had not mentally prepared me to fly the entire checkride on the gauges. I groped my way through it and got the endorsement, but my instrument flying that day was ragged.

An almost-funny bad instructor was the young guy who nearly jumped out of the airplane when I went into a slip on final. “What are you doing?” he shouted. “This is an uncoordinated maneuver.” We were on final to a small airport in Chicago with nothing under us but rooftops as far as far as the eye could see. I explained what I was doing and why, but he just shook his head. After landing, he leapt from the plane and ran into the FBO’s office. I think I saw him make the sign of the cross.

He was talking with his boss when I walked in. After a couple of minutes, his boss walked over and asked what happened. I explained. He nodded and went back to the instructor. The instructor grudgingly picked up my logbook and signed me off.

Contrast that with the instructor who had me arrive 2,000 AGL in a single about a mile from the approach end of the runway, then pulled the throttle and said, “You have to land on the runway with no power. How are you going to do it?” When full flaps weren’t enough, I slipped the airplane. We landed in the first third. The instructor grinned his approval.

And then there’s the instructor with whom you don’t connect. Probably something about the way he communicates or how you learn that doesn’t work. He’s not a bad instructor, as such. He’s just not a good instructor for you.

Bottom Line: Not all instructors are created equal. Most are good. Some are outstanding. Some are good up to a point. Some are okay for other people, but not for you. A few are downright awful. Don’t give up on flying or getting that next rating if you hit a bad one. Find an instructor that fits your needs.

What’s been your experience with instructors? Tell us about the good and the bad and why.

David Huprich
Latest posts by David Huprich (see all)
26 replies
  1. Gary Dell
    Gary Dell says:

    In the beginning I had my share of uninterested instructor’s just there to collect their money & get their time in. One put me under the Hood when I only had 3 hours time. I was all over the place. Another didn’t explain the walk around pre-flight correctly nor the aerodynamics properly & still another didn’t like to use the radio & we had some close call’s because of that. But I didn’t give up. My last one was the best & I’m flying thanks to him. Like the last sentance, ‘Find an instructor that fits your needs.’

  2. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    Turns out that there’s a wide variety of students too. In fact, when you consider meshing the matrices of student variables with instructor variables, it’s a wonder that anyone learned to fly after Wilber taught Orville (or was it the other way around?).

  3. Todd
    Todd says:

    My dad had a terrible instructor. He took him on an unplanned cross country for his private ticket and when they arrived the runway had a big X on it. The instructor was confused and when my dad told him it was closed he argued and insisted on landing anyway.
    This instructor can be heard going into OSH during the show. Do a google search, you won’t believe this actual audio from this commercial pilot.

  4. Darren Partridge
    Darren Partridge says:

    Hoho! Sideslipping is a great mechanism for upsetting some instructors. I fly mostly tailskid, so slipping is de rigeur, but it is amazing how many instructors don’t understand or appreciate the application of the technique. I once freaked out a nice female instructor with a sideslip in a PA-28. ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!!’ she gasped…I was actually just using it to get a better view of a feature below that was obscured by the wing, but I didn’t want to wander even slightly off course. She calmed down when I explained what I was doing and why, but I got the measure of her when she told me later in the lesson that she was scared of practising stalling…However, making someone ill through aerobatics is a very great sin: the only person getting sick through your manoeuvres should be yourself! :-)

  5. Dennis Thate
    Dennis Thate says:

    I have hundreds of hours of PIC time and have always been active in all safety programs, but just recently I received my tail wheel endorsement in a Piper Cub from a local CFII, but only after ten hours at another flight school with the same new instructor who apparently was more concerned about just building his own personal dual time then teaching tail wheel training to an experienced pilot.
    I know ‘time building instructors’ turning into ‘milkman’ is all too common in today’s tight aviation economy. I just wish there was a easy fix to this exploitive mentality.

  6. Tom Tomlinson
    Tom Tomlinson says:

    I had to be checked out to fly a 152 here in the UK because I have a FAA certificate, and not a CAA one. The instructor said very little, was silent during the flight except to tell me what he wanted me to do. When we were due to land, at an airfield that I had never landed at before, and there was aerobatics in progress that prevented the usual left hand circuit, I asked what I should do. His reply? Do whatever you need to do! No flap setings, no advice on the unfamiliar pattern, no advice. When we finally shut down he said I made the turns requested “too slowly” I didn’t go back.

  7. Gary Stokes
    Gary Stokes says:

    Because I learned to fly gliders first, I had to transition to powered aircraft. One day sitting in the pilot’s lounge I read an accident report in AOPA Pilot that cited an instructor’s decision to simulate an engine-out emergency by closing the C-150’s fuel valve as the cause of the accident that killed both pupil and instructor. A few days later during a transition training flight in a 150, my instructor shut off the fuel during a touch-and-go. The engine died when we were at about 150 feet on climb-out. That report flashed through my brain and my hand shot down to the valve and twisted it open. Our wheels were almost in the corn tops when the engine finally caught and we climbed to safety. I excoriated the instructor and, when we landed, ordered him out of the airplane. I shot three more touch-and-goes, picked him up, and flew back to our home airfield in silence. He signed me off and I never flew with him again — nor recommended that anyone else do so.

  8. Liad
    Liad says:

    My CFI won’t teach on anything but a tail dragger… At first everyone where amazed that I would agree to get my license on a dragger, but today I can honestly say I am a better pilot for it.

    Stick and rudder, slips and piper-cub approaches, Piece of cake :-)

  9. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    I went to college in Tulsa, OK and flew out of Riverside Airport (RVS) now Jones. I did my first BFR with an intsructor who was about my age and a recent graduate of one of the large flight schools in the area.

    We got into the airplane and as I was running down the checklist I noticed he didn’t have his shoulder harness fastened. Thinking he was checking up on me, I asked if he was going to fasten the harness. His reply was “No”. Still thinking he was trying to razz me, I asked “Wait a minute, who’s the pilot in command of this aircraft?” He said “I am”.

    My reply was “No you’re not. There’s nothing were going to do in this aircraft that I’m not current and qualified for. Either you put on that shoulder harness or I get another instructor.”

    He put it on, we flew the review and I never flew with him again.

  10. Wayne Tokarz
    Wayne Tokarz says:

    First lesson, instructor has me place hands and feet on the controls and has me follow him, on climb out, he lets go of the controls, crosses his arms and looks out the side window and ignores me. When I frightingly asked if he was going to teach me to fly. He looked at me and said “son, I can’t teach you to fly, you have to learn on your own, I’m just here to keep you from killing us both!” I flew all over the sky trying to get a grip on it, and did.
    On one engine out practice approach, we were down to 200ft. over a wheat field when he asked if I thought that this was a good decision, he then pointed out that the wheat was 6ft. tall and there were very large high tension lines across the midle of it, what was wrong with the mowed field or road adjacent. He then got us out of there.
    He wanted me learn to understand the capabilities of flying while respecting its limitations. He did a great job, in the last 30+ years I have had several real engine outs and other emergencies, I didn’t bend any metal and am proud of how I handled them all, thanks to John. Oh by the way…John was a WWII credited Spitfire pilot, god Bless.

  11. Anonymous (for a good reason)
    Anonymous (for a good reason) says:

    I took my Private Pilot instruction through an Aero Club at a USAFE (US Air Forces in Europe) base back in the early 1980s. At the time I was a junior enlisted man in the USAF working on F-4 Phantoms. The maintenance organization at that base frequently pressured us to sign off aircraft discrepancies that weren’t really fixed in order to get additional sorties, had us falsify other paperwork to keep our “Fully Mission Capable Rate” up on paper (though we knew otherwise), and otherwise “bent” the rules and regulations. That is pertinent to my story, and you’ll see why in a minute.
    My Aero Club instructor was from a European country. He had gone to the USA to earn his FAA CFII. He was about my age, early 20s, and really loved to hotdog in the Piper Tomahawks we were flying. I knew what we were doing was probably against the rules but hey, rules didn’t really count anyway, did they? They sure didn’t when I was at work on duty. I figured he was the one who would get in trouble if we got caught, so I didn’t worry much. Besides, I worked on fighters and really loved doing the stuff we did, which made me feel a little like I was getting a taste of being a fighter pilot. He and I frequently flew “nap of the earth” flights over the countryside, maybe 50 to 100 feet off the ground. He taught me how to do wingovers. I liked the zero-Gs over the top. He taught me how to do hammerhead stalls, which scared me enough that I wouldn’t do them when I was flying solo, but with him alongside me it was pure fun. One day he asked me, “What would you do if the Red Baron was on your tail?” When I said I didn’t know, he hauled back on the yoke until we were vertical. As the airspeed bled off, he hauled back harder and we flopped over the top in a very sloppy loop. As we came down the backside I could see the skin on top of the wings wrinkling. That scared me, and I told him he’d better not ever do that with me in the airplane again. He laughed, but didn’t do it again.
    One day we were flying very low over the countryside and popped over a hill. Just on the other side there was a gliderport, and they were just about to winch launch a sailplane. Wow, was that close! We laughed that one off as well.
    So finally I took my checkride and got my Private certificate. A few days later I took one of my co-workers up in a Tomahawk. He had always hoped for a ride in the back seat of an F-4 but never got one, so I did a couple of steep turns to show him 2 Gs. Then I flew a wingover to show him zero G. As I was recovering from the wingover the notion to fly directly into a second one came to me, so I did it. But this time I over-controlled, and we ended up inverted. I had no idea what to do. I thought for a split second about trying to roll upright, but my instructor had never taught me how to do that, so I just kept the power back and pulled on the yoke for all I was worth. As we went downhill, the airspeed went about 15 KIAS over redline. The wing skin was wrinkling on top just like in the loop my instructor had flown, but we were going so much faster! A few weeks before I had read an article about inflight breakups usually start with the tail snapping off, then the plane pitches forward and the wings fail downward. I was waiting for that to happen. Finally the nose started coming up toward the horizon, and the speed came back down to a more reasonable number. I began to think we might live after all. My friend said “That was COOL!!!!!” I just replied that I thought we should go back and land.
    I looked the airplane over very carefully and didn’t see anything bent. I was too chicken to tell anyone at the Aero Club what I had done. The Tomahawks were just a few years old then, and I think that’s why nothing bent or broke.
    My instructor had left for a new job flying Learjets for some European charter outfit just before I got my Private certificate. I never got to tell him how close I came to killing my friend and myself that day. But I’ll tell you what, that was definitely my wakeup call. I have NEVER broken an FAR since, and fly as conservatively as anyone could. That day was as close to dying as I’ve ever come, and not something I ever want to do again. I haven’t since and never will ever hotdog again. And I now think my former instructor is the worst instructor I ever had, by a wide margin.

  12. Charlie MacInnis
    Charlie MacInnis says:

    I too had a bad instructor while attempting to learn aerobatics. I went to Florida to learn from someone whose website listed great credentials. What I found was an opinionated old fellow who was ironing the fabric back in place on his Citabria. I suppose someone willing to sit in the back seat of one of those things and teach aerobatics to strangers might be a bit odd in the first place. We went through a few maneuvers and I learned a bit. However, when it came time to land, my nervousness about tailwheel landings became apparent (despite my tailwheel signoff, I wasn’t really good at them)and he took control of the plane on final. Actually, he took control on final of every flight so I never was able to learn anything in that area at all. We ended the whole thing after three flights and one bout of nausea. I would have let it go, except that he subsequently felt the need to further express his extreme political views from time to time via email. Without asking, he added my email to his list of people to send distasteful political emails that now have become the fashion for angry old men. Finally, i sent him an email and asked him to exclude me. When he didn’t reply, I emailed again and requested an acknowledgement. He finally did that. Every other CFI I have encountered in my 1,900 hours has been great with some bit of wisdom gained from each. In this case, the only wisdom I gained was to avoid encountering this fellow ever again.

  13. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    I was likely the slowest learning student pilot in captivity. I went through three instructors. Numbers 1 and 3 were young guys; and they were good.

    The second one is an older guy, who has a lot of stick and rudder skills, but zilch about knowing how to facilitate learning. He still thinks to this day that simply knowing how to do something qualifies a person to teach it. That’s like thinking that knowing how to cook qualifies you to run a restaurant. Two different skill sets.

    Two incidents come to mind as I think of him. One day on downwind, he said, “I wondered how long you were going to do that. You’ve been doing it wrong for three weeks now.” On the ground, I confronted him. “Why did you let me learn bad habits? Correct me immediately when I do something wrong. Don’t let me make it a habit.”

    On base and final, he would run his mouth incessantly. And his voice was irritating. Finally, after a landing, I told him that in the pattern I didn’t want to hear anything out of him unless it was for safety of flight. Otherwise – be quiet!

    The third instructor handled things fine. I finally got it right and got my license to learn.

  14. John LeBlanc
    John LeBlanc says:

    About 30 years ago while working on my CFI certificate, I flew with an intructor that had no understanding of aerodynamics. We were in a C-172 that must have been severely misrigged or bent up somehow/ It would always drop the right wing severely when you stalled it. I did as I was initially taught, and used rudder to lift the dropped wing and keep it straight, rather than using aileron and rudder coordinated. That is because when a wing drops, aileron effectiveness has usually gone away, and trying to use them can make things worse. well, he freaked out and said he to never do that. He then said he’d show me what would happen if I continued to use the rudder in that way. I knew right then he was going to spin the airplane, but there was an occupant in the back seat! I knew that this was forbidden in the operating limitations, but apparently he didn’t know that. I was also young enough that I figured he knew more than me about what the airplane could really do. He was quite surprised when it went around three times before recovering, and even more surprised when I told him that was because he just went outside the operating limitations with the guy in the back seat. This guy did more to turn me off from being an instructor than anything else. I eventually completed the CFI course and was cleared to take the checkride. I was so burned out on the whole idea that I never did it! Now, 30 years later, I love introducing pilots to flying my very blind antique cabin biplane, and regret not taking that CFI checkride. I’m told by some folks I’ve flown with that I would have made a very good instructor. What a pity this guy contributed to my burnout.

  15. Dennis Baer
    Dennis Baer says:

    My worst instructor was one of those hyper-wound up guys that are out to bring the world up to their level of perfection. He’d left his successful engineering job to fly full time and was building hours as fast as he could before his savings ran out and he lost his house. He believed that there was one and only one way to properly do anything in an aircraft and he alone knew it. His biggest pride was in his presumed ability to communicate anything to or from an aircraft. The slightest deviation in word choice, word order, cadence, intonation, or accent from his way of doing it was a complete and utter failure, a threat to flight safety, tantamount to spitting on the flag. My hard-won victory over “mike fright” was reversed in the first 3 minutes with him. The usual private pilot syllabus was not good enough for him, he wrote his own version. Had he mentioned that he had his own version, and that we’d be using it, and that he expected me to have studied it, our first cockpit conversations might have been more productive and less like a comedy routine.
    On our first approach in the new 172 (I had some time in 150’s at another airport, he insisted that we fly this plane instead of the much cheaper 150), he suddenly screamed “Abort!”. I scanned the sky, the instruments, and the runway, looking for the problem. I didn’t see one, and said so. “Abort!ABBBOOOOOORRRTT!” he screams again. I added power and cracked, “Neither of us is pregnant, so I’m guessing you want me to go around?”. I keyed the mike and announced a go around, during which he was screaming “Abort! Abort the landing!” so loud that I was told later the transmission was garbled.
    “Didn’t you see that deer on the runway?” he yells.
    “No, I didn’t, and I don’t think you did either, we’re in the middle of a major city, there isn’t a deer for 20 miles around,”.
    “Listen, if somebody says “abort” you abort!” (He really didn’t need an intercom, I figured he was putting out a solid 100db). “And why the hell didn’t you divert to the right of the runway?”
    “Was I suppose to? This is the first go-around I’ve ever done.”(this rendered him speechless for almost a minute).
    “It’s an ABORT! It’s an ABORT! There’s no such thing as a go-around!How the hell can you have this many hours and not know how to ABORT A $%$##$&& LANDING?”
    “My other instructor doesn’t see imaginary deer on the runway, I guess,”.
    There were a few other stand out moments with him: once he insisted that I must be able to do turns around a point holding altitude, speed, distance from the point, and bank angle all constant while we were buffeted by a 7kt wind. Another was when he started correcting the communication technique of the local Center and got into a debate while airliners waited overhead. I finally found another instructor. He left to fly right seat on a regional turbo prop…..until they fired him….

  16. Rick A
    Rick A says:

    I recently got back into flying after many many years. My CFI, with about 4000 hours of instructing, was very patient with me as I relearned techniques and procedures and after about 10 hours signed off on my currency. There were the initial demos and then my repetition. The thing that amazed me was just as I was about to correct something, like low or high on approach or losing altitude on steep turns, he asked “What should you be doing now?”

    It seemed to me he was wired into my brain and it was great reinforcement knowing I was able to recognize the situation and be certain I was in fact “ahead of the airplane”.

    Since getting the sign off, those “What should you be doing now?” words are never far from the surface, including my first solo after the sign off when I correctly made a go around decision on a potentially over long approach.

    Both in my initial training and this recent retraining, I have been fortunate to have great instructors. As I progress with additional ratings and other training, I am confident I can detect if the CFI is someone who will let me learn or needs to pursue other opportunities.

  17. Neil
    Neil says:

    Oh my goodness I thought I was the only one to have a raging clown of an instructor. My CFI is brilliant and my initial instructor up to private certification and half way to commercial was outstanding but at this point I was frequently deployed with the army. This meant that I had to sit recertification so when I returned. As my original instructor had transferred to helicopters I was given one guy who didn’t know what type of Cessna we were in. He had never done a weight and balance on one and didn’t know radio frequencies for the area. After we were airborne instead of going through the requirements for recertification he showed me all the “cool” stuff he could do pushing the poor old Cessna . I pointed out we were in the circuit and after the second near miss with a student on their first solo circuit I ordered hi to land not the other way round as my heart couldn’t take anymore. On the apron I told him to get out and I would settle the aircraft for the night as well as settle myself. The next day I met with my CFI and unloaded the thing that stuck in my mind in addition to the god awful flying was his monster bad breath. Let’s face it the cockpit of a Cessna does not have many places to got when you are confronted with such bad breath. The CFI understood as I was the fourth complaint. Needless to say soon after he went off to work elsewhere and my CFI assigned me a mature age instructor who preflight end me outlined what he wanted to see, demonstrated errors safely and we got on like a house on fire. I asked for him each time I got back for my re-certain until the last trip where I was too badly injured physically and mentally to fly again. Your other writers are correct you need to find the right instructor to suit you. I still visit the school as I have formed good friends there. Occasionally I pay for a flight as a passenger just for fun.

  18. Art
    Art says:

    My regular CFII was out of town, and my instrument checkride was scheduled for a couple of weeks later. I wanted to stay in practice, so I hired another (older) CFI from one of the local flight schools to come with me for some approach practice in the Los Angeles coastal area. However, when we took off, my 210’s gear refused to retract. (It turned out that the hydraulic pump had failed.)

    “Oh, well,” I said, one I made sure the gear was down and locked. “We aren’t going far. There is no speed limit with the gear extended and the doors closed. Let’s just fly it this way.”

    But the guy really wanted the gear up. He suggested I try it again. He asked if we could try it again. I said I thought it was a bad idea.

    He thought about it for a few minutes, checking the few things he could. By this time I had the hood on, and he was supposed to be looking for traffic, ebven though we were on an IFR flight plan.

    Then he said, “I know! Let’s use the hand pump to raise it.”

    By this time, I was irritated enough to raise my voce a bit.

    “Think about this for a minute,” I told him. “We have perfectly safe airplane with one minor issue. You are suggesting that we take the chance of trying to raise the gear despite some likelihood that we will be unable to get it down and locked again. Why would you risk that?”

    He sulked for most of the rest of the flight, which included a couple of nice, safe landings.

    It was a good reminder that as PIC, you sometimes have to be assertive, even if you are paying the person in the other seat to teach you.

  19. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    I can definitely say that being a good pilot and being a good instructor are two entirely different things. Of course that goes for any discipline, not just flying. I’d rather have a mediocre pilot who is a great teacher than a hot shot pilot who can’t teach. That being said, I would agree with many of the comments below about the importance of patience. I’ve had several instructors, all of whom are very accomplished pilots, but I’d say that there’s only one of them I’d consider to be a great instructor. There’s an old saying; there’s no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher. I believe that it takes two to tango (the student must be motivated and willing to put in the time and effort to learn), but I’ll always put 51% of the responsibility for success on the teacher. Everybody learns differently. A good teacher not only understands this, but is able to modify the way they teach to fit the way that particular student learns. I think that a little positive feedback goes a long way. Negative feedback is also important, but must be done correctly to have a positive effect. For example, a good instructor wouldn’t say to a student “That was terrible!” They might say something like “We need to work a little more on that” or “Let me show you another technique.” A good instructor (or school) should also help keep the student focused on the big picture, which should be the goal of obtaining their certificate. Loosing sight of that lets you build hours, but not necessarily skills and knowledge.

  20. Willy
    Willy says:

    Just today flew with an old instructor who was a control hog. I have roughly 250 hours ppl see which isn’t that much but still, it was a waste of time and money. Also acted like he was the customer. This type of behavior is going to cost their employers business. And then banks will continue to knock on their doors. Don’t they understand this?

  21. David
    David says:

    I just started my PPL, I have 5 hours in the C-172. I am not so sure about my instructor, he seems like a pretty good pilot, and I like him personally but I am not getting much in the form of instruction. He will set me up for the next lesson and when I prep for it we do something else. It seems like he hops around the syllabus and I don’t know what is coming next. I don’t feel like I am learning as much in the air as I should, I am more confident then I was during my discovery flight, I can start up the plane, and fly straight and turn, but that’s about it. Is it just me?

  22. Miami Mike
    Miami Mike says:

    Had a part time gig at a local, fairly large and well regarded flight school teaching CFIs how to teach. Interesting, to say the least. Some of them knew it all (or so they thought), some of them were eager to learn anything they could to be better instructors, some of them really should have been doing something else.

    Without exception, they did NOT understand the hardware. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve never owned a car with a carburetor, so I had to teach them that. Believe it or not, NONE of them could work an E-6B! That wasn’t too hard to teach them because they already knew the basics. They were all members of the Church of the Followers of the Crimson Line – if the magic ever stopped, they’d panic.

    Unfortunately, the school re-arranged the schedule and wanted me to work full time, days. I’m not retired, so I had to regretfully decline. They offered some decent money, but my businesses pay me a LOT more, and while I enjoyed teaching (and I think they benefited from me), I enjoy solvency more.

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