There’s a secret among flight instructors that you might not know. This job is hard. Learning how to be a good flight instructor is incredibly challenging. Most pilots know that flight instruction is often seen as a stepping stone along a pilot’s “typical” career path.
Some instructors begin teaching when the ink has barely dried on their commercial certificates, so how hard could the job be?
The reality soaks in quickly.
Flight instruction is about so much more than the simple mastery of flight skills and book knowledge.
Here’s a look at six “soft skills” that will help.
Be a Professional
Professionalism is a multifaceted quality that every pilot needs to have, but flight instructors need more than their share.
Flight instruction is a difficult job—you have to be one part pilot, one part instructor, one part mentor, with a dash of customer service maestro and a sprinkle of knowledgeable geek.
The resulting cocktail is as complex as it is interesting—you’ve got a lot going on, both in the cockpit and in the classroom.
They list things like keep a clean-cut appearance and following the regulations. But it’s also the small things that make a professional flight instructor stand out.
For example, keeping your knowledge and skills current or saying, “I’ll have to look that up,” when you aren’t certain of an answer.
The most valuable thing that flight instructors do is provide a role model to their students.
A good flight instructor is a good pilot, not only because they possess descent flying skills, but because they endeavor to learn more and be better than they currently are. Aviation is a journey for everyone who pursues it, and the sooner your students learn that, the better off they’ll be.
Be a Stickler for Procedures
It also pays to be a creature of professional habits. For example, do you preflight an airplane before each and every flight?
As a flight instructor, are you on the ramp watching your student do their preflight every time?
These are things that your students notice, even though they aren’t explicitly part of the lesson plan.
Are they learning that this is something they’re going to be doing every day for the rest of their careers, or do they see it as a menial task that should be delegated to the newest guy?
The little habits you pick up from your flight instructor are endless, and they are often of critical importance. Are you flying with an advanced student who seems never to pick up the checklist? They probably learned that bad habit from a previous flight instructor.
Perhaps the most poignant example can be seen when flying a Cessna or other high-wing. Do you lift the wing to check the blindspot before every turn without even thinking about it? If you do, it’s because you picked up that habit from a good flight instructor.
But here’s the rub—what if, as you went through training, you picked up some bad habits or incorrect facts from your flight instructors?
Everyone has. At this point in your career, it’s essential to research things thoroughly and figure out the right way so that you don’t make the same mistakes with your students.
Care About Your Students’ Futures
There is no doubt that many instructors use the job as a stepping stone to go onto something “bigger.”
But to be a good flight instructor, you’ve got to look at the job as more than a stepping stone on the path to your own success.
Flight instructors must possess a strong personal commitment to their students. Yes, you want them to succeed and to get their license or rating. But more than that, instructors need to be invested in their students’ safety and long-term futures—regardless of whether that involves flying on their own privately or as a commercial pilot.
Students must know that their instructor is a highly-trained and ethical individual.
They must know that the only way their going to be endorsed for their solo flights or their check rides is if they’ve earned it by putting in the work. In other words, instructors must be the keepers of strict standards.
So much of aviation is based on a traditional master-and-apprentice relationship.
It starts from day one when the flight instructor is the master. Student pilots learn more from their first flight instructor than they ever will from another. That first impression is so very critical to the safety of the aviation community as a whole.
If a flight instructor switches jobs and joins an airline or charter company, the master-and-apprentice relationship switches again.
Left-seat captains are experienced, senior pilots for a reason. It’s because they are the masters and the co-pilots are the apprentices.
Do Less Talking and More Listening
In education circles, one of the latest trends in teaching is called the “flipped classroom.”
Most people are at a disadvantage because few teachers of any subject excel at student-centered teaching. Think back on the teachers you’ve had from high school, college, or aviation.
How many let you lead your learning experience and taught you a lot? You may have never had a single one.
Most of us still remember a medieval teaching model, with a professor scribbling on a board, talking away to a bunch of bored and distracted students.
Flight instruction is doubly problematic because there are many barriers to giving the student complete control of their learning.
Can you let a zero-time pilot land the airplane by themselves and then have them critique themselves later?
Even if you do, it’s a lot more involved than just letting someone screw up a math problem.
In the classroom, student-centered learning means doing more listening and less talking. Flight instructors know better than anyone that the only way to understand something deeply is to teach it to someone else.
So students should be expected to learn the materials on their own, and then come in and explain it to the flight instructor.
The instructor should ask leading questions that evaluate how deeply the student understands the material. The questions should require the student to think a little.
In the plane, student-centered learning is doing more watching and less flying. Beyond an occasional demonstration, a student gets very little from watching the flight instructor fly.
You can teach many maneuvers by ensuring the student understands the fundamentals on the ground, then talking them through it while in the air.
Ideally, the flight instructor never touches the controls.
Keep Calm and Fly On
At one point or another, we’ve all met a flight instructor who couldn’t keep calm.
A shouting flight instructor is the worst kind. Becoming argumentative or confrontational immediately shuts down all learning opportunities. Students walk away confused, with their confidence shattered.
Many stressful situations come up in an airplane’s cockpit, and shouting never made a single one of them any better.
Good flight instructors can keep their calm through pretty much anything. Doing so will help make it all the more poignant when you have to speak up or take the aircraft’s controls.
Let the Student Lead
As discussed, a student-centric approach is best in flight training. But realize that this approach goes beyond just learning a maneuver or passing a knowledge exam.
The term “instructor” is perhaps misleading. “Coach” or “mentor” might suit the job better.
Flight instructors not only have to teach their students fundamental flight skills, but they also need to teach them the life-skills of how to be a successful pilot.
If your school is training part 141 every lesson you teach your student should be planned in advance.
That means establishing study habits, a safety mindset, and the level of professionalism expected from pilots.
Throughout all this, remember that the student is in charge of their training. No one, including a flight instructor, can make them learn anything.
Only they can decide that something is worth learning and doing. If your student isn’t studying, it is likely because they are either not motivated to do so or don’t know how to do it. Is it a flight instructor’s job to teach a student how to study? Sometimes.
The hardest part of giving the student command of their learning experience is letting them make mistakes.
By nature, pilots want to take charge of a situation when they think they could do better. The hardest thing a flight instructor ever does is sitting on their hands and doing nothing.
Student-centered learning aims to arm the student with enough book knowledge to know how they should perform something and then give them enough freedom to try.
They will make mistakes.
But if they’ve studied enough, they will recognize the mistakes they’ve made before you’ve had time to point it out to them.
That’s the ultimate goal—a student who knows when they’ve messed up and has some ideas about how to do better next time.
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Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.