The Weight of a CFI's Pen
In talking to a recent CFI candidate, my attention was brought to flight instructor responsibility and professionalism as a PTS item that must be reviewed for the checkride. It had been a while since I had thought about it. I know I discussed it during my own checkride prep, and when I was a freshly minted instructor I remember thinking about it directly far more often. After that, I think the habits set in for better or worse and stayed that way. My thoughts about it weren't as intentional anymore.
Coming back to it now, there is much more than I had thought during my own training. This subject as well as many others discussed in fundamentals of instruction concern the weight of your words during instruction. I also want to focus on the weight of your pen. If we look more long-term responsibility can include catching and correcting mistakes, even with students past that lesson or who have completed their training. Don't be too embarrassed or too indifferent to send that text or make that call to a past student to correct something you misunderstood or taught wrong. It's a small thing, but it's owning up to a mistake and promoting correct knowledge in the field.
Responsibility with your pen certainly includes caution with flight reviews, IPCs, complex and first solo endorsements. These are likely the most important for safety, at least in the short term, and should require close attention because of the margin of safety involved. After all, it is unlikely that steep turns barely out of ACS standards will cause injury or damage.
Responsibility can also be more long-term, both in correct lessons and good habits being passed along. Other aspects to consider are endorsements for practical tests. These may not be as grave as the prior endorsements mentioned. That doesn't make them trivial, and I don't imagine anyone beyond the occasional student stuck in hazardous attitudes believe they are trivial. There are consequences to unsatisfactory checkrides: increased cost, reduced morale, and failures on record that could affect future job prospects and/or insurance costs.
With that, I've heard the nameless stories about post-checkride conversations between examiners and instructors where the instructor says something like "phew, I'm glad they passed, I was worried about my student's (various maneuver or knowledge area)".
On one hand, I understand the relief when a student passes. As a newer instructor especially, but really any endorsement I've given, I was always a little nervous which I believe is appropriate, and normal. On the other hand, to send a student without an appropriate belief in his/her ability to pass the elements of a checkride is a big deal.
The endorsement says basically "I certify that this student is prepared for this test". To give it improperly is to shirk the responsibilities of a CFI. Beyond this, improper endorsement risks the consequences mentioned above, and puts too much weight on a single flight with an examiner to prove the qualifications and knowledge of an applicant. At some point, I was told to consider it as a shared responsibility. The applicant qualifies, the instructor sees his/her abilities and consistency over time and makes an endorsement. The examiner performs the practical exam and adds the final signature to send it to the FAA. Out of the three, that means that we as instructors have the best idea of what our students actually know and how they can perform compared to the standards and best practices.
Some potential remedies for the situation described are to get second opinions from other instructors, and set up mock checkrides, or unofficial progress checks to see how the student performs with someone else and added pressure. Of course, with the potential need to book exams well in advance, set a threshold for when you believe you should reach out to an examiner and push for that date once scheduled. If the time comes, knowing that rescheduling isn't anyone's favorite thing, it is prevalent throughout aviation, and any examiner is going to understand if a student isn't ready.
I'm not attempting to lecture. I just have different thoughts about what instructor responsibility and professionalism means, after having spent a few years doing it. I'm curious, and please send an email if you have some more prudent examples or thoughts from your own time instructing.
Originally published on the January 2023 Greater St. Louis Flight Instructors Association Newsletter. Zach Hagely is a CFI at Elite Aviation and a member and writer of GSLFIA. Email him at email@example.com
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