Be Unfaithful to Your CFI

Can two flight instructors teach you more than one? Learn from conflicting opinions and healthy debate to make yourself a better pilot.

During the course of typical flight training, we spend lots of time with our flight instructors (CFI). They become trusted advisors, so when they tell us something, we tend to accept it. When we hear other CFIs teach their students differently, we think how lucky we are to have the CFI who is right.

Given this allegiance, it’s often tough for a student pilot to consider “cheating” on his or her CFI. Perhaps we’re inherently faithful to the ones who said “You’re getting there!” each time we botched our first hundred landings; or, perhaps it comes from the wholly unconvincing tone of voice CFIs use while encouraging students to fly with other instructors:

“I think flying with another CFI could be good for you,” they say, as if suggesting decapitation as a cure for a brain tumor.

I had two CFIs during my training: the boy CFI and the girl CFI. The boy CFI taught me the basics, and when I figured I had taught him all I could about the management of a problem student, I moved on to the girl CFI. They worked together, so this wasn’t awkward at all. Nope, not at all.

Okay, that’s a lie—it was quite awkward. But, true to my nature as a troublemaker, I immediately sought ways to get them into disagreements about as many topics as I could. I figured a few good cat fights would—you know—help break the ice. At the very least, it would be entertaining for me to watch… And, dammit, I was the one with the credit card!

Most of the time, it was tough to get them going—they agreed on pretty much everything. But, one day I struck gold. Before I knew it, one of my innocent (really!) questions erupted into an airport lounge debate, the likes of which I could only previously fantasize. All I needed was Barry Schiff to play the part of Jerry Springer, and I swear I was seeing a whole new genre of hanger talk.

Here’s the synopsis upon which my innocent question was based…

The airport is tucked under the class bravo airspace of San Francisco International (SFO). In order to fly anywhere, we must consider the SFO airspace and, of course, avoid stumbling into it uninvited. Right next to the airport is the San Francisco Bay, all big and wet. The floor (bottom) of SFO’s airspace over the Bay is 2,500 feet.

My innocent question was, quite innocently: What’s the best altitude to fly across the Bay?

Much to my delight, Boy CFI and Girl CFI disagreed. Girl CFI’s opinion was, “Fly as high as possible, so if you lose your engine, you’ll be more likely to make it to shore.” That made sense, but Boy CFI saw it differently: “Stay at 1,200 feet to make sure you stay clear of the wake turbulence that comes from the jets headed into SFO.” Wow, another good point. Those jets were very low as they passed by, and I could see myself getting thunked on the fuselage by the wake of any one of them.

Others in the lounged weighed in, but no one could offer the most convincing answer. It was a debate with no resolution. No winner. There would be no closing thought for Barry Springer.

Only later did I realize that something did, in fact, come from that afternoon’s CFI slug fest. Each time I cross the San Francisco Bay now, I’m keenly aware of what could happen if I fly too high, or if I fly too low. Each time I cross, I choose an altitude; I don’t just fly an altitude. I learned more from conflicting opinions than I ever could have from a chart or an agreement between my CFIs.

About David

David Diamond is a writer and 3D illustrator focused on aviation, who lives in Northern California. Visit his blog and portfolio at

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  1. Jeanne
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I am a student pilot, however, not a young one. I’m 49 and have just soloed. I appreciated your comments about learning from different CFI’s. I always feel that I am somehow being “unfaithful” to my CFI if I question how we are doing something or why, because he is the teacher and I am the student. There is something to be said for respecting your teacher but as a elementary teacher I know that not all students learn the same way and other teachers may have a different approach that will work for a student that is having difficulty in a particular area or way that I am teaching.

    I have learned much by reading articles from several different CFI’s on a subject and just listening to other CFI’s instructions to their students while I’m waiting for my CFI or have just finished a lesson. I have had difficulty with my landings and read a great deal on the subject and what finally worked for me was a combination of things I had read and heard. Jeanne

  2. Posted March 5, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeanne!

    Thanks very much for the comment!

    I think it’s very common for student pilots to feel like they shouldn’t risk offending their CFI by entertaining the notion of asking around for more info, different info or even just confirmation. I look at it this way: if I’m in a emergency situation one day, and I have nothing but my training to rely on, I want to make sure it’s as complete as possible. Because, no matter what happens after that emergency, no CFI is going to be offering refunds: “Gee, I’m really sorry you forgot to unlatch the door before you hit the runway so hard; but I’m sure that was my fault, so here’s your money back.” It just ain’t gunna happen!

    Look, I love my mother, but I’m 45 years old now. I realize she always did her best, but she wasn’t always right. If I accepted everything she said as fact, I’d be a really pissed off consumer today, because I have never been able to get my car to fly. And she was certain they’d be flying by the time I was old enough to drive.

    In my book (Flight Training: Taking the Short Approach), I make a point of mentioning that no one can teach you to fly an airplane–it’s really something you figure out on your own, based on advice and tidbits of info you hear from others. I’d be willing to bet your struggle with landings was similar: You learn all you can, and memorize as much as possible; but the day you start “greasing” those landings will be the day you realize that you stopped “thinking” about landing and started actually feeling it. It’s that internal sense of knowing the exact moment those wheels touch the surface. That’s just nothing something anyone can teach you; but it is something you can teach yourself once you’ve had time to digest all the “think of this” and “try that” you can stand. (And I do mean all, not just the ones your CFI taught you.)

    I hope you continue to enjoy ASA’s new blog!

  3. Jeanne Peterson
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Hi David,
    This past Tuesday, I had an early morning lesson scheduled with ground school after. The forecast had fog in it which was present when I got the airport. My CFI postponed my lesson until 11:00, the time that the fog was to clear which worked fine in my schedule. I had taken the day off of work and brought my books with so I could study if the lesson got delayed.

    At 11:00am my CFI called and said that if I wanted to do my next dual crosscountry at 1:00 we could. I told him that I didn’t have any planning done because we hadn’t planned a cross country for that day. He said to start planning and gave me the planned route.

    I started planning at 11:00 and when he arrived at 12:30 I still wasn’t done and he started to look it over. We worked through what I had done and filed a flight plan and left at 2:05. I was excited about doing one more thing on my list but felt unprepared because of the rushed schedule.

    In the air he realized that one portion of the planning I didn’t have correct and tried to talk me through my error in the air while I was flying and trying to find my checkpoints. I suppose this is good practice for my checkride??

    When we got down on the ground Willmar, MN my first stop we went over the next portion and made corrections and did the same at my second stop in Alexandria. I noticed while we were in the air that I had completely missed writing in one of my checkpoints for my last leg on my plan.

    I’m not a perfectionist my I do like to be prepared. I felt frustrated because I know that had I had the time I could have done the correct planning. In his defense I should have told him no when he suggested going so I could prepare properly.

    Before I left the new Chief CFI at our flight school asked me if I was going on a cross country today and I said no. Then I told her that I asked Nick for a plan to finish up my training and she said that she had questions about the order of my training with him.

    I don’t want to get him in trouble with her. I do like him as an instructor and I think he knows his stuff but maybe a little disorganized. I know what the importance of planning means from my teaching background. I would like to make a couple of suggestions to him but not sure how to do it without offending or inappropriate.

    On a positive note to a long day of planning & flying, When it came time to land the winds were 300@12ktsG18kts according to ATIS and I landed the plane, not a greaser, but a better one than I have done in similar conditions. I probably had my worst readback to ATC after landing and told Nick that and he said “It wasn’t the best but the landing was good”. so I felt better about how the day ended.

  4. Jeanne
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    I just noticed that in the last comment I posted I wrote that the Chief CFI asked me if I was going on a cross country today and I said no. What I meant to write was she asked me if I KNEW was going on a cross country today. The answer to the question was no. I don’t want people to get the idea I lied to her because I wouldn’t. Sorry for the error. Jeanne

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