The Pilot's Lounge #112: Fire Your Instructor

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The Pilot's Lounge

A while back I was sitting in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport wondering what the phrase "sit back and relax" means and why in the world the airlines keep saying it to me when I'm jammed into a seat designed for an eight-year-old. My reverie was disturbed when Tom, a thirty-something businessman, walked in. I'd chatted with him a number of times over the last year and knew he was working on his Private Pilot Certificate. More than once I had seen him studying or walking out to an airplane with an instructor.

I'm not particularly astute but when he slammed his study guide and logbook onto the desk over by the pop machine I figured he wasn't particularly happy.

"Rough lesson?" I inquired.

"No." He said emphatically, "No lesson. That %$#@! instructor cancelled again. It's the third time this month he's had a chance to ride right seat in a corporate King Air and blew off my lesson. This time he didn't even have the consideration to call me and reschedule. The receptionist out there said he just walked in about a half hour ago, erased my name from the schedule and split. She said that she thought I'd cancelled and that if she'd known he was canceling, she would have called me. I took the afternoon off work for this lesson, %$#@! it. I'm supposed to take my checkride in the next couple of weeks and it's tough enough juggling my work schedule and the family to get a lesson lined up and then have decent weather without having to deal with an instructor that doesn't give a flip about his students."

Before I could make any comment, Tom headed out the door and down the hall to the owner of the FBO and flight school. I heard a door slam and then the only slightly muffled sound of Tom's voice as he expressed his opinion of the instructor's professionalism. Well, the lack thereof.

Later that evening I got to thinking about Tom's experience, juxtaposed it against what seems to be a diminishing number of flight instructors and poor flight instructor pay, and began to wonder if there is an identifiable set of duties and responsibilities for a CFI who agrees give a person flight instruction.

I got to thinking about the relationship between a flight instructor and student and how it is almost unique in the educational experience in the United States today. It is extremely unusual for a person to have a tutor; to go one-on-one to learn the entirety of a complex subject. We are used to sitting with several other people in a classroom. While I believe it was Socrates who said that the ideal school is a log with a pupil on one end and an instructor on the other, the individualized teaching experience just isn't something that most of us ever had prior to learning to fly.

A CFI and student construct a relationship that comes to exist on several levels. On the most basic level, a person with only passing familiarity with flight puts his or her life in the hands of the CFI. That kind of trust on the part of the student and obligation on the part of the instructor isn't a part of your average educational experience. It defines a responsibility on the part of the instructor that is quite high -- not only to keep the student alive during the lessons themselves, but to do the best possible job to impart the knowledge and judgment and skill to the student, as well as evaluate the student's performance objectively, so that the student is likely to stay alive once turned loose to aviate alone.

From that point of view, a CFI has a pretty daunting task.

So, what duties does a CFI have to the student and what should the student have a right to expect in the training relationship?

Expectations of CFIs

1. The instructor has an absolute obligation and duty to put the student's best interests first at all times during the instructional relationship.

2. Show up on time and ready to go. If a CFI and a student agree on a time for a lesson, the CFI has a duty to be there, on time and prepared for the lesson. That's basic etiquette from grade school. If you agreed to play catch with Frank at 4:00, you absolutely don't blow him off because Bobbie suddenly called and said the bass were hitting at the fishing hole so grab your rod and reel and get over here. A person's word has to be good or that person is not entitled to much respect at all. A CFI who would stand up a student to get some multiengine time, even if it is in turbine equipment, has demonstrated that he is a self-centered jerk.

While there will be instances in which a CFI gets an offer to do some very cool flying that would conflict with a scheduled lesson, the appropriate first response is to see if it can occur some other time. If not, then, on occasion -- if, and only if, the CFI knows the student well -- the CFI is entitled to call the student, explain the situation and see if the student is willing to reschedule the lesson. However, it is always the student's call, because the instructor has a professional obligation to the student. No matter what, it's never appropriate to do that sort of thing more than once or, perhaps, twice with any given student. If an instructor finds gets in a position where this sort of thing seems to be happening regularly, something is seriously wrong and the CFI needs to step back and evaluate just exactly why it is going on and whether to instruct that student in particular or acting as a flight instructor in general.

If a student has an instructor who seeks to reschedule more than about twice, it's time for a heart-to-heart with the instructor as there is probably a more serious underlying problem. The instructor is not putting the student's best interests first. If the instructor simply does not show up for a lesson because something more interesting came up, it's time for a pointed conversation. If it happens a second time the student should probably change instructors. (Breaking the CFI's kneecaps is considered an over-reaction and poor form.)

There are times that the FBO/flight school manager will send the CFI off on a charter flight when lesson(s) are scheduled. Smaller FBOs especially have a heck of time juggling the demands of charters, flight students and personnel. When it has to be done, the FBO is absolutely obligated to call each student, apologize profusely, reschedule each lesson affected and, if it happens more than once, should offer some sort of compensation such as a free half hour of ground school. In the short run, students are an important source of revenue for that particular lesson. But they also must be considered important sources of revenue in the long run as renters, and potential airplane buyers, maintenance and fuel-business customers. Any FBO with even a smidgeon of business sense will treat students very well. From the student's standpoint, if an FBO does not call and apologize in such a situation, and work to reschedule the lesson, it's time to look for another FBO. If it's the only game in town, at the very least a complaint to the FBO manager/owner and to the local Better Business Bureau is appropriate.

3. The instructor has a duty to brief each lesson with the student prior to doing any flying. The student should have a chance to ask questions about anything that has come up since the last lesson. (In fact, the instructor should encourage students to write down questions that occur to them between lessons and cover them first thing, because instructors know that students who think about flying between lessons do a heck of a lot better than those who do not.) The instructor should explain what is to be covered in the upcoming lesson, tie it in to what has been done and what is to come and explain what the performance standards for each flight operation are so that the student can self-evaluate. For instance, the student should know what is the acceptable range for airspeed in a climbing turn or on approach to landing, if those are the areas to be covered. It gives an objective performance target and will make the post-flight evaluation simpler for both the instructor and student.

The completion standards should be realistic. A three hour student is not going to meet the practical test standards for maneuvers. It's tough enough to learn to fly without frustrating the student with unreasonable expectations.

4. The instructor should be clean and well-groomed. It sounds silly, but I'm astonished at the number of instructors who aren't. It doesn't mean formal dress or coats and ties for men, and it certainly doesn't mean the silly practice of epaulets worn by fuzzy cheeked CFIs at some schools. It just means showing respect for someone who is paying a lot of money to learn to fly by dressing appropriately and having showered that day.

5. An instructor should listen to the student. Listening to the questions asked is one of the best ways to tell if something has been missed in a student's education. It means listening to the student's concerns and fears, and remembering that flying can be scary as all get out to a new student. It means respecting what the student says and taking fears and concerns and worries seriously and addressing them professionally. It also means listening to how the student says something, as the tone or inflection of a question or comment can mean a great deal. After all, any aerobatic instructor will tell you that when you ask a new akro student how s/he is feeling after a maneuver, the answer will always be "fine." The word itself is meaningless. It's how the word is expressed that determines whether the lesson will continue or be cut short, or whether the sick sack is pulled out immediately and handed to the student.

6. The instructor is responsible for keeping the training airplane clean. No matter if the lessons are at a huge flight school where people are hired to clean the airplanes, it is still the duty of the instructor to keep the airplane looking good and the interior of the airplane free of trash and clutter. It may mean that the instructor is also going to have to wash and vacuum the airplane. Students are spending a pile of money to learn to fly; many are showing up at the airport in high-dollar cars that are kept spotless. If an instructor wants to keep making money and keep those students coming back for more lessons, the instructor has to keep the airplane(s) looking attractive.

7. A professional instructor does not give extra dual training, or delay soloing a student for a few hours, to make extra money. It is absolutely unethical.

8. The instructor has a duty to the student to take the time to discuss the flight in appropriate detail afterward. It is a part of the learning process to review each part of the flight and evaluate it objectively and honestly.

9. Whether or not the training program has a formal grading system, the instructor has a duty to evaluate or grade honestly. I've seen far, far too many programs where the instructor just grades everything "satisfactory" or "average" or "above average". That's lying to the student. The student is entitled to know how well he or she did on an objective scale linked to the completion standards for each flight operation, and that scale has to have been established prior to the flight. If nothing else, if the student crashes and the instructor is placed on the witness stand, how the heck is he or she going to explain an "above average" grade on slow flight when the student spun out of the turn from downwind to base leg?

Honest grading and evaluating sometimes leads to one of the instructor's toughest jobs: telling a student, or a rated pilot who is in for a flight review, that the person's performance is absolutely unacceptable and unsafe and that the pilot should not be flying without further instruction. It is extraordinarily rare, but a CFI may have a student that the CFI feels cannot learn to fly. It is a part of the instructor's primary responsibility, that of the best interest of the student. The appropriate step is to have the student fly with another instructor, as the problem may just be the dynamic between the student and instructor. However, once the CFI has gotten a second opinion, the CFI may be faced with the unpleasant task of telling a student that the student should take up another line of endeavor. If it is a rated pilot, the instructor must be honest with the pilot regarding the objective evaluation and suggest a flight with a different instructor. If the pilot refuses, and the instructor feels that the pilot is unsafe, the next step is to go to the FAA and tell an inspector. In my life I have known two pilots who I honestly felt were so unsafe that they were a threat to themselves. In one case I expressed my opinion to the pilot (he blew me off); in the other I did not. In neither case did I go to the FAA. Both killed themselves in airplanes. To this day I feel that I did not live up to my obligation to either of them.

10. An instructor has a duty to be an advocate for the student. The need for that may not arise; however, if it does, the instructor should always stand up for the student in an honest fashion in dealing with the FBO management, FAA, insurers or others. It also means encouraging the student when a lesson has not gone well. Sometimes lessons do not go well, but that it does not mean the student cannot become a pilot. It may mean telling a spouse that the student is flying in a safe and responsible manner, if it is true. (Being an advocate does not mean lying for a student at any time).

11. An instructor has a duty to demand the best of the student, to keep the student working right up to the edge of their ability. It means recognizing that, by federal law, the Federal Aviation Regulations are "minimum standards," as are the standards set in the practical test guide. Therefore, the CFI has a duty to train the student to a level the CFI considers to be appropriately above that of the FAA minimum standards, because good CFIs know what the real world is like and the student must be prepared for flying in the real world, not just going for a checkride.

12. An instructor has a duty to never, ever enter into an intimate or sexual relationship with a student while the instructor-student relationship exists. On one level it is simply unprofessional; on another it is invariably counterproductive to the student's progress. The tutor-student relationship can generate a close relationship because of the psychological factors of trust involved, as well as the fact that the instructor seems to the student to know everything about the subject and thus can become very attractive to the student. Putting a personal relationship or sex into the instructor-student equation does nothing positive for the student and almost invariably has negative results. If the teaching relationship appears to be moving to something closer than a handshake at the end of each lesson, the instructor has a duty to call a halt to everything, sit down with the student and discuss precisely what is going on. If the two of them decide that the relationship should become intimate, then it is the duty of the instructor to find another instructor for the student. The instructor cannot disregard the duty to the student for the learning process. I have seen two situations where a student and instructor realized that things were progressing on a personal level. In both cases the student changed instructors. In both cases the student and instructor eventually got married (and, happily, still are). In both cases, the student finished her flight training and obtained her rating.

Yes, wives have taught husbands how to fly and vice versa. However, the intimate relationship was established prior to the flight instruction relationship. (And, in many cases, the result was a strain on the marriage and problems with the rate of progress of the student in the training relationship.)

13. A responsible instructor will never speak about another student to another instructor in circumstances where others can overhear (unless it is to praise that student). If an instructor feels the need to speak with another instructor about a challenge faced with a student or to exchange ideas on how best to teach a student, the discussion should take place in private. Instructors simply sitting around and chatting about their students, especially if names are named, is always unprofessional. While I haven't heard of it happening, a disparaging comment by an instructor about a student, made publicly, could well be grounds for a slander suit.

14. A good instructor is always learning. No matter how much experience they have, good instructors never believe they know it all and are always willing to learn from others, especially from their students. [My thanks to reader Mark Mattioli for items 13 and 14, added here May 3.]

15. An instructor has a duty to set a good example at all times. The CFI can preach safety and checklists and appropriate behavior to students but then can destroy all of the teaching the first time a student sees the CFI operate an airplane contrary to the teaching.

16. Finally, an instructor has to recognize that occasionally there are personality conflicts between an instructor and student. While the situation is pretty rare and an instructor who has a professional attitude can overcome most minor difficulties, from time to time things simply do not click and the two cannot get along. Unresolved personality conflicts always adversely affect the student's progress. If the situation develops, the instructor should never take it personally, but should simply arrange for the student to fly with another instructor. Sometimes a student who is having a great deal of trouble getting along with his or her instructor may be reluctant to say so. The student will either not do well during training or may just quit flying rather than address the issue openly with the instructor or the instructor's boss. It is the instructor's duty to be sensitive to the situation and politely inquire, and then take appropriate action as a professional. (Often the situation means that the instructor does not particularly like the student; nevertheless, the CFI has an obligation to set up the student with another instructor and not speak ill of the student so as to avoid tainting the new CFI-student relationship.)

Expectations of Students

As I was making notes about what a student should be able to expect from a flight instructor, I realized that the tutoring relationship works both ways. The student has duties as well. The instructor has a right to expect certain things from a student.

1. Students have a duty to show up on time for their lessons, and to expect to pay for the lesson time that was set aside, even if they are late. The instructor has dedicated a certain period of time exclusively to the student and should not be penalized for the student's tardiness.

2. A student has an obligation to call and cancel a lesson as soon as the student knows it's necessary. If the cancellation occurs within some previously established period of time before the lesson, the student should pay the instructor's fee for the lesson, or at least a full hour of instructional time, because there is a significant risk that the instructor cannot fill that time on short notice and is otherwise not going to get paid. Not all things in aviation have gotten more expensive; flight instructor incomes have not kept up with the rate of inflation. If flight instructors were being paid today what they were paid in 1978, allowing for inflation, they would be making between $40 and $65 per hour of instruction. Therefore, having a student stand up the instructor hurts a person who is not well compensated to start with right in the wallet.

3. A student has a duty to pay for each lesson as it takes place, or to pay in advance. A flight instructor is not a bank and should not be making no-interest loans to students by having to wait to be paid for services rendered. Good grief, the student has to pay for the maintenance on his car when they pick up the car (and it's a lot more expensive per hour than a CFI charges), so the student should not quibble about paying for flight instruction when it is received. If a student does not pay at the time of a lesson, it should be paid prior to taking the next lesson.

4. The student has a duty to show up prepared for each lesson, having read any material assigned and ready to learn. The instructor is not a babysitter or someone who is to read the assignments to the student. (Unless the two of them agree to go about it that way and the student understands it is going to radically increase the cost of learning to fly.)

5. A student has a duty to ask questions about anything confusing, even if it seems off topic. It's an essential part of the learning process. Attempting to hide ignorance about a subject or concept is invariably wrong in a learning environment and tends to have a snowball effect. Ignorance about something is never, ever, a sign of weakness or stupidity; it just means that the student has not been introduced to it. (Ignorance is never an insult; it is just a lack of exposure to something.) Learning is the process of reducing one's degree of ignorance of the subject and is fostered by honestly asking questions about things one does not know or understand. The questions themselves also do a great deal to help the instructor tailor the teaching that will occur because it tells the instructor a lot about the boundaries of the student's knowledge and experience as well as how the student thinks and learns.

6. A student has a duty to tell the instructor when there is a level of discomfort with any aspect of the flight training process. From the most basic, "I think I'm going to be sick" in turbulent air, to, "For some reason I don't seem to get along with you and I'd like to fly with a different instructor," and all points in-between. The student bears responsibility for that side of the learning relationship and, in order to learn most efficiently, and not waste hard-earned money, must speak up when something is bothersome so the instructor can do something about it. An uncomfortable student does not learn well; any instructor worth his salt knows that; but, to my knowledge, most CFIs are not clairvoyant, so it's up to the student to speak up about discomfort.

No matter how it is approached, learning to fly is hard work at any level, whether for a brand-new student pilot or someone finishing up the ATP rating. The student and instructor have duties and responsibilities to each other and themselves in the process to make it go as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

By the way, when Tom went down the hall to express himself to the manager of the FBO, it worked. He was immediately assigned to a different instructor (and flew that afternoon). About two weeks later he passed his checkride. I've heard he's looking to buy an airplane. I've also heard that the manager is helping Tom find an airplane and has already introduced Tom to the maintenance director. I don't know what the manager said to the CFI, but I've heard he hasn't cancelled any lessons recently.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.