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The Glass, Completely Full

By Max Trescott, National Certificated Flight Instructor of the Year

The 2008 National CFI of the Year, Max Trescott, is a NAFI Master Instructor and Master Ground Instructor. He started flying when he was 15 and completed his private pilot certificate while attending Swarthmore College. He earned a master’s degree in marketing and management from NYU’s Stern School of Business and went to work for Hewlett-Packard in New Jersey and later at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. During his 25 years at HP, he worked in a variety of marketing, sales, and management positions while continuing to earn additional certificates and ratings.

He became a CFI in September 2001 and began working as an aviation educator on weekends at San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport. After leaving HP, he began teaching full-time as an independent flight instructor with several flight schools at the Palo Alto Airport before shifting his focus to glass-cockpit aircraft. He is a factory-trained Cessna FITS (FAA/Industry Training Standards) authorized instructor, a Cirrus Standardized Instructor, and a Columbia (Cessna) 350/400 instructor. In 2006, he founded Glass Cockpit Publishing (www.G1000Book.com), launched with the release of Max Trescott’s G1000 Glass Cockpit Handbook. Several CD-ROM courses and online Internet training courses followed, all focused on modern glass-cockpit avionics.

As an advocate for general aviation and flight safety, he writes a blog, www.MaxTrescott.com, and produces an online newsletter, www.PilotSafetyNews.com. He is a popular speaker at EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh and at the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland, Florida, and he provides safety seminars to local pilot groups as an FAA Safety Team member with the San Jose Flight Standards District Office. NAFI Mentor spoke with him from his home in Mountain View, California.

Mentor: How did you get started in flight trainingè

Max Trescott: I got my private certificate when I was 19, and then I went a pile of years never actually thinking about becoming a flight instructor. Then, suddenly, back in 2001, a friend of mine said, hey, I’m getting my CFI, you should, too, and I thought, yeah, probably so. It was really kind of serendipitous in that way, but once I started doing it, I thought, oh my gosh, this is even more fun than flying.

I started doing it part-time while I was still working for Hewlett-Packard, then did it full-time after I left HP about four years ago. When I was working for HP, I’d work five days a week for them, and then, literally, I’d teach eight hours on Saturday and eight hours on Sunday, and go back to work on Monday. I’ve just always loved it.

M: What is it that you love about itè

MT: I think most of it is just enjoying watching other people reach their goals and have fun in the process. This may sound funny, but I soloed 30 years ago, and every time I have somebody solo, I’m still almost as excited as they are. It’s a fun, joint, shared kind of goal. Plus it’s great having an office with a window view on four sides. That I can never get over—how much fun it is to be up there and looking out the window watching the world go by.

M: Given that, what do you call your greatest successè

MT: I think the answer is raising two kids, getting them into good colleges, and having them get good jobs when they graduate. I’m proud as heck of those two girls. They’re fantastic, and aviation kind of pales in comparison beside that. If I look at my greatest success in aviation, I guess that it’s making a living and having fun doing it. When I was in the corporate world, I enjoyed many of those years, but the last two were just hell, so I don’t underestimate the value of doing work that you really love.

M: Did having instruction to go to make leaving the corporate world easierè

MT: Absolutely. It made me realize that there was something else I could be doing. Oddly, when I first left the company, I was doing something that was totally non-flight-related, for all of two months. It was a business that I had thought about long in advance and had friends who were doing extremely well in. I was doing it for all of a couple months when I discovered in a seminar all the ways I could get sued and stuff like that, and I thought, this is no fun either. So that’s why I ended up back in flight instruction. I just love the people, and I have yet to find another industry where the people that I work with are as fun and enjoyable.

M: How did you develop your business and your business modelè

MT: It probably comes a little bit from the culture of working at Hewlett-Packard. I still remember years ago Dave Packard used to always talk about making sure we were always making a contribution or that we were creating value. So those were the kinds of things I look to be doing when I’m teaching. I’m always trying to be the best at what I do, which I can only do by specializing, to make sure people are getting good value by really helping them learn more in a shorter period of time.

M: Did you start with the intent to train anybody who came through the door to fly anythingè

MT: That was absolutely true the first couple of years, when I was just teaching on weekends. Then I started to specialize in the glass side, just because it looked like it was a growing area that was very attractive to somebody who had a high-tech background. It wasn’t very long before I was able to start turning away people who didn’t want to fly in a glass airplane, which is what I do 100 percent of the time now. I almost never fly round-gauge instruments, simply because I have so much demand for what I specialize in. I refer those people to other instructors.

Initially, when I first started flying in glass, I thought, oh gee, who really needs a computer in the airplane, what a waste of good technology. It took only one flight for me to realize, oh, wait a minute, this really makes a major contribution to flying safety, I love this stuff, and this is what I’m going to do.

M: What do you think those contributions areè

MT: The improvement in situational awareness is huge. I think things like having traffic available in the aircraft is also huge. Having the weather is phenomenal. And then, at an even more subtle level—it took me longer to figure this out—it’s actually, from a scanning point, far less work on your eye to scan instruments on glass than it is to scan round gauges. People are meeting the instrument standards in probably three-quarters of the time or less than they could meet the standards in round gauges. It really is a better way to go.

M: For a student, how does going up the training ladder in glass airplanes differ from doing it in round-gauge airplanesè

MT: It’s not a whole lot different. The biggest difference is remembering from time to time to turn all those toys off so that they’re stuck with the old rudimentary three backup gauges—force them to make the landings, force them to successfully navigate on cross-countries without all those TV screens in front of them. The fundamentals, the basics, are no different. The actual implementation of those basics is a little bit different, simply because you’ve got different controls and knobs sitting there, but the fundamentals are really the same.

M: Is there a risk that pilots may become too dependent on the technologyè

MT: I hope not. So far, I’ve only given one phase check in which a pilot became fairly disoriented when I turned off the MFD and forced him to use a map. I try to make sure that I shut the stuff off enough of the time so that my clients don’t become dependent on it. But I think that’s one of the biggest risks—that we, as instructors, forget to force them to learn in a Spartan environment as well.

In fact, I’ve often argued with people—most of them who don’t have a lot of experience teaching in glass—about which is the more valuable training environment. They usually argue that, oh, their students can learn to fly better without all the fancy GPS if they learn to fly in a round-gauge instrument airplane, and I tell them that, not only can we do that in our glass-cockpit airplane, but we can also teach them to fly with all the fancy equipment. I really think the glass is a richer environment, because we can teach virtually all the stuff you would do in round-gauge airplanes plus all the latest avionics as well. I really think it is the best-possible teaching environment.

M: How did you get about really “owning” that niche of trainingè

MT: I think that part of it is just being there early in the game, though I was hardly the first person to start teaching it. But also it was just recognizing that there was a need. I was constantly hearing from glass cockpit owners that they couldn’t find instructors who knew more about it in the airplane than they did. It’s sad that sometimes instructors take money, even though they’re not really able to help the client, or the client knows more about their glass airplane than they did. For me, that’s unprofessional. I’ve spent a lot of time studying here at home and outside of the teaching environment to make sure that I truly did know all the different nuances. I think it takes that kind of investment in time to understand it to the point where there’s almost never a time where the client asks a question that you don’t immediately know the answer to. Then you know you’re really delivering what they’re looking for.

M: When did the book and the CD-ROM training program come aboutè How do you go from instructor to publisher of training materialsè

MT: I went for factory training in early 2005, because I was interested in glass, and I remember thinking, why is this so hardè I think I’m a fairly smart guy, yet I’m just not getting this as fast as I think I should. I came home, and I typed up all my notes, and it turned out to be about 20 pages. It finally hit me about a week or two later: The reason I wasn’t getting it as fast as I thought I should was that the manuals, at that time, left a lot to be desired, and there just weren’t that many training materials available for this particular segment. I thought, boy, either I’ve got to wait for somebody to write a book about this or I need to do it myself.

M: To put all these pieces together, you had to learn the business side of flight training as well; how did you learn the businessè

MT: I would say most of what helps make me successful is stuff I’ve learned in other industries prior to coming to flight training. That and having always been involved in aviation as a renter and, at one point, an owner over 30 years. I knew a lot about aviation in parallel with working in other industries. It was just a matter of melding those things together.

M: So it’s a second iteration of business for you.

MT: Absolutely. Even when I was in the corporate world, I always felt that I would like to be running my own business, and I always felt that I’d like to be doing something that I could do as long as I wanted to do, rather than ultimately being forced to retire at some arbitrary age. This, at the moment, looks like a really great way to just continue to do something I like, hopefully as long as I want to.

M: And, certainly, there’s some excitement in being an entrepreneur.

MT: Oh, sure. There’s a lot less stress in my life. The nice thing is, if I’m unhappy with the boss, I just look in the mirror and I talk to him about it. When I tell most people what I do, I tell them I teach flying five days a week, and the other five days a week I work on my publishing business.

There’s not a moment in my week that I’m not doing something that’s related to eating, sleeping, or aviation. And I’m smiling just thinking about that. How did I get so luckyè I don’t know.

M: You’ll refer someone who wants training that you don’t provide; how do you set up those relationships to be able to refer someone to an instructor you trustè

MT: I do remember someone calling me one time who was totally incredulous that I was turning them over to somebody else. They said, “You know, I potentially represent $10,000 in business to you, why are you sending me to somebody elseè”

I’ve decided to specialize in the glass area, and so I’m fortunate to have enough business in that area that I can turn down other things that I’m choosing not to specialize in. It’s just the credibility with clients and potential clients. I think people realize nobody can be an expert in everything, and I think I engender more trust in them if they realize, wow, this must be a fairly honest, helpful person who is seeking to point me in the right direction if he’s actually suggesting that I go elsewhere.

I’m at the point now where I turn away far more people than I take on. And oddly, I don’t get that many referrals from other people, but I think I’m helping a lot of other instructors, and that’s fine. I’m happy to forward people on. Generally, I’ll do it for instructors who I know extremely well, and trust, and respect, and feel that they are experts in their particular areas.

M: Is there anything you look for in those instructorsè

MT: Just that they’re experts in their particular areas. I’ll refer people to different instructors, or occasionally to different flight schools, based on what the client is looking for. They might want to fly at an airport that’s close to me, but not the one that I fly at most of the time, so I’ve got people I’ll send them to at that airport. Or they want to fly at my airport, but they want to save some money and fly on round gauges, so I’ll send them to somebody that I know is an excellent instructor and from whom they’ll get great value.

M: You charge $90 an hour for your time. How do you ensure you’re giving value to clients working with youè

MT: It’s really the market that determines whether I’m worth that much. I have very little to do with just setting a rate and getting it. I’m always trying to make sure I stay within the confines of what is reasonable in the market within my particular specialty. One of the benefits of specializing is that clients realize that, yes, they are getting good value. I think they recognize that since they’re working with me in an area that I specialize in, they’re going to learn to fly glass cockpits faster from me than from someone who charges less, and they’re going to learn them in greater depth. It comes back to value. Yeah, they’re paying more per hour, but it’s going to take fewer hours, and they’re going to get every question answered, and they’re going to learn incredibly effectively.

And I try to bring value above and beyond that in other ways. By way of example, this morning, I spent two and a half hours with a gentleman who’s going to India and has a job flying a Cirrus. He had zero glass-cockpit experience, but I provided him with a 24-page document that I’ve written up that tells him everything he needs to know in terms of all the things related to flying a Cirrus successfully. He benefits from that—not only were we able to talk through it and get in the airplane and walk through everything, but now he’s walked away with an excellent distillation of the most important stuff that he needs to know to be successful. I’m always creating different things that can help people, and they realize they get value from these kinds of things.

M: It doesn’t hurt that you live in a high-tech area of the country.

MT: I’m really fortunate that I live in the area that I do. If you teach a seminar around here, and you have 40 people in the room, and you ask, okay, how many people here are engineers, it seems like every hand in the room goes up. You know that these are all bright people and they understand high-tech stuff. It’s a unique clientele in that regard.

M: You charge for all contact time with the client; how do you structure lessons so there’s value thereè

MT: After lesson number one, I have people schedule me on the electronic scheduling system so that they’re generally there a half-hour before I am, and they check out the airplane, they get the fuel if they need to, and they do the preflight, and so on so that by the time I arrive, we’re all ready to get going. What I do is probably not a whole lot different than what most other people do, which is a bit of briefing about what we’re going to do ahead of time, we go flying, and we come back and debrief. I don’t think there’s any rocket science to what I do.

M: What’s a typical training month for youè

MT: My flying days are Wednesday through Sunday, and I take care of what has to be done on the publishing side of it on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s not unusual on winter days for me to only have a single client on the flying days. It’s a lot more common for me, when we’re not in our rainy season out here, to be flying with two people on some of those days. It’s pretty rare that I’d be doing three people a day like I used to. I find that I just get too exhausted if I’m constantly doing three people a day all the time. That leaves me more time during the rest of the week to do more small stuff related to the publishing business.

M: In addition to the training guides, you’ve got the blog. How does that fit into the businessè

MT: I look at myself as not just being “Mr. Glass Cockpit,” but more broadly as a general-aviation advocate. My greatest hope is that the next generation and the one after that is going to have the same kind of access to small airplanes and general aviation that we’ve had in our generation, and I fear that might not be the case. I’m always looking for ways to figure out how do we get more pilots involved, how do we protect airports, how do we do all the things we need to do to keep this a vital industry. That goes way beyond writing a book or teaching flying. The blog is a good vehicle for promoting those issues. In a sense, maybe it’s giving back a little bit to the industry that has given so much to me.

M: Do you think there’s enough of that going on among other professional flight instructorsè

MT: I think everybody could do more. I think it’s a huge opportunity for instructors to realize that they’ve got to invest back into our industry. I would say most instructors could do more to build awareness of our industry, to be a strong advocate to make sure we retain airports.

I’ll give you an example. Two days ago I spent most of the day at the county board of supervisors meeting, and I spoke publicly, and I was there when they had the final vote to not close Reid-Hillview Airport. That is huge. Reid has been threatened with closing three times over the past 20 years. It’s a major reliever airport for the 10th largest city in the country, and it’s a vital resource. Somebody has to be at those meetings, standing up, and letting the pilot view be heard. Yesterday I had a meeting with the chairman of the board of supervisors—the person who actually proposed the original closure. Nobody pays me a nickel for this stuff, but it’s my way of giving back to what I think is a wonderful industry.

M: When you started off as a full-time instructor, you had to wonder if this was going to work. How have you made it workè

MT: I still have those questions. Nothing’s for sure. What I’ve seen over the years is that every industry, every business goes through an arc. It begins, it grows, it does well, and then it tends to decline. I certainly hope we don’t watch general aviation decline to the point where a lot of flight instructors are going to be on the street, but anything is possible. I don’t take it for granted that the good times will last forever.

In terms of me staying busy in the career, I’ve just always filled the time with things that, if they didn’t necessarily bring a dollar in the door, at least they were increasing people’s awareness of me and I was giving back in some way. For example, from the beginning, I’ve always given a lot of safety seminars. I speak, usually, about 15 to 18 times a year at different venues. I love the speaking, and that’s been a way to generate business. Most instructors who I’ve asked to teach seminars get that, but a few have asked, “What’s in it for meè” They don’t understand that even though it’s going to take two hours of their time to stand up there, and they’re not going to get paid for that, suddenly the 40 or 50 people out there will think of them the next time they’re looking to do something. I’m always filling in the empty time with fun things like that. It helps that I enjoy speaking—and going back to the book and blogs—I enjoy that stuff, too. Candidly, if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it.

So the reality is, I pretty much do what I enjoy having fun doing, and so far I’ve been lucky enough that it’s paid the bills, and I think people are benefiting from some of those things, and we’re all having fun in the process. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important to me.

M: Have you thought about your teaching philosophyè

MT: I think a key thing is that I treat my clients like the adults that they are. And you’ll notice that I said “clients.” I really look at them that way. Instructors often talk about the people that they work with as their “students.” I really prefer to think of them as “clients”—I’m there to serve their needs, I’m trying to understand their objectives, and I’m trying to help them achieve those objectives in the most efficient, most effective possible way. They’re adults; I’m not talking down to them. It’s a one-on-one kind of relationship—just like any other professional, working relationship in the outside world.

I’m very selective about my clients, and I’ve just been lucky to find that aviation includes great people, and they’re a lot of fun to be with. As I’ve said, I feel like all my clients are friends. Generally, we’re laughing in the cockpit, and having a good time. If we’re not having fun, then something’s not quite right. I think that’s so important.

M: Who has influenced your flight-training careerè

MT: The person who probably had the most influence was my original flight instructor, Dick Johnston. Dick was the guy who ran the airport and did all the flight instruction where I grew up in northern Pennsylvania, and later on he became a Pennsylvania CFI of the Year. I always thought that was great, and that kind of inspired me, so there’s no question that when I was nominated for CFI of the Year, I was thinking, wow, I’m following in Dick’s footsteps.

Probably, though, I’m most influenced by my peers that teach at the two flying clubs where I teach. Both places just use independent flight instructors, and the quality of flight instructors is phenomenal, so I’m always learning things from my peers. I’m very lucky to be working with, by and large, other flight instructors who are absolutely at the top of their profession, and that’s a very stimulating environment. We all learn from each other, and all of us improve our game together.

M: You’ve been flying for 30 years. How has flight training changed in that timeè

MT: I think that the biggest change really is that there’s been more technology and there’s now suddenly a much greater need for CFIs to do self-study and upgrade their skills. I think we probably went through a time where a flight instructor could take what they learned 25 years ago and just continue to do that same stuff. Clearly, we’ve passed into a new era where that’s just not going to work anymore. If you look only at the area that I specialize in—glass cockpits, G1000s, Avidyne, Perspective—all that stuff has changes that are occurring every nine to 12 months, so even if you were an expert in it last year, you need to keep studying to know what latest stuff that your clients are flying. So, I think the biggest change is that technology has advanced to the point where CFIs can no longer just rely upon the information that they learned when they first got their CFI.

M: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the industry right nowè

MT: Attracting enough new people to become pilots. Almost every time I’m giving a speech or writing an article, I add something about the need for pilots to go take a friend flying who has the means to begin flight training, and get them started. I think it’s incumbent upon every pilot—CFI or not—to find one or two friends who have the means to fly, and who have expressed an interest in flying, and get them a demo flight, find them a flight instructor, and bring them into the industry. If we don’t do that, in the long term we won’t have the clout that we need in Congress to make sure we have the laws and regulations we need to keep the industry robust.

M: You mention “means to learn to fly;” what about those airport kids who can’t afford it but deserve a chanceè Is there room for that in a world where you’re basically teaching people to fly personal airlinersè

MT: I think that we do have to find ways to make it easier for the airport kid to find ways to fly, because it is more expensive and it is a little farther out of reach than it used to be. I’ve gone so far as to, in one case, buy a book on scholarships to give it to one of these people just so they could figure out oh, okay, there are scholarships I can apply for to find some money for flying lessons. As flight instructors, we have to find ways to point them in directions where they can either find the money, or find lower-cost ways to learn, or things like that. We all have to be creative so they don’t get lost as this industry trends towards becoming more upscale.

M: What would you change in flight training if you could change anythingè

MT: The one thing I would try to figure out how to break is the cycle where we have low-time CFIs teaching other pilots to be CFIs. I think that’s just fraught with problems. The traditional model we’ve had of people being CFIs not because they want to be CFIs, but because it’s the only way to build time to go to the airlines, is really the Achilles’ heel of the industry. And I wish that we could find the ways to break out of that cycle.

M: What kind of advice do you give new CFIsè

MT: Usually what I encourage them to do is become the best at something and to specialize. That’s certainly helped me to be successful, and that’s what I generally encourage them to do. If you’re going to be the best darn tailwheel teacher out there, great, try to slant your business toward that, or the best glass person, or the best twin-engine training person, or the best sport pilot instructor, or whatever. The idea that, as flight instructors, that we should take every person who comes through the door, regardless of how much or little we know about their particular airplane, or what they want to do, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense from providing the best value standpoint, because, invariably, nobody’s expert at everything.

At the end of the day, if you’re going to take everything that comes through the door, there are going to be some jobs that you’re not going to do very well, and some jobs you’ll be better at. I really encourage them to specialize as much as they can.

M: What does it mean to you to be CFI of the Yearè

MT: First, it’s an incredible honor. I’m flattered, because I have such incredible respect for CFIs in the industry. I honestly believe that CFIs are the backbone of our industry, and they just don’t get the recognition that they deserve. And, again, I have so much admiration for the CFIs from whom I’ve learned so much. I’m incredibly flattered to be able to represent them. It’s clear to me that I wasn’t selected because I am the best CFI out there. I know I can’t possibly be, because I see so many other CFIs who are great in so many ways, and from whom I’ve learned so much.

To me, it just means I get the chance to represent them, and anything I can do, wearing this “crown” for a year, to help bring more recognition to CFIs and to encourage more pilots to become CFIs, that’s clearly what I’m looking to do—to bring more attention and recognition to the profession.