Teaching a Spouse to Fly

Posted by in Instructing

Kristi and I have been married for more than three-and-a-half years, and while many parts of our lives are completely merged, there are also areas where our identities and roles have remained quite distinct. For example, she’s been the dancer and I’ve been the pilot. We both brought those avocations in from our pre-wedding days. Oh, I’ll step into her world for a spell or she into mine, but for the most part my domain is up in the clouds and hers has been on the parquet.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the challenge and artistry of competitive ballroom dance, but rather that I defer to her established history, training, and experience in this very demanding sport. In other words, she is the expert (and true talent, I might add!). When we’re aloft, the opposite tends to be true. Nothing earth-shattering so far, right?

Getting ready to depart for Catalina in a Cirrus SR22 to re-create our first date.

Getting ready to depart for Catalina in a Cirrus SR22 to re-create our first date.

But lately Kristi has been doing some of the stick-and-rudder work on our flights on her own initiative. She seems to have enjoyed it, to the point that she’s showing an interest in possibly learning on a more formal basis, and that’s got me noodling about whether I should be the one doing the teaching. There are plenty of arguments both for and against the do-it-yourself approach.

The Case For:

Let’s start with the money. Flying is expensive, and the fact that I’m an instructor means that we could get her trained at lower cost. She’s a quick study, but due to the airspace and complexities of operating here in Southern California, let’s assume it takes 55 hours of actual flying and another 40 of otherwise chargeable ground time. That’s 95 hours at, say, $65/hour. The savings: over $6,000. This is not pocket change!

It’d also be convenient from a scheduling perspective if I were her instructor. And it’s an enjoyable avocation that we could share. Learning to fly is a momentous time for the student — I’d hate to miss being there for the big breakthroughs and milestones that one often encounters during the journey, not to mention shepherding her through the inevitable plateaus and frustrations that are, unfortunately, also part of the experience.

A hot wife who likes to fly?  How did I get so lucky??

A hot wife who likes to fly? How did I get so lucky??

One of the great challenges for any instructor is figuring out how a student learns. You’d think it’d be easy to teach everybody the same stuff in the same way, but this is not a traditional classroom activity. It’s a one-on-one learning environment, and every individual proceeds at a different pace and encounters their own unique hurdles. For example, an aeronautical engineer might be someone I could speak “the language” to right off the bat, whereas someone who never finished high school might need to be taught remedial math or physics. As Kristi’s husband, I might have an advantage in knowing how to best approach specific subjects.

Finally, there’s an old saying: “if you want something done right, do it yourself”, and where my wife is concerned, I’d want to ensure nothing was overlooked or left to chance. And not just for safety reasons, although that’s certainly paramount. The dropout rate for student pilots is around 80%, and while most of that is undoubtedly due to financial concerns, it’s no secret that plenty of students are lost to scheduling difficulties, personality conflict, instructor apathy, or simply not having enough fun.

The Case Against:

Flying columnist Lane Wallace succinctly summarized the argument against establishing a student/instructor relationship with a spouse or “significant other” to fly when she asked quite plainly, “Is it possible to teach your spouse to fly and stay married?”

When put into that context, the $6,000 suddenly seems a lot less important, doesn’t it?

On more than one occasion, I’ve written that if there is an iron-clad piece of advice I’d offer to anyone, it would be that under no circumstances should ANYONE attempt to teach their boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other or spouse how to operate ANY piece of heavy machinery, let alone an airplane. And that people violate this dictum at their peril.

The reasons for this advice seem obvious. Intimate relationships entail so many loaded dynamics of power, acceptance and rejection, vulnerability and baggage that attempting to impose a teacher/student relationship on top of that — especially where performance is critical and misunderstandings can be catastrophic — is generally a really bad idea.

I've always thought this looked like an ad for a headset or sunglasses company.

I’ve always thought this looked like an ad for a headset or sunglasses company.

She makes a good argument, no doubt about it. There are times a CFI has to lay down the law on their padawan, and it’s easier to do that when the interpersonal relationship between the two is limited to student and instructor. Adding “husband” and “wife” can easily complicate things. Issues that are exclusive of aviation can find their way into the cockpit almost unbeknownst to either party.

Teaching Kristi to fly would also mean that I wouldn’t be fully available to her as a sounding board when she had frustrations or doubts about either her performance or that of her instructor. Being that “shoulder to lean on” can be awfully important. If either one of us ever changed our minds about the wisdom of teaching a spouse, making a break that wouldn’t hurt the other person’s feelings might be difficult.

On the other hand, the guy Lane interviewed for her Flying article did successfully teach his wife to fly and they seem to be better for the experience. But then, perhaps that’s what made it so noteworthy. I know quite a few people who met their significant other through aviation, but in cases where one taught the other to fly, every single one of them had the student/instructor relationship before they got involved on a personal level. That’s probably why this feels like uncharted territory.

Having a little fun at the Catalina Airport.  As I recall, we were sharing a cool popsicle on a very hot summer day.

Having a little fun at the Catalina Airport. As I recall, we were sharing a cool popsicle on a very hot summer day.

On the other hand, it seems quite common for a parent to teach a child or grandchild to fly. Again, this likely has to do with the nature of the relationship. The parent is already an authority figure over any younger member of the family, whereas with spouses it’s more of a — if you’ll pardon the pun — marriage of equals.

There’s one more potentially detrimental aspect to providing flight instruction to a member of the family: the temptation to interact with the student in a less than professional manner. Or perhaps I should say, to let some of the professional decorum that normally accompanies one’s interactions with a client fall by the wayside. I doubt this would ever be done out of intentional disrespect, but it’s an insidious tendency that I’ve personally witnessed with other instructors who have taught loved ones to fly.

For example, under normal circumstances a CFI wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) dream of showing up late, canceling on short notice, taking phone calls during a scheduled lesson, or treating a student with anything less than the utmost professionalism and high quality service. But if that student was a family member, the lack of formality in their everyday relationship might make its way into other aspects of the training.

That would be a huge mistake. An instructor needs to hold their student accountable for completing homework, assigned reading, and so on. Likewise, the student should expect that their instructor will be as timely, prepared, and professional with them as they would be with any third-party customer.

This was taken during a 1930's-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

This was taken during a 1930′s-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

Other Options

The start of Kristi’s training is not imminent, so we’ve got plenty of time to figure this out. At the moment, my inclination is to teach her myself, but with a clear understanding that if we encounter problems or it doesn’t seem to be working out, either one of us can suggest switching to a third-party instructor before any unpleasantness destroys her enthusiasm for flying. So often in this business, we forget that taking wing is supposed to be fun! If it’s not… well, then it’s time to take stock and figure out what’s wrong.

Another option might be to continue what we’ve already started: a slower, more informal training regime where a lesson is incorporated with our occasional travel by air. Her progress would be glacial in comparison to traditional methods, but it would have some advantages, too. Lower cost (we’d be flying for some other purpose anyway), less stress, and no pressure to “get it done”. This method might also preserve a lot of the fun since we’d rarely be droning around some practice area. If Kristi ever felt the desire to make faster progress toward solo or a private certificate, we could transition her into a formalized program.

How about you, dear readers? Have you ever taught a spouse to fly, or learned from one? Do you know anyone who has? I’d be interested in hearing your stories and opinions. One thing’s for sure: whether I’m the instructor or not, Kristi learning to fly would be quite an adventure for both of us!