For most children, sitting in a car seat means endless hours watching the landscapes and buildings outside of the car window. For Niki Gaskins, when her dad put her car seat in the back of an airplane, it allowed her to see the world from above the terrain.
Years later, her father encouraged Niki and her brothers to share his love of aviation by offering them the opportunity to learn how to fly, and Niki quickly jumped at the chance. After graduating from high school, she found herself at the local airport beginning her flight instruction.
Her father had been a private pilot, and initially Niki thought she would attain the same goal and stop there. However, while attending college at Kansas State University, a course to obtain her certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate was part of the program. Although she felt being a CFI would be daunting, but challenging, she wasn’t sure if she was cut out for teaching.
“I remember thinking that there was no way I could remember all this knowledge and be in charge of teaching it to someone else, let alone teaching someone how to land an airplane,” Gaskins shared. “But after building hours and working with the most amazing instructors, I accomplished the CFI certificate and started teaching for the college.
“I fell in love with teaching.”
In order to obtain a CFI a pilot must first earn a commercial certificate, which normally requires 250 hours of flight time under Part 61. Gaskins then passed two knowledge exams, the Flight Instructor-Airplane” and the Fundamentals of Instructing tests. The pilot must then practice flying from the right seat of the airplane and when ready to go, take the CFI check ride.
“When your CFI thinks you are ready, you go take your check ride just like any other check ride, except this one lasts a little longer,” Gaskins said.
When asked about the most challenging part of being a CFI, Gaskins said it’s about understanding how each student learns.
“It takes time, and it takes listening to and observing the student,” Niki said. “Some students are very shy and quiet, so you have to dig a little more, while others are more outgoing and let you know exactly what they need,” she added.
However, Niki said the most rewarding part about teaching is all about her students. “Watching them hit their milestones…first solo, first solo cross-country, and then the check ride,” Niki said. “I love seeing their confidence grow through each stage of training. You get to stand back when it’s all done and realize you did that!”
Niki shared two close calls she has experienced during her 16 years as an instructor. They both involved students who were taking off on their very first solo flight.
The first one was her first student, but both involved taking off and losing control of the airplane as it was gaining momentum. Both students experienced extreme porpoising or bouncing during takeoff, but both students aborted their respective takeoff rolls with no long-term damage to the airplane.
Niki took each of them back into the air for further training and both went on to obtain their private pilot certificates.
However, another close call could have resulted in a worse outcome. She was practicing takeoffs and landings with a student in a multiengine airplane. The student was having a difficult time, and the tower asked for a cloud report.
“With all these distractions, we never verified our landing gear position or lights or even heard the landing gear warning horn,” Gaskins admitted. “Right when we were ready to flare the aircraft, the tower told us to do a go-around, and you could hear something was wrong in his voice.” The controller then told her the landing gear had not been lowered. “I almost threw up in the plane,” she said.
Gaskins is married and has three children. Her husband is an A&P technician and hopes to complete his private pilot training in 2022. While all three children are interested in flying and spend time in the left seat, their oldest son is looking forward to soloing this year when he turns 16.
For many students, their instructors become a CFI only to build up hours to move on to a commercial career. For Gaskins, this isn’t the case. She is happy to focus on training new private pilots.
“It takes people like me to keep the pilots coming,” she said. “Every pilot starts out the same way, as a new student pilot [and] without CFIs, there would be no new pilots to fill those job positions. I really love helping others achieve their dreams in aviation.”