Knowledge Test Fee Increase

The CATS/LaserGrade cartel is going to be upping their fees for the required knowledge tests come March (or April, nobody seems to know). The most remarkable thing is the magnitude of the increase…$50 per test. Over the course of your helicopter training, the knowledge tests are going to cost you the same as about 4 hours of dual instruction. Ouch!

What Makes a "Good Instructor"

Whenever a prospective student starts looking for schools, one thing that consistently comes up is that they want “good instructors.” But what actually makes a good instructor? Can there really be good instructors in an industry where most CFIs view their jobs as transient? Where schools show instructors the door when they hit 1000 hrs, if they haven’t already gotten a “real job” lined up? Are there only better and worse instructors? Could you spot a good instructor if you met one?

I was reading about Teach for America this week–this is a non-profit agency that recruits college grads to volunteer to teach elementary or high school students for 2 years. They’ve taken to studying their recruits, assessing their performance, and then trying to figure out what traits can be used to predict an effective teacher. Some of what Teach for America has figured out might help you when you’re looking at schools, and overall, there are some lessons that apply to your career. First and foremost, TFA has found that, while the school is important, it’s really the instructor that makes the difference in the student’s experience. The quality of instructors in a single school varies dramatically though. If you click with an instructor on a demo flight, make sure they’re going to be there for the duration of your training, and that they actually have room available in their schedule. High-time instructors are often getting ready to leave, especially if the spring hiring season is coming and they already have the hours they need for a turbine job. There are also a few schools that lay-off their high-time instructors to make room for low-time pilots so they can build time.

But TFA also found that knowledge is not everything! Simply having more hours doesn’t necessarily mean that an instructor will be successful. When TFA looked at what qualities their most successful instructors had, they found that they:

  • Set big goals for their students;
  • Acted purposefully so that every one of their actions related back to their overall goal;
  • Were always reevaluating their performance and improving their methods;
  • Planned and prepared, and changed those plans based on the results they were getting.

For flight instructors, how might these apply? Well, the first is pretty easily measured: instead of aiming for the 80% passing rate they need to renew their certificate, maybe >95% on the written exams and 100% pass rate on check rides would be a better threshold. Of course, simply setting that goal isn’t sufficient…they have to follow through with that second element. This one’s tough for the flight maneuvers since an instructor can’t just follow a lesson plan; some students will progress slower or faster than others. In addition, repeatedly hammering the same maneuver over and over again isn’t necessarily the best method for perfecting it. For both ground and practical maneuvers, there should be a logical progression built into the lesson plans. For example, instead of:

Lesson 4: Regulations (60 minutes)

  1. Part 41
  2. Part 61
  3. Part 91
  4. NTSB 830

A syllabus that builds knowledge would integrate each of the regulations into other lessons, so students could correlate the regulation with the actual procedures that they execute during their flights. So maybe Part 41 would be taught in this lesson:

Lesson X: Pre-flight Airworthiness and Maintenance Checks (60 minutes)

  1. Maintenance and engine logs
  2. Squawk sheets
  3. Pre-flight inspection
  4. etc…

I’m just throwing this out there. To really cover the regs, there wouldn’t be a Part 91 lesson, but instead one where instructors, say, discuss the airspace requirements for the airport they’re about to fly into (rather than drawing the diagram that lumps them all together and reciting the 3-5-1-2 mantra–even though I have that very diagram in my lesson plans).

Reevaluating and improving only makes sense–as pilots, we’re already doing this constantly in the cockpit. But it’s a hard one to judge when you’re testing out flight instructors. And if your flight instructor only has 5 or 6 students during his 1000-hr tenure, he doesn’t have much of a chance to make improvements. That makes the planning and preparation phase more important. During your CFI training, you should develop lesson plans and practice presenting them. This is good. As a student, you should be able to tell that your instructor has practiced teaching each lesson recently. It’s not so good if your instructor sits down in front of you, then lays out the syllabus and the Rotorcraft Flying Manual and starts asking questions.

With that, I’m officially making this a 2-part entry. Since I’m at HAI for the Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic, it might be a week or 2.

Radio Navigation

The basic model for flight schools is to get students to take their CFII right after their CFI. This makes sense for the school for a few reasons, but in the long run, it ends up costing students. The school’s reasoning is that a CFII is a more marketable job candidate than a CFI, and that CFIIs are more likely to get hired. When schools do hire from the outside, they also subscribe to this rationale. Personally, I’d rather spend my CFII training where I’d be teaching, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that actual flight time to familiarize a new instructor with the school’s SOPs and the environment, but that’s the way the industry works. As a prospective instructor, you’ll have to buy into this logic and finish your CFII before you start looking for work.

Here’s the downside that I see: R22 instrument trainers are in short supply and have a more restrictive CG envelope (from what I hear anyway–I’ve only seen 1, and it was a glass cockpit trainer). Because of this, many schools rely on the R44 for instrument and CFII training. No problem there. But, insurance companies aren’t thrilled about low-time CFIIs instructing in R44s, and at least some of them will stick a 500 hr TT restriction on their policies. There are, of course, exceptions and ways schools can get around this, but if your school uses an R44, find out.

Why does this matter? A CFII operating in this system will fly for several months before he’s at 500 hrs TT and cleared to teach in the R44. All that time, he won’t have given a moment’s thought to instrument flight or procedures, and the teaching methods he learned to pass his CFII check ride will be fuzzy memories. Depending on your school, he may not be IFR current, and his R44 time in the last 60 days may only be 1-2 hrs. Even if you land a CFII that’s close to his 1000 hrs and has been teaching IFR for a while, at best, he’s probably only taken 3-5 students through their instrument rating–not much practice, considering the amount of knowledge that has to be learned during the instrument rating. So, if your school was anything like the school I went to, any instructor you get will be struggling to remember how to fly IFR and to develop effective teaching methods. As his student, you’ll be paying for your instructor to get up to speed.

The best thing for students would be for schools to offer CFII training only once their instructors have the aeronautical experience they need to perform the duties of a CFII. This won’t happen, since there’s an economic incentive for schools to take every student as far along in their training as they can before the student runs out of money or leaves to teach somewhere else. As a student, you can reduce the cost and time you need for your instrument rating by learning as much as you can at home. Obviously you can do more ground training at home. I’d recommend ditching the Jeppesen Instrument/Commercial textbook altogether, and using the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook as a back-up source. For books, I personally liked Instrument Flying by Richard Taylor. I picked up the 4th edition for less than it cost the seller to ship it to me. A book like this is pretty worthless for learning regs, and I think he still had a  section on the recently decommissioned LORAN network. But he provides a common sense, practical approach to learning instrument procedures based on the experience that your instructor just doesn’t have. I’m not saying you should run out and by that book, but look into some of the video programs and books that are out there. Go over to your local fixed wing flight school, talk to one of their 2000-hr part-time instructors, and ask him what his recommendations are (when I finally did this, the FW instructor slapped his forehead when I told him all I was using was the FAA books).

You can also sit on your couch and learn the skills you’d be paying almost $500/hr for in the cockpit. That was the spirit behind this lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR Simulator, but I know that others before me have done a better job explaining radio navigation, so I didn’t want to duplicate effort there. And here’s one of those others, doing a lecture on VOR Basics. This is a very clear and organized lesson from a well-spoken and well-prepared instructor–I didn’t hear an Ummm… or Uhhhh… in the whole lesson, which gives you an idea of how much forethought went into his presentation.


When the Other Shoe Drops

Several friends and I got some bad news last week. The school that we went to contacted the 8 of us that finished our CFIs over a year ago to tell us that they would not be hiring any of us, and would only be considering more recent CFI graduates. The news hit us pretty hard, but I knew this was coming. The market is flooded with CFIs and schools are still training new ones up. At the same time, Sallie Mae has pretty much stopped lending to flight students. This has been a 1-2 punch to the CFI market. As the supply of CFIs has increased, the supply of students with financing–and therefore the demand for CFIs–has collapsed. This isn’t even considering the trouble 1000-hr CFIs are having finding jobs. Some schools have resorted to firing 1000-hr CFIs to artificially inflate the demand for their low-time CFIs. Other schools are keeping their CFIs on longer. Somebody loses in either scenario.

Even though the school I went to routinely hired guys who had been out for >6 months, I think they’ve reach the point where they have so many CFIs looking for work that they had to start cutting some of us off. They laid off two 1000-hr instructors and didn’t replace them, and the school is still having trouble filling their schedule. There just aren’t enough students out there who can get the money to start training. This is an industry-wide problem, and contraction in the flight instruction market is going to continue for a while.

For those of us who didn’t get a job right out of school, this is probably where our aviation careers will end. Even though I’ve spent the time furthering my education in other ways (like taking HAI courses), our cockpit skills have been slowly degrading. A good student and pilot who hasn’t flown much in the last year stands no chance against even a marginal student who just got his certificate and whose skills are sharp. That’s what it means when an old timer tells you that timing is everything in this industry.The tragedy for 2 of my friends is that both had 6-month breaks in their training (one for an instructor he wasn’t progressing with, and the other to take a job to save up for her Commercial and CFI tickets). In all probability, they’d at least be at 1000 hrs now.

This is also a harbinger for the future. Everybody that I’ve talked to in the industry has been saying that Sallie Mae is very reluctant to start lending again. As long as that’s the case, the flight instruction industry is going to be reliant on money from the VA and GI Bill, and from foreign students or students who have saved up enough on their own. This is a small slice of the student pie compared to what flight schools were getting from Sallie Mae and other lenders several years ago. Schools that can’t tap those other student pools are going to fail, and they’ll be dumping their medium-time CFIs onto the market. When schools start hiring again, their CFIs that just recently finished will be first in line, and those medium-time CFIs from failed schools are going to be the next most attractive candidates. You can see this in the few advertised CFI jobs–the ones that are out there are asking for a minimum of 500 hrs TT.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do. At the Vegas career seminar 2 years ago, I talked to BoatPix but didn’t follow up on it thinking that I’d make the cut and get hired at my school. My timing couldn’t be worse: Silverstate had just failed, and I graduated right after 6 other students; 2 of them had just gotten hired. It was months before any of the other instructors got jobs and left, and 2 that left weren’t replaced. Especially in this economy, getting hired by another school is an improbable event, and last year at HAI half the schools I talked to wouldn’t even take a resume from me (I’m sure the others pitched my resumes before they left the building). BoatPix is now also swamped with CFIs who got on before the economy crashed. That leaves me with approximately zero options for now.

Gross Weight

Winter always brings a bit of weight gain for me. Around mid-October my activity level plunges (less yard work and it gets too nasty outside to run), but my calorie intake stays the same. Of course, there are the Thanksgiving and X-mas binges too. So for the second time in my life I’ve topped 170 lbs. This isn’t overweight for somebody with my build, but it’s about 15 lbs heavier than what I consider my ideal weight. And the last time I was at that weight was about 5 years ago. I like being fit–I look and feel better. But that $65,000 piece of plastic in my wallet is also riding on staying healthy.

Weight gain with aging is a common phenomenon–there’s even a term for it, creeping obesity. Through your mid-twenties, you’re active, pretty fit, and have a pretty high basal metabolic rate. You’re also probably unmarried without kids, underemployed, uninjured, and untethered to a house. As you saddle more responsibility, one of the first things to suffer is the time you set aside for exercise. What doesn’t change is your eating habits–with the affluence of steady employment, your diet is just as likely to get worse than when every grocery shopping trip drained your checking account.

This is basically what’s happened to me. A few years ago I was single and renting a place in Seattle. Technically I was in a long-distance relationship. But I had the free time to train for half-marathons and triathlons. Didn’t matter what I ate, since I was exercising enough that it was difficult to keep weight on. Then I moved, bought a house, gained a spouse-equivalent, and took on some added work responsibilities. Instead of running at lunch, swimming in the evening, and biking or hiking on the weekends, I was doing yard and house work, and spending longer days at my desk studying and working. The gym was an inconvenient 30-minute drive, and my mentality shifted from fueling an athletic goal. I also traveled more, ending up at gluttonous restaurants or eating in airport terminals. We just recently had a kid, and have had a stream of friends and family bringing tasty, fatty meals by. I also injured myself pretty good over-training for a half-marathon, making the long runs and hikes that I’d do all the time impossible.

These are exactly the life changes that contribute to creeping obesity. When I was 155 lbs and first tipped 160 lbs, I wasn’t worried. My pants actually fit better. A couple years later, I was holding a steady 162 lbs. Not too much different than 160 lbs. No worries. Last year I was a stable 165 lbs, with occasional incursions to 168 lbs. This is how it happens. A few pounds a year doesn’t alarm us, but over a 5- to 10-year period, you can be adding a tremendous amount of weight. Each pound is a challenge to take off, and that’s compounded because you’re further cemented into that weight-building lifestyle and less fit. Creeping obesity.

For me 170 lbs is my line in the sand. First off, I’m still flying an R22. I’m hoping to start flying with BoatPix in the spring, and 180 lbs is their limit. In a small helicopter, 10 lbs can make a difference in performance, endurance, and range, and most every employer I’ve talked to over the phone has asked me what my weight is within the first few minutes of our conversation. Every pound I’m carrying is a pound less of paying student that I can fly with. HEMS operators have weight limits for patients, and now they’re starting to put limits on their pilots too. Weight is a big deal for pilots, and your fat ass takes up revenue-earning cargo space.

In addition, weight gain is a symptom of other emerging problems. High-calorie diets and a sedentary lifestyle are gateways to diabetes, cardiovascular/cerebrovascular disease, and the other problems that come with obesity (like obstructive sleep apnea). These can all lead to a medical disqualification. From looking at posts on the forums, and my personal experience with friends and family, the first alarm goes off long after there’s a problem–when the doctor comes back with a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome/high blood sugar, or writes that prescription for blood-pressure or cholesterol meds. The typical course is that people–patients now–continue living the same lifestyle, and adding prescriptions or undergoing surgeries to control the consequent conditions.

That path is unacceptable if you have to sit for a second class medical every 12 months. Weight gain is the first sign that you need to make some lifestyle changes. Maybe in a later post I’ll talk about the lifestyle changes that I’m implementing. Just like a 100-ft altitude or 10-knot airspeed deviation is unacceptable in the cockpit, 170 lbs is an unacceptable weight for me.