I was recently reminded of what it’s like to be a student again last week after attending the first of a series of guitar lessons. Everything about it was foreign to me, from feeling like an outsider at the music shop to opening a book of sheet music that looked like it was written in a foreign language. Each lesson is only 30 minutes, and takes place one on one with the music instructor in a very small room. The first lesson was over before I knew it, and on the drive home it got me thinking of how similar this was to when I took my first flight lesson 13 years ago. I considered myself a good student at the time, but in hindsight there were many things I could have done better to get more out of each lesson. And having been a flight instructor for 11 years now, I’ve seen both the good and bad habits of students, and how it affects their flight training.
When I got home that night, I sat down and wrote out how I could maximize each 30-minute lesson. I decided out of the gate I would arrive to each lesson early, have the assigned chapters from the Guitar Method book nearly memorized, and ensure that my guitar was properly tuned so I wouldn’t waste any of the instructor’s time with something I could do on my own.
Now of course in music the #1 way to improve is to practice, practice, practice. In aviation you obviously can’t practice flying the real airplane in your living room, but there are many things you can do make the most of the time with your flight instructor.
1. Use a Syllabus or Training Course Outline (TCO) – this is good advice whether you’re learning at a big flight school or from an independent CFI. A syllabus provides a logical order to flight training and allows you to effectively track your progress lesson by lesson. Sporty’s offers its TCOs free of charge for all Primary, Instrument and Multiengine courses: get them here.
2. Prepare for each lesson in advance – I can’t stress the importance of this one enough. After each lesson your instructor will assign you reading material and specific items to study (and if he or she doesn’t, make it a point to ask what you should be reviewing). For ground lessons, make sure to review the appropriate subject areas in advance, and make notes of any areas that you don’t understand. To prepare for flight lessons, review step-by-step each maneuver that is listed in the lesson, and do some “arm-chair” flying where you mentally run through each task with a checklist in hand. A dedicated maneuvers guide can be a big help here.
3. Become part of the airport community – make an effort to get to know the other instructors and students at your flight school, and attend seminars and forums when offered at your airport. In addition to feeling more comfortable each time you arrive for your lessons, you’ll find that other students can offer valuable advice on how they progressed through challenging lessons and tasks during their training.
4. Minimize distractions – if you find yourself continually distracted during ground lessons by the typical activities of a general aviation airport, ask your instructor for a more secluded meeting area. Most schools have designated quiet areas that provide a good one-on-one learning environment.
5. Start with an organized cockpit – make it a point during the cockpit pre-flight to organize the cabin – have your sectionals, kneeboard, A/FDs, pens, iPad and E6B all readily accessible. Leaving the A/FD in your flight bag unreachable on the back seat doesn’t lead to a positive learning experience when your instructor requests a diversion to a new airport.
6. Use a video-based home-study course in conjunction with your training at the airport – This ties in with the 2nd item above. Using a home-study course like Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course will allow you to prepare in advance for both ground and flight lessons, and is much more engaging than just studying text books.
7. Maintain a consistent lesson schedule – try to schedule at least 2 to 3 lessons per week, and avoid long stretches of time in between lessons. You’ll retain the knowledge and skills better, leading to a quicker and less costly path to earning your certificate.
8. Show up for each lesson well rested – this may seem obvious, but you’re wasting both your and the instructor’s time in the airplane if you’re not physically and mentally rested for each lesson.
9. Don’t skimp on the post-flight briefing – the post-flight briefing is one of the most important components of any flight lesson. Here you’ll cover what you did well during the flight along with items that need improvement. Make sure to record the flight times in your logbook (with instructor’s signature), document the flight details in a syllabus and discuss what needs reviewing before the next lesson.
10. Set realistic expectations – don’t expect to execute each new maneuver and procedure to pro-pilot standards during the first attempt. There will be a learning curve, but with proper preparation on the ground and practice in the air, you’ll quickly become proficient. And as you become comfortable with each task, don’t settle for just meeting the FAA minimums – always try to exceed them.