Saturday, October 08, 2011

Life as a CFI

Despite my best efforts, I can find no one willing to take the blame for my not realizing how difficult it is to be a Certificated Flight Instructor. It may be as hard, if not harder, than my training to become a CFI, in fact. I know, I know, I've been promising to write again about this journey to CFI long enough. Despite what is now an even MORE hectic schedule adding instructing into the mix, I know I have to catch you all up. So many people have been asking how I did it and what I recommend, so here it is.

Mr. Newman and I
As I have mentioned previously, I started flying in Army UH-1 helicopters and had only 30 hours in a single engine airplane before transitioning to multiengine airplanes. My first airplane checkride, in fact, was a failure. My instructor was a great guy with thousands of hours and years of combat flying. As far as he was concerned, he was just there to teach us rotorheads to keep the greasy side down. At our checkride, however, the SP or "standardization pilot" broke out the equivalent to the PTS or "practical test standards" that the Army uses - which my stick buddy and I had never seen. We had no idea about the maneuvers we were supposed to be doing, much less the tolerances for them.

I had a sweet Jeep at the time, too.
From then on, we were in the multi engine simulator and then the actual King Air, which the army calls a C-12 Huron. It was during that time I forgot what my feet were for. On a single engine airplane there are several different factors necessitating constant use of the rudder pedals. In multiengine airplanes the two engines provide more balance. Add a little thing called "yaw damper," which minimizes motion about the vertical axis, and the only time those pedals get used are take off, landing, and engine failures.

From that point on, I've mostly flown multiengine turboprops or jets, occasionally renting a single engine airplane just for fun. Or stress. I once took my sister and her family up for a flight and didn't tell her til afterwards how nervous it had made me feel. I tried to explain to her that yes, it was still flying an airplane, which I had been doing for years, which made it like driving a different kind of car. But, because I was used to flying IFR or "instrument flight rules" and had taken them on a sightseeing flight under VFR, that it was like driving said car in a different country. Everything was just a bit different.  Not to mention the fact I had my two nephews in the back seat. I had to peel my hands from the yoke after shutdown.

So as I've been talking about here and elsewhere, when I got back into single engine airplanes to not only really learn to fly them but to be able to TEACH people to fly in them, I had quite a rude awakening! My first challenge was finding an instructor who could teach this nearly 5000 hour pilot like she was a student pilot. Remember I said at the beginning that my first airplane instructor hadn't taught us the usual maneuvers. I needed to go back to the basics. Literally. My 40 hours of single engine time (the minimum required for a private pilot certificate) was over 10 years old. Meeting up with an instructor who just said "let's go" and headed for the airplane wasn't cutting it. I needed and wanted more ground instruction on what I should be studying. Having gone through the Army flight school where everything was laid out in a syllabus and you better BELIEVE you do your homework (which included memorizing entire pages of text), I was completely lost. I asked friends what I should be studying and got a list of  books as long as my arm. Now that I had them I started studying all of them without any rhyme or reason. [Luckily, I was advised to get my writtens out of the way at least. I also recommend getting them done as soon as possible so they'll be less of a distraction.]

I ended up doing what I should have been doing FROM THE START. I started interviewing instructors. Yup. Got their numbers, called them up and was able to get a good impression of how we'd mesh just over the phone. For example, you probably want an instructor who is going to listen to you and your needs. I talked to a couple that would have spent hours getting to know me. Unfortunately, they were very far away. I talked to many more that spent nearly the entire conversation talking about themselves. Then I talked to Jeff Vandeyacht of True Course Flight School in Oswego, NY. I know, I'm in Cleveland and, yes, NY is far away, but I also have an uncle who lives nearby and used Jeff for his training.  And my uncle kindly offered me a place to stay.

I was really impressed with Jeff. We soon worked out a plan for me to intermittently come to NY and do some training (which would allow me to focus on training and put Girls With Wings to the side). Phase one was basic fundamentals and maneuvers. I spent a week flying with Jeff just relearning to fly a single engine airplane, prompted mostly by his nudging the rudder pedals to get me back into trim. He also demonstrated, and had me practice, all of the maneuvers from the private to the commercial. I found this to be very valuable and looked forward to phase two, which would be me doing the maneuvers from the right seat and learning to teach them like the instructor I'd eventually be. Unfortunately, I hurt my back badly, and phase two kept getting pushed back. Phase three, working on maneuvers in a complex airplane, looked farther and farther down the line.

Sara. And neither of those guys are me.
I took a break and some serious muscle relaxants and started to rebuild my back with different exercises. When I healed, however, it was time to travel to Mobile, AL, for my participation in the Air Race Classic's inspiration program for area girls. Coincidentally, I have friends in Alabama that just happen to own a flight school. I used to fly with Glen at Flight Options in the Citation IIs and Vs. He and his wife Sara run a multifaceted operation - Shoreline Aviation Services - and they offered to have me stay with them and train some more. Plan C (or was it D or E?) turned into going to their flight school between Mobile and Sun n Fun. Unfortunately, no one alerted the weather gods. Though we got some great flying in, it wasn't enough time. A couple of things I learned at Shoreline Aviation: how ground school was supposed to work. I'd only done training with the Army or professional (career) flight schools. I was totally unfamiliar with Part 61 lesson plans and how they were used. Part 61 schools are usually taught one on one and are more flexible than the training I had undergone. Another thing? Sara, shown above, also taught me to "sing like a bird" and certain key phrases to use while teaching my students - and encourage them to sing as well. Glen and Sara have been amazing mentors to me in my quest for my CFI and still continue to be a source of guidance, encouragement and advice in many areas.

But they had to get back to work on their other endeavors. So when I returned to Cleveland, I still wasn't ready for my CFI checkride and received a phone call from Dianna who runs a flight training operation down in Texas which I blogged about extensively. I gathered an amazing amount of knowledge being there - but there was still something missing. Actually two things. One, a complex airplane, which is defined as having
Additionally, I was studying, studying, studying, studying. I could have gone on for years studying never feeling like I had studied enough. So in looking for a complex airplane needed for the checkride I looked at American Flyers in Houston. They offer a free hour of flight and oral evaluation and so I figured I couldn't lose anything by doing it. I met with the chief pilot who asked a bunch of questions - yet also took some time getting to know me (sound familiar?) - and had me fly the maneuvers. His analysis? That I had all of the information floating around in my head and just needed to straighten it up a bit; I could easily be ready for the checkride in two weeks. Here's the catch. I had been doing my CFI on a budget up til now. American Flyers on their website says "American Flyers Flight Instructor Academy...CFI-A & CFI-I Certificates Only $2,995.00" Well, I wanted only to get my CFI - Airplane, not my CFI - Instrument so that should be at least half off, right? Don't believe it. The more upfront of the instructors there will tell you that there's no way it will be that inexpensive, and in fact my CFI training there was nearly twice that. For two weeks. Ouch.

I know. I get slightly nauseous every time I think about it. But here's the thing. They had a syllabus they taught out of. So every day I knew what was coming so I could study in advance. The instructor then met with me and reviewed all of the information and then we flew the appropriate maneuvers. Then I went home and prepared a lesson plan so I could teach him the next day. I spent all day every day at the flight school either in class or flying. I stayed at a hotel (more $$) and did nothing but work on lesson plans and now what I KNEW I had to study. Note: be careful about doing this because you can burn yourself out. There were other CFI candidates at the  flight school wondering why they weren't finishing up as fast as I was. To which the AF instructors said, then you need to be putting in the same time and effort as Lynda. The onus of being ready for a CFI checkride is still incumbent on the student.

Two weeks to the day I was standing in front of an FAA examiner beginning my CFI checkride. So, despite the huge tab for this training, I completed the rating. I don't think in retrospect I could have finished it for any less, and in fact, had I continued the training on my own, it probably would have taken months to finish. This way I was able to knock it out and be done before Oshkosh - my self imposed deadline.

And what have I learned and now recommend?

1. Interview flight instructors before you ever train with one. I think personality has a great deal to do with the success of flight training and you can get a good feel for an instructor by just talking to him or her. You want to succeed with the help of your CFI, not in spite of him or her.

2. Consider flying with another instructor during your training to see if you can learn something you've been struggling with because of a difference in technique. Don't be afraid to switch flight instructors. The first time that little niggling feeling tells you things aren't working out should make you analyze your situation. Fly with another instructor even just once to determine if you aren't going to succeed with your current CFI because of the singular YOU or the plural YOU. Do not be afraid to ask for an evaluation ride from your flight school - and then be willing to accept the result. This is YOUR training (and your money) - you are ultimately responsible for it!

3. Don't commit to a school by joining their flight club prematurely. I did, and nearly lost a $1000 deposit when I went elsewhere to finish flight training. Read the fine print.

4. Analyze your needs. I should have accepted the fact from the start that I was looking for a structured environment with a syllabus. I was wading through an ocean of things I could have learned and should have focused on what I had to learn.

5. or 4b. If you are a busy individual with a lot of things on your plate (not a full time student), consider a part 141 school or traveling to a flight school to remove your other obligations from your plate.  Again, I've talked to many busy professionals that are a year or two into their CFI training and struggling to finish. Starting and stopping their training only adds to the delay and cost. Jumping into American Flyers or their equivalent and their big lump sums may be more efficient in the long run.

6. Speaking of money. Apply for scholarships. I didn't because everyone told me that I'd knock this CFI thing out in two weeks given my experience. And then my plan fell apart and I didn't know what I was doing when. It would have been nice to have offset these training costs with even a $1000 or two. Most scholarships give you a large window to complete the training for which you applied for the scholarship. The money one earns as a flight instructor won't pay off a mortgage AND the incurred debt from getting the rating.

7. CFIs: Lesson plans. You're going to have to do them eventually. Get your writtens done and start on your lesson plans. Make them basic and revisit them to refine them later. I tried to "borrow" someone else's lesson plans but part of the learning comes from building them. I wished I hadn't had to do them too during my two week firehose course.

Well, that's all I can think of now. I welcome your feedback! What was your experience?