The Transitioning Student

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI


Originally published in AOPA Flight Training Magazine - January 2012


Before I started teaching flying I was… well… a teacher. That is to say, I taught in the public school system prior to becoming a flight instructor. At some point on the first day of a new school year every teacher will hear, “That’s not the way Mrs. Smith used to do it!” Kids get used to the style and methods of their teachers, and when they get a new one it can take some time to become comfortable with the new routine. The same thing happens when a flight student changes instructors, and CFIs would do well to think about how best to work with a transitioning student. Some flexibility may be called for instead of saying, “My way, or the Victor airway!”

Students come to new CFIs for many reasons - some good, some bad and some merely incidental – but there will always be a period of adjustment. In the case of a student and instructor who didn’t get along for some reason, it may be more of an issue. In any event, flight instructors should try to put themselves in the client’s place in order to smooth the transition. What would they like to see in their new CFI compared to the previous one? Was it how their old CFI flew, taught or how they treated the client?

I have inherited many flight students. After listening to the client’s history and glancing at their logbook, I usually give a short speech: “I may do some things differently from your other instructor, or have other ways of thinking on a few topics. That doesn’t mean he was wrong and I’m right; there are just different ways of doing things. If you prefer a different method than mine for a given task, as long as it’s safe and consistent, I’ll probably be OK with it.”

My reasoning for this approach is that there are many aviation tasks that can be accomplished safely with different techniques. Re-training a person just to suit my tastes would be a waste of time and money for the client. For example, during a landing pattern do you begin deploying flaps in the downwind leg or abeam the touchdown point? In a training aircraft I prefer to first make a power reduction abeam the threshold and then select flaps, and that’s what I usually teach. But I know other pilots and instructors who like to extend partial flaps in the downwind prior to the power reduction. It slows things down a bit for the student, and is a perfectly acceptable technique most of the time. If a student comes to me having learned it that way, fine, so long as they do it consistently. Later on I might teach a more high speed approach for busier airports.

Occasionally I might augment something that has already been learned to accommodate my preferences. Most students have been trained to keep scanning for traffic, and to look before they turn. To ensure my students are doing that, I ask them to say, “clear right” or “clear left” before turns. So while I may not have taught them anything new about visual scanning, asking them to make this minor change requires only minimal adjustment from the student.

Leaving students aside for a moment, flight reviews for rated pilots often call for a fair amount of flexibility. You’re probably not going to make major changes to how a person flies in just an hour or three. Apart from anything else we’ve agreed to work on during a flight review, I’ll watch for any obvious safety issues. If I don’t see any I’ll sometimes make minor suggestions or demonstrate alternate techniques. This is usually in the spirit of, “If you’re interested, here’s another way to look at that…”

But as much we try to be accommodating whenever possible, what happens when a client shows up with habits the instructor simply finds unacceptable? It may then be necessary for a CFI to put her foot down and insist on a change, but this can be done diplomatically.

Let me tell you about Steve. He came to me after completing about two thirds of his Private Pilot license at a flight school in a different part of the country. Although he had soloed, Steve hadn’t logged any flight time without an instructor for a while. As we prepared to return him to solo status there was one issue I found alarming - he neglected to use the landing checklist. Normally, I’ll make allowances for different techniques, but this was just not acceptable.

Surprisingly, he resisted my emphasis on checklist usage. He didn’t want to be burdened with juggling a piece of paper while flying the pattern. And anyway it’s a simple aircraft – there’s not really much to do, right? After a few too many landings where I was the one to enrich the mixture, I eventually felt it was time to make my point.

“First, it’s important that these items are completed even in a basic trainer,” I told him. Steve nodded mildly. “But I assume you will eventually fly more complex airplanes, and then forgetting the checklist is asking for a gear up landing. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if that happened after I trained you.” Steve accepted that thought more soberly.

I told him I needed to see evidence of checklist usage before retarding the power to begin every landing approach, no exceptions. But – he didn’t have to physically take out a piece of paper. We could mount a small checklist to the panel, or he could verbally do GUMPS – Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop / Pumps, Speed / Switches. Either would satisfy me, and develop the proper habits for when he eventually did fly a plane with a controllable prop and retractable gear.

I believe giving him a choice in how to perform the landing checklist sat better with Steve than if I had simply made an iron clad directive couched as an ultimatum. He was soon getting the job done consistently, and soloed again before long.

Remember that the student is also a client. While we should be firm on safety issues, there may be ways to make the transition to a new instructor easier by being flexible. If you as a CFI insist on having your way in every instance, your client may decide to make another change.

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