Padden is the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Award winner for best flight instructor in the Northwest Mountain region. He was previously recognized by AOPA in 2019 as a distinguished flight instructor alongside his employer, Summit Aviation, which received a distinguished flight school award.
Located in Bozeman, Montana, Summit Aviation is where Padden earned all of his certificates. He started instructing at Summit Aviation in 2018, worked his way up to chief instructor, and is now a charter pilot for the company—flying as second in command in an Embraer Phenom 300. He speaks highly of Summit Aviation, citing the company’s commitment to student success and community service (see “On Eagles Wings” from the January 2019 AOPA Pilot).
In the cockpit, Padden instructs by balancing each lesson with challenging but attainable goals—necessary preparation when navigating the daunting, but iconic, Montana terrain. He mentions how important it is to read the physical and emotional cues of the student and adjust accordingly, making the lesson individual to each student.
On the ground, Padden provides sweeping support to the organization, taking initiative to ensure the available training is comprehensive and accessible. “The training materials were basic and there were gaps,” he said. Students were coming in with little to no aviation knowledge and working toward certification with no idea how to dissect, reference, or study the influx of information being given to them. Padden rewrote the training supplements, compiling information from a few books and sources to make it easier for students to navigate and find answers to their questions. After implementation he saw measurable differences. For example, his multiengine private add-on students went from an average of certification in 20 flight hours to certification in 10 to 15 flight hours.
And his students think he deserves recognition for remarkable instruction. Submissions to AOPA’s Flight Training Experience Survey praise Padden’s patience, preparedness, and confidence-boosting investment in student success. “He is the reason I have found confidence and joy in my flying ability,” one student said, “and is the reason I am still committed to aviation today.”
Padden fosters this confidence among his students with an emphasis on acknowledging milestones—big and small. “I think that instructors truly need to understand that you are creating the foundation of knowledge and skill for new aviators,” Padden said. “Set short-term goals with them so that each ‘little’ achievement keeps the student engaged.”
While very thankful for the award, Padden also emphasized the deserved recognition of his students, correlating his success with their hard work and commitment. “Ultimately the most rewarding experience as an instructor is seeing the confidence that my students built over time, and knowing that I was able to help create a safe, proficient, and exceptional pilot,” he said. “There is no other feeling like it.” —By Lillian Geil
Lillian Geil is the editorial assistant for AOPA Publications.