The Reluctant Instructor

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Since Man and Superman was written the same year the Wright brothers made that first powered flight, I’m fairly certain George Bernard Shaw wasn’t referring to aviators. But given the poor instructional services of many CFIs, he might as well have been.

From non-existent lesson prep to showing up late (or not at all!) to crazy ideas about limiting bank angle to prevent spins, irrational fear of tailwheels and aerobatics, and a bedside manner which, shall we say, leaves much to be desired, I’ve always found that sort of thing perplexing because of the rigorous way CFI candidates are handled. Initial CFI checkrides are notoriously long and thorough, often conducted directly by the FAA rather than designated examiners.

Clearly the general aviation community understands the importance of instructors and treats their cultivation with the requisite gravity. Why, then, are so many students dissatisfied with their instructors? Why is it so difficult for them to find a good one? As a student pilot in Oregon put it:

… my instructor is afraid to let go of the plane and its costing me time and money. I am at about 10 flight hours now and I have an instructor that won’t let me taxi, takeoff, land or get on the radio for even a second. It’s pretty frustrating considering with other pilots and other instructors I have done all of these things before.

Our lessons are simple, she takes me up, I put on foggles and do very basic maneuvers or simply go up and down, left and right without foggles, and then she lands the plane, taxis it back to a parking spot and the lesson is over. I thought I was getting somewhere because I have begun filling out the flight manifest and doing the preflight by myself. It has been brought to my attention I am mistaken. At this rate I’ll never solo.

Our next ground lesson is on the four forces of flight. Oh goody. The one after that is on aircraft systems. I am bored out of my mind and have already done all of these lessons before on my own time.

When I enrolled I was told my five logged flight hours and other not-so-logged flight hours would be taken into consideration. In reality, I’m barely flying the plane during any of my lessons and I’m paying dearly at a fancy flight school to review ground lessons I already know.

How do I feel about flying these days? Frustrated. Bored. Depressed. Angry. Ready to give up and quit.

It doesn’t help that it’s so ridiculously expensive. I feel like I am throwing hundred dollar bills in the trash. And I feel incredibly guilty because this is money that could be going to other ambitions my husband and I have. We work so hard lately and barely see each other. We’re trying to save up for a house and to send my husband back to school. Every time I shell out hundreds of dollars for one lesson and don’t actually learn anything new I feel like I’m failing my family. I feel like I am letting a bad instructor take advantage of us. I ask lots of questions and I study everything she tells me to but I still feel like I’m spinning my wheels and the guilt of how much I’m spending to get nowhere is crushing.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, read, or been directly told almost the exact same story. It’s like an aviation groundhog day.

Several people — myself included — advised her to seek out another instructor. The flight school tried to assign a new one to her based purely on an even distribution of students among the CFI staff rather than any consideration for who might actually be a good fit from a stylistic and personality standpoint. Ridiculous. My advice to her:

Don’t give up on flying. Just get a new instructor. And ask the school to refund your money! There’s a lot of really bad flight instruction out there. Your greatest odds of success will come with the right instructor, and it’s pretty clear you have the exact opposite right now. Before starting with someone else be sure to interview them thoroughly, see if they’re a good fit. That’s free. Talk to their current and former students. Doesn’t cost anything to do that. Ask to fly along with the CFI on a lesson; just ride in the back seat with a headset on and see how the instructor works. Cost? $0.00 I don’t understand why students allow themselves to be “assigned” a CFI. You are the customer!

I once helped a student finish an aerobatic course when his instructor started flaking out on scheduled lessons without any advance notice. The student lived just north of the Mexican border and drove through several hours of the world’s worst traffic — each way! — just to train. He was clearly serious about reaching his goal. The CFI? Not so much. He soloed in two or three lessons, and finished the course with flying colors.

I see the CFI situation getting worse in the future thanks to the U.S. Congress, which responded to one tragedy, the Colgan 3407 accident, by creating another: Public Law 111-216, better known as “the 1,500 hour rule“. Much like our tax code, the law creates and reinforces perverse incentives for pilots which are bad for the entire industry. In this case, it literally forces young professional pilots with no interest in teaching to become teachers.

Wyvern SIC requirements, as of September 2015
Wyvern SIC requirements, as of September 2015

If you’re not familiar with the law, it mandates 1,500 hours of logged flight time and an Airline Transport Certificate before an airline can even consider you for a job. The charter business has its own equivalent, which comes from third-party certification providers like ARG/US and Wyvern. They place such high standards on operators that when it comes to your career, you can’t get there from here. Wyvern, for example, requires 2,000 hours total time to even act as a second-in-command in a jet, and they also demand 50 hours in type. If you don’t have the 50 hours in type, you don’t qualify to fly as SIC. And if you can’t to fly as the SIC, where is the 50 hours supposed to come from?

Anyway, back to the crux of the problem: a person wanting to fly professionally has to accumulate 1,500 hours to qualify for most jobs. Renting and owning are cost prohibitive, so the natural go-to gig is that of a flight instructor. On the surface it looks brilliant: you build hours and get paid for it. The problem is, with no real interest in teaching, their only motivation is to log the hours as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there. What kind of instructor does such a person make?

I’m sure there are those who are conscientious enough to make excellent teachers. In fact, my primary instructor was just such a person. His goal was an airline career, but that never got in the way of putting major effort and exacting craftsmanship into his teaching. I didn’t realize how rare that sort of thing was until I started meeting, working with, and hearing about other CFIs.

One of my readers put it this way:

So why do we make people teach aviation to have a career flying? I teach flying because I like to teach, and I like flying. The FAA’s current CFI curriculum is heavy on the how-to-teach, and with good reason. A bad teacher is at best a waste of time, in the worst case scenario he or she makes learning harder and confuses the student.

I am a part-time CFI, my full time career is as an Emergency Physician. I teach every day when I discharge a patient and teach them about their diagnosis. Short curriculum? Yes, but I have to adapt it to the individual patient and their individual illness. I also teach my nurses every day. I have taught advanced cardiac life support to paramedics, nurses and physicians. I have taught EMTs and paramedics their trade. I have taught social studies to 7th graders (no, that doesn’t get you out of the FOI test). I teach karate to kids and adults. I teach because I like it.

Yet, even with the FAA’s focus on how-to-teach, we are constantly funneling people into teaching who want an airline career, rather than want to teach. Especially in the post-Colgan-two-ATP-world no one can afford to become a professional pilot if they don’t teach. How is that good for students?

I guess this is a little bit of a hijack of your thread, but it is the same issue: the economics of flying drives pilots who don’t want to teach into the CFI ranks. I don’t have a good answer for this problem either, but if we could solve it I think we would be seeing higher primary student completion rates in less total hours and with better airmanship results.

I agree with his assessment. This issue affects the entire industry, because general aviation represents the “base” of the flying world’s pyramid. Without a healthy GA sector, the rot will permeate every corner of aviation. Eventually it hollows out the pilot population to the point where ab initio programs become the only way airlines can staff their flights. As I noted last year, this system eliminates the seasoning which turns good pilots into great ones. Even if we stipulate that CFIs who are only instructing to build time will be as conscientious and hard working as any other, the 1500 hour rule will still hurt GA by creating a community of instructors who rarely get beyond a thousand or so hours of dual given. By the time they’re becoming good at what they do, they’re out the door.

I don’t have a good answer for this problem, but as they saying goes, when you find yourself in a hole, the first order of business is to stop digging. It seems logical that a cadre of reluctant instructors cannot be expected to lead us to the promised land. In that regard, we’re flying in the wrong direction.

  41 comments for “The Reluctant Instructor

  1. John T. Johnson
    November 24, 2015 at 3:09 am

    Excellent article on Flight Instructors. You will find them not only as a primary student, but even later in advanced training. Often we pilots are reluctant to speak up when we have problems with instructors who forget we have hired them to be teachers – and not show us how wonderful they are. I am now retired after 50 years in aviation, but still do some instructing for the joy of it. Many years ago I had to take a course to satisfy a new Part 135 pilot position. I had over 800 hours in this twin and had passed several FAA check rides previously. The Ace instructor was more concerned about demonstrating his superior skills than teaching me anything. When he asked me to taxi the twin into a hanger for parking – I refused.
    He then asked ” what should we do for our next session” I replied ” get you fired”, and I demanded another instructor to finish the course.
    There are many good instructors still around that love to teach. Be kind and courteous but don’t be afraid to question how the dual is going. Don’t hesitate to resolve the issues early on – or find an instructor that will
    meet your needs. Flight instruction is to expensive to waste time with a lousy instructor.


    • November 24, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      Wow, he asked you to taxi an aircraft into a hangar with the engines running? Closest I’ve seen to that is a G-V poking its nose into a hangar, but that’s an airplane where the engines are still like 80 feet behind you.

      It’s true, poor instructors can be found at every level of aviation. And in every discipline, I’m sure. Sometimes the issue isn’t even a lousy instructor as much as it is a bad personality fit between student and teacher. You brought up a good point: by the time a pilot gets into the advanced ratings and certificates, they’ve been around the aviation system long enough to know that they can ask for a different instructor. Primary students tend to be less assertive since they’re so new to the flying game. I think that plays a role in the high dropout rate.

  2. Brian
    November 24, 2015 at 5:32 am


    As always you hit the nail on the head. I’ve been flying on and off for 46 years. I have been fortunate to have had a few great instructors, but as you point out I’ve also run into some really bad ones. A yeller(He was chief flight instructor) Hadn’t flown in 5 or 6 years, really rusty and he’s screaming at me on my first touch and go. Got it on the ground, but I didn’t go again. Just taxied back to the FBO, him asking what’s wrong the whole time. Told him he was what’s wrong. Went to another School. Had another that checked me out in a 172 along with a Bi- annual Flight Review, all in 1 hour after a 12 year layoff from flying (I’m not that good).
    Your advice is solid, if the relationship doesn’t click or you’re not learning anything, fire their ass. It’s your money and time. There are plenty of qualified people out there, you just have to find them.

    • Ken H.
      November 24, 2015 at 6:44 am

      Brian, I think you and I flew with the same “Chief” flight instructor (most every town seems to have one). Mine was back in the ’80s in Tennessee. He was a real piece of work and I couldn’t get away from him fast enough. When I quit working for him, he told me I was blowing a real opportunity. I smiled as I walked out the door.

      • November 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm

        Yeah, how dare you blow the opportunity to be yelled at all the time in exchange for working long days to earn less than the minimum wage. 🙂 The aviation world is a small one; wouldn’t it be a hoot if you and Brian actually were talking about the same individual?

        • Ken H.
          November 24, 2015 at 12:30 pm

          Wouldn’t be surprised one bit. That’s happened more than once!

          • November 24, 2015 at 12:41 pm

            Right? True story: I always joke that everyone in the aviation world knows the chief pilot of my company. He’s one of those guys nobody has ever said a bad word about. Well I was in Africa and I kid you not, ran into someone at the hotel who knew him!

          • Ken H.
            November 24, 2015 at 12:51 pm

            Aviation is a small world. Never burn your bridges!

    • November 24, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      Wow, you really got the two extremes there! From the Marine drill sergeant to the pushover. The yelling instructor — now that’s a classic. Believe it or not, I’ve seen students who actually responded well to that style! They’re few and far between, to be sure, but there are some who don’t mind paying $70 an hour to be yelled at. I don’t get it… but as they say, it takes all kinds.

      There are also students out there who will simply overlook a teaching style with which they don’t agree if they feel the instructor’s other qualities — experience, reputation, knowledge, etc — make it worthwhile. But for the vast majority, flying is an activity which is far too expensive and time consuming to engage in if the instructor makes the experience downright uncomfortable.

  3. shellEy Rosenbaum Lipman
    November 24, 2015 at 6:00 am


    Amazingly, my primary instructor was GREAT. This was a fellow engineer who worked for the same company I did, and he truly loved teaching. When I got sick on my 3rd or 4th flight, I remember going over to him at work the next day, practically in tears, asking, “Does this mean I can’t be a pilot?” He reassured me that my body had to become used to the sights, sounds, smells and feel of flying, and that once it did, I wouldn’t get sick…or at least as easily. Years later, when I became a CFI, I tried to emulate his teaching (and reassuring) style.

    When I went for my Commercial, the instructor was great, but (as you pointed out with the aerobatic student), the instructor kept cancelling lessons. Since I was not a newbie, I knew enough to go into the FBO and demand a new instructor.

    Flying with Civil Air Patrol, we actually make sure that a CFI can actually TEACH before letting them become an instructor pilot. Perhaps it’s time for FBOs to do the same!

    • November 24, 2015 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks for relating your story — it’s important to note that there are a lot of excellent instructors out there, and rarely do they get the recognition they deserve. Instructing is a lot like being a parent: the student is going to listen to what you say, but even more importantly, they’re going to watch what you do and emulate that, just as you did after becoming a CFI. So even when you’re not officially teaching them, you sort of are. How you dress, walk, act, whether you’re on time or late. They see all that stuff. And who knows how far they’ll go in the aviation ecosystem? Maybe they’ll be instructors themselves some day.

      Instructing is hard. You have to be part teacher, part psychologist, part lawyer, part aviator, part administrator, part… well, fill in the blank! I like the CAP philosophy. I have a friend who is an instructor for CAP in the Dallas area, and enjoy hearing his stories about instructing in that environment. I think this is a tough time for FBOs. New CFIs are, by definition, not that experienced, so the FBO has to teach them how to teach. One of the big lessons is that you don’t (and can’t) possibly learn everything you need to know while studying for that CFI certificate.

  4. Ken H.
    November 24, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Great post, Ron!!

    I have a couple thousand hours instructing. Guess when I instructed? Immediately after earning all my ratings. I knew next to nothing about flying when I was teaching others. I always thought it was odd that we place the most important job of teaching on those with the very least experience. What a messed up industry.

    When I retire from airline flying, I might consider teaching a few students as a hobby. I think I have the experience now to do a better job of teaching. I definitely won’t be doing it to build hours for an airline job. It’ll be for the love of sharing aviation.

    The other frustration with the teaching industry – how much should an instructor with 30 years of experience charge? Double or triple what the new guy charges? That might be reasonable, but could very well make training cost prohibitive for many students. Ugh!!

    • November 24, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      So true. I wrote an entire post (Flying Backwards) questioning why the least experienced instructors are assigned to primary students. It’s the hardest kind of teaching for a CFI to do. It makes no sense.

      I hope you do teach when you’re done airline flying. All that experience — why let it go to waste? You’ll be able to pass on so much to the next generation, and have a huge impact on making flying safer for everyone. We need experienced instructors now more than ever, and I assume the need will be as great, if not more so, in the future.

      Your frustration regarding pay is a valid one. Experienced instructors should make more. For one thing, it would keep them in the business. Double sounds reasonable, and I think the market could support it, because a talented, experienced CFI who is a good match for the student is going to have a higher success rate and probably get that neophyte through the program in less time, so the delta between a newbie and accomplished veteran wouldn’t be as great as the hourly rate might indicate.

  5. Chris
    November 24, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Excellent post, Ron

    I’m a part-time freelancer with over 1000 hours dual given. I just finished up a 63-yo PPL student who had over 100 hours and 4 other instructors before meeting me. I was a little hesitant to take him on; I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with the guy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was very normal, easy to get along with, and motivated. He was a great student. His flying was almost checkride ready when I got him; he just needed a little polishing. I wasn’t sure why he should have had so much trouble.

    When I finally did endorse him for his checkride a couple of weeks later he told me I was the best instructor he had ever had. Why? Because I showed up when I said I would and did what I told him I would. While I appreciated the compliment, it made me a little sad, because all I had to do to stand out was to show up on time and follow through on things…professionalism 101. Doesn’t say much about the state of flight instruction in some places.

    As a freelancer with a day job, most of my clientele are pilots who fly for personal reasons. When I do talk to people who are career-oriented, I shy away from plugging flight instruction as a time-builder. I advise them to only instruct if they’re really are willing and ready to teach. If the only reason they’re even considering flight instruction is to build time, I tell them to find another way. The last thing aviation needs are more CFIs (in name only) in the right seat.

    • November 24, 2015 at 1:06 pm

      I’ve had that conversation with students before, too. “You’re the best ever… because you showed up for work”. Moments like that makes me embarrassed to be associated with the profession. You’ll find unprofessional behavior in every line of work, of course. What makes it so painful as a CFI is the fact that we do this because we love it, not because it’s a means to simply earn a paycheck. We’re emotionally invested, and it hurts to discover that not everyone feels the same way.

      On the plus side, if your student held on through 100 hours and four instructors, he’s probably going to stay in aviation until they pry that pilot certificate from his cold dead hands. As they say in poker, “All in!”.

  6. Marc Lee
    November 24, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Great piece! I started instructing just recently after 30 years in aviation and I have no desire for an airline job. I actually instruct because I love to teach. I also teach on the ground as an aviation department faculty member at a college here in Southern California. Whether I’m good or not is something you’d have to ask my students. But I can tell you I really try HARD to make their time valuable, productive, and safe.

    I had one of the worst primary instructors ever; an ex-Marine aviator in his 60’s who yelled at every turn, mistake, and landing. I was terrified of him and bristled at the thought of sitting next to him in that Cessna 150 for an hour. I vowed to be a better instructor. I’m still learning, but I give you my word that I care about each student and give my all to each one to make him or her a safe, competent, skilled, and elegant aviator. I teach finesse and fluidity and not “airplane driving.” I’m constantly improving and asking examiners how to better teach students.

    I wish we could do away with that ridiculous 1500-hour rule because I see grumpy, bored, useless instructors every day out on the airport. Most of them in their 20’s. I feel sorry that they hate what they do and that their students will suffer. I love what I do and feel blessed and fortunate to be able to instruct. Your observation is right on the money.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      Kudos to you for hanging in there despite all the yelling from your instructor. Someone needs to tell those guys this isn’t boot camp. Besides, actually raising your voice when something really serious is going on won’t have much impact if they’ve been desensitized to it by being yelled at all the time!

      Grumpy, bored instructors aren’t doing themselves or their students any good — but I understand how they can get that way. I was very fortunate, I started teaching aerobatics, tailwheel flying, glass/composite aircraft, and such pretty early on, so I wasn’t doing the same thing all the time. The guys who are stuck teaching nothing but primary students all day have a very difficult job. It’s rewarding, but tough.

  7. Greg Klasson
    November 24, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Excellent read!
    ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’… Pogo had it right.
    Aviation has a major problem. One that we are all part of… We want more people to learn to fly and share the joys that are all part of this avocation and for some vocation. Aviation as an industry recently has realized it has a problem. Fewer people are being drawn to flying. Which results in fewer hours being flown, resulting in fewer aircraft being purchased and then services and on and on down the line. Realizing a problem existed the industry ran off and set up taskforces to determine causes and potential solutions. Grand plans on how to learn to solo in a week and take your check ride in the minimum amount of time… all to make the cost of education the least possible… from my view this is wrongheaded thinking. Their logic suggests that the reason that such a low percentage of students actually go through and attain their PPL is cost.
    The industry on the whole is comprised of small independent operators flying mostly leased back aircraft making marginal profits on teaching people how to fly. To make ends meet they employ many independent part time flight instructors and younger CFI’s with little or no real world experience…yearning to fly jets. The wanna be pilot walks through the door and is seen in many schools as ‘hours’. The new student is led down the tried and true path that this is how we train pilots and how we’ve done it for years. They get in the airplane with a newbie CFI and off they go to the practice area. Many students who actually manage to persevere and get their PPL have landed at a couple of local airports, a couple TO’s and L’s at class D and a cross country flight. They’ve spent countless hours with various CFI’s bangin the pattern and doing the prerequisites for their check ride… after getting jerked around by the numerous delays (Wx, maint, CFI no shows, etc) they realize that they are not having any FUN! And it is taking time and money that they could be using in other ways. And it’s the FUN of Flying that is gone! The young CFI isn’t generally overly interested in making sure that the student is actually enjoying the learning experience. They are often willing to go along with the frustrated student’s desire to shorten the time (and now cost) of finishing this ordeal. There are certainly schools that try to foster a sense of community with various fly outs… but not the rule. And the small operator in the ‘teach to fly’ business has few resources to actually help improve the learning experience. Many are just trying to get by. Many students share the frustration of this antiquated training system and in the end just decide to spend their lives in other ways.
    A major ‘re-think’ of aviation training needs to take place. My personal view is that some interesting experiments are underway in this area. I would cite RedBird’s recent training as an example. Putting student pilots in a sim for several hours early on would markedly improve retention of student pilots. Less cost and a much better learning environment than a noisy aircraft. Give them 20 -30 hors with an instructor in the sim before going out and using a real plane and then you will shorten the training cycle. I’m not suggesting that there be no actual flying time… but that the initial flying time be less stress and less repetitive bangin the pattern. More Fun! and more oriented toward the other skills necessary… not just aircraft control. More Fun means more retention… more retention equals more active pilots. Flights into Class C&B airports, grass strips and island landings. Lake Erie’s island airstrips were always fun and educational.
    CFI’s working for these schools should be allowed to earn a living wage…which they generally are not receiving now. So yes raising the hourly wages would help to recruit CFI’s who might want to make a career out of teaching.
    Additionally a second course of action might be to encourage (make it a requirement) that student pilots first become Sport pilots.. with certain number of hours of flight time post check ride before qualifying for PPL.
    As to airline training…. Many of the aviation college programs have excellent basics in place and many have high quality airline sims… they graduate many of the freshly minted CFI’s that then go looking for ‘hours’. And become part of the never ending cycle that we see today. Most of the airlines now are seeking college grads where possible. I would suggest that courses and sim time at the graduate level could be set up to provide a steady supply of the next generation of regional airline pilots.
    Pilots with certain prior experience (without the college degree) could also elect to follow this graduate level course. Cost to be borne by the individual.
    Even now certain four year accredited aviation college graduates have a lower (1000 hr) hour requirement than the 1500 in the law.

    More airlines would naturally look to partner directly with these institutions to design curriculum and more easily identify new pilots.
    Just a couple of thoughts…
    We have a problem in aviation training today… and it’s about time for us to start to come up with solutions to address the major issues and plot a course to a better future for all student pilots and CFI’s as well. We will all benefit!

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm

      Yes, flying definitely needs to be fun and affordable, and as you noted, the smaller our community gets, the higher the cost will rise since there are fewer people to keep the necessary infrastructure afloat. That’s a huge problem.

      Redbird is a good start, but at the end of the day, students are interacting with CFIs, whether that’s in a sim, a classroom, or a traditional airplane cockpit. I’m hopeful that the growing refurbishment business, the homebuilt sector, 3rd class medical reform, the Part 21 rewrite, outside-the-box thinkers like Redbird, and other such positives will stem the tide and get general aviation back where it belongs.

  8. Midwest pilot
    November 24, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    This seems to be a common problem.

    Most new students are all the same just like I was. They don’t know what they don’t know.
    They think an instructor must be an expert and must be wonderful, the same with FBO’s.
    They don’t know they can fire their instructor, or if they should. They don’t know what makes an instructor good, or how to tell. They don’t know they should interview prospective instructors. They don’t know if, or when, their wallet is getting milked, or how to tell.
    It’s only after being around awhile, and experience, and observing…. and reading blogs like this that they know.

    I’ve flown with 7 different instructors. My primary was young but actually pretty good despite him wanting to move up and get out of instructing. Our personalities meshed and I could tell he truly cared about me. The only times he cancelled were when the FBO put him on a charter, but sometimes it was at the very last minute and I had a wasted drive to the airport.
    They had 3 other instructors I flew with a few times: one was very experienced but didn’t like flying with new students, was obvious he was only doing it when he had to, would yell & belittle; the other 2 were young and just building hours, one would be late or cancel and just did the minimum, the other was newly minted and really lousy, but he didn’t cancel because he wanted the hours, he exhibited bad judgement more than once (weather), and frankly wasn’t really that good a pilot, I finally got smart and refused to fly with him (he got fired several months later).
    The main problem was the FBO they worked for didn’t really care about students other than maximizing the $$$ they could get from them. Also, the their training airplanes were old and would sometimes have problems, but they always charged for 1/10 hour regardless of the problems you had with the plane. I saw many students there get frustrated and quit…. all I talked with had the same complaints.

    The other 3 CFI’s I flew with were after I had my private (for biannuals, etc.), were all older with thousands of hours (one was a retired airline capt.), and were great in every way.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a story like yours! I admire your fortitude and am glad your situation had a positive ending. I think we need to encourage older, experienced, and/or retired aviators to become instructors. They have so much to share with the next generation of pilots, and by nature their motivation is not to build hours or “move on” as soon as possible. Even if they aren’t CFIs, the mentoring and advice they provide could help primary students realize they DO have a choice and a voice in their aviation education.

      Running an flight school is a hard and relatively thankless task these days — one that’s often barely profitable, even after years of hard work. I can see how that sort of thing would wear down even the most enthusiastic individual. Another nut we’ve got to crack, unfortunately.

      Thanks for relating your story…

  9. November 24, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    In college I was a computer lab assistant, and that was my first taste of teaching. I enjoy teaching; but for goodness sake, there are students I wish I had the power to expel from the college on site. Two things I learned in those 3 years: First, if you don’t enjoy it you’re toast from the beginning. Second, the students that seeks you out the most are the ones you want to get rid of. Third, if you’re not able to tailor the material to the student you’re wasting yours and their time.

    My first instructor was laid off from an airline flight training department. I’m sure he knows his stuff; but, he sucked at teaching the basics, and–truth be told–I think he’d rather teach commercial students. Then, I asked for a new instructor. Next thing I knew, I was actually enjoying looking at the ground through my down-wing window. Oh, and I learned quite a bit about the finer points of propeller designs.

    I personally believe that being a CFI first might be good for the aviation industry. My best instructors in college were the part timers. Many online MBA programs promotes the fact that their instructors actually have a day-job doing what they teach. But, I think that’ll only work if the industry uses this more as a vetting process and not to collect time.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:28 pm

      You’d think an airline training department would be the best-of-the-best when it comes to teaching pilots, but I’m starting to realize that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve got a post in the works which concerns just that, and the story at the center of it will amaze many people, I think.

      It sounds like you were pretty quick to ask for a different instructor — smart move. Sometimes the problems is just a personal incompatibility and not a lack of professionalism. I’ve related the story of my first primary student, who I had a hard time getting to solo. He asked for a different instructor, and made much better progress with that CFI. I didn’t take it personally. I worked hard and it just didn’t pan out with this student.

      Ironically, the students you work hardest with don’t always turn out best. I’ve had plenty of very easy students who made me look brilliant by how well they performed, when I really didn’t have to sweat them that much. Every student/teacher relationship is different when you’re in a one-on-one instructional environment.

  10. Graeme
    November 24, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Wow Ron, if any one of your pieces hit home, its this one. As a CFI candidate, I am more than motivated to teach. Tomorrow is my Mock Exam with a retired DPE for my CFI-A. I can’t tell you how many times when people ask me “why I want to get my CFI?” and I tell them, “no, I do not want to go to the airlines, I really DO want to teach my passion” They “T-R-Y” to call my bluff. I just smile at them….. They tell me “please don’t BS me” and I tell them that I am not telling them something they think they want to hear, its sincere.

    I recently (today) received my AGI certification and can’t wait to put it to use.
    I am on my way to trying to NOT emulate the 1500 hour CFI guy. I would love to stay in GA and eventually fly light twins or corp jets. Yes, I am entering post Colgan Air….but I will get there….

    Finally, thanks for the shout out in your article. I appreciate it.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      Congrats on earning your first instructor credential! That’s gotta feel good after all you’ve been through. Finally: progress.

      It’s sad that you tell people you want to become a CFI because you love teaching and they respond with, “No, really — why do you want to become an instructor??” — as though a wish to share your love of flying couldn’t be an end in itself.

  11. Matthew
    November 25, 2015 at 4:48 am

    Great article. I couldn’t agree more. The only hope I see would be if there became a new generation of people who want to flight instruct just for the joy of sharing aviation. Given supply and demand, maybe CFI wages can increase and instructing could attract a wider talent pool.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:33 pm

      I would love to see that happen! Instructing is such an underrated activity. The really good ones are as unique, masterful and talented as any composer or artist.

  12. November 25, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Great treatment of a (sadly) perennial topic. I’m resisting the temptation to unload on the 1,500 hour rule…

    IMHO, the most important conversation a student can have with an instructor is the casual one about THEIR flying – their passions, their goals and their experience. Flight schools are full of hype about your potential career, but getting your instructor to open up about why they love flying, what they’ve done and what they hope to do will reveal a lot about how they see the role of instructing fitting into their lives.

    The first thing you’ll be looking for is a love of flying, and of airplanes, and a drive to share that passion with you. Next you’ll find out whether they love the teaching, or if they’re just marking time until they can trade in their P1 position for a P2 seat in something bigger. (Bearing in mind there are a million shades in between the two extremes.)

    I was lucky to have a sequence of great instructors, including some excellent, young, ‘career’ (or at least long term) instructors. But my favourites were the older, no-nonsense ones with a wealth of experience in all kinds of flying, who were instructing because they just had to share all they had.

    • November 25, 2015 at 11:37 pm

      the most important conversation a student can have with an instructor is the casual one about THEIR flying – their passions, their goals and their experience.

      Spot on. The student should be interviewing the instructor, as anyone would before hiring a person to perform a critical safety-related task on their behalf. You’d never even think of hiring a nanny for your kid without a thorough interview. Is teaching you to fly without killing yourself any less important?

  13. renewedpilot
    November 25, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    I instructed about a thousand hours at the beginning of my aviation career.

    I was the “typical” recently graduated pilot with ambitions to move on to an airline. But, I recognized that teaching was my current responsibility and demanded 100% effort. If I was going to teach, I was going to do it right.

    I wish more instructors on the airline path approached teaching that way. If it’s just about building time, find another way.

    • November 25, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      Amen! Ironically, when those less conscientious airline-bound CFIs finally do make it to The Big Time and upgrade at a major, they might find those very people occupying the right seat. Perhaps it would help if they thought of it that way. They aren’t just training some random person to fly, they’re providing primary training to someone who might one day be their FO.

  14. Artem
    November 26, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Great post, Ron!
    I understand the role of the FAA, but can you please explain what regulatory weight does Argus or Wyvern carry? I agree with you, 2000TT and 50hrs in type is a steep requirement to act as an SIC in a turbojet.

    • November 27, 2015 at 8:13 pm

      Excellent question. They don’t carry regulatory weight, but rather competitive weight in the marketplace. That’s just as important when the goal is to stay in business. When enough charter companies are part of these systems, it becomes difficult to operate without buying in because the assumption among brokers and those who are less informed is that the company must be unable to reach those standards for some reason. Surely the company must be sub-par!

      The Argus/Wyvern idea is a good one, but in practice some flaws start to develop. For example, one will raise their SIC minimums to 2,000 hours and the other one will say ok, we’ll make ours 3,000 hours. Eventually it can reach a ridiculous level. Another example is requiring first class medical certificates when the FAA only requires a Class 2 medical. There is no statistic or scientific evidence I am aware of which points toward a higher class of medical leading to lower rates of incapacitation among pilots. If anything, those with no medical certificate whatsoever — glider and sport pilots — have the same rate as those with Class 1 medicals. So why the requirement? It looks better on paper. It’s marketing. The problem is, we — the pilots — have to pay the price for it.

      The practical result is that charter companies may have to turn away otherwise qualified applicants, good people who would be an asset to the organization, simply because they don’t have pre-existing time-in-type or some other requirement.

      • Graeme
        November 27, 2015 at 8:20 pm

        This is super discouraging and a big blow to hear this. As a pilot with some 400 hours, and not knowing where or when my next hour will come, the 2000 and 50 seem about four to five lifespans away…realistically speaking for me at least.

        Everything I get close to the carrot they move the carrot

        • November 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm

          When you start flying for a living, the time builds quickly. 800 or more hours in a year is not uncommon.

  15. AirFrank
    December 30, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Love your columns. I’m in the reverse situation. I recently earned my CFI. Why? Because I love teaching and many people from my PPL CFI to my Commerical DPE have all told me, you need to be a CFI. I’m about to retire from a large aerospace company after 38 years in the industry and since I love to teach and I love being in airplanes it seems like a good match. I’m not looking to “just accumulate hours”

    My concern? I just worry that I won’t give the students the quality and attention that they deserve.

    Recently I was at the airport and the CFI that worked with me for my CFI pointed at a plane on landing and asked “What’s wrong with what they are doing?” I responded they are crabbing into the wind but not removing the crap on touch down. He responded “You’ll be a great CFI”

    Keep up the great column.

    • December 30, 2015 at 8:23 pm

      Thanks, and congrats on earning your instructor certificate! It sounds like you’ll be the ideal CFI, someone students will be lucky to have in the right seat. Even if you were just an average teacher, the fact that you won’t be ditching them halfway through training to pick up an airline gig will do wonders. Instructing is like parenting: half the battle is just being there, showing up every time to provide constant guidance and feedback as they grow.

      I don’t know why you feel you won’t give students quality and attention; it sounds like you’re set up to provide both. (A word of warning though: making the transition from learning to teach to actually doing it can take some time, so go easy on yourself. When you get out there and start instructing, that’s where the learning really starts for both you and the student!)

  16. Alex
    August 19, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    Hello Ron

    I just took my commercial SEL check ride and passed about a couple months ago. Right now I am in the process of completing my CFI, and plan to obtain my CFII afterwards, as well as commercial multi and MEI later on.

    I plan on instructing for at least 5 years before I decide to move on. Sometimes though I think about staying a flight instructor for a career, but the pay is sometimes difficult for me to justify that choice. I can’t wait to start instructing, I think I’m going to love it and am looking forward to passing on my knowledge and flying skills to the next wave of pilots, whether they’re the career bound types or just looking to fly for fun. I had the fortunate experience of having a very experienced instructor during my private and instrument training. He was a retired army helicopter pilot and he also instructed a good bit while in the army. He also had all his instructor ratings as a civilian and he loved to teach. He was very thorough with ground instruction and never used me for ‘time-building.’ He trained me how to fly an airplane and to fly beyond the standards of the PTS. He said “I never train students strictly to pass check rides, I train them to be good, competent, skilled, professional pilots, so that by the time the check ride is passed and they’re a rated pilot, they will know how to fly an airplane and not get themselves killed out there.” This has always been at the front of my mind ever since. I never really recognized how fortunate I was until several years later when I recently got back into flying. I have since moved from the city where I received training from this guy.

    The last 2-3 years while building time for my commercial I saw many of the problems that you and a lot of others talk about in the flight training industry. Problems with flight schools and flight instructors. I’ve had a few unpleasant experiences with several CFI’s when I tried to get aircraft checkouts or flight reviews done. Thankfully, long before commencing my commercial training several months ago, I had a CFI in mind that I would do my training with. I had previously done an IPC with him in the schools Redbirds simulator, and I thought he was a fantastic instructor. I wanted to maximize the efficiency of each commercial lesson, since I learned this early on during my private and instrument training with the older, more experienced instructor. I wasn’t going to waste any money. I wanted somebody who was good at teaching, not just good, but WANTS to teach!!!! My instructor for commercial training was excellent. He’s young, about my age (late 20’s), and was very professional and trained very thoroughly, particularly with ground. I was impressed by him. In a lot of ways he was similar to the more experienced CFI during my early days of training. I never asked him what his long term career plans were in aviation, but I soon realized that younger CFI’s like him who love to teach are less common than the ones who time-build and provide mediocre, lousy instruction. I’ve heard so many bad stories from other students in the last several years regrading bad flight instruction, and most of them had the time-building airline bound CFI’s, which wasn’t surprising.

    The CFI check ride is notoriously long and thorough, as it SHOULD be. My question is, why hasn’t the industry demanded new regulations been put in place to provide more oversight of flight instructors AFTER they pass the check ride? Accomplishing a flight instructor refresher clinic every 2 years is way to lenient in my opinion. We require instrument rated pilots to maintain currency within a 6 month period, and if not, you have to get current with a safety pilot while under the hood, etc. and failing to do that, you must accomplish an IPC. Why haven’t we had regs put in place for CFI’s to take an ‘evaluation’ flight or CFI ‘proficiency’ check of some sort with an examiner or inspectors to make sure instructors continue to deliver good, professional instruction? Maybe they could require this every 6 months as well. I know the military does this with their instructor pilots to make sure they are actually TEACHING, and not messing around. I don’t know about the airlines, but I would imagine they probably do too. In addition, during this hypothetical evaluation flight, they should make it a requirement for CFI’s to show evidence of their training/lesson plans within the previous 2-3 months or so to show that the CFI takes the job of instructing rather seriously. Also, they should release data on student pass rates for each certificate/rating, and retrieve anonymous surveys from students at that school (not the school’s owner) attesting to that instructor’s professionalism, teaching abilities, and general attitude towards instructing.

    • August 21, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      CFIs who teach out of sheer love of the game are some of the best instructors, regardless of age. Unfortunately it’s also one of the faster ways to “build time” for an airline gig. A person can do both: be passionate, dedicated, and excellent as an instructor while still having a final destination that lies elsewhere in the aviation ecosystem. But it ain’t easy. My primary instructor was such an example, so I know they’re out there.

      In answer to your question about why instructors don’t have the same sort of currency requirements that instrument pilots do, I think it’s because instrument flying is very easy to analyze. You either stay within tolerances or you don’t. You’ve either met PTS/ACS standards or you haven’t. It’s pretty black and white.

      Instructing, on the other hand, is a world of grays. If a student isn’t doing well, it isn’t always the instructor’s fault. Maybe the student doesn’t study, or has little aptitude. Sometimes a guy who teaches a couple of students per year might be a much better teacher than someone who does it all day long. How would one even judge an instructor in such a world? A ride with a DPE or FAA inspector is one way. The problem there is that designated examiners and FAA personnel are stretched way too thin as it is. Add an annual ride with the tens of thousands of instructors out there and, from what I’ve seen, it would be more than the existing system could bear.

      Instructing is also much different from instrument flying in that it’s much more diverse. For example, I don’t teach many private/instrument/commercial students these days. Usually for me it’s flight reviews, IPCs, aircraft checkouts, aerobatic programs, tailwheel endorsements, test flights, currency training, and the like. Some instructors just do transition training in a single type (say, the RV series). They may not have done a lesson plan (or have needed to do a new one) in a long time. That doesn’t mean they’re deficient as CFIs.

      It’s a complicated topic. Is a FIRC the best possible answer? Maybe not. But I’ve yet to come with a truly satisfactory answer to this issue. At the end of the day, I think the best instructors get a reputation for excellence and the aviation world gets to know who they are. Ditto with the bad ones. The ones who really suffer are the primary students, who are so new to the aviation world that they don’t know how to pick a CFI. They aren’t aware that there are sub-par instructors out there. By the time someone gets further up the food chain, they’ve generally learned how to manage their own aviation education and will be much quicker to kick a lousy CFI to the curb. This might also explain why the dropout rate is so abysmally high for private students while retention is much higher for advanced ratings and certificates.

  17. August 23, 2016 at 11:39 am

    I just read my last reply nearly one year ago which read (if you scroll above)
    “Wow Ron, if any one of your pieces hit home, its this one. As a CFI candidate, I am more than motivated to teach. Tomorrow is my Mock Exam with a retired DPE for my CFI-A. I can’t tell you how many times when people ask me “why I want to get my CFI?” and I tell them, “no, I do not want to go to the airlines, I really DO want to teach my passion” They “T-R-Y” to call my bluff. I just smile at them….. They tell me “please don’t BS me” and I tell them that I am not telling them something they think they want to hear, its sincere.

    I recently (today) received my AGI certification and can’t wait to put it to use.
    I am on my way to trying to NOT emulate the 1500 hour CFI guy. I would love to stay in GA and eventually fly light twins or corp jets. Yes, I am entering post Colgan Air….but I will get there….

    Finally, thanks for the shout out in your article. I appreciate it.”

    Here is the update nearly one year later:

    Well, my Mock CFI exam on Thanksgiving was an unmitigated disaster. Although I was only half way through my training and had never flown, they set me up for a Mock Exam. The next day I received a call from the owner of the flight school and he dropped me from his school. This was a very big blow because I actually QUIT MY JOB to focus on CFI full time. When I was dropped from the School in Torrance, I couldn’t get my job back. In January 2016, I picked up where I left off at a new school in Orange County. Here I took lessons 3 – 4 times a week. Usually 2 – Two hour blocks on Saturday and Two hour blocks on Sunday. As of April, both my CFI written exams have expired and unfortunately I have not been able to retake them yet. Most of the problem stems from a heavy work load where I am working 10 – 12 hour days without a lunch break 5 – 6 days a week. I don’t know if I will ever become a CFI. I’ve been at the game since January 2013 pretty much on a full time or as much as I can basis…but I am regrettably slowly losing interest. One shocking point about that, at least to me. CFI is the Only thing, the ONLY thing I have ever wanted to do. What an achievement to fall short on, something I am so passionate about

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