Firing Your CFI
Lots of pilots have a story about a favorite flight instructor, and some have a story of a CFI they'd not want to fly with again. But could a flight instructor do something that would make you want to land immediately? Greg Bullough relates an experience he had where an instructor did many such things, any one of which should have caused Greg to terminate the flight.
I've flown with a number of CFIs over the years. I've always claimed that every CFI, regardless of experience and style, has something to teach every pilot. At least, that had been my experience up until one day recently. It was then that I had to do something I'd never done before. I had to fire a CFI.
I didn't exactly "fire" him. I terminated the flight and refused to fly with him further. I should have done it sooner. Nor would I let him log an hour of instruction in my logbook. The fact is, he hadn't done any instruction. Paid harassment, yes. Instruction, no.
This was to be a simple thing: A 90-day insurance currency ride at an FBO where I occasionally do some flying while traveling. I had a fresh BFR and had flown the FBO's planes just a few months before. I hadn't flown the type again in that time, so I was looking forward to having someone to cover me while I remembered the sight picture and flight characteristics of the plane. (Most of the time, I fly an Ercoupe, and it does take a couple of turns in the pattern to get used to the taller legs and heavier controls of other planes again. No, the rudder pedals are not a problem.)
More than a Currency Ride
As he approached the plane, he appeared to be one of those senior CFIs who is mostly retired but still likes to keep his hand in. I'd guess his age to be between 70 and 80. I was looking forward to flying with him. I assumed that experience would tell, and that I'd learn something.
He was a pretty decent passenger during the run-up, takeoff, and climbout. It was soon clear that he wanted to do a lot more than the 3-and-3 that would fulfill the requirements of a 90-day insurance currency. He took me off to a practice area, and started through a series of stalls that would be more in the realm of a primary student's repertoire. Frankly, I did pretty well. When wings dropped in power-on stalls, I caught them with application of rudder. But he wanted more than just showing him that if I stalled it on approach I might actually recover.
He wanted exact "by the book" procedures. By "his" book. So we got bogged down with that. Shortly, he was supplying a barrage of criticisms. An endless stream. And he had the annoying habit of speaking in such a low tone that he was barely audible. This made for more distraction as I squinted and inclined my head to hear (how that helps with a headset isn't exactly obvious). It wasn't clear whether I was there to act as pilot-in-command or to chat with him.
Some of it was just silly — he didn't like the technique used by many Cessna pilots, and taught by many CFIs, of extending the thumb on throttle opening to simultaneously close the carb heat on applying full power.
But no procedure could be gotten through without him derailing the underlying thought process.
Perhaps it was intentional, or some sort of "make this guy screw up" game.
Had he been an ordinary passenger, he certainly would have been asked to cut out the chatter until a better time.
When he wasn't criticizing, he was asking "DE" questions to provide distraction from the task at hand. "If the ball is to the left during a stall, which wing will stall first?" Interesting academic question. Do you have to ask it now? (Personally, I don't look at the ball during a stall, I just keep my brain and feet engaged to deal with any roll excursions. I have done this ever since being given an object lesson in what happens if you don't, or if you go flailing at the ailerons.) But I did get the answer right, after giving up concentrating on flying for a while to cogitate on theoretical aerodynamics.
We headed off to a local controlled field to do some pattern work. It was here that his truly "unique" personality began to emerge. The tower said to "make right traffic, report on the 45." So I aimed for a midfield 45 entry to downwind. He grabbed the yoke and aimed me at the departure end of a 6000-foot runway. I asked why he was pointing us there, that we had been cleared for the right 45 not a left crosswind entry. Perhaps he is one who likes to enter on the 45 farther up downwind than mid-field, but I never did get an answer. He had something in mind. Either that or he just misheard the clearance.
Next came more seemingly deliberate distractions at inopportune times. "What do the chevrons on that part of the runway mean?" while on short final. "Don't land there," wasn't a good enough answer. No, he had to distract me further by explaining it was a "displaced threshold." Uh, gee, maybe I'll pile up the airplane on the numbers while I rack my brain for the textbook answer. I should have answered "If you're over the chevrons, table annoying questions from the right seat and fly the plane." Would that I were so glib.
Who's in Control?
We were flying wide patterns, partly at his behest, and partly at the behest of the tower, who had us extend most downwinds. When I got about 100 feet above the low 800 AGL pattern altitude (which I preferred, because we were getting so far away from a runway at times), I noticed that I needed a good deal of back-pressure to remain in level flight.
I wasn't out of trim.
The right-seat passenger was pushing forward on the yoke.
That did it. I said, "Norm [not his real name], if you want to fly the plane, I don't mind. Just let me know and you've got it. But one of us or the other, not both, needs to be on the controls at a given time."
I was completely thrown by his habit of wresting control from a PP-ASEL at a time when there was no immediate danger or risk. I'd never seen a CFI do that before. In fact, there were probably three times in my whole flying career where a CFI felt the need to put his hands on the controls. And those were a very long time ago. And not even during tailwheel transition (at this same FBO!). And they always said "I got it," or, "My airplane."
In this case, one word, "Altitude," might have been sufficient. Whereupon he might have learned something about how I operate — the farther I am from the runway, the more reluctant I am to get low.
Part of me said, "Give this guy the airplane, tell him to fly you back to the home field, and terminate the flight." I just didn't feel safe with neither one of us in charge of the primary controls. But I'd already rented the plane and I wanted somehow to "salvage" the flight. In retrospect, it was a dumb decision, somehow related to "getthereitis." Perhaps "CFIntimiditis."
When his endless haranguing had distracted me to the point where I was consistently missing checklist items and flying badly, I should have called it off, flown back, and found somebody else to fly with. If a CFI makes your flying worse, get another. It isn't, after all, the objective.
Eventually we headed back to the home field for a couple more landings. Again, his endless barrage of comments and criticisms made for a totally distracted cockpit environment. Again, I should have told him to put a sock in it so I could concentrate on flying properly. But I didn't.
However, he finally pushed me over the edge.
Who Is in Command?!
The airport in question is sort of one large hard surface, where the runways and taxiways are on a large piece of continuous asphalt. When you're done rolling out, you just turn off anywhere and get on a yellow line going the other way.
I finished my roll-out just abeam the fuel pumps, which are right up against the taxiway, and where a couple of Staggerwing Beeches were sitting and drawing a crowd. I didn't want to make the people nervous by getting too close, or by pointing my prop right at them and depending on my brakes and steering to veer off at the last second. So I elected to leave the runway at a bit of an oblique angle. The pattern was quiet, and I try very hard to extend courtesy to all other aircraft, but particularly to antique and vintage showpieces.
This didn't make Norm happy. He wanted me to get off at a 90-degree angle. Though I explained my thinking, that wasn't good enough. He started stomping all over the rudder pedals to compel obedience.
As far as I was concerned, this was far worse on the ground than in the air. On the ground, there are things to hit if you're engaged in a tug-of-war for the controls. Either you'll go somewhere you don't want to go, or both parties will give up at once. Either way, it can become like "Laurel and Hardy go flying," and I had little doubt of where this clown would try and shift the blame if we tagged a show-plane.
He said, "Let's taxi back and go around again."
I said "I'm terminating this flight. I cannot continue to fly with someone who persists in wrestling me for the controls. I don't feel safe doing so, and I will not continue. You can sign me off, or not. Whatever you want. But we're not flying together any more."
In that moment, I took back Pilot in Command. Or Passenger in Command with whom he flies.
He said, "I don't want to sign you off. Mostly because of attitude."
He was right. Someone in that airplane definitely had an attitude problem.
I complained to one of the chief CFIs at the FBO. He regaled me with stories of how experienced Norm was and how he had been a DE, and how the DEs all said that his students were the most prepared of any students for their flight tests. And all that may well be so. It may be that the individual had done a good job in the past. Or with other people in the present. But the fact was, in the present, that day, on that flight, his man's teaching style and communication skills were abysmal.
In flying with 10 or so flight instructors ranging from wet-behind-the-ears 300-hour airline aspirants to consummate professionals such as Rich Stowell, I'd never experienced such strange CFI behavior. Nor had such difficulty performing my duties as PIC.
"Or maybe it's just a personality conflict." Having worked successfully with a host of CFIs in the past, all of whom had different styles, this seems unlikely. Snatching at the controls when it is not necessary is not a subjective issue. Neither is distracting the pilot with an endless barrage of comments, criticisms, and questions. Unless your objective is to make him fail.
In one thing, I admit I was wrong. I did learn a couple of things. I learned what not to do if I ever become a CFI. And I learned that if someone in the right seat is keeping you from doing your job as a pilot, do what you have to do to get back into a safe situation. No matter who that person is.
The sad part is that the FBO, though I've flown with two of their other instructors, is standing squarely behind their CFI. He, in response to my complaint, invented all sorts of excuses for his strange behavior. Including the marginal VFR conditions into which he plunged us at the controlled field (after I had told him "These conditions are way below my personal minimums, and I'd never get into them on my own.") In the end, I was invited to fly elsewhere.
A bit of local intelligence, however, suggests that mine was not an isolated case.
A CFI's status as an authority figure is etched into the culture of pilots. We forget that, when we pay them, they work for us. And we also forget that we are ultimately responsible for our own training and our own safety.
It's hard to bring yourself to fire a CFI.
Sometimes, though, it has to be done.