First flights

Every time you introduce a student to flying for the very first time, you should do it very early in the morning or right at sunset. The reason for this is simple. Flying during the later morning periods or in the early afternoon tends to give a new student a “rough ride.”  Early in the morning, the land has not yet begun to heat up and thermal activity is at a minimum. In the late afternoon near sunset, the land has begun to cool and the rising air currents have stopped climbing into the sky.

Even new flight instructors have enough experience to go flying in a small airplane on a hot, bumpy day. However, think of your students; with little experience, there is a good chance they will not be able to handle the heat, noise, and workload at the beginning of their flight training. Later on, just as you adapted in your own flying, so too will they. For the time being, though, give them a break and start their flight training early in the day or just before evening.

So, how should you handle the first flight?  What should you do?  Where should you go? How should the flight progress?

One thing you definitely want to make certain you do, is to “hook” the student. If you make the mistake of flying the student on her first flight in the middle of the afternoon heat, there is a good chance the prospective student will get sick and not come back for a second lesson. Hence, the idea of flying early in the morning or late in the afternoon on that first flight.

Another important piece of the first flight is to keep it simple. You do not want to over task a new student on their first flight with too much technical information, too much hands on flying of the aircraft, or staying up too long.

Ideally, the first flight should be a very simple and enjoyable introductory lesson. An old grizzled flight instructor once said, “A typical student’s brain is only good for about twenty minutes after takeoff.”  In many ways, he is right. The newness, the excitement, the fear, and being aloft for the first time in many cases can heavily tax anyone’s abilities regardless of enthusiasm.

For flight instructors brought up in large FBOs or flight training schools during their formative years, a 1.2 to 1.5 hour training flight may seem normal. It is normal for that environment, but the new instructor must also realize there are those who want to fly who have no intention of ever becoming a professional pilot. For these individuals, flying more than 45 minutes at a time may be too much.

Ideally, a short flight with a break followed by a another short flight totaling no more than about an hour can be described as the perfect introductory flight. In other words, one of the best methods to “hook” a new pilot into aviation is to fly to a distant airport no more than 20 or 30 minutes away. After arriving, land the airplane, park, and buy your new student a soft drink. Then sit down outside somewhere where you can watch airplanes and talk about flying.

This will give you an opportunity to get to know your new student. Additionally, you will be able to find out why they want to fly, what kind of flying they are interested in, and what their future intentions might be regarding their flying. After the break and the soft drinks, it is time to head home. And, that is about all you should do on your student’s first flight.

During the flight out and back from the distant airport, do not try to impress your new student with how great a pilot you are by flying the airplane to the limits of its Vgn diagram. This first lesson should be a very gentle flight with as few twists and turns as possible—be as smooth as possible on the controls. You should not bank the airplane more than 15 or 20 degrees to turn and avoid hard pitch inputs as well.

The need for smooth flying should be apparent. As a flight instructor dependent on income from teaching students, you need to realize this important point—if you scare them, or if their first flight is unpleasant, they are not going to come back. This will result in immediate lost revenue for you.

There is, however, a more sinister side to scaring your students: if you frighten them, they are going to go out and supply you with copious amounts of free publicity. Unfortunately, this free publicity will be of the negative variety. Keep in mind that when it comes to marketing, getting positive word out about how wonderful a flight instructor you are can be difficult.

On the other hand, if your public believes you are not as great a flight instructor is you have made yourself out to be in your own mind, well, that word will spread like wildfire. For some reason, it is true what they say about bad news: it travels fast. If you take a student out and scare him or her, that student will not hesitate to go out and tell everyone why they will never fly with you again.

One thing you can do with your students to help pique their curiosity and sell them on the idea of flying is to fly over their house. They will have an opportunity to look down on their neighborhood and see what it looks like from altitude. They will see streets they are familiar with from the ground in a completely new light. Their perspectives may completely change when they see their homes from a completely different point of view.

Another place you may fly them during their early flight training is over their schools or their workplaces. This gives them the opportunity to ask their friends, “Hey! Did you see that airplane up in the sky about 5:30 yesterday afternoon? That was me!”

The added bonus to this practice is free marketing for you. More than one or two of your student’s friends will probably come by to inquire about flying lessons.

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© 2011 J. Clark

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