An Old & New CFI

This newspaper editor-turned CFI has taught cub reporters for years, but training student pilots was quite a different adventure.

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Here I sit in the right seat of a fine old 172, inside the marker on an ILS approach, my first ever instrument student refusing to correct for the wind. I watch the localizer needle drift off and feel myself twisting my entire upper body to force it back to center. Should I tell him to turn left 10 degrees and start bracketing, just as we discussed on the ground? Or do I let him wander off course and see when he deals with it, if ever?

A couple of hours later, I'm in the same 172, cranking around the pattern with my first ever primary student. I'm a little tired. I'm counting how many hours remain before I can go home and sit down to dinner with my wife. I'm amazed. Never before in my half century of life have I wanted my all-too-occasional days of flying to end. My voice is getting scratchy from all the talking I've been doing, explaining, asking questions, making suggestions, telling outright. Too much talking? I don't know. I'm not sure how to tell when it's all just noise to my students.

He's doing fairly well today. He hasn't soloed yet, but he's done two landings in a row without any lurches or plunges. It's mid-afternoon. I've been flying since 8:30 a.m. I realize that fatigue is making me slide into a passive role, looking for a little rest on this circuit. My body wants me to sit back and play the observant passenger. Not good, I tell myself, and I straighten up, take my arm from behind his seat and get my feet ready at the rudders and my hands secretly set to grab the yoke.

Sure enough, he blows this one, pumping and twisting the wheel as the runway numbers slide under the nose all because of one little gust from the side, inducing erratic headings and attitudes just before touchdown. It's a marvelous demonstration of pilot-induced turbulence. "Whoa!" I say out loud. "Where did all this flailing around come from, Fred?" The next time around, he does the same thing. He's lost it for the day. No soloing him for a while.

What's happening? I've read about stuff like this in the FAA's little boiled-down mini-course in graduate education theory called "Fundamentals of Instruction," which I considered a useless load of academic psychobabble when I was cramming for the knowledge test before I went off to a Florida school to become a 30-day wonder CFI at age 50. Now I'm beginning to realize all that education theory was about the things I'm up against here. Correlation and suppression, ego and self-concept, perceptions and insights, the laws of primacy and intensity.

This is all a new world for me even though I'm kind of an old geezer for a brand-new CFI. I've a measly 170 hours of "instruction given" under my belt, but I'm beginning to realize there are things about this way of life that I could easily loathe. It's very hard work: intense, demanding and ultimately exhausting-for me, anyway. Many students don't do their homework, which I can't understand. It's their time and money going down the drain. Wasn't the idea that they wanted to learn? Don't they know that it's not a passive process? I have great respect for the people, young and not so young, who do this CFI work full time, day in, day out. I'm just a part-timer, and its frustrations are very apparent to me.

But I love this chance to fly, even if I rarely go more than 50 miles from home base. I am still wet behind the ears when it comes to airplanes. My mere 1,300 hours after more than 30 years of on-again, off-again flying (including a stint eons ago as a Flying staffer) prove the point. That's why I'm an instructor. After 20 years as a notoriously intense newspaper editor, I wanted a change. I knew flight instructing wouldn't pay many of the bills, especially on a part-time basis, but it would get me in the air on a regular basis and make a better pilot of me. If you have to explain rules, procedures, technique and theory to a student, you have to know them yourself. And if you're going to demonstrate them all in an airplane to that student, you have to know how to do them yourself.

Now, after a half a year at it, with several solo endorsements, flight reviews, instrument comp checks and a couple of newly minted private pilots on my r?sum?, I still can't call myself an old pro instructor or even pilot. But I do feel a lot better about my own flying: I'm smoother, more confident, more willing to go out and handle gusty winds or a solid IFR day without dread. It feels good. It comes from flying regularly, which is the greatest boon to proficiency there is.

But another factor adds a certain polish. Being a flight instructor requires you to make some fairly weighty decisions-decisions that could get you or your students in trouble if not danger-and there's no one out there on the ramp or in the cockpit to help you make them. (No one in the FBO office has the time or interest to help either.) Should you solo this guy with a crosswind on the active? Should you let him fly his cross-country with some low clouds along the route that just might fill in? Should you get tough with the gal who keeps returning for 90-day solo endorsements because she won't get the knowledge test out of the way? Should you keep working on stalls until this guy learns not to be so afraid? Or will that only make things worse? Should this guy be a pilot at all?

Before that comes mere survival-mental survival, for the most part. This is especially true for an older, newly minted CFI like me. I think I am more likely than a fresh-faced kid to let my students drive me nuts. These people… they are so utterly flawed. They make the same errors, over and over again. What's the matter with them? Are they all idiots?

This is an impulse I have to control. I know I could never get through to someone who thinks I can't stand flying with them. And getting through to them is the goal here.

They don't correct for the wind. They don't relate pitch and power. They let the airplane drift left on takeoffs. They don't use the trim wheel or they forget which way is nose up or down. They can't hold a heading or altitude. They're terrified of stalls. They won't use rudder to enter and exit a turn and they pay no attention to the ball. They can't read a chart. They don't know what Vx or Vy are and won't use them on climb-out. They drift above and below pattern altitude. They flare too little, too late. Their feet freeze in crosswinds. They land on the left side of the runway every single time. They don't know how to tune the radios or use the audio panel. They don't know what the tower just said. They leave the carb heat out after landing. They get confused reading a compass. They won't hold pitch steady on final approach.

Hmmmm. I've been guilty of all those things, even years into my flying career. Idiots? Most are very sharp people learning a new and very challenging skill. They're bound to make all the mistakes that seasoned weekend warriors and even some pros occasionally make on a bad day. The danger for a flight instructor is to believe there's a conspiracy of morons out there trying to drive him or her nuts. (I do object to students who won't do the book and chart work on their own, but that's another story.)

Friends warned me that in no time I'd be bored to death. "It's gonna drive you nuts, pal! Up and down, up and down, around and around the pattern. You are going to get so sick of it so fast," said one former instructor.

Some said earning the CFI and CFI-I would be a meaningless exercise: so what if you can sit in front of a computer answering a bunch of multiple-choice questions, then sit in the right seat and fly a half-decent chandelle, spewing oversimplified FAA aeronautical theory as you do it? Flight instructing ultimately is mind-deadening work, and there's no way it can make up for lost years of flying and real-world cross-country experience, they said.

I dismissed the naysayers. So far they're wrong. I still get a kick out of it, even going 'round and 'round the pattern. I love to fly. I like to teach. That same instinct made reporting and training young reporters a joy for me. Now I teach student pilots. It can be fun. It can be painful. But what impresses me the most about it is how absolutely alone I can feel doing it.

Every day, CFIs make hard decisions that could land them in a lawsuit and their student in the trees. Out on the ramp or in the airplane, there's no boss, no advisor, no board, no teacher, no parent, no big brother to bounce ideas off or to tell them that they made the right call. Getting used to that level of risk assessment and responsibility is a major hurdle for new CFIs and a vital skill for the serious pilot.

Take the most obvious example: the process of soloing somebody. Now, I admit that the first guy I soloed actually had done a few circuits alone six months before at another airport. He had stopped flying because his business kept him too busy and his 90-day endorsement was now nearly a year out of date. With only 20 hours or so as a foundation, he'd forgotten a lot. I even wondered how on earth any instructor had ever let him go. He honked and jerked the controls, he ballooned or flared too late or too high, and he had no idea how to keep the nose straight or stop drift down low over the runway during the last few seconds of the landing-a common problem even with some private pilots, I've noticed. He also had a bizarre tendency to drop the nose toward the runway at the end of the round-out, a sure-fire catalyst for a hard landing on the nosewheel and some nice pilot-induced oscillations down the runway.

"Never drop the nose once you've begun the round-out and flare!" I told him. "It's a cardinal rule!"

An older guy like me, he was a nervous but very attentive and committed student. He was articulate, too, and was able to tell me he didn't understand what "drop the nose" meant because he didn't think he was dropping the nose. We talked. We also talked about the height at which the round-out and flare begin, the timing for applying backpressure and the recovery techniques for botched landings. Out in the airplane, things started to improve. Then one fine day I found that he was flying good patterns, smooth, stabilized approaches, rounding out at just the right altitude, timing his flare just right, holding the airplane off and touching down on the mains with the centerline right under the spinner. I was on cloud nine. Next time, I thought, might be solo time.

I'm task oriented and, after too many years in the newspaper business, deadline oriented. I like to get things done. I realized I might try to rush my student before he was completely ready. I'm also hypercritical, picking away at every flaw and error-not a bad trait for a newspaper editor, but I feared it could make me too fussy and too hard on my students. Where's the balance? I had to figure that out at the risk of a bent nose strut or worse.

The day I hoped to solo my student was overcast and quite windy from the northeast, up around 23 knots-but not gusty and straight down the runway. But it was a short runway, one he'd never used. With a wild tailwind and a shorter downwind than he was used to, he had far less time to get set up and organized in the pattern after leveling off from the climb. Rushed and rattled, he started to fly sloppily again. The landings were clumsy, if not scary.

The decision was easy at that point. No solo. But then the hard part started. Suddenly he smoothed things out after four or five touch-and-goes. He did three in a row with near perfection and no need for assistance from me. If this wasn't the time, what was? A perfect robin's-egg-blue day with a light wind from the southwest? And when would that happen in late October on eastern Long Island when we happened to have a flight scheduled?

"You feel good about soloing in these conditions?" I asked him

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be," he said with a grin-a grin with a little panic if not insanity mixed in it.

Now I really began to sweat. I wanted to let him go. Was I really going to do it today, with all this wind? A student with a mere 30 hours flying? Yikes. I've got over a thousand and I still sense the challenge of windy days.

I decided to let him go ahead with it. Impulsivity is one of the dangerous personality traits pilots must recognize and control. In the end, I had to take a leap of faith and accept a certain level of risk-and isn't that something that can border on impulse, even after you've done a lot of hard thinking? I reasoned that my student had to be able to handle this kind of wind as a pilot. What a great confidence builder for him-and me-if he soloed on a day like this. And he was doing fine, settling down and flying well. But he had only 26 hours. The wind could turn gusty. He could lose his confidence in an instant and let fear take over the controls.

You're thinking too much, I told myself, and climbed out of the airplane.

All looked well as he taxied (with the controls positioned properly for the wind), did his run-up, reported he was taking the active and departed. I wanted to coach him on the handheld but thought better of it. Leave the poor guy alone, I said to myself. He's had enough of your jabbering. Maybe his flying might even improve without you judging his every move.

I felt good watching his pattern and his turn to final. I saw a nice, stable approach that just had to end in a smooth touch and go. But it didn't. I stared in numb horror as a perfect flare suddenly fell apart. The nosewheel hit first, and the Cessna bounced with increasingly hard hits down the runway. I cannot describe my relief when he added full power and went around without further incident.

Well, I thought, it's a very good thing he kept directional control and got out of it. He knows what he's doing. So stay off the radio.

He did it again on the second landing. I was amazed. How had I so misjudged him? And how was he going to get the airplane down if he was stuck in some new rut I'd never seen him fall into? I realized that, back when he was letting the nose drop close to the runway, I'd intercede. I never let the nosewheel hit first. Should I have let him make that mistake and risk damage to the airplane? Is that why this nightmare was happening now?

"Great recoveries, Chris," I said as calmly as I could on the radio. "Just hold that nose off next time. Keep raising it until you can't see the runway. Pull that wheel all the way back and land on the mains? OK?"

"Roger," he said in a voice that had no trace of panic in it.

The third time was the charm. The landing was fine, if a little flat. He taxied in, we talked, I checked for damage-and saw none. Clearly, we had to work on the last part of the flare.

It seemed windy all last fall. I had another student who was just about ready for his flight test doing solo touch-and-goes on a gusty day with a slight crosswind. Round and round he went, doing fine each time. I took off with another student and went to the practice area. Two hours later, when I went inside to write up a sales slip, I detected a weird silence in the office. After the student was gone, I overheard the mechanic talking to the chief pilot: something about how long the airplane would be out of service. Then the chief pilot came over to me and said I shouldn't let solo students do more than just a few touch-and-goes at a time. There was too much risk to the airplane.

I'd never heard that theory before, but if that's company policy, so be it. I'm just a flight instructor, I had to remind myself, and no one wants me to act like a 50-year-old used to running his own newsroom. Anyway, that now familiar sense of dread had captured my interest.

"Could you tell me what's going on? Did something happen?"

It took some time for me to get the story. Part of the reason was the student's failure to explain it and his sudden departure after paying his bill; part was the office dynamic of this particular FBO, I guess. It seems my student had drifted off the side of the runway just before one touchdown and had clipped a runway light with the left wheel strut. He'd then gone around and landed without incident but with a damaged strut fairing.

I felt miserable. It was my fault. I didn't need the bad vibes in the office to think so. The damage turned out to be minor and was fixed within a couple of hours, but I'd been extremely lucky. The student could easily have lost control after an impact with a landing light fixture. By the skin of my teeth, I'd escaped a disaster because he'd had just enough altitude to hit glass instead of steel.

After that, it took a while for me to decide I liked this CFI business. But within another month or so, both of these students went on to pass their private exams on the first try, with compliments from the examiner for their instructor. It was a great pleasure to have had a hand in helping them learn from their errors and go on to win their tickets. Since then, I've had the equal pleasure of seeing beginners progress through solo. Just as much fun are instrument trainees who finally realize that an ILS approach is all about holding headings and establishing a stable descent with pitch and power, not chasing needles.

It's not easy work. It's not always fun. And it won't teach me the pilot skills and judgment that only routine long-distance cross-country flying teaches. But I'm up in the sky a lot, every week, and I love that. Just as important, I'm challenging myself to assess risks and make a lot of tough decisions, often under pressure. That's a life skill that we all need in any career. For a pilot, it can be a matter of life and death.