The Importance of Mentors

It takes a village to raise a pilot.

Last weekend I attended the Northwest Aviation Conference (NWAC) in Puyallup, Washington. In addition to hunting for stories for FLYING, I had the privilege of presenting a Rusty Pilots Seminar (RPS) for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. 

The RPS, which runs about 3.5 hours, is a PowerPoint-driven interactive lecture that uses scenarios to refresh a pilot’s knowledge and decision-making skills. AOPA provides a scenario guide and reference materials for the participants. The seminars are often sponsored by aviation organizations or flight schools. The latter often have CFIs in attendance because the RPS can fulfill the ground requirement for a flight review—leaving the CFIs to handle the flying portion.

Teaching ground school or a seminar can be very challenging because the class is made up of learners with varying levels of interest, learning styles, and capabilities. The instructor’s job is to keep the pace of the class so no one is left behind. That can be difficult when you have a finite number of hours for the course, such as 40 hours in one month. How you present is very important. The good instructors use the slides as jumping-off points for teaching. The bad ones just read the slides off the screen, and it is so boring it could put fish to sleep.

This is probably why some folks walk into the seminar with an expression of pure dread on their faces. Perhaps they have suffered through boring ground schools taught by a CFI who didn’t either didn’t really know the material or thought reading out of the book verbatim was teaching.

The Two Types of CFIs

If you choose to become a CFI, you will look back on your training and realize you had two kinds of CFIs: those who taught you to teach, and those who taught you what not to be. You can learn to fly from both, but only one will teach you how to teach.

There are CFIs who are little more than self-loading ballast, or who cancel at the last minute because they have an opportunity to go fly the twin, or are so insulting and unkind you are reasonably certain you know what happened to Rosemary’s baby.

We all have them. We might even be them on an off day.

On the other side of the coin, there are the CFIs who are fun to fly with, who are remembered fondly, and are recommended by former clients because learning has taken place. These are the CFIs you learn best from and pick up techniques that you will eventually use with your learners. In short, they are your mentors.

I saw three of my mentors at the NWAC.

The first was Kevin Henderson, who in 2004 hired me at a Seattle-area flight school. Kevin was in the RPS as part of his flight review. I told him it was his fault I was there because he was the one who persuaded me to try teaching the flight school seminars and ground schools as a way to perfect the craft. Once I got my instructional legs under me, I found I enjoyed the classroom as much as the cockpit. And when the instructor enjoys teaching, often the learners enjoy learning.

The second mentor I encountered was Shauna Clements, one of the CFIs who trained me for my initial CFI. What I remember most about Shauna, who now flies Boeing 737s for Alaska Airlines, is her compassion and communication skills. There was one day—a particularly bad day for me in the airplane—that made me wish I had pursued a more traditional hobby, like needlepoint or collecting snow globes.

In hindsight, I see that it was overtraining. I was frustrated and angry at myself when we landed. We shut down the airplane, and there was a tense moment of silence in the cockpit, neither one of us moving, then Shauna softly uttered, “Talk to me, Goose.” For the unfamiliar, the line is from the original Top Gun, and I submit it is one of the most formidable tools in the CFI arsenal to reach a frustrated learner. I have used it many times with great success.

Last but not least was the encounter with CFI extraordinaire Dennis Cunneen, who was there with his adult son, Sean, who is also a CFI. I have known Dennis and his lovely wife Judith for more than 25 years. She is in my Ninety-Nines group. Dennis has been a flight instructor since before there was color television. I have learned much from him. For example, when working with a teenage learner, insist that the teenager, not their parents, make the appointments for flight lessons.

“Flying is a grown-up activity, they have to be responsible enough to make the appointments and keep them,” Dennis told me after I was stood up by a 17-year-old who decided it would be more fun to hang out with his buddies than keep his flight training appointment.

For many years Dennis was the man in charge of a local flying club. He was meticulous and careful about how many members could be in the club so that it didn’t become too difficult to schedule an airplane. The reason people join the club, he told me, was because they can’t rent an airplane from the local FBO for fun, and the FBO only rents to active students. The ratio of club members to aircraft is critical.

We flew together several times. Dennis was an instructor in the U.S. Air Force, and we spoke the same language. I will never forget the smile on his face when I briefed the ILS 17 into Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW) out loud using the USAF-issued acronym MARTHA. (Missed approach, Approach type and weather, Radio frequencies and radials needed, Time, Heading when on final, and Altitude on final.) 

He recommended me to learners, and I helped him get one of his clients up to speed on a Garmin G1000, as the flight school I was working at had a Redbird FMX with a G1000 panel.

The last time I flew with Dennis was in 2019. He needed a flight review. Mine was coming up as well, so we planned a day when we could do two flights—one for him, and one for me, and switch off CFI duties. I had never done a flight review for another CFI before, especially not one with more time than I had. Although it was not required, we switched seats when it was my turn to fly because it had been so long since either one of us was in the left seat. 

We did a lot of landings, as Dennis noted CFIs don’t land very often, because their learners do the flying. When he flew I asked him to talk through the maneuvers so I could pick up some pointers. I did the same, and I asked for a critique to help me improve.

When a learner is presenting me with a challenge, Dennis is one of the first people I call on. I often address him as “Sensei” or “Obi Wan,” and he addresses me as “Grasshopper.” There is often a respectful bow involved.

He has a sense of humor too. A few years back we encountered each other at Pierce County Thun Field (KPLU), a non-towered airport in Pierce County, Washington. Dennis had come in to get a case of oil for the club airplanes from the pilot supply shop. I was working with an instrument candidate in a Cessna 172. He loaded the oil into his airplane and taxied out ahead of us. We finished our runups at about the same time. He radioed, asking if he could go ahead of us. I said yes, as there was still one thing my learner had to do. Dennis lined up on the runway, and just before he added power, he got on the radio and intoned, “Stay strong to the Force, young one.”

This impressed my learner, who thought it very cool that his teacher had a teacher. I explained that it takes a village to raise a pilot. Start building your village now.


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