Prepare yourself for blasphemy. It pains me to write this, but it is true.
Not all flight instruction is good. Not all flight instructors are sharing beneficial information. Not every flight school is acting in your best interest.
This is jarring information for some. Especially for those who want to learn to fly and have carefully saved their pennies awaiting the day they can begin their training. Perhaps it’s equally disconcerting for those who are making their way back into the cockpit after a long layoff from flying.
Flight instruction is a buyer-beware situation. That’s regrettable, but it’s unassailably accurate, too.
My own experience of learning to fly is as good an example as any. I had no intention of becoming a career aviator. I just wanted to learn to fly recreationally. My entire goal was to get from here to there faster and with a better view than I’d get using any other form of transportation. So flying was my choice. Off I went to the airport.
My ground school instructor wasn’t a pilot. He was a nice guy. He showed up for class on time, dressed well, and was consistently in a good mood. But he only knew the book, not the experience the book was intended to prepare me for. He could give a lecture, but couldn’t share any insights beyond what I could get from reading the book on my own.
It wasn’t an ideal situation.
He encouraged me to book simulator time while I was in ground school. So, I did. It was on my third sim session that someone interrupted to ask the instructor a question about using the sim during ground school before actually flying the airplane with a CFI. Exactly what I was doing. The instructor explained that it was largely a waste of time and wouldn’t be of any benefit. That particular lesson didn’t end well.
Confusion and frustration became a regular and highly counter-productive part of my training.
When I finally got into an airplane things were no better. Over the course of my first dozen hours of flight instruction I flew three different types. My CFI told me it didn’t matter, so I assumed he knew what he was talking about. Flying a Piper Cherokee and Tomahawk and a Cessna 152 interchangeably meant I was following very different checklists, looking at radically different panel layouts, and making very little progress.
My first instructional flight took place in Special VFR conditions. As a result, I learned almost nothing of value. A dual cross-country showed up in my logbook before I’d hit five hours of flight time.
I don’t actually remember any advice or insight my CFI shared, but considering what we were doing in my early hours of flight training, I’m fairly certain there wasn’t anything worth remembering. Considering the number of hours we spent together, that lack of positive transfer is almost criminal.
Eventually I realized my primary role at this particular school was not so much to learn how to fly as it was to feed their cash register. So I left. It was the best decision I could have made.
Unfortunately, my experience is not as rare as it should be. While many flight instructors are quite good, there are more than a few who give the industry a black eye. Most are aware the primary task of a flight instructor is not to build time but to share insight, to teach procedures, to instill the methods of risk mitigation that will make safety a primary concern in every phase of every flight. Flight time is a by-product of doing the job, but it’s not a good reason to seek a job filling the right seat.
As a student pilot it’s often difficult to see your instructor as anything but a seasoned pro. And maybe they are.
Then again, perhaps your CFI has been flying for only a year or so longer than you have. Their youth and relative inexperience doesn’t mean they are a bad instructor, but it does suggest they have limited insight into the art and science of flying.
And with an overwhelmingly male dominated field that slews to the younger end of the spectrum, there is often a testosterone driven tendency to show off, explore unknown territory, and generally behave in a way that is contradictory to the goals of a good CFI.
I was lucky. My bad experiences with flight instruction happened early. The financial losses weren’t so extreme I couldn’t continue. And the lessons taught by subsequent flight instructors stuck. Good lessons. Insights I continue to share and live by to this day.
Over the decades I’ve been flying I’ve had a multitude of instructors. Most were male, some were female. Almost all were very good at their job. Some were young, ambitious, and had their sights firmly set on going to the airlines. Most of them did just that, too. But they provided me with exceptional educational opportunities when we flew and briefed together.
Over all those years I’ve only quit one flight instructor, and requested a new instructor one time. That’s it. Overall my experience has been very good. But the lingering memory of the bad instructional experience I had, and the knowledge that flight school drop-outs far outnumber flight school success stories, tells me we still have a lot of work to do in this industry if we really want to reach the level of professionalism and reliability we seek.
I think we’re going to get there. The tools necessary to up our game are available for the student, the CFI, and the flight school. Each of us can certainly act as our own advocate, ask intelligent questions, tour facilities, and meet with instructors before we sign up for lessons.
But each flight school can meet those prospective students half-way by managing their own internal procedures, practices, and employee training to be sure they’re providing the best service they possibly can.
Flight instruction is very much a two-way street. Let’s commit to getting that traffic flowing smoothly, efficiently, and safely in both directions.