Instructors to Remember … and Forget

After 40 years in both the flying and communicating side of the aviation business, it’s almost impossible for me to remember that I almost allowed my first flight instructor to drive me completely away from the business many years ago. Although he’s long gone – I hope – the lessons still seem significant enough to pass on today at a time when the industry’s hunting and pecking for every possible student pilot. Lucky for me, another CFI entered my life years later and completely turned my world around.

7FC TriChamp

Photo courtesy Chris Houston

In 1966 I was a 17-year old freshman at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation and anxious to learn to fly. I never doubted my goal … to be an airline pilot.

In those days, student pilots and instructors at the school were randomly paired and I drew a guy named Tom. We flew the mighty 90-hp 7FC Tri-Champ with the student in front and the instructor behind.

School began in late September with ground school and the “Box,” a name we’d all attached to the Link trainer we were expected to master before we took to the air. I never realized I was a bit claustrophobic until the first time Tom sat me in the box, closed the door and pulled the cover down on top of me leaving me in nearly total darkness. We didn’t brief much before we began so not surprisingly, the sessions didn’t go well since I never really understood the point of moving a control stick inside a dark little room as dials and gauges spun like mad before my eyes. Looking back on it today, I realize Tom talked a lot, asked few questions and simply assumed I was following. Another was that I hadn’t yet flown the airplane. Finally one day I did.Link_Trainer

I clearly loved every moment in the air despite being nearly clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, except for reminders from the back seat like … “what are you doing that for?” It was at about the five-hour mark that things started to get really ugly because I just didn’t seem to be coming together. I remember landing practice. Right near the pavement on the first few, Tom started yelling … “Flare, flare, flare.” Crunch! The Tri-Champ was pretty forgiving despite hitting hard enough to knock the headset off my head a few times. After an hour of that we taxied in and shut down. Tom grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard from the back seat. “Why didn’t you flare when I told you too?” Somewhat worn out I just stared out the windshield and asked, “What’s a flare?”

I actually managed to solo the next week and was cleared to the pattern alone which helped my confidence enormously. But soon I was back in the Tri-Champ and the Link with Tom and the yelling never ended. To make matters worse, he began slapping me along side the head and yelling when I screwed up. With 15 hours total time, I finally broke. At 17 I knew I would never learn to fly. I quit school AND flying and never touched the controls of another airplane.

Until …

Jump ahead five years as I arrived to my last Air Force duty station. How I got there is too long a story right now. It’s what happened next that’s important.

Within a few days of arrival I located the base flying club. Outside the main door near the aircraft parking area sat a small set of stadium seats near the fence. I’d spend time there watching the Piper Cherokees come and go, some with two people inside, some with just one. I didn’t go into the clubhouse though.

One day, as one of the airplanes pulled up near the fence where I was eating my lunch, the engine didn’t shut down. The guy in the right seat seemed to be engaged in a conversation with the pilot. Finally the door opened, the guy in the right seat hopped out and shut the door patting it a few times after he did. As the airplane pulled away the right seat guy came over to the seats saying hi as he did. Half an hour later the Cherokee returned and the guy next to me left to greet him. Later I learned the pilot was on his second supervised solo and the fellow who’d waved to me was his instructor.

Maybe aRob in a 605 copy week or so later I’m back out on the seats just watching the airplanes when that same instructor comes out of the clubhouse door. He looks around and happens to see me so he walks over to the fence. “Why aren’t you out there flying on such a beautiful day,” he asks. “I’m not a pilot.” “Really?” he says. “You sure hang around here a lot for a guy who doesn’t fly. My name’s Ray. Stop in one of these days,” he said before turning away toward one of the airplanes. The challenge glove had been thrown down.

I didn’t go back to the viewing stand the rest of that week. It was simply too scary to think of being close to something I really loved but had already failed at.

The next week though, I did go back, but only back to the seats. To this day I think Ray was watching for me because he came out of the clubhouse door and waved … “Well, are you coming in?” I sighed deeply but got up and walked over and in the clubhouse door. And that, as they say, was that. Over some coffee, I told Ray my story of failure. Didn’t even slow him down because an hour later we went out flying … and I never stopped again. I went on to earn my ATP and my own flight instructor ratings, fly for a couple of airlines, a charter company and a couple of Part 91 corporate flight departments. As an aviation writer, I even managed to grab a couple of hours in an Airbus A-380. It has all been just so sweet.

My instructor Tom nearly ended my aviation career, but luckily there was another fabulous instructor like Ray out there waiting to offer me a hand up with a little encouragement, which is all I apparently needed.

Today I wonder how many instructors like Tom are still out there. Trust me, one like him is one too many.

So do us all in the industry a favor and offer a ride to that kid sitting outside the fence if you have the chance. You might just change their life.


  1. Robert Stambovsky

    April 23, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    It’s too bad the only way to build time is to instruct. “There are pilots, instructors, and instructor pilots”.
    RS, USMC ret

    • As an instructor, students also have to take some responsibility for their actions. It’s not always the instructors fault. Some students just don’t or want to get it. No matter who flies with them. Some students especially ones going for advanced ratings have been pampered so much that when you try to tell them or instruct them in something they respond back by telling you “You are talking down to them”. I’m sorry, this is a dangerous business we are in and some things cannot be tolerated. My butt is also up there with them.

      • As both Student and Coach, it has been my experience that most any individual who makes a conscious decision to learn to fly has fully taken responsibility for their actions … those who don’t generally find out in relatively short order and desist of their own volition.
        Instructors however are “instructing” for a battery of reasons, but mostly as a stepping stone to bigger and better career opportunities. This in itself engenders a variety of attitudes, many not always so student friendly in an atypical learning environment where understanding, confidence and trust are absolutely essential to a newcomer’s equanimity.
        So it behooves the instructor “to get it” and remain ever the guiding hand of his student’s progressions … Or do not commit to instructing …
        Though a good student can make an instructor look good, it is the Good Instructor who makes a competent Pilot!

  2. I began my flying education with not one but 3 in a row of the type of instructor most assuredly better to forget … The first way too “handsy” in what he termed a “cosy environment”, the second a “controls grabber”, the third an “anything but straight and level” type … None of whom should have ever been licensed to practice their “scare tactics” on anyone, let alone a budding aviator. I just about quit when a true flight educator came to the school … and masterfully shepherded me through all of my subsequent licensing (including an instrument rating) that base allowing me over time to wrack up a few thousand hours flying (privately) throughout North America, Australia and New Zealand (with trip articles published in Av Mags and a book).
    This to encourage budding flyers to never be discouraged from your goal by anyone, never accept “second best” – just persist till you find “the right fit” for your personal learning curve!

  3. There are a few left dedicated to pilot instruction however America is losing its soul, everyone wants to occupy St-Peter’s chair. It is time to VALUE a lot more the “Job” of the person who taught you how to fly. I admire those who taught me how to fly And cherish their enthusiasm.

  4. I started flying right after 9/11 because I didn’t like being treated like a potential criminal. I worked straight through till I became a commercial, multi engine, instrument rated pilot. It took almost a year and seven instructors. I was completely disinchanted with the teaching experience several times. Apparently I am a jacka–! I tried four different flight schools until I found ‘the guy’ although he quit instructing within a year of teaching me! Had I not been persistent trying to find an instructor I could work with I would not be a pilot today. One of the problems for me was how nubulous and undefined the process is. Another problem is you are taught to flight but not how to go anywhere or how to enjoy the freedom.

    • James, I which I would have had the honor of being your flight instructor. A bit about me… 3 months prior to being commissioned a Marine Corps officer and a guaranteed flight school contract (not guaranteed to get through flight school, just to walk in the door) I went to the local airport, met my flight instructor and was certified “Private Pilot” before my active duty began. I recall much of my time with my first flight instructor. Although I was her first student, she was good.
      My first day as a flight instructor came three years later as a Weapons and Tactics instructor in a Marine Light/Attack helicopter squardon. In the following 17 years I had several thousand of hours teaching tactics such as how to engage a target with a flight of four in the middle of the night from 100 AGL, to taking a 2nd Lieutenant or Ensign out for their first flight lesson while spending a three year tour as an instructor VT-27, Naval Flight School. I followed that up with my CFI, CFII, MEI. Now I work primarily as a business jet pilot and spend most days from 15,000 feet to FL 450. My point is I have taught in helicpoters at 40 feet to jets at 45,000 feet and most everything in between to include C152s, Mooneys, Arrows, Bonanzas the Duchess and Twin Pipers. In both the military and civilian realm I have had the reputation of being the instructor that would take the students that other instructors gave up on.
      I have had my share of all flavors of flight instructors over the years. I am happy the author found Ray and has gone on to be successful in aviation. Also, I wish every instructor would read the story above.
      Military flight and military flight instruction are far different from civilians and civilian flight instruction so my next few comments are to you regarding only the civilian flight experience.
      It really doesn’t matter how you describe yourself as long as you are willing to learn and put forth the effort required. As there are all flavors of instructors, there are all flavors of students.
      You have the same right to good flight instruction as the next guy, and you should never be another stepping stone for some pilot to get to the airlines. You make a couple of good points.
      “How undefined the process is…” That comment leads one to think you went through Part 61 to get you Private. Either way, the entire program from beginning to end should be laid out for you and you should be able to chart your progress. With every flight, every brief, every ground lesson you should be able to see why you need to learn this and how it will make you a better pilot and how it gets you closer to your PP certificate.
      “You are taught to fly but not to go anywhere”. That is very disappointing to read. Although most Part 141 courses are very structured and have certain tasks to accomplish on each flight, from very early in the process you should have been orientated to where you are and where you are going. Most airports have a ‘practice area’ where instructors take students to do the required maneuvers. At a minimum you should have been taught how to get to the practice area and the next airport and able to do it without instructor aid using pilotage and dead reckoning. Of course your solo cross country implies that you learned how to “go somewhere”.
      “… or how to enjoy the freedom”. Oh, how I wish I could have been your instructor. Typically I end my classroom part of the lesson saying, ‘okay, now let’s go have some fun’. Being a flight student is a lot of work, but let’s not forget what brought us all to these cockpits; we want to have fun. Therefore, I ask each of my students to take at least 60 to 90 seconds on the flight controls, doing whatever they want with the airplane, looking out the window, instructor being quiet, and having the student just enjoying sitting there, being in the sky, looking at the ground below and feeling proud of himself or herself. No matter how difficult or frustrating the flight lesson is or the day has been I find this brief time enjoying being a pilot (enjoying the freedom) pays a great deal of dividends and reinforces to the maturing pilot what it is all about. After the preflight on the walk back to the hangar I ask, “well, did you have fun?” which is usually followed by a smile and some positive words.
      I am happy you were persistent and able to knock down each obstacle placed in front of you. Congratulations, and I wish you continued aviation success.

      • I loved reading your story and was moved by your comments on “how to enjoy the freedom”. I first got a PPL 18 1/2 years ago (while 8 months pregnant with my first born). I only flew for a year or so after that as time and money and the pulls of the world took over. Actually, there is a whole other story there, common to many pilots I am sure, about the motivation to fly once the PPL has been achieved, but that is for another day. This year for Christmas my husband pulled out my dusty flight bag, stuck a gift card in it, and told me to go back to it. So, I am three hours in working on re-certifying. All my previous flying had been in Cessna 150s or 152s and the training center uses 172s now…that has been an interesting (and more expensive) experience, and I am getting the feel of it. All of these stories encourage me to keep up my confidence and keep thinking about the “why” of what we are doing, not just the “what” we are doing. As a student again, it is stressful to have someone watching my every move. I have barely looked at the scenery, as I am so hyper-focused on trying to get and hold a perfect attitude, altitude, and speed in every maneuver. It is like being a kid testing for her driver’s license every time. These stories inspire me to let my instructor know I want to take a few minutes to have fun. Heck, I am paying him for his time, why should he mind? I think tomorrow I will take him flying over my house 🙂 To heck with the training area. I had also forgotten the frustration of weather foiling my plans to fly, as has happened to day. Ah, well…onward and upward!

  5. Claude Oberholzer

    April 23, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    How lucky I was! I, to this day, am grateful to the instructor I had (Lisa at McClellan-Palomar airport). From the day I met her until I passed my exam, nothing but encouragement, helpful tips and support.
    Thank you Lisa for having helped me getting my license!
    Then I met Francis Drake at Rialto – and I couldn’t believe it! He was to check me out in the 172. After numerous, shall we say less than stellar landings, all he did was staying calm, putting me at ease and continue on until I finally got it. When I asked him how he could stay so calm, he answered to me, there was no point in yelling and screaming as I knew myself my landings weren’t great, so why make me more nervous? Francis, you have been an inspiration to me way beyond my flying!
    Again, thank you to my wonderful instructors!

  6. Your story here has struck quite a chord with me. I am not a pilot,
    although I almost was. Over twenty years ago at the now defunct Westair
    Flying School I had a similar first instructor. He was very fond of
    unexplained jargon that he used to instruct with, and assumed a new
    student would understand “abeam the numbers” with no time under their
    belt. Despite him, I was soloed for the pattern and progressed to my
    cross country work. On my last dual x-country he was in quite an ornery
    mood and suffering from a hang over. I never should have stepped into
    the craft and I should have reported him to the school. I was having
    difficulty holding altitude and porpoising the plane trying to find my
    mark. He grabbed the controls and performed one of the most violent
    maneuvers I’ve ever experienced to bring us to the correct altitude. I
    stopped flying right there. It’s been numerous false starts since that

  7. My first instructor smoked cigarettes non-stop during the lessons. I quit for financial reasons. The next one had such a bad BO, my eyes were watering, so I switched schools. The new instructor/owner of the school liked to scream at students during flights. I told him that every time he screams at me, I will push the transmit button, so the tower can hear him. That cured him, at least while flying with me. It took me 3 attempts with different schools, but I did it.

  8. As a long time educator I think there’s a middle ground here. As Jeffrey says in this thread, students have to take responsibility for their actions. In my classrooms have seen a fair number of students who don’t care about what I am teaching, or don’t know how to study, yet feel entitled to good grades just for showing up. (And I think this is getting worse too.)

    But at the same time a misalignment between someone learning and someone teaching can make the process far more difficult. My classroom style is not for everyone; no one’s is. And in aviation–said to have the world’s worst classroom–such a mismatch makes the process far more difficult. My own experience shows both these issues. I started out learning to fly too young to be ready, and had an instructor who was there just to build time for the airlines and never said much or discussed my difficulties in being consistent. After awhile I stopped lessons on my own, waited 2 years till felt ready, and tried again. This time I got a gentle, very verbal minister who liked to fly. We clicked and I zipped through, as much for him as for me. He covered everything by the book but wasn’t “military” in his approach, and I know there are people who would have found that very frustrating.

    So finding the right instructor is as much an art as a science, and the best that can be done is for the schools to take a moment and try and make good matches, and for students and instructors to be willing to switch when they agree that different fits would work better. That can be ego bruising if you see it that way, but positive if it is viewed as just part of the learning process.

    • Richard — while I agree with everything you are saying, there is a vast difference between aviation education and the environment of general education. As student pilots, none of us were disinterested students sitting in a classroom out of obligation. We all chose to pursue flight training, and knowingly made personal investments of our time, effort and money. While flight instructors are teachers, and there’s a style and fit to be found for every student/teacher combination, they are also employees of the flight school and responsible to us as consumers. All of the negative stories here indicate just as much entrepreneurial disregard as they do academic disregard. These instructors dissuade students who are actively pursuing an interest and deprive them of a skill, they deprive their employers of revenue from the lost students and the potential pilots that would have patronized that FBO, and they rob a hurting GA industry (that they are a part of,ironically) by reducing the potential pilot population.

  9. Robert Paul Mark

    April 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    I’m really impressed with the comments here.

    One that pops up at the beginning and at the end is how much students must take responsibility for. It is absolutely true.

    HOWEVER, the place where education falls down — and I see this in my daughter’s college education — is that no one tells the students how to be responsible. I know this might sound silly to some of you, but like I was at 17, we are sometimes dealing with kids … not adults. They may be as tall or taller than me, but they’re still learning about life, not to mention flying. Sure there will always be those assertive types right from the get go, but what about those that aren’t assertive enough right from the beginning? I’m not implying we carry poor students, but sometimes all they need is a little nudge or a little encouragement here and there.

    Our job isn’t just to conduct a flight lesson. Our job is also to teach flying … both how to fly and, as someone else mentioned here, what it all means in the grand scheme of the world once you have a fistfulI of ratings.

    To this day, I still explain to students from lesson one what they can expect from me AND what I expect from them … do the reading, get a good night’s sleep, tell me if they just can’t leave some problem of the day behind BEFORE we start the engine and for heaven’s sake realize there is no penalty for speaking up if I’ve confused them or left them wondering what I’m expecting them to do next.

    So far it seems to have worked.

    And then there was line flying … I remember a captain screaming at me once when I questioned an ATC instruction … “Was that a left turn or a right one?” I looked out the right window and flipped the guy the bird. Unfortunately he saw that … almost lost my job … but that’s a story for another time.

    Fly safe folks.

  10. I had much the same experience but fortune smiled on me and my instructor quit and I came under the wing of Jim Rest. Thanks Jim wherever you are. I pay it forward.

  11. I took my first lesson at the end of November 1972, and with some gaps (some too long!), I’ve been flying ever since. With all the BFRs and IPCs and ratings and certificates and insurance checkouts over the last 42 1/2 years, I’ve flown with a whole lot of instructors. I can barely recall flying with a couple who were substandard, probably due to their inexperience, but for the most part, I’ve flown with mostly fine instructors and quite a number who were superlative, starting with my very first. So I guess I’ve been blessed. But each of them had a good student, too, because I have always put my heart and soul into learning. It is indeed a 2-way street; the instructor’s job is to instruct (not browbeat), and the student’s job is to learn. Both jobs require dedication and effort, but the results are gratifying.

  12. On my first, Discovery, flight, I was handed the controls after five minutes since I talked a good game and I flew the entire time except for the landing. This was with a CFI/DPE so I was handed off to another CFI to finish up and get certified to take the checkride. I spent two whole summers trying to learn to land. I suspect that the instructor was milking me for money to keep his two man operation going. Right before I first solo’ed he told me “Round out higher, throttle to idle, and just keep the nose up.” I did exactly what he said. I have a learning disability of being very literal. It turned out that I rounded out at about 10′, flew nice and level, and then fell like a rock for the 10′ and bounced back up and down three times. (He had once told me “Never round out higher than you would be willing to fall). I had just bought the instructor’s old trainer. $2.000 in damages. I never got the landings down until I started cheating and ignoring some of his instruction. After I soloed he told me that “I would now learn faster than ever”. He was correct. .I took my airplane across the mountains to my home field and started unlearning much of what he “taught” me. On the off season, he worked construction, While doing so, he took a header from a two story roof landing on his head. He appeared ok but I think he lost his edge. A month after I got my ticket, he and a student on a final, certification flight spun in after a steep turn at 400′ turned into a spin. Both killed. Two years later I am still finding things to unlearn.

  13. I had one instructor who told me when we were on Final “The best way to land is to stall out at about 300′ and the stall recovery should put you right down on the runway”. Of course I didn’t do that. I also never went up with him again. This “flight school”, two man operation, also charged me ground school charges for my doing my pre-flight, not that they were instructing me or even watching me do it.

  14. I was very lucky. When I set out to get my license I made sure I had the money to complete it in a short period of time, so when I was almost finished with ground school, I went looking for a flight school. Walked in a few and never went back because they felt unfriendly… then I walked into Sunset aviation and it was like home. Just felt that way from the beginning. Walked up to the counter where there were 3 instructors just hanging out and they were very welcoming and not arrogant. Told them what I wanted to do and one of them jumped up and the very first question he asked me… “What are your hobbies”.. wierd question. I said that I raced motorcycles… he said, “You’re mine”. He picked me. I solo’d in 11 hours, and had my checkride at 45 hours. He was the hardest instructor for anything I ever had. He tested my abilities all the time in unexpected ways. He was very demanding. Never yelled but kept making me do it over and over till it was right. He was a perfectionist. I could tell that he demanded the same from himself. He was only 20 years old. We are best friends still today and that was 28 years ago.

  15. Love this … want to go back but am unable. CFI said “you’re not an instinctive pilot … you’ll never be able to do this well” when I tried to solo. Never solo’d. Scared me to death … kid & wife need me. Want to fly but there ya go …. maybe some day.

  16. It does make you wonder how many aspiring pilots have been permanently turned off and consequently given up on the dream because of crappy CFI’s.

  17. This sounds like my story, except I haven’t finished instruction. I had a Tom type instructor, real piece of work. This guy seeemed to think I had a hundred hours of flight time, my first day in the plane. Would not get off the controls and let me get a feel of the plane. I never knew when I was flying. This guy was a total timebuilder, and had no business being an instructor. This jerk put a bad taste in my mouth about something I love more than anything. This guy looked just like Donnie Osmond, and to this day, I think I would love to bust him in the mouth. Now I am geekin to start instruction again. The FAA needs to be a bit more strict on who they permit to become CFI’s. And could some one please tell me why he would remove flaps 50 feet up, just above stall? Dropped out of flight like a rock. … after all of that, if things go right, I want to restart instruction this fall or winter. This jackass brought new meaning to the letters CFI….Complete F—ing Idiot. Trouble is, there are alot of them out there. They are a blemish to all the good instructors.

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