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My Grandfather, who was a farmer, real estate broker, and native Virginian once said to me: “Learning anything in life is like building a dry stacked stone wall.  Each new piece, like the rocks in that wall, needs to snuggle up perfectly with its neighbors, and be true enough on its own to bear the weight of the layers yet to be put on top of it.  Anything less from any single stone will bring the whole wall toppling down.”

After a little more than two decades of flying, I find myself occasionally ambling back through the pages of my logbook looking for something; a date, restaurant name, or an event that brought back a memory that I wanted to conjure up again.  Most recently, I found myself plowing through my training logbook looking for dates and notes in preparation for my last article, when I stumbled onto something I’d forgotten.

The Mystery Among Us

As is probably the case with most of us, my training record is full of the same signature and CFI number, over and over, day after day, month after month, up until my checkrides.  It’s a pattern that repeats itself again and again in all my ratings.  In my case, I was lucky that I ended up with several ‘long term’ instructors, with whom I have forged life-long friendships.

But the other day I noted something odd among all my familiar autographs.  I stared at one entry, wherein I could not – for the life of me – make heads or tails the signature. It wasn’t a stage check flight or a flight in preparation for a checkride. The only clue was that it was a repeat of the current lesson.  But was it?  I don’t ever remember a complete do-over in my training. Stranger still, that signature never appears in my flight log again.

I went to a 141 school, so I was taught from a Jeppesen syllabus.  Because of that, the lesson number is noted in my logbook and I can reference that number to the lesson in the syllabus book I still own.  Did I have difficulties with parts of my training? Sure. But from the looks of this entry, my primary instructor must have felt the need to call for backup in teaching me something.  Really?  I have no recollection of that lesson at all.

flight instruction

A good instructor will identify the need to call for backup in teaching a topic.

A Familiar Process Repeated

What does that mean?  Was I the town idiot for the day?  On my cellphone for the explanation?  Or was it part of a higher diabolical plan?  Well, before we throw our flight school under the bus for wasting our money with some elaborate distribution of wealth scheme, let’s take a closer look at how we teach, and how we learn.

Back in my training days, to become a CFI, you had to go through the same basic process as every other rating; a written exam, oral exam and finally a flight exam with a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). The key difference was really in the flight exam, where you were not only required to fly the maneuvers to a stringent standard of performance, but you were also required to ‘teach’ the maneuvers to your DPE. You were even allowed to have notes with you in the airplane to help you remember to hit the high points of each maneuver.

I know all this because it’s the only practical flight exam I ever failed.  We will talk about why later, but to get a pretty good idea of what was going on that day, you need to understand how I started flying to begin with – read how my aviator life was forged.

As was the case with all your other flight tests, you didn’t necessarily fly every maneuver. The exam required that you fly maneuvers that demonstrated each of the subsections of the exam, otherwise you’d be flying all day. Ace the DPE’s maneuver choices and you were done. Have trouble, and they might fail you, or they might choose another qualifying maneuver from that subsection.

All this is to say that due to time constraints, during the DPE assessment of your basic skills, judgement calls etc., you might (or might not) fly everything you’ve been required to learn. But you were required to be able to fly it all to the test standard for the rating you were seeking because until the test, you didn’t know what maneuvers were going to get picked. My experience was that DPE’s, as accomplished pilots, had a good sense of where you were going to be at the end of the day, pretty much from the takeoff roll. And that’s where things get interesting.

Failure to Prepare Prepares You to Fail

flight instruction

If your instructor has explained the same concept multiple times, it may be time for a fresh look.

Where are you now, what is the airplane doing, what are you doing, and what comes next?  You must be prepared on the day to fly it all and pass an oral exam just to get to that opportunity. Your instructor(s) know this all too well.  They’ve been there.  Ground school is designed to get you through your written and most of your oral exam; flight training takes care of the practical demonstration of the skills. Nevermind the weather, winds and your aeronautical decision making with respect to the safety of your checkride flight. That’s on you but it speaks volumes to your DPE about what kind of pilot you are overall, so it’s important.  It sends a critical signal.

Back out to the bigger picture. You potentially could be asked to demonstrate all these skills, but maybe you’ve got one maneuver that’s not within the test standards, and your primary instructor just can’t get their point across. They’ve explained and demonstrated a couple times but you’re still out in the dark. What do they do?  They call for backup, because these are ‘have to have’ things, in the short term for your flight exam, but they’re also going to make you a safer pilot throughout your lifetime.

Where are you now, what is the airplane doing, what are you doing, and what comes next?

What’s Your Frequency?

It turns out, every one of us ‘hears’ on a specific frequency. If something is said to us in a specific manner it will make sense.  We will absorb the information and subsequently be able to either repeat that information or demonstrate our understanding of it through specific performance.  As was the case in my CFI oral exam, the DPE asked me the same question three times in three different ways before I was able to understand what he was asking and give him the correct response.  He was wise enough to know that I knew the answer, he just needed to phrase the question so that I could hear what he was asking.

Communication frequencies span the spectrum, of course.  They are affected by an infinite number of variables from shared education levels to ethnic backgrounds to language, dialect or accent variances.  The list is endless, but the objective remains the same.  Identifying the shortcomings early and making the appropriate changes to your training patterns is critical, even if that means changing instructors.  After all, forget the cost, you are learning things that could be a matter of life or death someday.

In my view, a great instructor knows when what they’re teaching is being absorbed, and when it is not. They can tell when they are being heard.  If they sense that they are not getting through to their student, they accept that they are not on the right frequency for a particular item, park their ego, and call for backup.  They understand the critical nature, both in the short term and the long term of this specific shortcoming, and they are willing to stop until the student ‘hears’ what is trying to be taught by them or someone else.  Don’t worry, they’ll come back to it next week to see if another perspective did the trick.

So, is Silence Actually Golden?

Now let’s look back at that logbook entry.  I still can’t read it. Yet, it speaks volumes about my primary instructor, doesn’t it?  I clearly couldn’t hear what she was trying to say to me, so she had the wisdom to leave her ego at the door that day and line up another instructor who she thought could take the same concept and say it in a way that would somehow get through to me.  In essence, she brought in another stone mason, who added a rock to shore up the rocks around it so that we could keep building my wall of knowledge. Do I know specifically what that little nugget of learning was, or even how it helped me strengthen the pieces around it?  No. But whatever it was, it must have worked.

From the next entry in my logbook, I can see where she had me repeat the lesson the next day, was satisfied with my performance, and we moved onto the next lesson the day after that. Hiccup resolved.  So, was that lesson an elaborate Ponzi scheme? Hardly.  Wasted money?  Absolutely not.  Some days our receivers are on and tuned 100%, and the frequency is perfect.  Other days, not so much.  It’s a part of the process, and we are certainly better pilots for it.

Does it matter that, twenty years later, I don’t remember the face, the name, or the lesson?  Probably not.  But it does demonstrate a couple of critical things.  First and foremost, that that instructor, whoever they were, said something to me in a different way that ultimately made me a better pilot, and secondly that my primary instructor had the forethought to step out of the way and bring in another instructor who was able to get through to me.  She would then come back to verify that I had learned the technique to her satisfaction (and most probably to the satisfaction of the test standards), then we moved on.

My advice?

  1. Find an instructor like mine. Focus is critical. 
  2. Humility and creativity during a frequency silence is indeed golden.
  3. Be strong enough to recognize that if the information is only coming in in bits and pieces, and you’re not ‘getting’ what’s being taught, it may not be your fault. It’s probably nobody’s fault.  Fly with someone else.
  4. An excellent student will spend at least as much time between lessons as the lessons themselves cleaning up the details you might have missed, and researching the answers you may have to questions from your last lesson, before taking them to your instructor at the next lesson. Be an excellent student.
  5. Points 1 through 4 will save you time, effort and money in the short run. In the long run, they could save your life.
Charles Turner
4 replies
  1. Andy Catsakis
    Andy Catsakis says:

    Great read. I remember my instructors nearly 40 yrs ago. Flew with two brothers that owned a small airport in Pa. John and Don. My primary instruction was from John. Sometimes he would tell me to fly with his brother for certain training , as each had their own skills they were best at. It was old school training by old instructors. I was impressed by their set-up and will always remember what they taught me.

  2. Stu Sibitzky
    Stu Sibitzky says:

    I smiled at your line “Have trouble, and they might fail you, or they might choose another qualifying maneuver from that subsection.”
    It was my private checkride. I was fixin’ to move on from my CAA issued Student License. We had moved through many maneuvers and then he picked one of the myriad small fields that dot central Texas and he wanted to see a crosswind landing. The wind was typical Texas summer blustery and ideal for showing off crosswind abilities. Down final, wing down to counter the drift, opposite rudder to stay lined up. Gusty, go around! OK, let’s set it up again as I sweat bullets in an old Hershey Bar wing Cherokee. Down final, wave off, no good, I know I’m dying and he sez “Let me have a crack at it.” I’m crushed. I’m supposed to be demonstrating my skills as a new aviator of the sky and now I’m just sitting “on my hands” to be shown how it SHOULD be done. Down final for the last time, wing down, feel the rudder pedals dance under my shoes as the runway image begins to fill the windscreen. Bank angle changing, small bits of heading adjustments but we’re drifting off as he applies power and sez “Let’s head on back to Tim’s”. Tim’s was our field just north of Austin and I had passed. He said I’d done all the right things but it was pushing the aircrafts capabilities and the runway was just a bit narrow.
    Moral (I guess) being that even though you’re an examiner, there are times when your skill leads you to the decision that “we shouldn’t” be trying this. That was many thousands of hours ago, long before the Wright Brothers Award was invented.

  3. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    I was very fortunate to have my older brother, a CFII and 18,000hr corporate pilot, as my flight instructor. He was very thorough, set high expectations, but fair. The only time he raised his voice is when I didn’t handle the flair well and let the nose gear hit first! I still can hear his response of “what the he’ll was that!” followed by a lesson on control use of power to arrest a ballooning flair. He apologized to the nose wheel while hangaring the plane!


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