Tough flight instructors are worth it… most of the time

We had just taken off from a scenic airport in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything seemed to be going fine. This was my last dual cross country before my instrument rating checkride, and I was beginning to feel confident. Unfortunately, that confidence proved to be short-lived. Just after I called Indianapolis Center to advise them I had departed, my flight instructor keyed the mic and calmly said, “Cancel the IFR flight plan; we’re headed back to our departure airport.”

I was stunned. What happened?!

My flight instructor was doing what he did best: teaching me a valuable lesson in a way that I would never forget. The lesson was simple. In mountainous terrain, you can’t just blast off and start climbing; you need to review the terrain and the departure procedures, and make a plan to stay away from hills until you’re in radar contact. That might even mean climbing out over the airport in a continuous turn until reaching a minimum altitude, which we proceeded to do on round two.

CFI in cockpit
Don’t let your CFI go easy on you, but don’t accept abuse either.

He could have asked me a question on the ground, before takeoff, about my departure plans. He could have questioned why I wasn’t turning right after departure. Instead, he let me do the decision making as far as possible, then he corrected me. We turned around, landed, discussed the problem and then tried it again.

I was embarrassed and more than a little mad. But my flight instructor wasn’t wrong – if I would have been on a checkride, I would have failed. Not surprisingly, I’ve never made that mistake again and I have a deep appreciation for pre-departure briefings in the mountains.

Tough instructors are like this. They go beyond FAA standards and deeper than the textbook to teach you things that really matter, in ways that make an indelible impression. Over the years, I’ve had a few right seat companions who deserve the adjective “tough,” but in looking back over those lessons I’m glad I had them. Those training flights weren’t always fun but they were incredibly valuable. I learned things I didn’t even know to ask, and I gained more than just competency – I gained confidence.

Besides the IFR departure episode in eastern Kentucky, I can vividly remember three other challenging dual flights, all with important lessons:

  • Very unusual attitudes. All pilots practice unusual attitude recovery techniques, so when I earned my high performance and complex endorsements in a Cessna 210, I thought I knew what to expect. Wrong. My instructor made sure I could recover from all kinds of attitudes – pretty much everything except aerobatics. The goal wasn’t to scare me, but to teach me to be decisive and forceful with the controls. The 210 is a very heavy airplane in pitch and roll, and you have to be serious about leveling the wings or reducing pitch. I probably never would have learned those skills without him pushing me beyond my comfort zone.
  • A different kind of tailwheel checkout. Learning to fly a tailwheel airplane is all about takeoffs and landings, since airplanes pretty much fly the same once they’re airborne. Naturally, I assumed I would do multiple takeoffs and landings in the Citabria I was flying with this instructor. Instead, I flew at least 10 approaches to about 6 inches over the runway, but I was not allowed to actually land the airplane. The goal was complete directional control, keeping the longitudinal axis of the airplane perfectly aligned with the centerline of the runway. After flying down the full length of the runway, I added power and went around. This was frustrating at first, but it was actually a great way to learn. All the magic happens in those last few feet above the runway, and I got to practice crabs, sideslips and directional control in a way that regular landings would never have allowed.
  • Learning IFR holds. Which way do you turn in a standard IFR hold? I had trouble remembering during my instrument training, so my flight instructor scheduled me for a “holding day.” We went flying on a calm but very low IFR day, with ceilings below approach minimums at two local airports. We flew ILS after ILS, all the way to 200 feet, then flew the missed approach and entered a hold. Every time, just as we reached the holding fix, he would ask me, “which way do we turn in a hold?” I would answer, “right!” He would confirm by slapping the top of my right hand and saying, “RIGHT!” My instrument instructor, an old school taskmaster if ever there were one, wanted to make sure I could do those procedures in my sleep. To this day, my right hand flinches a little when I fly a hold, but I always remember to turn right.

I know I was better prepared for my checkrides because I had tough instructors. I also know that two emergencies I’ve dealt with since turned out well because of the training I received. I didn’t completely understand what I had signed up for at first, but I can’t imagine training any other way.

Before we get carried away, it’s important to point out some ground rules. The first one is to stay balanced. It’s OK for an instructor to be demanding, it’s OK for an instructor to have high standards, and it’s OK for an instructor to use creative methods of teaching. However, it most certainly is not OK for an instructor to be abusive or demeaning to a student. If you ever feel like your instructor isn’t being constructive with his criticism or isn’t helping you become a better pilot, talk to the chief flight instructor, flight school manager or owner. This isn’t World War II and your instructor isn’t a drill sergeant.

ACS book
Make sure you have goals to measure your performance against: the ACS, a syllabus, etc.

Secondly, a good student-CFI relationship involves lots of communication. If you have concerns about your flight training – whether you feel it’s not tough enough or too tough – talk to your instructor. If a lesson leaves you feeling angry or upset, don’t keep that bottled up, as it will probably affect your next lesson. It’s probably a good idea to wait a day or two to cool off, but make sure you talk things over.

Third, make sure you are measuring your progress against some standards. One of the most important things for any student is to feel that they’re making progress. If the criticism feels random, it’s hard to stay motivated. My instrument instructor and I agreed that, since I was going to use my instrument rating to fly cross countries in real IFR conditions, the Practical Test Standards were not enough. He was demanding, but he was fair because I always knew the standards I had to hit (one dot deflection on ILS approaches, for example).

The line between not tough enough and too tough is often a fine one, and as the student you are a customer – it’s up to you to walk it. You should demand an instructor who teaches more than the minimum, but you should not accept one who makes personal attacks or is unfair. The questions to ask yourself are: “Is this training working for me? Am I achieving my aviation goals?”

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John knows how lucky he is to go to work every day at an airport. As Vice President of Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s Catalog Division, he says, “I get to hang around airplanes all the time, flying regularly and testing new products for the catalog.” Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. Despite his love of low and slow flight, John says, “I love the challenge of IFR flying in the system. Seeing the runway lights as you break out on approach is a thrill.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. Great article John. The instructor – student relationship is very important. As a military instructor pilot I had the good fortune of always working with very highly motivated student pilots. They were eager to learn and excel. They studied hard and took the information they received in-flight and during debriefs to heart and applied themselves rigorously. I know the civilian flight training world is a little different. It is tough to be a student pilot and it’s tough to be a CFI. I bet many CFIs out there wish all their students were like John!

  2. I got my PPL in 1982 with the 8th Army Flying Club in Seoul. My CFI was a Vietnam vet, a Colonel Kim. He was very demanding, very tough, but I was lucky, because his training went beyond the normal PPL curriulum. I still remember today and follow what I learned.

  3. I, too, taught for the army at Fort Rucker and Fort Stewart from Mid 60s to early 70s, and at Enid (AF) for a few months as the war was running down. I still remember some of the debriefs. Even some of the students even most of the names have slipped now. Most returned from downrange with stories of their own. Hopefully I had something to do with that. Of course, we have all had our failures and we remember those as well. Keep up t he good work.

  4. I have a tough instructor and love it. I need he important lessons to never be forgotten. Sometimes it is intimidating, but in the end I want to learn to mitigate risks as much as is possible, which ultimately can result in me being able to fly another day in the future…

  5. Am 75 and about to take Sport pilot test though I can pass the full Pilot test based on Sporty’s training videos. I want tough but compassionate CFIs and training in both tail wheel and triwheels. That is why I plan to take my training from three different CFIs.

    Based on what I have studied on Sporty’s video courses and read in EAA and AOPA magazines and the latter’s web sites, would you go to a top university and want to have the same profs for all your classes?

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