Posted by: harrisonjones | April 21, 2011

Lessons learned from flight instructing

The first time I sat in an airplane, with the premeditated intention of committing an act of aviation, the instructor at my right elbow was James H. Phillips. Neither of us knew that he would still be my instructor years later when I passed my Airline Transport Pilot exam. Words like basic and minimum standards were not in Jim’s vocabulary. He set the highest standard for himself and expected no less from his students. The way he flew an airplane was a true melding of art and science. 

When Jim put me through the CFI program, I did not envision myself teaching as a profession. My goal was to simply become a better pilot and the training itself would put hours in my logbook. I was overloaded just trying to learn to fly from the right seat and his lectures about the psychology of how people learn, and what motivates them to do so, was not an exciting part of the program. As I look back now, I realize that understanding how humans communicate and respond was the most important thing to know and it had nothing to do with airplanes.  

When I took the FAA for a ride and they declared me a Certified Flight Instructor, I began with my first student a few days later. My education was just beginning. I soon discovered that the first step in the process was to gain the students confidence and the way to do that was not to dazzle them with my vast  knowledge of all things aeronautical. The phrase, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” comes to mind. I found that demonstrating character and integrity produced the credibility I wanted; a life lesson that has rewarded me in many situations over the years. 

Gaining someone’s confidence can be a dangerous thing. The power to motivate and influence is a necessary tool in teaching, and in life, but the abuse of that power is the subject of headlines almost every day. Did I mention character and integrity? I could offer examples, but I refuse to discuss politics. I suppose that the lesson learned is the triangle of authority, responsibility and accountability. If you can’t handle all three, don’t play the game. 

I promised myself that I would shorten my blogs, so let me sum this up by saying that my one student became twenty within a few months and I learned much more than I taught. Life lessons about human nature and the fact that it never changes. Cave men sought warmth and security. They built a fire in the cave and rolled a rock in the opening. Tonight you will adjust the thermostat and set the alarm. Same desires, same needs, same motivations. Understanding people, the key to success in any field of endeavor.  Is it possible that some of the problems we face in aviation today have more to do with humanity than aerodynamics?


  1. I think that in any profession as we try to move up the ladder or improve ourselves we lose sight of others around us. We become so focused on our goals that we often forget that others have dreams and goals for themselves.

    I admire the dedication of the CFI’s that I had during my flight training. Each one brought something new to the table to help me achieve my goal of becoming a private pilot.

    Being an older pilot I also saw an opportunity to encourage my CFI’s (all much younger than me) to continue achieving their life goals by asking about what training they were working on and what would be their dream job, realizing for some being a CFI was a stepping stone to further their aviation career.

  2. Your comment makes my point nicely. You should be teaching CRM (crew resource management) for airline crews. It’s true that some CFIs use the position as a stepping stone, but their students should never realize that. At the time I thought I had reached my potential and being a CFI was my dream job. I was fortunate to do other things, but I never had more fun.

  3. “If you can’t handle all three, don’t play the game”… Couldn’t agree more.

    • Thank you for visiting and for commenting. Without professional CFIs, we’d all be back in Orville and Wilbur’s shoes.

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