Originally published June 1995
[The following article is reprinted from Homebuilder's Workshop in Inflight USA. -ed]
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:
Similarly, an adaptable CFI will
For learning to fly a homebuilt, you should avoid a "fly by the book only" instructor.
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.
A few 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:
An adaptable CFI will probably not
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.
The author holds an ATP CFII/ASMEL rating and has flown over 100 makes, models, and variants of aircraft. He is an FAA Safety Counselor, an airline safety researcher for Battelle Memorial Institute in the NASA ASRS Office and is the President of EAA Chapter 62 in San Jose, CA.