The Transitioning Student
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
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
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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