I harp on a lot of things, but this is one of the more worthy ones. Take charge of your training!
I see so many people just wander aimlessly into flight schools for lesson after lesson with no clear idea of what they’re supposed to have learned by the time they wander back out and no clear idea of when they’ll become a certificated pilot (or get that additional rating, etc.). I imagine that a brief conversation occurs on the taxi out to the run-up area and then the pair in the airplane go do this maneuver or that maneuver and then burn the last 30 minutes of the lesson in the pattern.
I’m not saying that you have to take your checkride at 40 hours to be a success, but you should make the most of every lesson so that you feel as though you’re making progress.
For starters, if you’re working from your school’s syllabus, get it out and go through it. See what you need to work on and always have at least two flight profiles in mind. One for beautiful CAVU days and one for low-ceiling days when you can fly but might not be able to do all of the maneuvers that you need to work on.
A typical set of plans that I might have had as a primary student would have been (a) CAVU: Slow flight x 3; straight-ahead power-off stalls x 3; turning power-off stalls x 3; steep turns each way x 3 and return for pattern work, and (b) Low ceiling: Turns around a point x 3; S-turns over a road x 3; pilotage; and return for pattern work. You probably already know what you need to work on, so take 10 minutes right now and sketch out two profiles.
Most flight instructors are good about helping you through the syllabus, but it’s rare that an instructor remembers your specific situation and is up to date on what you did on your last two lessons and what you need this lesson. The instructor might do it for you, but it’s always better when you take charge yourself.
In the less likely event that your instructor just doesn’t pay much attention to your progress but you’re not at a good point in your training to drop the instructor, at least you’ll have your eye on the ball and you’ll be able to wring value out of the lesson despite the lack of participation by the instructor.
(By the way, it’s always a good time to switch instructors if you’re not satisfied with your progress and the instructor isn’t paying attention to your progress. If you can’t find another instructor at your present school, check out http://www.aopa.org/letsgoflying/ready/choose/search.cfm and consider switching. You’re paying too much money and potentially compromising safety if you’re flying with an insufficiently attentive instructor. Poor instructors are the exception and not the rule, but they’re out there.)
Check out the Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 61, Subpart E for private pilot (14 CFR §§ 61.102 – 61.117, available at http://tinyurl.com/6w3gh6) and Part 61, Subpart J for sport pilot (14 CFR §§ 61.301 – 61.329, available at http://tinyurl.com/88ywdz). I cut the private requirements from a web browser session and pasted them into a Word document and kept that document in my logbook so I always had ready access to the requirements and could remind myself of the standards for which I was preparing. You should, too.
Note that there are different requirements for training under Part 141 (14 CFR §§ 141.1 - 141.101, available at http://tinyurl.com/7w69h9) and it usually depends on your Part 141 school’s syllabus. If you’re training at a Part 141 school, make sure that you check your syllabus or sit down with an instructor or other advisor from the school to go over requirements.
I’m not saying that you need to push your instructor around. (Instructors get enough of that from Bonanza-eyed doctors and lawyers.) If your instructor has a good reason for switching up your plans, just ask why and try to understand the reason. It might be that you want to spend a bunch of time in the pattern trying to hammer out the landing flare when your instructor has noticed that your slow-flight skills could use work and would rather work on that because it’ll probably help you fly the mushy-feeling aircraft through that flare. Listen and evaluate and make it a collaborative process.
The bottom line is that you’re an adult (or nearly so) who flies airplanes. If you’re competent and talented enough to operate an aircraft, you’re sufficiently mature to pay attention to your progress and make sure that your training is meeting your needs. Track your own progress, always know where you’re weak, and always be ready to talk intelligently with your instructor about what you need and how you’re going to get it.
If you show up with a solid idea of what you need, your instructor is much more likely to respond positively, take you seriously, and be more attentive to you. You’ll get more value out of each lesson because you won’t waste time wondering what you should do on the flight. You can have that part done before you even arrive at the airport and that’s one less thing you have to have going through your head while you’re preflighting. Additionally, you’re likely to be safer because you already have the flight profile decided on and you can devote more focus to executing that flight profile instead of thinking about it while you should be watching for traffic, paying attention to your airspeed, etc.
Easier, higher-value, safer, and more efficient. That’s what you flight training will be if you take charge of your own flight training and play an active part in getting to the prize: That picture of you on the ramp with your new temporary private pilot certificate!