The Long Line of Instructors

Being part of a teaching legacy is an awesome and life-changing privilege.

Teaching someone to fly can be a life changing experience. [iStock]

“You may not remember me...” is how the e-mails often begin. They come from people I flew with in the past who have become flight instructors. They share the news with me because I played a part in their journey. I love hearing from these folks, and I feel privileged to have played my part.

I became a CFI on July 23, 2003, at 4:48 p.m. when designated pilot examiner Bob Roetcisoender handed me my temporary certificate. I became a flight instructor because I wanted to teach aviation.

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Teaching someone to fly is life changing for both parties involved, like teaching someone how to swim, read, or ride a bicycle. Do you remember learning those things? Learning to swim gives you confidence. Learning to read opens up the world through the pages of books and magazines. Learning to ride a bicycle can take you places you have never been before, and it of-ten creates community.

Learning to fly does all these things—and it is the flight instructor who gets you there. One of the surprising things about being a flight instructor is that while the learners are gaining skills and knowledge, the CFI is learning too. You will learn something from everyone you fly with.

Learning Takes Place

There are two kinds of CFIs: the experience builders, who add to their well of knowledge while helping the learners achieve their goals, and the time builders, who are primarily focused on accumulating their own hours. Both can teach you to fly. Some will teach you how to be an instructor. Others will teach you what not to be.

Communication style is critical. I had one CFI who was badgering and insulting and responded to “I don’t know” by repeating the question louder and slower—they were terminated. So was the one who had trouble speaking in complete sentences, along with the one who rambled and needed directions to come to a point. Learning did not take place—with the exception of me realizing what didn’t work for me. Fortunately, there were many more CFIs who I did learn from, and it is their wisdom I share with my learners. A few notables include the following folks:

Dutch Werline was my first CFI. I think of him when I solo a learner. The first solo under my watch usually takes place at a non-towered airport. I hold a handheld radio and, as the learner is on the first upwind leg, I utter one word: “airspeed.” This is in homage to Dutch, who said this word—and only this word—on my first solo.

David Stahl taught me the process of the brief, the debrief, and the importance of the ground lesson. Stahl, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, taught me to fly the Air Force way. He went on to become a DPE and administered check rides for several of my learners. I think of him every time I brief an IFR approach with the acronym MARTHA (see “Knocking the Rust Off Your IFR Skills,” FLYING Q3 2022).

Shauna Clements helped get me off the learning plateau during the CFI certificate. She taught me the power of the phrase “talk to me, Goose.”

Teaching, Not Reading

Reading out of a book or off a computer screen is not teaching. The CFI should be able to do more. I learned this in 2002 from Bob Gardner, a retired DPE and the author of several books, including The Complete Private Pilot, The Complete Advanced Pilot, The Complete Multi-Engine Pilot, and Say Again Please: A Guide to Radio Communications. Bob and his wife, Maryruth, a retired high school teacher, met me at a local flight school, and we did a heavy ground session.

It was she who suggested I use multiple colors of ink on the whiteboard to organize my thoughts. It worked beautifully, and by the end of the day the verdict of the Gardners was that I could teach. To this day, teaching ground school is a favorite activity for me. Dennis Cunneen, a CFI and dear friend, taught me you can have fun teaching while simultaneously being thorough. He gave me sage advice on dealing with teens—have them, not their parents, do the scheduling, and let them know that time should be respected.

Don’t confuse time builders with experience builders. Experience builders build their hours, but they are instructors first. Their job is to teach, and most of them do it well. Without them, no flight training would happen. These instructors plan for their separation from the flight school if the career path takes them elsewhere—and they’ll help learners find another instructor.

Time builders are the bane of the instructional community. Show me someone who was frustrated by training, and I will show you someone who was paired with a time builder. Get your hours and move on, but please don’t take advantage of the learners, most of whom don’t realize when they are being taken advantage of. I cringe when I hear about obvious “hour grabs” by CFIs, such as the airline-bound instructor who persuaded the pre-solo-also-wants-to-be-an-airline-pilot learner to do night cross-country flights in a multiengine airplane by telling him it would look great in the learner’s logbook, or the Part 141 instructor who eschewed the syllabus, telling the learner that “no one here uses that anymore” and proceeded to take the learner for 40 hours of dual given in a two-month period—but no solo.

First Solo

Administering the first solo is a glorious experience that has not lost its thrill for me. I watch the learner from the ramp, radio in hand, pacing back and forth like an expectant father from a 1960s sitcom. Sometimes this has unexpected results. The last time I did this at Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW) in Gig Harbor, Washington, I caused a bit of a stir. I was on the transient ramp in front of the restaurant, pacing, watching my learner, and listening to the traffic. I learned later the people in the restaurant thought I was FAA and was waiting to bust someone. They did not realize they were watching the birth of a new pilot, with me standing behind them just as generations of instructors stood behind me.

This column first appeared in the July 2023/Issue 933 print edition of FLYING.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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