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Choosing an Instructor for the Homebuilder

(c) Ed Wischmeyer
Originally published in Inflight USA,
Reprinted by EAA Flight Advisor Newsletter
and by EAA Chapter 1000

The bad news is that it’s probably too late to do the single most important thing for your flying skills, which is to have a great first instructor. If you were well taught initially, though, you have a significant head start on learning to fly your homebuilt well. In any case, you’ll probably want some instruction to get really sharp before you first fly your homebuilt.

There are two approaches to learning to fly your homebuilt. One is to do a type specific checkout, much as one would check out in a Cessna 182 or a Decathlon. The much more likely approach is to learn to be an adaptable pilot, get your skills up and get some experience in a few different aircraft similar to your homebuilt, and then check yourself out, like glider pilots do all the time in single seaters.

If you want to find an instructor who will help you be an adaptable pilot, you need to find an instructor who is already adaptable themselves. What does adaptable really mean? Lots of things. An adaptable pilot will:

  • Have a feel for the aircraft they’re flying and do what the airplane needs, not just decree what it wants;
  • Have flown a variety of aircraft, and learned the varieties of techniques that work well for each;
  • Have realized that there are many styles of flying, not just right and wrong, and that each style has advantages and disadvantages.
  • Have learned that flying by the book gives baseline techniques for flying the airplane, but does not obviate exercise of judgement.

Similarly, an adaptable CFI will

  • Be able to teach all the different techniques, whether in favor or not.
  • Know why the book says what it does, not just what it says.

For learning to fly a homebuilt, you should avoid a “fly by the book only” instructor.

  • There may be no book for your kind of homebuilt -- you’ll write your own;
  • Even if there is a book, your flights will be the proofreading;
  • The most unpredictable characteristics of a homebuilt are in handling, not in book subjects like systems operation or performance or flight planning. The book won’t help you much with handling characteristics, but adaptability will.

The opposite of adaptability is rote flying. When I was a new instructor, one student (not mine) was an absolute whiz at flying the Cessna 152. He had, for example, rote learned a procedure for slow flight (set throttle, full flaps, then pitch to a certain attitude until a certain airspeed, etc.) and could do this with amazing precision, but he never learned to feel what the airplane was doing. He was so Cessna 152 specific that he never could check out in even a Cessna 172.

More recently, I flew with a friend whose instructor victimized him by rote flying. On final, he couldn’t feel what the airplane was doing, and covered this up with the throttle. Then at flare, the power came off, the nose came up to a fixed attitude, and we waited for the ground to rise up into us. There was no adjustment during the flare, just following steps learned by rote. This demonstrates instructor malpractice, in my book, and if you learned this way, you’re going to have to learn to get a feel for the airplane before you get into homebuilts. Then again, you should do this for yourself, anyway.

Years ago, the FAA realized that the quality of flight instructors was getting pretty sorry, so they made all instructor applicants take their first check ride with the FAA. CFI does not mean adaptable, nor does it mean good, nor does it mean appropriate for homebuilts. Be careful when you choose your CFI.

One of the common practices these days is that flight schools hire their own graduates as CFIs. These CFIs, even after a thousand hours, may or may not themselves have the adaptability you will need them to teach you. They may have seen different airplanes, but will probably not have seen different styles of doing things. I’ve even seen multi-thousand hour chief instructors who’d flown all the planes, got all the ratings, but were still dogmatic and argumentative. Avoid them.

Indications of an adaptable CFI may well include:

  • Displaying a fascination with and a love for airplanes;
  • Being able to grease on landings in both high and low wing airplanes;
  • Having taught spins and taken some acro;
  • Flown taildraggers;
  • Flown gliders, or floats, or rotorcraft, or ultralights, in addition to normal airplanes;
  • Trying different techniques for themselves in the air, not just taking somebody’s word for it.

An adaptable CFI will probably not

  • Get into a knock down, drag out argument about whether throttle or wheel controls airspeed or altitude. They’ll know not both sides, but many sides.
  • Claim that the only “real” pilots fly such and such. An adaptable CFI will focus on self discipline and high personal standards, not the airplane.
  • Have all the answers. In fact, an adaptable CFI will probably not even have all the questions.
  • Confuse experience with repetition. We all know pilots with 200 hours of experience and 3,000 hours of repetition.
  • Be building hours for an airline job.
  • Take aviation writers as gospel truth. Not all writers are that much better than all CFIs.

Make sure that your adaptable CFI has some experience relevant to the homebuilt you’re going to fly. A CFI specializing in heavy singles may not be much help with a Kitfox, and a Cub CFI won’t help you with a Glasair. If you can, get a CFI with some time in a homebuilt similar to yours.

So how do you find an adaptable CFI? Word of mouth to find out who’s good, and then ask some questions to find out how much adaptability they can pass on to you. Fly with them in several substantially different airplanes, and get good in all of them. You may even have to get adaptability by flying with different instructors with different attitudes and techniques at different locations.

So what is adaptability, after all? Adaptability is enough varied experience in airplanes you know to let you safely acquire experience in the homebuilt you don’t know. An adaptable CFI can help.  

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