Safety Article

Shaking the Rust Off

The Challenges of Teaching Flight Students


        There is something about the early morning call to “clear prop” that excites many about aviation. The hours spent as a flight student can be some of the most difficult and rewarding of one’s life. It comes with ups and downs, literally, and is the process by which future pilots are crafted to as close to perfection as we can dream of being. I was a flight student. I had moments where I wanted to tear my hair out for lack of progressing on subjects, but also moments where I took to the sky after mastering a new technique. My experiences as a flight student are shared by many, and now that I am a flight instructor, I can see the other half of the equation.

        Flight training takes work, no doubt about it. Those students who are unable or unwilling to study the material often do not perform nearly as well and it becomes frustrating to the students and instructors alike. Some of these students take a fair amount of time to get through their ratings. Weather, finances, lack of motivation, family reasons – they all delay the training process. Unfortunately, the longer one delays training, the “rustier” they become. It can be challenging to get a student back into the mindset of flight training after extensive downtime. It is up to the flight instructor to combat some of the hurdles that prolonged time out of the airplane can bring about.

        One of the most noticeable challenges is basic fundamentals of flight. Students who have been out of the aircraft usually have a hard time keeping up with the airplane and controlling it correctly. Oftentimes this goes away fairly quickly, but the instructor has to remember that flight training is based off of fundamentals and works its way up. If the instructor tries to jump right back into complex training before giving the student time to get used to the feel of an airplane again, s/he is only hindering the student further. Take my student Steve (anonymized). Steve spent a good deal of time at a Part 61 school in the northeast. He learned on a Cessna 152, then did his instrument rating in a Cessna 172. He built up a lot of cross country time to qualify for his ratings, then after the checkride, he took a long while before moving to Provo, Utah to continue with his commercial certificate. He enrolled at a Part 141 school and began training in a Diamond DA42 Twinstar; a multi-engine, complex airplane with a glass cockpit and fully automated engine controls. As we began training, I could see my student struggling with simple things like keeping the nose on the horizon because he was so overwhelmed with everything going on inside the cockpit. He was distracted, and effective learning just wasn’t taking place. At the school where I teach, we do the instrument rating in the Diamond DA40, giving the students the opportunity to learn and master the G1000 system on a single engine airplane prior to their multi-engine training. Steve wasn’t as fortunate and he struggled. The pace of the aircraft coupled with the rigorous study environment of a Part 141 school hindered his training significantly.    

        I had the idea after a couple of lessons to do a flight in the DA40 with Steve to see if the single engine airplane would be more to his comfort level. Steve amazed me! His aircraft control improved dramatically and he began to show real improvement in his ability to master the aircraft. Allowing a bit of time to take a step back and get the student in a somewhat familiar situation gave Steve the confidence to progress towards his commercial rating. It was an eye-opening experience for me to slow things down, even at a Part 141 level to allow for real and effective learning to take place.    

        Another obstacle that students deal with is aeronautical experience. Steve came to me with 220 hours of total time. He told me that he “only had 30 hours” until his commercial checkride. Steve was constantly in the mindset of his checkride happening at exactly 250 hours, regardless of his level of preparation. This put him in a mindset of not learning how to fly the airplane but simply training to pass a checkride, and it closed him off to real learning.

        My advice for CFIs attempting to teach a student who is just not progressing is to take a step back and determine the root cause of why they aren't progressing. Think outside the box. Change things up. Do whatever works best for your student, because no student learns exactly the same as others. Be creative in how to help your students progress and keep things honest and real. It will go a long way!