No Regrets

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Once a prospective pilot gets past the question of whether to begin flight training, one of the next major hurdles is choosing a flight instructor: No one will be more influential in your aviation career than your first flight instructor. But how does a student pilot-to-be go about learning what he or she needs to know to make the right decision? AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her private pilot checkride.

If you don't get in that plane and learn how to fly, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

paraphrasing Rick Blaine,
from the movie Casablanca

It is not the things that you do in life that you regret, but the things that you do not do. There is no turning back for me now. I have taken the controls; I've gotten in and made an airplane fly. Exposed to the aviation bug during my Discovery Flight, I now have a nasty case of the flying flu. And what an inopportune time for me to become "sick": I haven't won the lottery, though I plan on doing that shortly. Also, my children are too young to leave alone when I fly and I need to arrange for a sitter, a sitter whom I must pay as well. Of course, that will not be an issue once that lottery deal comes through. No, this is not the best time in my life to pursue this dream of flight. But I would regret not getting into that plane.

But how do I get started in my flight training? Here I am with all of these grandiose dreams of the high, untrespassed sanctity of space, of putting out my hand and touching the face of God, but how do I get there? Do I blink my eyes like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie and, poof, I'm a pilot? Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Alas, neither would Barbara's outfit work well on me, but that's not important right now.

Finding a Flight Instructor

Finding the Right Resources ...

To learn to fly, I need an instructor. The gentleman that I flew with on my Discovery Flight just didn't click with me. There was something amiss in the student/teacher relationship. I couldn't quite put my finger on the problem, but my gut was telling me that it just wasn't right. I did not have a vast base of aviation history to draw from in my life, but I knew enough to think twice before proceeding any further with this first guy. But where do I turn? How aggravating this is to know exactly what I want, but not know how to get there. During my early days I was not fortunate enough to have a wide circle of aviators in my life to talk flying with. In fact there was only one, and it was purely an accident of marriage that I knew him. Alan, a friend of my husband's since childhood, is a pilot. Through some very strange twists of fate, Alan ends up being the one who causes me to bump into my future instructor. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself here.

Because of the lack of flying enthusiasts in my life, I turned to the cyber world, my original connection to aviation. An online aviation forum on CompuServe became my cyber "hangar." There I posted all the details of my Discovery Flight. The more experienced flyers zeroed in on some points in my messages that had them concerned. Though my enthusiasm for flying was astronomically high, they sensed that something just wasn't right. There were many cancellations of my Discovery Flight, all due to the New England weather. That was excusable. The troubles started when I spoke of my difficulty in rescheduling the flight. It would take three or four calls to get in touch with the CFI. Why didn't he call back? Each lesson was then being re-scheduled for Fridays at 1:00 p.m. Why am I being relegated to only that particular time slot? In the future, will I be able to fly more often? These were some questions I was not savvy enough to ask for myself back then, but my hangar buddies prompted me to find the answers.

Additionally, instructor #1 told me that he required 0 percent deviations in performing maneuvers. Holding me to tolerances beyond that which the FAA required frightened me. Could I achieve such high standards? For some student pilots this may not be an issue. Train with the understanding that if you strive for perfection you will be able to perform on your checkride acceptably even if nerves become a major issue. For me, however, it felt like more pressure. No, I don't think that my Discovery Flight instructor is the one for me.

... and Where to Look

In order for me to move towards this goal of becoming a private pilot, I will need an instructor with whom I can work. Who shall teach me this wondrous skill? How will I learn? For me, the most important part to consider is the "how will I learn" portion. Being the shy, retiring gal that I am, I do not take well to an authoritative manner of instruction. If I were to enlist in the armed services I would be booted out before my first MRE. Intimidate me and I have brain lock. Yell at me and I melt down. I could not learn from an instructor who took that tack with me. Perhaps that is why the instructor from my Discovery Flight did not click with me. He had a distinct "holier-than-thou" attitude that made me uneasy: a feeling that he came out of the womb knowing what "adverse yaw" is. He had an almost condescending manner that intimidated me. Though he is no doubt a fine CFI, the chemistry between us did not exist. I simply do not learn that way.

So I needed to shop for someone new. The best way to "shop" for instruction is to ask around the FBO, or fixed base operator, the place where the action off of the runway happens at an airport. Or, to the uninitiated, "The Office." If you are lucky to have access to a bustling airport, go there and learn from experienced pilots and students who the good instructors are. Then ask the good ones for the names of former students, and call them. Yes, call them. You will be spending a chunk of money on your flight training, so do your homework just as you would if you were purchasing a used car. Besides, these former students are now pilots, who of course like to talk flying. This person, the one you end up training with, will be the one who introduces you to the most privileged group of people in the world, those who can look out the front window of an aircraft. A place where mere mortals fear to tread.

You can always stop by the airport on a Saturday afternoon and talk to anyone holding a headset as they mill about. They all started somewhere; they all have heard who is good and who is not so good. Word of mouth is probably the best way to find which instructor is worth meeting and interviewing.

And there really should be no problem getting pilots to talk. When the subject is flying, there is not a pilot without advice for you, or an opinion to offer. Like it or not, they will talk. In fact, often times you cannot stop them from talking. If someone is a good instructor, they will have a devoted following just dying to tell you how wonderful they are at their craft. If a person is a not so good instructor, they will have an equally devoted following just dying to tell you how awful they are. Trust me on this. If there is anything that pilots like to do (besides flying, of course) it's talk. It is called, "Hangar Flying."

Virtual Hangar Flying

Students and Astronauts ...

I did not have such an airport environment, so my solution was the Internet. The cyber FBO I visited is simply a very large airport, filled with all sorts of pilots from all walks of life. From wannabes to student pilots to private pilots all the way up to astronauts. Of course anytime that a group of aviators get together, someone is always there claiming to be an astronaut. Seems to be an undeniable urge to top the other guy. One flies a Cessna 152; the next pilot flies a Mooney. The third is a "real pilot" with a tailwheel aircraft. Then it's nothing but Jet A for that gal, and finally someone chimes in as being an astronaut. Yawn. At every get-together, the same old story.

My main source for hangar flying was this fabulous online airport where I had a vast supply of people to talk to. Since this forum became my place for pilot talk, I let anyone and everyone I knew hear that I was in the market for a flight instructor. I asked around if anyone knew of a flight school that was close by my home, and that was also reputed to be good. Out of that mix came a few people from the northeast that had experiences at my local airport. The airport that is just a short run from my home, 7B9 or Ellington Airport as the locals call it. Ron, a pilot who lived in Nashua, N.H., told me that he used to have his Mooney serviced at Ellington because it was the closest and most reliable shop for him. He told me to give Ted a call there, that surely Ted would know someone.

... Connecting

So I did call and he did know someone. I later learn that Ted knows everything, but that is a whole other story. Anyway, Ted gave me the telephone number of a guy by the name of John Lampson who was an instructor there. What can it hurt, I thought; I'll give him a call. So I do, and I get voicemail. He wasn't there, "Probably up flying" the recording said. I leave my name and number and go about my day. Well, I must have gone out for an errand or something because when I came home there was a message blinking on my answering machine. It was John, returning my call with three contact numbers to call him back. Wow, this guy is a welcome change from the first instructor. It was quite difficult to connect with the instructor from my Discovery Flight, but not so with John. Perhaps it's an omen with John and me connecting right away? I would like to think so.

Soon I speak with John and we schedule our first flight together for April 10, 1999. I'm pleased to have found another instructor to interview and it is kind of terrific that he is at my local airport as well. It's the airport that my husband went to as a kid with his family to watch airplanes take off and land. The same airport that we brought our kids to way back when, back when I was fat and dreaming of Twinkies, not flight. My backyard airport became the next stop on my quest to become a pilot.

It is now one week before my first flight with John. I went to the gym early to work out, came home and found a message that my friend Alan had called (you remember Alan) and offered to take me flying with him. Darn, I missed the call. At least he said that he would call back. I go about my business, but hear an airplane overhead. Not uncommon, the airport is only a few miles away from my home. Listening closer, the plane seems to be circling my house. I dash out to the front yard and, yes, it is Alan. He tips his wings to say "Hi" and I bolt into the house to grab the Jeep keys and my son Matt. Alan certainly has a unique style of calling back.

Getting into the Zone

Crossing the Line ...

At this point I'm not aware of traffic patterns, or even the direction airplanes fly to get back to Ellington, so I assume he's headed back over to the airport to wait for me now that he has "called me back." I hustle my son into the car and scoot on over to the airport. Without thinking we hop out of the car and head into <play ominous music here> ... "The Airport Zone."

It's that area of the airport where the pilots hang out. Never before have I ventured there. It's okay to go to the fence, and okay to watch the airplanes, but there is some mysterious boundary that separates us from them. It's where the pilots go, and where the non-pilots do not. Stand clear.

Without forethought, I dash across that "boundary line" in the hopes of catching Alan, unaware that I'd crossed the line. Like the dog who busts through his invisible fencing, I found myself on the "other" side. Now that I was there, however, it didn't seem quite as threatening as it once did. Of course I had a reason to be there. I was looking for my friend Al. Alas, he was nowhere to be seen. One of the pilots hanging around kindly radioed out to see if Al was listening to the airport frequency but there was no reply. Alan was gone.

Being in the airport zone already, I thought, "Why not check on John?" I go to the most logical looking area, down past the soda/coffee/vending machines into a large official-looking room. Is this the flight school? Oh no, it's CPI, Connecticut Parachutists Inc., a group that would add loads of excitement to my flight training, for certain. They direct me next door to John's office. I knock and I hear, "Come in." I open the door expecting to find something different from what I found. Okay, perhaps I expected something larger than what I had found. Open the door, there's a chair, then a desk, then John, then a wall. I am a little startled by how tiny the office is; it feels almost as if I'm intruding. Not for long, though, as I'm greeted with a warm smile and very welcome feeling.

... the Things We Do for Rock and Roll

John was in the middle of discussion with another student, so we just shook hands and said our hellos and I let them be. I must admit that John did not fit the CFI image I had in my mind. I wasn't expecting starched white shirts with little wings on the pocket, but on the other hand I certainly wasn't expecting John. He wore a baseball cap with his hair tucked up inside. You could tell his hair was long, but not how long, and tattoos peeked out from the bottom of his short-sleeved T-shirt. Though I didn't know it then, John has an alter ego. Not only was he John, certified flight instructor, but he was also Johnny Angel, lead guitarist for the heavy metal rock band, Society's Children. Honest. Had I known that about him back then, I might have thought twice about my instructor. I mean he is a KISS fan! Is this the type person I want to trust my life with? I certainly must ask Alan about this guy.

Now why am I telling you about Johnny Angel? Well, besides the brownie points I can earn with him for giving the band publicity, I am mentioning it because I could have been put off by his appearance, and what a mistake that would have been. But listening carefully I found that he is as professional as they come.

Choosing Your Flight Instructor

Finding the Right Skill Set ...

During your flight training the least important thing going is how your CFI "appears." Absolutely no one will be more influential in your aviation career than your first flight instructor. A good instructor will only enhance the experience and make it challenging, and enjoyable, all along the way. Three basic skills are needed for a good instructor: teaching skills, aircraft control skills and people skills.

The teaching skill will minimize the time required until passing your private pilot's practical test. The instructor also needs to be able to fly well enough to do competent demonstrations, to save you from your worst blunders, and to know what mistakes to let happen. Communicating the required information in the most effective way is the skill that will make the difference. Finally, the ability to analyze a student's learning style and adapt one's instruction to fit that style is extremely important. Finding this "people skill" makes for a good working relationship between you and your instructor and will have you long on the way towards earning your Private Pilot Certificate in the most efficient manner.

It is important that you are relaxed with your CFI and comfortable with his or her method of teaching. In all honesty, however, it is difficult to find this instructor when you do not know what you are looking for. It's best if you can have someone along with you, say an experienced pilot, who can help you interview. Most CFIs can at least fly an airplane and demonstrate how they do it. Most also have some ability to teach the skills required — the FAA says that they do. Prospective students might need help in sifting through the obvious to what is truly important in an instructor. To that end, I did ask Alan his opinion on John. His reply was very positive and I was thrilled. I value Al's opinion. On this topic at least.

... and the Right School

Later in my training, I discovered that there is yet another consideration when choosing your flight training. In concert with finding a suitable instructor, another factor to consider is that there are two different types of flight schools out there: those operating under FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) Part 61 or under Part 141.

Here's how the FAA describes the difference between Part 61 (unapproved) and Part 141 (approved) schools, from FAA Advisory Circular 61-12M:

PILOT TRAINING

WHERE PILOT TRAINING MAY BE OBTAINED

Most airports have facilities for pilot training conducted by flying schools or individual flight instructors. A school will usually provide a wide variety of training aids, special facilities, and greater flexibility in scheduling. A number of colleges and universities also provide pilot training as a part of their curricula.

There are two types of schools. One is normally referred to as an "FAA-approved school" and the other as a "non-approved school." An FAA-approved school has been granted an Air Agency Certificate by the FAA. The certificated FAA-approved schools may qualify for a ground school rating, a flying school rating, or both. In addition, they may be authorized to give their graduates practical tests, knowledge tests, or both.

Enrollment in an FAA-approved school usually ensures a high quality of training. There is assurance in FAA-approved schools that prescribed Standards have been met with respect to equipment, facilities, personnel, and curricula. Many excellent pilot schools find it impractical to qualify for the FAA certificate and are referred to as non-approved schools. One of the differences between FAA-approved schools and non-approved schools is that fewer flight hours are required to qualify for a pilot certificate in an FAA-approved school. The requirement for a Private Pilot Certificate is 40 hours in a non-approved school and 35 hours in an approved school.

Part 141 schools have some advantage over Part 61 schools in that the number of training hours may be reduced. Part 61 requires that students complete a minimum of 40 training hours, Part 141 "only" 35.

The point that needs to be made here is that hardly a soul completes their private pilot training in the minimum amount of hours, making this benefit a moot point. Also, Part 141 schools are supposed to be subject to more stringent controls over facilities, curriculum, etc., than Part 61 schools are but, then again, they often charge more for the privilege. That may not be worth it financially, if you only intend to obtain your private pilot certificate. There's a whole list in Part 141 of the FARs of what these schools are required to have and do, such as giving enrollment and graduation certificates to minimum experience requirements for Chief Instructors, private briefing areas, adequate heat and light, a requirement that 80 percent of the candidates for check rides passed the checkride on the first try, etc. Still, some of these Part 141 facilities, even with all the regulatory hoopla, look like the pits, although others are slicker than mousse on the hair of an investment banker. Going with a Part 141 school can pay off, substantially, if you plan to go on to earn the instrument rating and higher certificates, since you may benefit from their reduced experience requirements. So not only do we need to find a flight instructor that suits our needs, we must also find a flight school. Though a good instructor is hands-down better than a good program, for sure, having both is optimal.

My first instructor and I did not find magic together. As excited as I was, I simply could not let chance choose my instructor for me. I owed it to myself and to my checkbook to shop wisely. Most instructors know how to fly, but not all can teach. Just because they have earned their CFI does not make them a good teacher in the cockpit. It is one thing to instruct but another thing altogether to teach; the former is a science while the the latter is an art.

Summing Up

So, under my belt, I have a Discovery Flight. In that first half-hour of flight, I discovered there is that there is truly no way I can wait a lifetime to learn to fly. I am smitten with aviation, although not with the instructor I had first encountered. Time will tell if this new guy, Rocking Johnny Angel, will be the instructor for me or not. I am willing to find out. I must find out.

Flying gives me joy, but there are some obstacles that make the present time the wrong time for me to strive for my dream of flying. I am not a wealthy person, and my time is at a premium. What? The wrong time to strive for a dream? Now how does that statement sound to you?

a. That sounds reasonable, often we need to toil and work hard and save for a rainy day.
b. One day I will take time for me, but not right now. I Just cannot spare the time.
c. That is an utterly absurd statement. Obstacles are simply those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals.

My answer was c. If yours was the same, then welcome to the world of flying. Searching for the right instructor helped give me proper attitude. Next lesson, finding the proper power setting.


Editor's Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: