Finding a Good Flight Instructor

Second installment in a two-part stream of consciousness. Here’s the first part if you didn’t read it already, but if you want the short-attention span version, basically I was talking about some of the attributes good instructors have. This part is more relevant to the wannabe helicopter pilot: How can I tell if I’m getting a good instructor?

“I’m confused…isn’t this the same thing you were talking about in the first part?” Nope. Here’s why.

Helicopter flight instructors usually don’t teach for too long–CFI is usually considered a stepping stone to a “real job”. If you get a seasoned instructor in the helicopter industry, you’re probably only his 4th or 5th student. That’s not a lot of time to figure out how to be an effective instructor, even for the most motivated CFI. So when you’re on that demo ride with a bright and smiling 200-hr CFI, how can you sort out if he’s going to bumble through his next 1000 hrs of dual, leaving a wake of confused students, or whether he’s going to figure out how to teach you what you need to know to be a proficient pilot? This part, also based on research done by Teach for America, might be some help. And, maybe, flight schools can take TFA’s findings to heart when they are making hiring decisions.

Attitude is everything in the helicopter industry. Even if you haven’t even learned how to hover, you’ve probably already heard this pearl of wisdom. This part is true: a good attitude will open doors for you and get you through the tough times. But good instructors have more than a good attitude: they have a track-record for perseverance. Effective instructors have demonstrated that they can pursue and follow-through on long-term goals. Simply saying “all I ever wanted to be was a helicopter pilot” and keeping a positive attitude about attaining that goal through the hard times isn’t good enough. An instructor that has successfully completed college or built a business has demonstrated perseverance. An instructor that spent years getting his ratings might be a better choice than the good stick who was in the right place at the right time.

Reevaluation and continuous improvement is another predictor of a good instructor. Again, given the short tenure for helicopter flight instructors, it might be hard to evaluate whether your instructor can constantly reassess his effectiveness and improve his teaching method since even the most experienced ones won’t have been at it too long. One way you can judge this attribute is by asking about their past academic performance or work experience. In this case, the better instructor is the one who might have started off as average but improved over time–not the brainiac who always got straight As or the slacker who never moved from the sales floor to a management position. The instructors that had to work and improve in other endeavors are more likely to apply the same process of reevaluation and improvement as helicopter flight instructors.

Not all helicopter flight instructors have a college degree to point at, but don’t think that means you don’t have other ways of looking at their ability to reevaluate and improve. Try looking at leadership performance. This is more for flight schools than students, but have your instructors taken charge of a project, seen it through to the end, and had some tangible results to show for it all in the end? For example, when I’m reviewing resumes from low-time pilots, I always ask the older guys if they’ve had a business or management experience—that’s leadership performance. Employers want to know this because it tells them about the applicant’s capacity for self-improvement, and this is something every student and flight school should be looking for from their instructors.

Good instructors also apply the “I do, we do, you do” model. This is covered in the FOI, but you really need to put it in practice as an instructor because it works. Every instructor I’ve flown with has skipped the “we do” part (and students are complicit in this–they want to get on the controls rather than sitting and watching). This takes some creativity, and there’s no resource that provides any guidance for a motivated instructor trying to figure out the “we do” part for individual maneuvers. But here are a couple of examples I thought of:

  • Hovering: “Tell me when you see the helicopter starting to drift, and tell me what to do…left cyclic, right cyclic, forward, backward…”
  • Approaches: “Am I high or low, fast or slow? What’s the corrective action?”
  • “Quick” stops: “You tell me how to do the maneuver.” (“Level, lower, pedal, aft…flare, flare, flare…level, power”, for example.)
  • Autorotations: “Tell me how to correct any deviations from our glide configuration”, “Tell me when to initiate the flare and add power.”

This method keeps students from learning bad habits because they don’t understand the underlying concepts or steps. Primacy also plays into this–the first time a student does something makes an impression, and if that first time included incorrect inputs, they now have to unlearn them before they can learn the correct ones.

Good instructors also recognize that students aren’t very good at evaluating their understanding. This tears at the method of assessing students’ understanding by ending every lesson by asking “Do you have any questions?” According to TFA, students may think they understand, but if actually challenged to demonstrate their understanding, they can’t do it. An instructor who merely relies on student self-assessment to judge teaching efficacy isn’t collecting the info he needs to really evaluate whether his teaching methods are effective. (And recall questions like “What maintenance can a private pilot perform on his helicopter?” don’t test understanding–they only test memorization.) Even if students are saying they understand the lesson, or they’re getting recall questions correct, they probably aren’t making the deeper connections that will allow them to apply that information in the helicopter.

In the first part, I also said some of TFA’s findings also apply beyond the flight school environment and into your career as a helicopter pilot. Many of the qualities that make a good instructor are also the same things employers like to see on a resume. When I talked about how a college degree can give you an edge, it’s not about the knowledge you’ve gained, but it’s demonstrating your good attitude backed by a track record for perseverance. Recurrent training: additional education beyond the minimums might demonstrate that you are willing to make the effort to improve your skills above the minimum requirements. And the reason you list accomplishments under your job title on your resume is to show that you can take charge, follow a project through, and walk away at the end with some sort of tangible result.

One last thing TFA might be able to teach you. There are some things that we think make somebody a good helicopter flight instructor, but ultimately they don’t matter. Charisma. Ambition, whether they know where they want to be and have the drive to get there, or whether they have grand plans for where they want their students to be. Extroversion. In the end, a smile and a good attitude is useless without knowledge, perseverance, practice, and improvement. This is important, because when we go shopping–whether it’s for dinner, a new car, or a flight instructor–most of us are going to go with the person who sells himself rather than the person who can actually deliver on their promises.

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