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Your Flight Instructor

Sarah and Me at CYBW

Good flight instructors, bad flight instructors

I really liked watching the show Flying Wild Alaska. It has since been discontinued.  It is a bit overly dramatic but the flying footage they have is fantastic.  The show is about a family who runs an airline a remote region of Alaska.  In the show Ariel Tweto, is featured as she is the only one in the family without a pilot’s license.  One of the last episodes I watched follows her working hard to learn how to fly.  It made me think of how important it is to  have a good flight instructor.

Ariels’ instructor seems to have an unstructured and random approach to instructing and doesn’t appear that he is very patient with her.  It may be portrayed this way through the show on purpose to make it dramatic. But …

Sarah, my instructor and me messing with the GoPro camera at the hold short line.
Sarah, my instructor and me messing with the GoPro camera at the hold short line.

In the show, she is portrayed as something being wrong with her because she doesn’t get something right away and has to be reminded on each flight.  On several counts her instructor makes the statement that “if you don’t get it, then you’re out of here.”  Seems harsh.

Learning takes time, a patient instructor is crucial

Learning takes time, and I don’t actually think you’re supposed to “get it” right away.  Learning to be a pilot requires hard work, and above all time, studying, and hours, to properly learn everything to be proficient.  Even the flight training manual, the structured guide used to train pilots in Canada states that earning your license is really just a “license to learn.”  So it is strange when the show portrays shame in learning  by showing instructor roll his eyes and getting upset when she doesn’t do something properly.   It doesn’t portray the learning process accurately.

On what looks like to be one of Ariels initial flights they demonstrate stalls. This seems very early since at that stage she can’t have much of an appreciation why an aircraft stalls or what the aerodynamic properties of the stall are.  The show portrays her as a bad pilot by making it seem like she is inadvertently causing the stall.  It takes awhile for the aircraft to stall, and if she is causing it by accident on her first flight, it’s not her fault, but her instructors, who should see it coming.

Me with my instructor Atanas. He's cool, but sometimes I just want the airplane to myself!
Me with my instructor Atanas. He’s cool, but sometimes I just want the airplane to myself. No offense of course!

My first big mistake on one of my initial training flights

On my second flight, my instructor Sarah asked me to pull out the throttle as we were practicing descents.  I, still very green, confused, but eager, went for the red knob instead of the black knob – I pulled out the fuel-air mixture knob instead of the throttle, starving the engine of fuel and causing it to die!  Sarah immediately pushed it in and the engine restarted instantly.  I only knew of what happened after she calmly explained to me what I had just done, not losing her patience or getting angry.  She was the instructor and could handle any screw-up that I made.  If she had handled that situation differently, I would have been upset, and nervous on subsequent flights.   I probably wouldn’t be excited about my next flight.

I am really lucky to have had two really great instructors since I’ve started my license. I did most of my training with Sarah but she is only teaching intermittently now, so I do most of my training with Atanas. I have a lot in common with both of them and enjoy spending time with them, in the airplane but also socially, on the ground. It makes such a big difference to have a good instructor who encourages you to do your best.

A good instructor will make you feel great every time you fly, even if it wasn’t the world’s greatest flight. It’s learning, and you should try hard every time you go and feel good about your efforts. Not every flight is going to be fantastic but on every flight you will learn something.  Having that positive encouragement is what makes the difficult process of learning to fly easier to bear.

Yay for flight instructors!

What’s your flight instructor story? Comment below

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How to choose the right flight school

After I have selected which aircraft I wanted to train on, it was time to chose the flight school that best suited my needs.

Cost of school

When I lived in Edmonton I had the choice of a few different airports, but the City Centre Airport, right downtown, was impossible to beat in terms of location.  There were two flight schools there – Centennial and the Edmonton Flying Club.  The Edmonton Flying Club (EFC) they has an annual fee for being part of the club and learning to fly there.  I wasn’t sure how long I would be staying in Edmonton, so, I choose Centennial because they were slightly less expensive due to the absence of annual fee. They had several 172 which were well maintained, and I found the staff and instructors to be very professional.

Quality of Instructors, Planes and Facilities

I found the instructors at Centennial school impressive, and their planes were well maintained.   Much of the lower costs came from the fact that they did not own their own hangar (something that the EFC had). Hence, these cost savings were built into the rental prices.

Not having a hangar does make a difference when you’re learning to fly in a northerly, cold climate. I remember winter mornings when it was still pitch black at 8 am doing my walk around, peeling back the wing and cowling covers, while the bitter -25 degree C winter wind whistled past!  So, there is definitely a trade-off.

Make a trip to the school and meet some of the flight instructors. Do you like any of them? How about the culture of the school – is it rambunctious and unprofessional or is it quiet and friendly?  You don’t have to choose your instructor right away but you should definitely observe how the instructors interact.

So I finally settled on Centennial and my ground instruction began.  I enjoyed the theory part of it – what I like about flying is that it is so multi-faceted, there are so many knowledge areas:

  • weather
  • aerodynamics
  • aero engines
  • instruments
  • navigation

When you’re learning to drive, you don’t have to know the details about the engine you are operating (unless of course, you’re a commercial driver driving a transport truck). But in aviation, everything is tied together so intimately.  I found it fascinating.  Since I’m a climber and backcountry skiier, I already have an intimate relationship with and understanding of weather, since weather affects mountain sports very directly, but now I was entering a field where weather is even more important.  Aviation is very weather dependent, and understanding weather is key to being a good pilot.

Choose an instructor you like

The next thing you want to focus on is your instructor. Choose carefully and don’t be afraid to go up with several different instructors until you find one that suits you best.  Sometimes you will be lucky to find the first person you choose will be a great instructor for you, and it is definitely true that if you like talking to them on the ground, you’ll like them in the air, too.  You must really like your instructor – it is the most important choice you will make in your flight training.

Some instructors are just out to get their hours and move on to an airline job, others really love teaching. Remember, you are the paying customer and are paying big bucks, for your training and money talks.  So be selective and stick with someone who meets your needs. Switching instructors, especially early on in your training is time consuming and expensive. I switched instructors right as I was permitted to go up solo and it took my new instructor 10 hours of training before he trusted me enough to fly solo.

I met my instructor in ground school

My first instructor taught the evening ground school, and I immediately liked her teaching style and personality.  After a few classes asked her if she would take me up as a student. After many cancellations due to weather – it was springtime, after all, and the systems were shifting – we finally got up for the first time together.

Update on flight training in Edmonton

If you live in or around Edmonton, I’m sure you have heard about the closing of Edmonton City Centre Airport (CYXD).  My old school, Centennial, is now located at the Edmonton/Villenueve airport (CYZL) and Edmonton Flying Club is now at the Parkland Airport, CPL6. The other nearby airport is Cooking Lake, CEZ3.   Cooking Lake Aviation operates out of that airport.

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Do you want to learn how to fly?

Hanging out with a Cessna 172 at CYBW

Thinking about about becoming a pilot – or want to try flying?

First, take a Familiarization (Fam) or Discovery Flight

Every flight school offers a Fam or Discovery flight, a deeply discounted first flight designed to introduce you to the basics of flying.  The instructor will do a walk around the aircraft with you, explain what does what, and then take you up for a short flight, which usually lasts 30 minutes but depends on the school. I took a Fam flight from Edmonton Flying Club, which cost me only $70, and one from the Pacific Flying Club at the Boundary Bay Airport in Delta, BC, cost roughly the same. The one from Centennial Flight Centre in Edmonton cost me $170 and lasts an hour, and I believe Springbank Air Training College charges the same.

Regardless of whether you think you want to pursue a license or not, taking a fam flight is a great idea to introduce you to the basics of flying and flight. Even if you are just curious about flying, it is highly recommended.

On the fam flight, one of the first things you should note is what type of aircraft the school uses, and what condition they are in.  The most important things you should look at are the exterior or flying surfaces of the aircraft, such as the propeller, brakes, what is the tire wear, and so on.  You may also want to take a look inside the aircraft to see what condition the interior is in.  Are the seats worn out?  Are the radios old? Certain items that are cosmetic will not make a huge difference. If you have questions about the safety or condition of the fleet, you should ask the instructor.   You should also keep in mind what plane you want to fly after you complete your license. Are you planning on purchasing a plane, or renting, or are you pursuing aviation as a career?    If it’s just for recreational purposes, is this the plane you want to rent after you have your license?   After you have your license, if you would like to rent a different aircraft, you first must go up with an instructor and learn how to operate or get a type rating on that aircraft, learn it’s particular flight characteristics to satisfy the flight school that you are able to fly it safely before they would l allow you rent it on your own.  This may take lots of flying time, (which can get expensive!) so it is important to chose the plane that you plan on flying after you are finished your license.

Diamond eclipse C1. Image courtesy of
Diamond eclipse C1. Image courtesy of

My first flight was in a stunning Diamond Eclipse C1 two-seater plane pictured above, which was new and very nice inside and out!   I had no idea what I wanted to fly, or what the most popular training aircraft was – that is, by the way, the Cessna 172.  The Edmonton Flying club (EFC) had a fleet of Diamond and Cessna aircraft.  The instructor I was booked with recommended that we go up in a Diamond for my first flight.  It was a great experience, I was scared out of my mind, but hooked right away.

There is also the deeper issue of what you want with the license. Do you want to fly for fun, or do you wan to do it as a career?  I have always been in love with aviation and airplanes. From the first time I flew in an airplane, which was in a LOT Airlines Boeing 767, at 6 years old, my parents took me and my brother up to view the cockpit and I knew there was something about this that would change my life.  I didn’t try flying for decades after that when I was finishing up my Master’s degree.  Once I finish my private license, I am strongly considering a commercial license and making flying a big part of my life.

Stay tuned for some advice as to what challenges to expect when making this decision, and what kind of license you can get.

I was hooked and started looking at which aircraft I should be learning how to fly on and which flight school I should go with.

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