Jim Davis.

JIM DAVIS – Some philosophers hold that we have no free will – we are propelled through life by our genes and our experiences. If that is the case, then I had no choice but to be a flying instructor.

GENETICALLY, I AM EXTREMELY LAZY, easily bored, and strongly resistant to being a team player. This means that when scanning the world for a career I saw aviation as an excellent prospect. I also come from a line of teachers so it seems the philosophers are right – I really did have no choice in my selection of a career.

So YAY for genes and history. I can’t think of a more rewarding, and enjoyable way to be paid for having fun.

This article is going to be Chapter 1 of a book about stuff I have learned while trying to be the best instructor I can. It’s going to be a mish-mash of flying stories and hints and tips for all pilots – and particularly instructors.

Instructors – yours is the highest calling in aviation – so give it a full go and be worthy of it.

Here’s your first hint and tip: Did your instructor ever tell you how to judge when another aircraft is above or below you? If it’s above the horizon it’s above you, and if it’s below the horizon it’s below you.

‘a good instructor’s flying is smooth’

It’s the same with cloud tops and cloud bases, and birds, and hill tops and radio masts, and even power lines. ANYTHING above the horizon is above you and anything below the horizon is below you.

Strangely this doesn’t quite work at airliner altitudes, but I’m not sure why.

Anyhow, whether you are looking for an instructor, or whether you want to be a really good instructor yourself, here are the qualities that make up The Ideal Instructor:

Instructors must take time on the ground to explain things – before the flight.

Enthusiasm for all things aviation.

A love of teaching. Great teachers get huge pleasure from their pupils’ successes.

A sense of humour. The occasional joke or bit of leg-pulling makes everyone relax and enriches learning.

Patience. A great instructor enjoys even the baby steps of slow learning.

Professionalism. Professional instructors dress smartly, stick to the rules, don’t cut corners and always treat their pupils with respect and dignity.

Experience. The more experience they have the more he can pass on. New, young instructors can make up for their lack of experience by embracing other qualities – particularly enthusiasm and a desire to learn from every flight.

Integrity. The pupil must know that you will be honest with her. She’ll respect your criticism, and believe your praise is sincere. She’ll quickly spot any deception.

Smooth handling. A good instructor’s flying is smooth, polished, and accurate.

A spirited attitude. This doesn’t mean cowboying – it means enjoying tough conditions like gusty crosswinds, spin training and aerobatics.

Role model qualities – both in the air and on the ground. Top instructors never do anything they would not be proud to see their pupils do.

Initiative. Good instructors find new and interesting ways to explain things.

Airmanship. Their airmanship is immaculate.

Insight. Great instructors get into pupils’ heads. They understand pupil thinking, and can judge rates of learning, attention spans and why pupes do certain things.

Resist talking too much. New instructors tend to chatter in flight. Most of the talking should have been done on the ground. In flight, a good instructor will remind – not teach.

Embrace mistakes. Pupils learn best by making mistakes, recognising them and correcting them.

Is analytical. He looks for root causes, not the symptoms.

Makes things memorable. Lessons must remarkable and unforgettable.

Makes accurate statements. Top instructors pick their words carefully, and avoid ambiguity. Airspeed doesn’t go ‘up’ or ‘down’ – It increases and decreases.

Is consistent. Procedures and standards must be dependable.

Punctuality is vital. A late pilot is likely to become the late pilot.

Is positive and generous with praise and encouragement. He or she ends every lesson on a constructive note.

Respects your time. They don’t cancel a lesson due to weather. They brief their pupils, or sit in the aircraft with them and go through checks and procedures.

Okay, let’s get on with it – exercise by exercise.


Instructors, this is your chance to excel. It’s the most important flight you will ever make – so don’t stuff it up.

Actually you should feel honoured if the CFI gives it to you – ideally it’s so important he should do it himself. It has two aims:

  • To set the standard
  • To attract a pedestrian into becoming a pilot

Setting the standard. This flight shows her, your potential pilot, how to behave around aeroplanes. If you show off like an immature cowboy, you can ruin her life. I am serious. You can either terrify her so she never comes back. Or you can be a role model by behaving as if you were being tested by a CAA examiner.

Doing an introductory flight is an honour to be taken seriously.

Drawing in a new pilot. You can transform this stranger’s life – but you only get one shot at it. So make sure you do fly in decent weather – she has got to enjoy the flight. If you do it right you may find her in the front office of a Boeing you board in five years time.

Let that be your aim.

She doesn’t want to know how smart you are – she thinks all pilots are gods, so confirm this belief, and be the most professional pilot you can.

Show her how safe flying is. Walk her slowly round the preflight and explain things she asks about. Don’t hurry.

Sit her in the pilot’s seat and show her the most important controls and instruments. If it takes 30 mins that’s fine. It’s the most important flight of her life. And yours.

Explain about the radio and who you are talking to.

Don’t do anything unexpected – always tell her what you are going to do before you do it.

Show her how to taxi and then let her try.

Briefly explain your pre-takeoff vital actions and runup.

Tell her what the takeoff will feel, and sound, like. Show her the rev-counter and ASI and tell her what speed you will lift off, and your climb speed.

Only do gentle turns – 25º of bank or less. Get her to help lookout of other traffic.

Show her the altimeter and explain the difference between height above sea-level and above the ground.

Point out prominent features on the ground. Ask her where she would like to go – probably over her home. See if she can find her way there.

‘she thinks all pilots are gods’

Point out the horizon and explain its importance. Show her the basic effects of the aileron and elevator and let her have a go at straight and level flight, and gentle turns.

Tell her if she is doing well, and make allowances if she is not. For her, there’s a lot of strange stuff happening – she is not going to get everything right first time.

Make this flight the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

If you stuff this up I will hear about it and get the CAA to put your license through their confetti machine.


Instructors, your job is to use words wisely. They are your main teaching tool. You are not there to push and pull things in the cockpit.

Your words have immense impact – never underestimate their power for good, or for harm.

We have all heard the saying that the word [or pen] is mightier than the sword – take this very seriously indeed. Let me give you an example of how a single word inadvertently killed 583 people in the worst disaster in aviation history.

Remember the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977 when Two Boeing 747s collided on the runway? The captain of KLM 4805 thought he had takeoff clearance, when he only had AFTER takeoff clearance. His aircraft smashed into Pan Am 1736, which was backtracking on the same runway in thick mist. The crash killed everyone on the KLM flight, and all but 61 on the Pan Am flight.

The critical word behind this disaster was ‘takeoff’. Briefly, on an instrument flight you will get three clearances:

  • Your normal taxi clearance.
  • Your ‘departure’ clearance which specifies the initial route to follow. It will be something like this, “Alpha Bravo Charlie, after departure runway 28, climb on runway track to 5000’ and then turn right to…”
  • Your takeoff clearance. “Alpha Bravo Charlie you are cleared to takeoff on runway 28, the wind is 270/15.”

Notice that the word takeoff is not used at any time except when ATC are clearing you for the actual takeoff.

Previously, at the time of the Tenerife crash, ATC departure clearance was allowed to include the term “…after takeoff on runway…”. So when Captain Van Zanten, who was pilot flying on the KLM flight, heard the word takeoff he advanced the four thrust levers and accelerated down the runway towards the Pan Am 747.

The situation was further confused by a double transmission and some other non-standard terminology, plus the words “…not cleared for takeoff.”

Van Zanten desperately wanted to get into the air. His was one of many flights that had been delayed by a bomb scare. He was worried about running out of flight and duty time. His whole being was orientated towards this takeoff, so when he heard that word, there was no holding him back.

After this crash the term “Hold your position” was mandated. Had it been used at the time, this horrendous disaster would never have happened.

I am trying to emphasise that your words give you a terrifying amount of power. It’s all about finding the exact ones that will get the job done effectively and safely. Here’s another example of the power of words.

‘do want to be the best instructor’

When I did a flight test I could use a few words, while we taxied out, to make or break the pilot’s chances of passing.

I could say, man, I really like your radio procedures, and that would set the tone for my enthusiast to do everything right – and comfortably pass the test.

On the other hand, if I said something like, do you always taxi like this? while making a note on the test form, he would perform so badly that he was almost guaranteed to fail.

Of course I never did that, but for many years the CAA employed a flying inspector called Swanepoel – I don’t think he had a first name. He loved to intimidate pilots before takeoff. He would loosen his seat belt after you had checked it. He would unlatch the baggage door after you had latched it. He would tell you to hurry, and then mark you down for doing so. You had almost no chance of passing a flight test with Swannie.

Naturally, we got fed up with this tyrant. Occasionally someone would take revenge. They would land at distant farm strip and tell him to get out, claiming he was endangering the flight.

Brilliant, because this was in the days before cell phones, so Swannie would have to walk to the nearest farm house to phone his boss, Carel Sembach, and ask for a car to come and collect him.

In this series I am going to give you plenty of examples of using the right words.

Instructors, and others, here’s something to think about. Have a look at this simple instruction and see how many things you can find wrong with it:

Push the stick forward so the airspeed goes up.

Does it sound okayish? Actually there’s so much wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s kick off with the first word – Push.

Do you really want someone pushing and pulling stuff in the cockpit? It sounds more like the way you might handle the controls of a railway engine.

In aeroplanes you want a pilot to handle all the controls smoothly. My very first instructor, an RAF pilot, told me that I should always fly as if my grandmother was in the back with a basket of eggs on her lap. Passengers should not be able to feel it when you do things – particularly changing flap, or power, settings – it should all be smooth and gentle

So don’t ask your pupil to push of pull anything. They might just do exactly what you say, and have you floating out of your seat as they push the stick forward.

This is common with stall recovery. Ask half a dozen pilots how they recover from a stall. The standard answer will be, I push the stick forward. Some actually do this in the aeroplane and frighten themselves to the extent they are scared to practice stalls again.

The proper answer is, I ease the stick forward until the wings are unstalled. And, of course, if you actually do that, then stalls and recoveries are fun things.

‘find new and interesting ways to explain things’

Actually stall and spin recoveries are amongst the very few occasions when you should tell pupils what to do with the stick.

On most occasions the Golden Rule is: As far as possible, never tell a pupil what to do with the stick – tell him what to do with the aeroplane.

So going back to the example I gave you, we want the pupil to ease the nose down, but we didn’t tell them how far. Vertically? Perhaps not. It sounds silly because we know what we mean, but we are not giving the pupil a clear instruction. We want them to ease the nose slightly below the horizon.

And while we are on the subject, a new and dubious, term is creeping into what instructors say. They tell people to apply pressure to the controls. Applying pressure does nothing – every control has to move before you get a result. Applying pressure to the flap lever on a Cherokee isn’t going to do a damn thing.

Applying pressure to the throttle may or may not work depending on how tight the friction nut is. Applying pressure to the left rudder in the climb is probably not what you really want – you probably want them to reduce pressure in the right rudder. Rather tell them what result you want, use enough rudder to get the ball in the middle.

Besides, it makes no sense telling a pilot to apply forward or back pressure to the elevator unless you know the state of the trim.

And – we still haven’t finished with this terrible sentence. Do we really want to muddy the waters by having things like airspeed, revs, oil pressure and amps, going up or down? Absolutely not. We want them to increase or decrease. so don’t confuse things with up or down.

So the original instruction to

Push the stick forward so the airspeed goes up,

should really be:

Ease the nose slightly below the horizon so the airspeed increases.

Who said instructing was easy. Ha ha ha – it isn’t, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun – and hugely rewarding when everything clicks smoothly into place.

A good instructor encourages, not admonishes.


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