A Tale of Four CFIs - Same Outcomes, Far Different Methods

10:48 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
Anyone who holds a sport pilot certificate or better can tell you a long story of how the Certified Flight Instructors they have been taught by all possess different teaching styles. Some are abrupt and unforgiving, others are more passive, better listeners, and eager to help a student work through each problem when they arise.
This is my story.

CFI #1 - I earned by private pilot ticket in 1996 at KFAT (Fresno Air Terminal), with a CFI named Steve M., a really nice and patient instructor who seemed to seriously enjoy his work. He loved every minute in the sky, and received extreme joy out of helping someone else achieve their dreams to fly. We trained in a Cessna 150 and his PA-38 Tomahawk, and I got the job done in about 55 hours. I learned everything I needed to do to easily pass the private pilot check ride on the second try, having botched the slow flight element on a hot September Fresno day when density altitude kicked my butt while hauling a 200-pound FAA Designated Pilot Examiner through a bumpy, smoggy sky.

But the one thing I never really got right was landings. Yes, Steve taught me to land, and I always landed his Tomahawk (NOT Traumahawk, the PA-38 was actually a very cool little airplane) without breaking anything, over and over again to airfields all over California. He didn't get into specifics or teach me "by the numbers" so to speak, I just pulled throttle, add some nose up trim and the houses got larger. But many of the landings just never felt right. There were times early in my flying when I didn't feel totally in control of a landing, I was just slowing down, aiming for the runway and descending. The outcome was fine...I earned my ticket, so all good, or so I thought...

CFI #2 - Fast-forward to the same airport (still KFAT but now called Fresno International Airport) a few years later. I had an advertising client who ran a large part 141 flight school there that was cranking out airline pilot candidates with plenty of multi-time long before the 1,500 hour rule. I was chatting up the owner, Jim B. about how my landings never felt quite right, and explained my methods. He dropped what he was doing and said, "let's go flying."
After a normal departure and away from the Class Charlie airspace, he had me trim for level flight, and pulled out a black Sharpie pen. "Draw a dot in the inside of the windscreen, right on the horizon. After doing that, he started to explain how the jet guys do landings. It was all about pitch, not about power. I had been doing just the opposite, controlling the landing by power, and whatever pitch happened was what I carried to the runway.
Jim B. showed me that on final, you pitch for airspeed control, and control rate of descent with power. The dot on the windscreen was to show me that I could set a pitch and leave it there - a few degrees above the horizon - and when my airspeed was where I wanted it, I kept it the dot from moving until the flare. Add or subtract a little power here and there to control the descent...it was a simple approach to landing but made perfect sense.
From that lesson on, I have always landed that way, pitch for airspeed, power for rate of descent. Works perfectly every time. In any airplane. The difference between teaching skills between this CFI and my primary CFI was night and day. And this method worked well when I test-flew a Cirrus SR-22 years later. I pulled some power on downwind, pitched the nose up and left it there. I greased my one and only SR-22 landing so well, it made the demo pilot from Duluth smile wide.

CFI #3
- Some years later while on a vacation in upstate New York, I decided to go rent a Cessna 172 and fly around on a solo scenic flight. This was WAY before the brilliant concept of Open Airplane was a thing, so before I could go explore the Finger Lakes region from the air, I had to prove to the FBO that I would bring their Skyhawk back in one piece. So they assigned me a snot-nosed kid fresh out of CFI school who had one thing on his mind...breaking me.
Without going into every detail, the flight did not go well. From pre-flight to shutdown, he needled me on everything, his mission was to prove how wrong I could be on every tiny part of flying. I flew well enough to let them rent me the airplane, but I came away with the feeling that all he wanted to do was prove he knew more than I did. Duh...he's a CFI! Of course he does. I had sufficient stick and rudder skills to keep a Skyhawk shiny side up, but he wanted to make sure I knew how sloppy I was flying. I did make a scenic day of it, and brought their 172 back without damage. The only damage was to their school's reputation, and oh how I wish now there was online reviews back then.

CFI #4 - It is now 2007, and I am the proud owner of my recently-purchased Cherokee 235. My new CFI, Jim H. of Eugene, flew down to Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles with me to pick up N8527W, and we flew the plane north on an IFR flight plan in VFR conditions. I handled the "high performance" of the 235 well, and I soon began my instrument training with Jim.
When learning to fly instruments, it is usually assumed by a good CFI that the student already possesses solid VFR skills. So Jim focused only on what I needed to learn to earn my IFR rating...and did not nit-pick on the small stuff. He was a high-time instructor, with a very calm demeanor. But he had one important trait that was very welcome, and that was his ability to change things up mid-lesson when he saw I was struggling. His thinking was that if I blew something, and he jumped my ass and I got frustrated, the rest of the lesson would be worthless, especially when burning 12 GPH.
So when Jim saw I was struggling, he'd calmly just say "why don't we just turn 90 degrees left, maintain this altitude." Instead of running me and my confidence into the ground, he's take us somewhere else to do something easier, something he knew I could do. On the de-brief, he's calmly explain why I got screwed up, and what I needed to do to fix it next time. There usually was not a next time. I did earn my IFR rating, and the outcome was very positive.

Four CFIs, four very different methods of teaching. While the outcomes were positive, their methods were very different. I write this because I want people considering flight lessons to really let the CFI audition on the first couple of lessons. If you don't like what they are doing, change instructors quickly. Learning to fly is hard, but it is much tougher when the instructor is beating you up on every flight.

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