Getting your pilot’s licence is a big deal. As well as choosing the school you have to get choosing a flight instructor right. You will be working closely together in a confined space so if you don’t get along each flight could be very difficult.
It is obvious when you think about it that you will learn faster from someone you get on well with, but how many people think about it? It is very easy to get caught up in finding the best price, a convenient club or the type of aircraft you like but the flight instructor plays a bigger part than almost anything else in your training. There may be little or no choice in the matter for a variety of reasons or on the other hand you may find that the school operates a system where you rotate through a series of tutors. These are definitely points to consider as they may in the long run have a bearing on how much you have to pay.
Even if you go somewhere that offers a fixed rate course there will be limitations. You may also find there is a catch to that guaranteed pass they offer. The flight instructor's job is to make sure that you are safe to fly and some people will never make the grade. If you are really struggling you may have to choose between paying for more lessons, choosing another FI or cutting your losses.
Realistically flying clubs are businesses, whether they are “by the members, for the members” or overtly commercial; if they do not make money they will not be there long. It would be unfair and naïve to imagine otherwise.
Like all businesses costs have to be covered and wages paid. It pays to shop around flying clubs as much as it does anywhere else.
It may well be that your teacher is not getting paid, he may be doing it for the experience, to build flying hours or honestly just for the fun of it, it is possible. There are genuine volunteers out there who really do just want to fly, perhaps after a long career they want to give something back by nurturing the next generation of pilots. There are also those who have a vested interest in keeping you on the line for as long as possible, not always out of mean character or dishonesty either. In a competitive marketplace sometimes the only way to be competitive is to pay the staff less. That is fine if they are happy to work for peanuts to build hours, but if they are trying to support a family it can be a tough job with no guarantee of another student.
The same of course can be said for piano teachers or painters, car salesmen or builders. Choose a flight instructor in the same way that you would any other professional or tradesman.
I have met people who eventually realise that they have to choose another mentor or school either because they just can’t gel together or because the tutor is incapable of getting a particular student to progress. Teaching and learning is a two way street you may be trying your best but the instructor should also be able to adapt if you are not able to complete the exercise properly. If they try different approaches then it might be time for a trip with the chief flying instructor, it can sometimes just take a different perspective, demonstration style or perhaps a more experienced eye to see how to over come the block. Similarly it may be that you have reached the limits of your capability as the course progresses and the workload gets higher you may reach a point where you realise this is not for you, there is no shame in that.
It can be a tough call sometimes as you get frustrated trying to master a particular skill, is it you or are there other factors?
I learned to fly in a school where there were four staff and we flew with them all. I found I had been struggling to get the last few feet of the landing pinned down, but one day a different instructor said something a different way and it just clicked for me. He told me to shift my focus away from the runway and pull the spinner up towards the trees on the horizon. It made a huge difference and the knack of landing smoothly clicked into place for me.
It was the same message as the others but I just understood it differently and got what he meant. I liked him and his relaxed style, Dan the man. If the system allowed complete freedom of choice I would have chosen him for every flight.
The boss of the school was a retired airline pilot who also had a laid back style, however he had less patience and a sharp eye for the time so there seemed to be less latitude and more pressure. Some pupils responded well to that others hated it, individual personalities and learning styles led to very different perceptions of the man.
Another made no bones about the fact that he wanted to fly Lear jets for the wealthy and did not like teaching baby pilots. It was just a job for him to fill in time till he got the big break he was looking for. He was a skilled pilot but I wonder if there was a reason he was not landing the job he was looking for? The ability to adapt to the situation and co-operate with the person in the other seat is a huge factor. If he could not pull it off at the school I suspect he would leak it at interviews and flight tests for the job as well.
The last one was a great guy on the ground, good fun, laid back and hugely knowledgeable. Unfortunately he liked to show it off and the sarcasm could make for tension which can be unsettling. Having a laugh and sharing jibes can be great fun, a lack of empathy though can be destructive.
They all knew their stuff, worked well together and had a lot to offer but I probably learned more from Dan than any of the others. as a paying client it is your prerogative to communicate, change things up and exercise your freedom of choice. Most schools and individual instructors will get that and the vast majority are on your side. They don't take it personally but for goodness sake discuss it, don't let it fester at £180 per hour.
In the interests of fairness it is only sensible to point out that the majority of instructors want you to pass in a reasonable time so that you are both a safe and confident pilot. The decision to put you in front of an examiner reflects on them as well as you. if you go off and make a complete ham fisted arse of it, the examiner will wonder what the instructor was thinking and wonder if he is up to the job. I'm always pleased when I pass the assessment without embarrassing myself or my friend.
I find the best style for me is someone who will wait and see what you are actually doing rather than pitching in with what they think you are about to do. Communication helps massively if you can reassure the back seater that you are thinking and flying rather than just winging it. If you earn their trust you will earn a bit more latitude, that gives you the breathing space you may need. Don't expect that to come easy though, oh and it can make mistakes more alarming for you both, just saying.
I was recently back at school for my tailwheel differences training and there were a couple of times where I was giving myself a much harder time than anyone else could. I deserved a telling off for stupid mistakes and lack of consistency, but what I got instead was reassurance and support. The next flight was fine and I pulled it off in the end to my huge relief as it was not just costing money but a huge investment of time and travelling. That's what happens when you pick winter course dates but sometimes life choices and other factors can force your hand. Brian had exactly the style that suited me best by happy chance. His experience and confidence was infectious and he let me develop and sort out mistakes for myself with timely advice on how to do better and sort it out before things got too out of hand.
If you do well you will hopefully tell your friends how great it is and where you learned. With luck they will dig deep too and buy some lessons on your recommendation. I can certainly recommend Brian Clark who hails from Montrose although he now teaches predominantly in Cambridge. He will happily teach you how to fly a Tiger Moth from scratch if you are up for the challenge. He is often to be found at Duxford in the fairer months of the year where he flies trial lessons while mixing it with classic warbirds. Nice work if you can get it.
In short, a little thought and time spent talking to instructors can save you both time and money in the long run. The one with the best CV is not always the best choice, you have to think, talk and decide for yourself.
Of course you should listen to recommendations but you need to be smart and decide what is best for you.
As time goes on we aim to build a "who is who" of instructors accross the country. The honors of being first go to Jim Lister.
We would be very grateful if you could help in that task by sharing your experiences by filling in the form below. Whether you had a trial flight, full ppl or added a rating, let everyone know about your recommendation.
Pilots and enthusiasts like nothing better than a good yarn. Whether it is about a trip away from the local area, a near death experience or a funny comment over the radio. Let's hear your story and there will be a prize for the best one every month.