Every now and then I get to do something I really enjoy. I ride along in the right seat of an airplane. More often than not it’s not even my airplane.
I fly with old friends for the most part, although sometimes a new friend sits to my left. I make a suggestion here and there, but I don’t fly the airplane myself. Not unless I have to.
I get to be a CFI.
There was a time when I was employed full-time as a flight instructor. For all the complaining about low pay, long hours, occasionally iffy equipment, and students who might or might not take the process of learning to fly seriously – I enjoyed myself. Those were happy times.
I liked being a CFI. I still do. In fact, I consider it to be one of the more gratifying things I’ve done — even though being a successful CFI means I do less and less with my students until I’m literally doing nothing at all.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Education is a wonderful thing. Teaching a skill, or a series of skills, to others is a tremendously satisfying experience. To be present when your student has an epiphany — for instance, when they land without any assistance for the first time or when they find the destination they were shooting for on their first dual cross-country flight — is almost magical.
The first student I ever signed off for a private pilot certificate owned his own airplane. He’d owned it for something like 20 years and had flown it solo throughout those years. The fact that he didn’t have an FAA pilot certificate didn’t seem to faze him at all.
That was a great experience for me. My student could fly, but he had a lot of bad habits and he wasn’t entirely familiar with a few standard procedures. But he learned, and he passed his check-ride. I learned too, as I always do when I fly with someone new.
Maybe that’s the big secret of my time as a flight instructor. I often learn as much as the student does.
The same is true when I conduct a flight review with an experienced pilot. The other pilot, student or otherwise, often has a unique perspective on some aspect of our flight. Or they’ve got a technique that works just fine for them. And it’s not at all unusual to be exposed to new and sometimes unfamiliar equipment when flying in someone else’s airplane.
They learn. I learn. Everybody wins.
Training to be a CFI was a bit of a challenge. At least it was for me. Shifting from the right seat to the left seat seemed hard at first. The sight picture was slightly askew and I spent more time than was really necessary beating myself up over that. My landings were squirrely. Maneuvers wobbled a bit.
But I got over the visual change and settled in at some point. I learned to fly from the right seat as well as I could fly from the left.
And then I learned what being an instructor was really all about. Teaching. Speaking with great specificity and clarity. Demonstrating the incomprehensible, while breaking the task down into its constituent parts.
There is great satisfaction in learning to break down the act of flying and all that goes with it into small, bite-sized pieces that even a brand new, very excited, somewhat nervous new student can understand. Transitioning it from the impossible to the entirely doable.
As an instructor I often do as little as I can, while ensuring the flight goes safely from start to finish.
If I’m flying with a first-timer, the odds are pretty good they’ll be performing the takeoff, or at least assisting. After we level off and head toward the practice area, I don’t berate them for not being able to hold an altitude or heading. It’s too early in their learning process for that. Instead I give them encouragement for all they’re doing right.
“Hey, you’re flying an airplane,” I’ll remind them periodically. I do this with both hands held up like I’m being robbed. There is no doubt who is flying that airplane. They know they’re doing something amazing.
That’s where confidence comes from. Successfully performing a task and being congratulated for it makes all the difference. So I pre-load my flight plans with as much confidence-building material as possible.
Over time, I encourage my students to watch their altitude and make adjustments as necessary. I ask how the oil pressure is looking halfway through the flight, to get them in the habit of looking at the gauges now and then to gather specific information.
Eventually, my student is doing everything within the FAA’s Practical Test or Airman Certification Standards. I’m doing nothing — which is the point of all the study, the discussion, and the lessons.
I’m not there to show them what an amazing pilot I can be. I’m there to help them find the pilot within themselves and cut them loose to be that person.
This week I get to do it all again. A new member joined my flying club, and since I’m a CFI I’ll be conducting his check-out flight in our 1964 Cessna 182.
We’ll do some air work. We’ll fly to a controlled airport to see how he handles the radios and a busier environment. There will be a few landings, both with flaps and without, and there’s a good chance we’ll be doing a go-around at some point.
I say, “we,” but it’s really all the new guy. I’ll be doing what CFI’s do – evaluating, making the occasional suggestion, explaining anything in the panel that’s unfamiliar. But I won’t be flying. I’ll just be along for a very enjoyable ride.
That’s the plan anyway. If all goes well, I won’t have anything to do at all.
There is great joy in doing nothing. There really is.