When I began my flirtation with aviation, I made a huge mistake that cost me a great deal of money and wasted a considerable amount of time.
As a flight student, it was my erroneous belief that I was to decide what my instructor and I would do each day. I had no idea there existed a book known as the Practical Test Standard (PTS, now known as the Airmen Certification Standard or ACS), or that specific tasks and areas of knowledge were required that I would be tested on.
And so I twiddled away money and flight time under the delusional belief that all I had to do was fly for 40 hours. At the conclusion of that time the FAA would bestow upon me a Private Pilot Certificate.
No, it doesn’t work that way. I was an ignoramus and a half.
The reality of the situation was quite different. There was a PTS, as there now is an ACS. Training to earn a Private Pilot Certificate, or any certificate or rating for that matter, should follow an established method of instruction. Each instructor should be working with a syllabus that you have access to and become familiar with.
Predictable, hiqh-quality learning isn’t facilitated by happy accidents, unexpected surprises, or random experiences. I didn’t know that then. I’m guessing my initial instructor either didn’t know or didn’t care, either. Because I did little more than buzz around Long Island and the states of southern New England in a perpetually confused mental fog, wondering when I would learn to do something important…like taking off or landing.
When I work with primary students they participate in the first takeoff and landing, as well as every takeoff and landing we do together. Their involvement in those tasks increases until they’re doing them without me having to touch the controls.
In my case I had a dozen flight hours and still hadn’t attempted anything more challenging than straight and level cruise flight with an erratic turn or two thrown in here and there.
In fairness to my instructor, this massive lapse in teaching technique was at least partially my fault. As the customer I thought it was my responsibility to decide on what each flight would be about. My instructor simply failed to correct my misunderstanding. And so, I paid for my ignorance and his lack of drive, with many, many hard-earned dollars.
I’d like to think the industry has become more responsible over the intervening years in the way it treats and prepares flight students. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Not universally anyway. I still encounter students and aviation enthusiasts who have been misled, or poorly prepared for the reality of the training environment.
Just yesterday I spoke with a gentleman who is 15 hours into his training. We share a mutual friend, so he reached out to get some insight. I asked him what he was flying.
“A Cherokee and a Cessna 172,” he answered. “I like the low-wing, but I think it’s important for me to be prepared to fly a variety of different airplanes.”
He’s not wrong about the benefit of being familiar with multiple airplane types. But that’s what transition training is for. His instructor should have told him that. Flying two entirely different types, with different fuel systems, and necessarily different takeoff and landing checklists, is not an ideal situation when you’re doing primary instruction.
My initial instructor let me fly in three different types, because I asked if we could. We flew a Cherokee, a Tomahawk, and a Cessna 172. I thought I was really getting someplace because I had variety in my logbook from the start. In truth I was just throwing up roadblocks to learning, which my CFI willingly used to his financial advantage.
Not that I’m blaming him entirely. I share a percentage of the responsibility for my poor initial training.
I urged my new friend to pick an airplane and stick with it throughout his training. I explained the importance of being familiar with one checklist. Putting his focus into the maneuvers and material he’d need to know to perform them effectively in one type of airplane, is his best, fastest, safest method of achieving his goal without breaking the bank.
Some of the challenges to flight training come from flight schools with poorly established standards of operation. But some of it comes from the very human trait of hubris, or just plain pig-headedness.
I answered my phone not long ago to hear a voice on the other end say, “I’m looking for a flight instructor. Are you available?”
He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t explain what he was hoping to accomplish. I didn’t know if he wanted to add on a seaplane rating, fly helicopters, or take a discovery flight in a fixed wing aircraft. To narrow down the field I asked a series of questions which seemed to irritate the caller more than help him find his place in the cosmic order of things.
“Do you have access to an airplane?” I asked.
“I can get one,” he answered curtly.
Now I’ve got to be honest, I’m not familiar with any reputable aircraft rental operation that will rent to a student pilot who wants to fly with an instructor who is not on their payroll. So, I asked again, in a very patient but insistent tone of voice, “Do you have access to an airplane?”
I put emphasis on the word “do” specifically.
“No,” he admitted.
He hung up not long after that. I don’t know his name and I don’t know if he’s a neighbor or called from three states away.
I hope he finds a good instructor to help him reach his goals, though. We all deserve that, even if we’re as dumb and misinformed as I was when I got started in this business.