So you want to fly? Awesome! Welcome to the club :). The great part is that just by wanting to join the club, you’re already a de-facto member of a worldwide community of aviators, aviation enthusiasts, and You may ask yourself, “Self, how do I start?” Well, I have a few observations on this, and a couple of tips for the new pilot based on watching and being involved in flight training for the past 7 years. NOTE: These tips are offered free of charge, and advice is generally worth what you pay for it……
So, you may be expecting a step-by-step list or 10 ways to get a pilots license or perhaps a matrix of things to check off. Nah, not here. There are tons of great places to find that information, quick google searches for things like “how to pick a flight school”, or “how do I get my pilots license” will yield a mountain of information which I cannot possibly make any better. Now if you knew me personally or had ever taken a class or flown with me you would know that we are going to find the parts of the topic that no one really wants to talk about and then dive right in.
As opposed to many other forms of education or training, the nature of American flight training and pilot development follows an interesting flow. Generally, but certainly not always flight instruction is given by instructors who are quite new and inexperienced. Now, many countries and senior aviators scoff at this concept and will often mumble some useless opinion disparaging the current state of instruction. There is neither time nor interest on my part in arguing this. It is neither good nor bad, it just….is. There are many fantastic instructors who are so new that the ink has yet to dry on their temporary certificate who have the ability to provide safe, efficient, and competent flight instruction. And there are many senior pilots who give instruction that is unprofessional, opinionated, and dangerous. Again, this situation exists for many reasons, it is neither good nor bad, it just IS. This concept does not change whether you fly with ‘ol Hank down at the local grass strip, or at the biggest, best, most organized shiny flight school ever. Instructors are certified based on their ability to fly, their aeronautical experience, and a minimal amount of experience in the FOI (fundamentals of instruction) which is a fancy term for how people learn things. So what does this mean for you the student? It means that your instructor may or may NOT actually be a great natural teacher. What you can be assured of is that they completed the minimum standards to become a flight instructor, no more, no less.
What does this mean for you the student? It really means that YOU are going to have to look out for yourself. The concept of Pilot in Command starts with you and your own training. Prior to being allowed to solo in an airplane or helicopter, or take a check ride (aka. oral and practical examination) your instructor will have to evaluate whether they feel you can act as Pilot in Command or PIC of the aircraft. Command means
- Be pathologically punctual (show up on time or early…..as much as you can)
- Be nice, practice the golden rule
- Work with your instructor to set your goals
- Be prepared for a flight, and if you are not, don’t try to fake it, admit it and communicate that to your instructor.
- Look up information, don’t rely on others opinions or memory, FIND IT IN THE BOOK.
- Proactively deal with money or life situations before they become a problem. Example, if you feel you may run short on funds, discuss it with your instructor or the flight school staff BEFORE it becomes an issue. If you have a family or life issue come up, COMMUNICATE that to your instructor
- Expect your instructor to be punctual, prepared, and communicative to you. If they are not, ask them why. Be clear in your expectations of them and hold them to it. If they do not respect your expectations, find a different instructor. Be very careful not to project your fears or shortcomings onto them and blame them.
- Expect your instructor to practice what they preach. If the FAR’s (Federal Aviation Regulations) state something and the instructor breaks that rule, ask them about it. If they are making things up or lying to you, get a different instructor.
- Always remember that your instructor is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. Facts and opinions are two very different things. If they cannot back a training concept up with an FAR reference or other data, then it is an opinion. It will be very important in your piloting experience to know the difference.
Talk about the things that are uncomfortable. For many reasons, either possessing or developing an ability to discuss uncomfortable topics is one part of the foundation of being a safe pilot in my opinion. How might you handle answering questions from your private or commercial passengers who ask if they are going to die in a crash on this flight? How will you coach as a CFI (certified flight instructor) if you have to tell a student that they should possibly give up their dreams of being a pilot because they cannot overcome a hazardous attitude? How will you approach conversations about money with clients or your flight school of choice, especially of money is getting tight and you or your student might run out before achieving a certificate or rating? How will you take action as PIC if a passenger refuses an instruction just before taking off? How might you handle a situation if you fly with a very experienced pilot on a flight review and they are consistently not performing a maneuver to standards but still expect you to sign them off as having completed it to standard? Being able to discuss uncomfortable situations before getting angry or backing away from doing the right thing is a critical skill for a pilot. Here’s a big one, how do you discuss unsafe or illegal operations that company you work for might be doing?
This will apply only to those wanting to work in aviation professionally. Always remember, your flight training from day 1 to the final check ride for your last rating or certificate is a long job interview. Whether you want to work at the flight school you train at, or another place, your reputation will follow you in this small industry. If you show up in sweatpants and a dirty old t-shirt late to every flight and unprepared (don’t laugh, many do this very thing) it would be very unreasonable to expect the job offers to come pouring forth the day after you get your CFI certificate. Yet, it never fails to surprise some folks. I recommend this to my students “be yourself, but always strive to be the best version of yourself you can be.” Not everyone wants to wear a suit to every day of flight training, but you may want to leave the sweats with the holes in the crotch in the bottom of the laundry basket when running out the door to fly. Just sayin…..
Understand that there will be grey areas……. so many grey areas. By grey areas I mean legal, ethical, moral in-betweens and undefined areas. You will have to constantly work as a pilot to identify where you are. Situational awareness includes the legal and ethical “space” you are operating in. Back to the top I mentioned opinions and facts. Make a habit of “looking in the book” to establish the EXACT rules that govern what you are doing. As PIC you are solely responsible for determining whether the aircraft is in safe condition for flight. You bet your ass you will be held liable for that very broad concept if and when you have to answer to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) or a courtroom. So, in the spirit of being prepared for the flight, you may want to actually crack open the logbook to check the maintenance records and make sure that things have been taken care of. But, in order to do that, you have to use the FAR’s and the aircraft maintenance manual to even know what the required maintenance intervals are. And…. you should also be aware of any applicable AD’s (airworthiness directives) on the airframe, accessories, engines, propellers that need to be signed off. So, just in this small example to truly make an educated assessment of airworthiness, the PIC should have a fairly detailed knowledge of applicable laws, manufacturer requirements, and maintenance practices before they ever even perform the daily walk around inspection or pre-flight inspection on the aircraft. There is not possibly enough time to even get into all the operational grey areas. Here’s a quick example: you have a commercial charter and the passengers show up in a group and bring a bunch of extra small bags with them that you didn’t plan on. You’re running on schedule, and you have to guess at the weights of the bags. In this case you may or may not have an accurate weight on your cargo, but as PIC you are legally required to know this prior to taking the charter…. so how are you going to handle that? It is of critical importance to arm oneself with knowledge and critical thinking skills to make all of the grey areas in this profession as small as possible, but also important to accept that not all of them will be completely erased. Even a part 121 airline operation cannot erase all grey areas. Modern weather forecasting and radar cannot see or predict everything, the PIC of an airliner must still accept that there are things out of their control and be prepared on how to deal with those situations. As a student pilot, are you aware that you may have to ground yourself if you take any medications not allowed by the FAR’s, or even medications that you are unfamiliar with? Are you going to cancel a flight if you take an allergy medication that you’ve never tried before? You should probably know the rules around this situation.
YOU are teaching yourself how to fly an airplane or helicopter. Your instructor cannot teach you, they can provide tips, techniques, and demonstrations, but your brain and body is learning the skills needed. This concept is simple but oh so powerful. Your instructor’s job is to create a safe learning environment. Your instructor cannot “make” you learn faster or slower than your natural pace. Your instructor can only create the “space” for you to safely learn. A very important concept that all students should understand fully is that learning is significantly slowed down or impaired by fear and anxiety. If you are scared, you do not learn as quickly, if you are anxious about something, mastering the skills you need will take more time. This is particularly poignant when it comes to the concept of proactively managing your money. Money is a big stressor for many people. The classic situation is one in which the student is running low on money and just needs to get ready for a checkride. But, the anxiety surrounding the finances can often become a roadblock which takes more flight hours to solve, which further causes money stress. Back to being communicative, by expressing anxieties and fears with your instructor, you can get into the cockpit in a low anxiety and low stress place, and your flying will improve faster because you are starting with your mind and body an a ready to learn state. Fitness and nutrition play a big role in how well our bodies and brains perform, this is very evident when trying to learn new skills, particularly as adults.
It is my intention for this site to be a place where uncomfortable and critical concepts can be discussed in a mutually respectful environment, if you care to comment or discuss, please feel free to do so!
Keep the landing gear down and the whirly bits up – Johnny