Them and Us: A CFIs Guide to Partnering With Your ATC Facility

My company is nothing without its partnerships. Among those are the ones we develop with mechanics, with our airport management, our neighbors, our competitors, and with our ATC facility.

El Monte Airport (KEMT) is a class D airport that’s smack-dab in the center of some of the most complicated airspace in the world. Lying directly to our north is the San Gabriel Mountains, a mountain range with terrain over 10,000.’ The basin is also flanked by smaller ranges that criss-cross the southern half of the state, from the coastline to the Mexico border. The KLAX class B airspace begins about 1-1/2 miles from the south end of our airport, and the Inland Empire area to our east–which includes airports such as KCNO, KAJO, and KRAL–is one of the most congested IFR training areas in the country.

Which means that our controllers aren’t just the people we talk to on the radio: They’re partners in our operation, because they help keep our students and CFIs alive. Understand this, and you’ll be one step closer to making the most of your ATC partnership and helping make things better for the aviation community in your neighborhood. The folks up in that facility have names, faces, and aspirations, and if you give them the opportunity, they’ll probably be happy to share their knowledge in ways that can help your students… and you.

What does this relationship look like? For us, it begins with the understanding that our tower crew is doing the best they can to keep everyone safe and running efficiently. It helps to remind ourselves that we’re not the ones looking at the radar screens, and so if we get a long runway hold, another extended downwind, or weird vectors to final, it’s happening in the interest of everyone’s safety. Be patient and you’ll help your controller help you. That might include giving traffic a bit of extra space (such as a student pilot on their first solo or a pilot who mis-hears an instruction), or letting other pilots go ahead of you on the ground. Plan ahead and be willing to yield in a possible conflict, and you make your controller’s life a thousand times easier–which frees up their mental bandwidth to help you when you need it.

Along these lines… have you heard yourself on the radio lately? Your radio presence says a lot about you, over a very public part of the airwaves. Would you want to talk to–or fly with–you, based on these interactions? If not, fix it! Nobody, in any field, wants to talk to grumpy automatons. Be upbeat, imagine your future students are listening, and give good “mic” and people will respond.

What else can you do? Ask your controllers to participate in your training and outreach. This has paid dividends for us at KEMT; our controller team has been regular participants in our Rusty Pilot seminars and ground school classes; they’ve also helped us host youngsters from the community, and they have pitched in with their specialized expertise when we have students who struggle with ATC communication. In an area with a high percentage of non-native English speaking pilots, the advantages we gain from our controllers’ help cannot be understated: getting to know the person on the other side of the radio makes communication more cooperative, and WAY less scary for our students.

How do you go about getting your controllers’ help? Be courteous in the pattern and on the taxiways. Teach your students the same, with the understanding that their flying reflects on your operation. Get to know the people in your tower. Offer your controllers a “familiarization” flight. Invite them to events. Tap into their knowledge. Understand that they are as interested in your safety as you are. They’ll reciprocate–I promise.

Happy flying!

Things Student Pilots Can Do to Make Their Training Faster and Less-expensive

Don’t miss lessons – This slows your progress and gets costly for your school/CFI. No, you shouldn’t fly when you’re sick, but if you’re missing lessons because you stayed out late or you failed to plan for other obligations, a busy CFI may not be able to reschedule you right away. Most will charge for repeated missed lessons. Better to plan ahead, and arrive ready to learn.

Arrive to lessons on time – Your lesson block generally includes time for your flight briefing, preflight check, flying time, and de-briefing. When you arrive late, it’s usually the flight and debrief time that has to be shortened to make up for it, so you’re spending more to fly (and learn) less. If you train at a part 141 school and/or plan to be a professional pilot, know that punctuality also makes you far easier to recommend.

Show up for lessons prepared – You should come away from each lesson knowing what to prepare for the next one (if your CFI isn’t clear about this, ASK). Make sure you follow through on this preparation, because when you aren’t ready for a lesson and your CFI has to improvise as a result, you’re not getting the most for your money. 

Fly as frequently as possible – The more frequently you fly, the more you retain. The more you retain, the fewer hours you need to finish. Once a week really isn’t enough, and gaps in your training cause regression. For most of us, two to three flights a week is the minimum to see reasonable progress. 

Take notes – Preflight and postflight briefings are an important part of what you’re paying for, so make the most of them by taking notes of what you need to work on. Follow through and chair-fly as needed between lessons. When CFIs repeat themselves, you’re not getting your money’s worth.

Don’t procrastinate on completing your Knowledge (written) Test – Yes, some of the material is outdated, and not all of it might apply to the airplanes and environment in which you fly. But you need a solid foundation of fundamental knowledge, and until the FAA comes up with a better way of assessing that, the Knowledge Test will remain a requirement. Get yours done early and you’ll get more out of your lessons.

Hold yourself accountable for your own learning – Your CFI is crucial for facilitating your training, but the amount of new knowledge required to be a competent pilot is massive and no CFI can cover it all on a one-on-one basis without being expensive. Ground schools help, but being disciplined about learning the material helps even more. So read, learn, review, and repeat. A good pilot NEVER stops learning.

Remember to bring critical items (navigation logs/charts/pilot certificate/medical/logbook) to lessons – Necessities left at home are some of the most exasperating reasons to have to cancel a flight. Make a checklist if you need to. 

Keep track of your endorsements – Make sure your endorsements, medical, and recency requirements are current (hint: this WILL be covered on your checkride). You don’t want to show up for a solo flight, discover that your solo endorsement expired, and your CFI is away from the airport that day. CFIs try our best to double-check, but help us help you by creating your own reminders. 

Carefully manage your expenditures on technology – If you have to forego lessons, charts, or textbooks because you over-spent on an iPad, GoPro, ADSB receiver, and a high-tech headset, you may find you’re slowing your training and getting less from it. Remember, you can always buy these things later. 

Familiarize yourself with the ACS – Your checkride is NOT the day to learn what’s in the ACS. As you near completion of your training requirements, you should be reviewing this document constantly. Make sure you get to the appendices, too. 

Don’t fixate only on the number of hours you’ve flown – We understand that pilot training is expensive, but your CFI is held responsible for making sure that you’re ready to solo (see FAR 61.87 for a list of required knowledge and skills), and ready for your checkride (that is, you can demonstrate all the knowledge and skills in the Private Pilot ACS). If you’re unclear about what’s expected, ask for specifics and a plan to work on them. If your progress has slowed, ask to fly with a different CFI from time to time, as this can help break through training “plateaus.” But understand, there is no specific number of hours that will guarantee your readiness–you (and your CFI) need to ensure that your training includes specific objectives and a clear path to achieving them.

I’m a CFI… Now What?

If you’re newly-certified, welcome and congratulations. As of this writing, I’m about 60 hours ahead of you–maybe twice that if you count ground instruction I did up to this point (I also have my AGI/IGI certificates). From my vantage point, I can tell you that although nothing you did up to your checkride will fully prepare you for how bad you’ll be during your first hundred or so hours of instruction, but if you care about the job and your students you’ll learn really fast. 

What’s coming up? First, you’re about to learn it’s really, really hard to let go of that stick. You’ve spent your entire pilot career being in charge. You’ve convinced your passengers (some of whom were probably first-time flyers) that you’ve got everything under control. But now your job is to hand over control to your student as fast as you can safely do so, and that’s surprisingly hard to do at this stage. It sounds insane, but we need to teach these novice pilots how to get out of ugly situations, and sometimes that requires that we do nothing at all. So your job is to sit tight, hush up, and do as little as possible while your student figures out how to keep you both (and the airplane) in one piece.  

Good luck with that. 

Okay, that’s maybe a little-bit dramatic. But not really, if you want to be good at this work. Here’s why: One of the hallmarks of a great flight instructor is the ability to let a student screw up ALMOST to the point of bending metal or violating the FARs without feeling the need to step in and fix it at an early stage. These Ironmen–and Ironwomen–are a HUGE benefit to a student pilot because they make it possible for the student to fix many more of their own mistakes without the kind of “help” that does them no good. Their best skill is a sort of practiced apathy. Whether that’s by constitution or by training is anyone’s guess.

Am I one of those people? Not yet. I have some ways to go until I’m that level of badass. 

Will I ever get there? I sure hope so. Whomever flies the next lesson with me can tell you how I’m doing. 

Stay tuned…