CFI with student
9 min read

One of the hardest steps in your flight training can be the first one. You’ve gone to your local airport flight school and had your discovery flight. You’re hooked! Southwest Airlines, here you come. Or, you just want to earn the privilege of being able to fly for that proverbial $100 hamburger. So, now what?  Let’s talk about the most diabolically hidden cost of your flight training and how to avoid it, or better yet, eliminate it from the beginning.

Last time, we talked about that logbook entry that I couldn’t identify or remember (The Silent Treatment).  We ultimately discovered its hidden, but critical value and touched on the concept of communication frequency in learning. Now, let’s take a closer look at just how important communication is in your training, and how the proper relationship with your instructor can pay big dividends in the end.

Firehose vs Garden Hose

Among the many lifelong learning tidbits that my grandfather left me was the statement, “It doesn’t matter in life what you say to another person. It’s what they hear that will make a difference.”

Learning in life takes many forms, but one thing is certain: retention makes the difference between success and failure in the classroom. Retention is driven mainly by emotional and psychological engagement. Your brain must be perfectly and correctly stimulated for you to learn something. Information delivered at a trickling garden hose pace will have you falling asleep at your desk, yet a full-on firehose effect can overwhelm you. Where are you now, what is the airplane doing, what are you doing, and what comes next?

CFI with student

Information delivered at a trickling garden hose pace will have you falling asleep at your desk, yet a full-on firehose effect can overwhelm you.

This issue is the diabolical money pit in aviation: not being able to take in, retain, and benefit from the information you are given.  So, your training takes longer and costs you more money in the process.  It’s nobody’s fault.  Often, it’s a function of the life we’re living that hinders us from rapid advancement.  More on that in a minute.

The first key is to find the balance where you’re taking in the maximum amount of fully digestible information without being overwhelmed. You may not be able to completely assemble it all the moment when it’s handed to you.  However, a later review by the outstanding student (you, of course), typically brings it all into focus. You’re learning at your correct pace. You’re maximizing your time at the airport!

The Search Begins

So, as a brand-new student pilot, with your discovery flight firmly behind you, how do you find not just any instructor, but THE instructor? This pilot is the one who can perfectly meet your pace of learning, maximize your retention rate, and hopefully shorten the hours to your checkride. You’re going to buy a hamburger, albeit locally at the regular price.  But first, let’s narrow the field a bit, shall we?

My advice is to schedule out your first three lessons with three different instructors.  One of those can, and maybe should be, the instructor who took you on your discovery flight.  I say this because if you are ready to schedule, that means that that instructor had a positive impact on your flying experience and compelled you to come back.  They could be the one!  On a discovery flight, you’re trying to get your head around what’s happening, and you don’t really get to interact with the instructor outside their explanation of the events.

CFI with student

My advice is to schedule out your first three lessons with three different instructors.

However, on a deeper level, you woke up the next morning and were ready to start flying.  So clearly, that instructor had a positive and significant impact on that decision.  Fly with them again, first.  They might be a ‘newly minted’ CFI as well, which means with a freshly earned rating, they had time for your discovery flight because they have an open schedule. If you two hit it off, this would be a great opportunity for you to get your routine down with them and book your lessons well in advance.

Next, I want you to schedule two more flights. I’d like to urge you to make them not too far apart, maybe a week to 10 days at the most.  I say this because the second component of efficient learning after retention is momentum. You are not only taking in technical information that you need to develop your knowledge base, but you’re also just placing the first foundation stones of the physical muscle memory that will teach you to reach for the right physical control at the right time – whether that’s a throttle, flap, or radio knob.  But who do you schedule those flights with?

There are clues.

The Lunch Rush and Mental Gymnastics

Spend any time at all around lunchtime at a flight school and you can get a pretty good idea who the busy instructors are. They’re the ones jogging around deeply focused, chewing on a sandwich in one hand, while holding a student file in the other. They’re about to get into another airplane. Stalk them back to their desk to get their name off their cubicle wall and get on their schedule at your time the next week. That’s your second candidate.

I say ‘your time’ because, like the gym, you’re going to need a reliable routine for them and for you. Other factors, like weather, cross countries, illness and vacations will enter into your equation, so your instructor can reserve the simulator or make alternate lesson plans with you or someone else on the days you can’t fly.

If you haven’t spied on or spoken to someone whom you feel might be a good fit for your third flight lesson, ask the scheduler. You’ve picked your time slot, tell them who your other two choices are, and let them pick the third. Oftentimes, they can see a theme from the first two candidates and come up with a good choice based on the other two. Some good things to listen for are things like “…has an opening on [this date and time].  Can you do that?”  If you can flex into a time change, it could be well worth it.

Two pilots in the cockit

Good CFIs are often busy so be flexible with your schedule.

Just like someone running by with a mouth full of food, mental gymnastics for the scheduler is also a clue. It should tell you that the instructor chosen for you potentially has a lot of people listening to them, so they must have a broad communications frequency. Your scheduler knows this tidbit, which is a very good thing.

Winner, Winner, Hamburger…

You’ve just finished your third flight lesson!  How’s it going?  Did you fly with number one, then just hop on their schedule for the other two lessons because they were so good?  If so, I’m not surprised. That’s pretty much how it went for me.  But if you flew with two or even all three of them, well done!  Now it’s interview time!  Out of all of them, which one sent you home feeling invigorated and excited? You learned a lot and you’re comfortable that you heard and understood what you were being taught. Most importantly, your brain is telling you you’re eager to learn from this instructor again. YAY!!!

First, get back on that instructor’s schedule for your time slot immediately.  If you can book multiple weeks in advance, do it. It’s time to build that into a routine for both of you. Next, reach out to them either in person or by email and find a time around lunch to meet with them when they are otherwise free. Offer them a lunch choice, bring it, and be 10 minutes early. That date may change. It may be several weeks out, just come early and be flexible.

When that day comes, no, of course you’re not going to somehow interview them for the job of teaching you.  You’re going to learn about them outside the cockpit. Laugh. Talk about something other than flying. Find common interests beyond the runway ahead of you. My primary instructor and I had SCUBA in common. A connection is a crucial chance for you to strengthen your personal relationship outside the stimuli of the airplane, which will likely result in much better future communication. It’ll also strengthen your mutual trust. You’ll work much better together in the cockpit better as friends. You’ll learn more because you’ll know more about your instructor. They’ll feel more confident in you because they’ve got a more personal picture of you, and they’ll realize that you’ve come through that door to go to work. You may even be lucky enough to develop several lasting relationships throughout your flying career. Mine are sacred to me to this day.

Takeaways:

  1. Committing to becoming a pilot demands a life change. Your training needs to become a regular part of your life routine, much like going to the gym.  Without that focus, it’ll take you longer to develop the motor skills and assimilate the knowledge you’ll need, so you’ll have a lot more ‘do-overs’ on your way to the ticket.  This problem will become exponentially magnified during your instrument rating, so build that routine and those good habits right now.
  2. Find an instructor who teaches between a firehose and a trickle and in a way that fits your learning. Then, be the student who can take it all in. Can you hear what they’re saying to you?
  3. When you get home, before your next lesson, review what you learned, research what confused you, and take any unresolved issues or questions to the next lesson. Help your instructor help you. They’ll respect you more for it, and you’ll be glad you did.
  4. Put in the effort to develop a good friendship with your instructor. It’ll improve your mutual communication, establish a level of trust both in and out of the cockpit, save you lots of time and effort, and make you a much better pilot.

That deviously hidden cost?  It’s the cost of the do-over. It comes from loss of momentum in your training.  Following these takeaways will cut the cost of your training overall and make you a more proficient pilot, which will radiate in your check ride.

Charles Turner
2 replies
  1. Mark Dennehy
    Mark Dennehy says:

    Something else which I’ve found helps a lot with learning while under a firehose is that I spent the equivalent of three hours flying time buying an Insta360 camera and suction cup mount. Before startup I just stick that thing to the inside of the canopy and plug it into the intercom and I record the lesson.

    It’s a 360 degree camera so you just clamp it to the canopy in a place where it can see what you’re seeing and what you’re doing with hands and feet, then you push record and that’s *it*. It powers up and records till it’s out of battery or SD card. No messing around, no fussing with it, no worrying about what’s in frame ‘cos everything’s in frame, it’s a complete push-button-and-forget-about-it deal. That’s rather important from the point of view of doing this safely.

    After the lesson I sit down the next day with a notebook and watch the flight through, taking notes. I find that very often the CFI has been trying to explain something to me multiple times but I simply have not heard him because of being overwhelmed flying the aircraft (happily, the frequency with which that happens has been slowly decreasing).
    Being able to review the flight has helped me enormously with rate of learning and retention.

    That footage is never going up anywhere however, it’s strictly private for a lot of very good reasons including instructors’ privacy and the risk of some person who should have known better treating an internet video like it was instruction and getting themselves killed in the process.

    But I think I’d recommend this for anyone who was learning to fly. It might even pay for itself by shaving off a few hours you’d otherwise waste in revising stuff you forgot because you couldn’t review it.

    http://www.stochasticgeometry.ie/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/2023-06-14-09.47.32a.jpg

    http://www.stochasticgeometry.ie/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/2023-06-09-14.52.20a.jpg

    Reply
  2. JR
    JR says:

    All three of your articles are very good. These last two are especially good and something I plan to use in my CFI adventures going forward. Things I wish I had known on the way to my Private certificate.

    Reply

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