Student or teacher: Which is harder?

So which is harder: learning to fly, or teaching people how to fly? I’ve been on both ends of that spectrum, and looking back, it’s hard to say.

There are a lot of things in life we have to learn, some which we don’t see the immediate value in or have an interest in, such as learning rote math facts or the difference between verbs, adverbs, and dangling participles. Other things that we learn are the result of optional endeavors, such as learning to play an instrument, painting, and flying. Those optional endeavors are not necessarily easy to learn, but because we choose to do them, they are either fun to learn, or “easier” to learn, because we are motivated to learn them.

Let’s face it. Some parts of learning to fly are easy, and some parts are downright hard. Learning the FARs is rote memorization, and much of it is common-sense stuff: Don’t fly too low over houses and highways; stay out of clouds; and get a good weather briefing. All of these are pretty simple.

Other stuff is much more work-intensive and more difficult to learn, landings being the most obvious one that comes to mind. Everyone has more trouble learning to land than anything else because you simply can’t replicate the same approach (or even the same control inputs and hand-eye reactions) on each attempt. That’s also one of many variables that make teaching landings so challenging.

Every student has certain maneuvers they struggle with more than others. I recall one who was absolutely terrified of steep turns, but had no trouble with stalls and slow flight. Another—a teenager, no less—had so much trouble learning to taxi that we spent an hour one day just following yellow lines and working on using his feet to turn. Talking on the radio comes naturally for some, but creates stage fright for others.

As a student, it’s possible that you will complete your certificate and possibly never take another organized lesson again outside of a flight review.

The CFI, on the other hand, must master not only the private syllabus, but also those of the commercial certificate and the instrument rating. Further, the CFI must also be able to fly and teach these maneuvers all from the right seat, which can be a challenge.

Learning the various maneuvers is one thing, but being able to break down all the material into bite-sized chunks that students can digest is something else. We’ve all had instructors who were better than others, whether it was because of patience or the ability to convey the subject in terms that student can understand. Having had it both ways, I think that learning to fly is more difficult, only because you are getting your initial exposure to so much. You need to learn the terminology, the acronyms, the skills, and so much more. Teaching flying forces you to slow everything down, but at least you already have (or should have) a basic grasp of the material.

Of course, it would be more accurate to say that one of the bigger challenges is learning how to teach people how to fly. Unfortunately, the first several students become the guinea pigs, and the airplane becomes the lab.

What are your thoughts?—Chip Wright

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  • Aaron Daniels

    Not an instructor, yet, I think the instructor role is going to be more challenging, because no matter the level of experience, somewhere in the process you are going to have to untrain a bad habit or two. I’ve rented in a lot of different locations as my club meets all over the country. And every check out instructor has helped me unlearn something that has crept in, or made easier something I was doing the hard way.

  • Daniel Brooks

    I honestly think that its harder being the CFI than the student.. as a student you only have to learn to replicate and learn the material your being taught. I think that the CFI has it harder because he has to worry about your safety and that of the aircraft, learning how to teach you to learn, how to get you to perform the material, having to know all the terms and meanings so that he can teach you, as well as many other more complicated things. The CFI has to learn and go thru the Instrument course as the ATP course and get signed off on all those before he can teach others to fly. So I think that a CFI has the harder job as they are trying to impart knowledge to the student in such a way that the student can learn..

  • Tim

    I think the hardest part about being a CFI is remembering what it was like to be a new student.

  • scott mcilvoy

    My CFI once told me that his job was to keep me from “killing him”
    Thanks could not have done it with out you..

  • best flight school india

    Learning to fly requires that you obtain the ability to manipulate the controls of the airplane and make it perform certain maneuvers.

  • Brett

    I would have to agree with everyone saying CFI. As a student, you may have certain difficulties learning to fly, but as a CFI, you have to manage various and constantly changing difficulties of multiple students to different points in their training.

  • Cary Alburn

    “It depends”. There were parts of instructing which I found pretty easy; there are other parts which were really challenging. Yet for me most of learning to fly was pretty challenging. It’s been a lot of years since I learned to fly, and also a lot of years since I last instructed. But my recollection is that it was much harder to learn to fly.

    Having a student freeze at the controls who was bigger and more powerful than I was, was a very definite challenge (I had to physically knock his hands off the controls). Sometimes things happened faster than I could talk–like talking someone else’s IR student through an approach in actual IMC when he wasn’t quite ready for it yet although his instructor had scheduled him for approaches in the next lesson (I had to complete the approach myself–easier to do than to talk him through it). But lots of instructing falls into place as the blocks of the student’s learning are built, one on top of the other, so long as the student cooperates by studying in advance of each lesson, arrives reasonably rested, listens, etc., in other words makes an effort to learn.

    I found instructing to be a lot of fun–watching the various “ah ha” moments occur is pretty gratifying. I admit that I also learned from my students–it’s amazing what some students will do to try to kill themselves and their instructor! :)