On Instructing

Today, a bit of a rant — for which I will apologize in advance, my friends.

Flying is just about the only avocation I can think of where people can be found spending their free time at work by choice.

Think about that. In an office environment, folks typically get to work no earlier than necessary. Likewise, they leave as soon as possible when their work day is over and would never even entertain the idea of hanging out at the office on their day off.

But in aviation? It’s the polar opposite. At the end of a long week spent at the airport, they’ll spend their day off… at the airport. This is a major shift in motivation from the average workplace, and it contributes to a positive attitude and happy demeanor there.

Imagine an office building where everyone inside couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. It would be a much different place, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps that’s why I don’t understand the disparaging attitude many people harbor toward instructing. It is widely viewed within the aviation industry as a bottom-rung starter job which must be endured in order to get to a “real” flying gig. And I suppose if that’s all you make of it, if that’s all you put into it, then that’s what it’ll be.

Here’s one instructor’s take on it:

Here’s the way a flying career works.

1) A person wants to become a captain of a big airliner and make lots of money
2) To do that, s/he need to be the first officer of a big airliner
3) To be hired into a major airline, s/he needs to build a bunch of jet time, so s/he works for a regional airline for a painfully low salary
4) To be hired at the regional airline, s/he needs a bunch of flying hours
5) To get those flying hours without paying for them, s/he becomes a flight instructor – that way the student pays for the hours
6a) Because the purpose is to build hours and not to make real money, flight instructors, in general, don’t get paid much at all (e.g. $11/hr in many places)
6b) Because most flight instructors actually want to work for an airline, they leave instruction as quickly as possible, so there are very few truly experienced flight instructors around
6c) Because these flight instructors don’t care what they make, they depress the entire instruction industry – it’s hard for anyone to charge more

Keep in mind this was written by a CFI. He goes on to wonder if the change in Part 121 mandatory retirement age will “destroy the short-lived increase in pay that I’ve seen for CFIs, now that the existing CFIs won’t be able to find airline jobs and will probably be stuck being instructors”.

Stuck? Please. Life is what you make of it. Just because instructing is a low-cost way to build hours doesn’t mean that’s all you can get out of it. There are float planes, glass panels, helicopters, turboprops, and a hundred other specialties out there to be mastered. If you want to be just another guy teaching primary students in a beat up Skyhawk, be my guest. But there’s so much more out there if you just have the vision, work ethic, and patience to pursue it.

I’ve got news for you, buddy: some of us actually enjoy instructing. Some instructors specialize in high performance aerobatics, formation flying, experimentals, warbird transitions, antiques, biplanes, tailwheels, and other such interesting airplanes. That’s what I do. I might fly a Pitts one day, a Columbia 400 the next, then a 1928 TravelAir, then an Extra 300, then an RV-6 or a Harmon Rocket. I coach aerobatic competitors, ferry aircraft, fly formation, and get paid for all of it.

I get to be home at night. I set my own schedule. And I charge whatever I want. There are very few instructors with the hours and credentials to gain insurance approval on these aircraft, so for the most part I’m in the driver’s seat.

It’s really a shame that those who teach primary students (poorly) for a couple hundred hours and simply look at their CFI time as some trial they must endure to get a “real job” are considered to be in the same category as CFIs who’ve spent many years honing their craft.

I’ve cleaned up the messes left by countless CFIs whose instruction was criminally poor, unprofessional, and incomplete. I say good riddance to those CFIs. As far as I’m concerned, the airlines can have them.

The ironic thing is that aviators with that attitude aren’t going to be happy when they reach that Part 121 job. They’ll decry the pay, the hours, the equipment, and look ahead to the next thing. The next plane, the upgrade to the left seat, the move to a “major” airline. We’ve all met people like that. The challenges of instructing don’t sit well with these types.

Make no mistake about it. The starting pay can be poor, the conditions rough, the hours long. In many ways instructing is like flying for a regional, come to think of it. The difference is that instruction allows you to play a pivotal role in a life-changing event for a person; you get to shepherd them toward the fulfillment of a dream which probably hearkens back to their childhood. How many jobs let you do that?

One final note about primary instructors, as they are probably the least respected of the CFI ilk. The longer I instruct, the more I’m convinced that primary instruction is one of the most difficult (and potentially rewarding) jobs a CFI can pursue. It’s a major undertaking to transform a civilian who doesn’t even know how to open the door of an aircraft into a pilot with sufficient knowledge of aerodynamics, navigation, aircraft systems, emergency procedures, airspace, meteorology, aviation law, aeromedical factors, etc. to safely operate that aircraft with passengers aboard.

I think it’s high time that CFIs — especially the career instructors — got the respect and recognition they deserve.

  15 comments for “On Instructing

  1. Zach
    January 30, 2008 at 6:55 am

    I completely agree Ron – I really admire your attitude towards the whole profession. I feel the same way about instructors. They play a major part in a students aviation career and life. Life IS what you make of it and I hear over and over on forum boards that being a career CFI pays nothing, you always have to work on weekends, you have to very flexible with students, blah blah blah. We’ll ain’t that a bitch. It’s my goal of becoming a part-time CFI and every time I ask for advice (on forum boards) most of the responses are negative. I have no desire to fly for the big boys what-so-ever. It doesn’t appeal to me, If I was 21 again I may would think differently. It’s my opinion as well that career CFI’s generally don’t get the respect they deserve. As far as I’m concerned I’d rather be “stuck” being an instructor than bowing down to senior airline pilots who you don’t even like. To me that’s torture. Hail to the career flight instructors!

  2. January 30, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Both of my instructors are career instructors and I wouldn’t want to fly with anyone else. Why would anyone want to fly with people who are only there to build time and could disappear at any moment? Not to mention that people who don’t want to teach will in turn be poor instructors as you very well know. One thing I’ve always heard, and that I highly agree with is that if you don’t want to instruct, please simply don’t instruct. You’re putting someone elses life in danger by teaching someone poorly and carelessly.

    For me, I’m torn. I know I’m going to get my CFI and II, mainly because I love to fly and truly enjoy teaching people. As you said, during primary training you bring a helpless student and turn them into a knowledgable and safe pilot. One day in the near future I’ll have to make a decision as to which path to take; to continue with college and then get me a nice ole FAA job as a controller, keep instructing, or instruct with the intentions of moving on afterwards.

    I greatly enjoyed your post and as Zach said, bravo to the career instructors. I wouldn’t be a pilot without ’em.

  3. Dan
    January 30, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Ralph Hood tells the story about a friend of his who’s about 40 and has been a CFI for half his life and is perfectly happy with his full-time job teaching students.

    One day the CFI meets a hot shot commuter airline pilot. When the young captain learns this guy is a CFI, he exclaims, “A CFI? Well hey, here’s my card. Give me a call at the airline when you get enough hours!”

    The CFI replied, “Well I’ve GOT 12,000 hours; how many do you need?”

  4. David Johnson
    January 30, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Hi Ron,

    I flew with you a few times when I was a CFI at Sunrise. You have a great website!

    I’m a part-time CFI and I love it! I was hired by Mesa Airlines in 2004 but I found that type of flying stifling. I might consider corporate flying in the future, but for now, being a CFI is wonderful.

    Take Care!

    – Dave

  5. Ron
    January 31, 2008 at 12:11 am

    Hi Dave! It’s great to hear from you. I looked back at my logbook and we flew together 15 times — you were my instructor during training for my commercial certificate.

    I’ve often wondered what my old instructors are up to these days. I think Brandon Tauer (private cert) is flying for a major airline. He left a note on the whiteboard in my office at Sunrise one day. Ironically, my current office was his office when he was my instructor. I like to joke that in 9 years I’ve moved three feet: from one side of the desk to the other. 🙂 I’m not sure what happened to Jonah Hall, my instrument instructor. Perhaps you’d know what he’s up to these days?

    Anyway, keep in touch! I’m glad you’re still flying.

  6. Ron
    January 31, 2008 at 12:28 am

    It warms my heart to know that there are pilots out there who appreciate career instructors. Indeed, there’s no higher tribute to a good CFI than being inspired to follow in their footsteps.

    Perhaps the reason some former instructors are so negative about the profession is that they themselves were stuck with a time-building CFI during their student pilot days. Who knows.

  7. January 31, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    I completely agree.

    Its about time someone stood up for a profession that has been notably lacking in people who take it seriously. I guess I fall under the “time-builder” CFI category, but I’m damned proud of the job I do. Even though I’ve only been doing it for a year and a half, I will always stay with instructing, even if it is only as a side gig.

  8. February 7, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    As someone who got his start in the industry scrunched into the right seat of a Cessna 150 for several hundred hours (hopefully doing a good job and not Just building time) – I totally agree with your observations!

    Well said!

  9. February 23, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Ron,

    I have never really understood where the contempt comes from. I came from the bottom of your list and now sit at the top but remember as clear as day what that job, teaching meant to me then.
    It was my first job where I actually flew for food and I made darn sure that I gave value for money and poured everything I had into my students.
    You need fear no contempt from those that have trodden your path, all roads don’t lead to the airlines. There are plenty of very fine aviators who chose not to dose for dollars and breath thin air inside stale tin. Some of my happiest memories were spent teaching people to fly. Funny thing is, I think I took away more than I taught…. if you know what I mean.

  10. February 24, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Ron:

    Although I fly more jets than I do propeller airplanes these days, I just finished renewing my instructor ratings last weekend because … well, I can’t imagine letting them expire. They are that important.

    Unfortunately, the number of CFIs that believe those certificates represent anything more than a license to log hours are few, I think.

    Your point about unhappy CFIs growing into unhappy big-airplane pilots is a great insight too. That’s exactly how I have always seen them.

    Teaching is a passion, like flying. Many simply don’t have it and never will because their passion is flying. They want to drive. Watching someone else do it just doesn’t fit their mold.

    One other thought just popped into my brain. It was always pretty clear when I flew with a captain who had never spent any time as an instructor. They were lousy instructors as airline/corporate pilots just like they would have been as an instructor at an earlier time.

    But finally, one thing … someone here mentioned the fact that CFIs don’t get any respect.

    Respect is earned. Treat people with respect and you’ll usually get some back. Treat them like they are simply a stepping stone in your life and you get what you deserve.

    Stop over and visit my blog at Jetwhine.com. I try to write about a few flight training issues too. Maybe some might be interesting to you.

    Keep up the nice work on this blog.

    Rob Mark

  11. Ron
    February 25, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Thanks, Rob. I will definitely stop by — in fact I already did and have been enjoying the articles therein.

    You are quite right about respect. No matter what the job may be, there’s no benefit in treating people poorly. I’m always amazed at how often we seem to forget what a small this industry is. The guy who’s flying as your FO today could be the one looking at your next job application.

    Already I’ve seen people I trained at my current job go on to fly with major airlines, charter companies, aircraft manufacturers, the armed forces, and in one case, NASA.

  12. April 10, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    For various reasons, I flew with 11 different instructors. The two on top are both ex-corporate pilots which are now full-time CFIs. Because they flew a lot on small and medium size planes, their experience is… well… huge. One of them has more than 16’000 hours. I also flew with an active corporate business jet pilot. He’s a great instructor, except that he tend to have “last minute calls” from his other boss, which have priority.

    My experience with CFIs waiting for the big iron is not that bad. Probably because that was always in a very professional structure. They all knew the boss was looking after them, and any negative report would seriously jeopardize their career. On the plus side, they were on-top with modern technology (G1000 and so on), and their skills were sharp because fresh.

    The most important factor (as you pointed out) is probably motivation. A “experienced” CFI doing that because he likes it is certainly better than a “junior” just building up hours. But hopefully, there are also many highly motivated “juniors” doing that in a very good way.

  13. Tim McCulloch
    August 13, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Hi Ron:

    Little late to this thread.

    I loved teaching. I think I was pretty decent at it too. But it just didn’t pay the bills. SO now I do aviation law and make 10 times the money and have a quarter the fun.

  14. February 10, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Ron,
    Go to hell!
    No, actually I didn’t mean that. But the bit on your “Contact” page about cussing you out made me smile, and the outstanding quality of your thoughts and writing lead me to believe that you may never have had a ‘cuss-out’ comment, so of course I had to oblige. So about this post: I’m a teacher and I can’t find ample words to express my agreement. I have heard (and made!) every complaint under the sun about our education system not cutting the proverbial mustard. I believe a change of public opinion (and the changed policy that would, slow as it may be, come to pass), would be a complete fix. When teachers are seen to have the same responsibility of a high-voltage wireman or a surgeon, then the young will be well educated.

    I have 17 hours in my log-book and would like to be a flight instructor someday. I thoroughly enjoy your blog–keep it up 🙂

    Best,
    Dave

    • February 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

      Thanks, Dave. Your teaching experience with education will serve you well as a flight instructor. Congratulations on starting your journey! Each of us had seventeen hours in our logbooks at one point; you’ll be at seventeen hundred before you know it. Flight instructing will pile on the hours pretty quickly!

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