Flight instructors are the backbone of general aviation. No one position in aviation has more impact on safety and efficiency. But the position is too often viewed as merely a stepping stone to a higher-paying job flying turbine equipment. Last week, AVweb's Rick Durden wrote in his column about the challenges and rewards of flight instructing. This week, AVweb's Howard Fried writes about the role of a CFI, one which is equal parts teaching, leading and (lastly) flying.
February 20, 2000
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
I become quite upset when I hear a young
flight instructor announce that he/she is just teaching until a "good
job" or a "better job" in aviation comes along. I want you to
know there is no higher calling for an aviator than to be a really
first-class, professional flight instructor. There is no better job! And I use
the term "professional" in its broadest sense the individual need
not be a full time teacher. A truly dedicated part-timer can be just as
professional as the one whose only occupation is teaching flying. A part-time
flight instructor who is teaching because he/she loves to fly and wants to pass
on the joys of aviation is making a much greater contribution than the one who
considers teaching an unpleasant but necessary chore on the career track.
There has been a gradual evolution in the attitude the aviation community has
toward flight instruction from the time when I was a student and we worshipped
our instructors (after all, this guy could not only fly, but he could also teach
me to fly), until today, when instructing is generally considered the bottom
rung on the aviation ladder. In other words, the position of CFI has worked its
way down from one of preeminence to that of bottom barnacle in the ranks of the
about this for a moment. There isn't a high-time captain operating one of those
flying condominiums across the big puddle, there isn't an astronaut who stepped
on the moon who didn't start with a primary instructor from whom he/she acquired
the habits that have carried forth throughout his/her entire career. The
top-notch professional instructor sets an example for his students by his or her
actions he/she doesn't play the "do as I say, not as I do" game.
The instructor is the student's leader, and he provides leadership by example.
What the student sees the instructor do, the student will do, and if it is
carelessness, the result will be a former student who, down the line, will find
himself in serious trouble because of his neglect of detail which he learned
from the primary instructor. On the other hand, the product of the careful,
thorough flight instructor will be a careful pilot. This is why the primary
flight instructor is so very important in the aviation community.
I have many titles I am entitled to use (doctor, manager, company president,
CEO, board chairman, etc.) but when asked what I do, I proudly proclaim that I'm
a flight instructor. In all the years that I was a Designated Pilot Examiner,
nothing was printed that said I was an examiner. My calling cards simply stated
"Flight Instructor." (In fact at my own flight school we once had a
student go all the way through his training without realizing that I was the guy
who would give him his check ride. He was unaware that I was an examiner.)
For many years the FAA retained the certification of flight instructors unto
itself. When they began to bless some designees with the authority to issue
instructor certificates, I told my wife that I wasn't sure I wanted that
responsibility. Her reply was, "You turn instrument pilots loose in the
airspace, don't you?" My answer to that was, "Yeah, but if I make a
mistake, it is only one individual, but if I should make a mistake with an
instructor applicant the result could extend to generations of pilots!"
There was a long period, extending over many years, when the FAA was the only
source for the certification of flight instructors during which it was almost
impossible for an instructor applicant to pass on the first attempt. They put
what was first a rating on the pilot certificate, then a separate certificate up
on a pedestal and made the applicant reach for it. And I'm not sure this is a
bad thing. Being a flight instructor carries with it a very heavy burden of
responsibility, and it is indeed fitting that an applicant for a CFI certificate
be made aware of this fact. If the instructor certificate is made extremely
difficult to attain, the responsibility that goes with it is forcefully brought
to the attention of the applicant.
have heard many instructors say they are only teaching until something better
comes along. Perhaps the degradation of the place of the flight instructor in
the scheme of things has come about as a result of the vast number of
instructors who are marking time, using their CFI certificate as a stepping
stone in their own careers. What they are doing is building time in order to
make themselves attractive to the air carrier or corporate employers, and they
are doing it at the expense of their students! They don't like to teach, they
don't want to teach, and they view teaching as an unpleasant but necessary chore
along the way to a "better job." This is a built-in flaw in the
aviation education system. And along with this time-building attitude comes the
cheapening of the pay for flight instruction. The time-building instructor is
willing to work for nothing or next to nothing in order to put more time in his
logbook, and of course the student gets what he or she is paying for. I know of
no other profession in which the individual invests so much time and money
becoming qualified and then is compensated so meagerly. I have had clients,
airplane owners who would think nothing of spending mega thousands of dollars
for some useless toy to add to the panel of their airplane, and who complain
bitterly at the fee charged for the instruction that might very well save their
There is also the part timer who likes to fly, but who can't afford to do so.
This individual acquires a CFI certificate so that he or she can have someone
else pay for his/her flying. This one insists on demonstrating each maneuver
over and over again without permitting the student to manipulate the controls.
In this situation, the student can't learn anything (except perhaps how well or
badly the instructor can fly personally I'm a fraud, just a tired old man
whose students never get a chance to see how well or badly I fly).
the student who shops price fails to realize that he or she is getting just what
is being paid for. I have known students taught badly by an absolutely terrible
instructor who swore by him, believing him to be among the very best. As an
examiner, I got to see the quality of the product of the instructors who sent me
their students. This evaluation of the quality of instruction could not be
accomplished on the basis of a single applicant. The world's worst instructor
could have a natural for a student. One who taught him/herself to fly while the
CFI sat there and prevented the student from committing suicide. The applicant
then gives the examiner a letter-perfect check ride and the examiner thinks,
"Boy! He/she had good instruction!" On the other hand the best CFI in
the world can pour his/her heart and soul into a poor student, finally give up
in despair and send the student in. Whether the student blunders his/her way
through the check ride and passes, or whether he/she fails, the examiner thinks,
"Boy! This one had rotten training." But after a half-dozen from the
same CFI, the examiner can judge the quality of training. The truly dedicated
professional charges a fair, but fairly high rate for his/her time and
expertise, and is worth every penny of it. Again unfortunately, the primary
student doesn't know the difference. As far as the student knows, the
instruction being given is standard quality because the instructor is
certificated and wouldn't be teaching if he or she was not qualified. Only after
experiencing more than one instructor, or observing several instructors at work,
does the student have a basis of comparison.
source of bad instruction is the instructor who is money driven. This individual
cares not for the welfare of his students. He's just interested in the money.
Flight instruction is just like any other service business in that respect. If
an individual enters the business of flight instruction with the idea that he'll
get rich, he'll go broke in a hurry. But if he starts out with the concept that
he'll knock himself out to serve his clientele, by inadvertence he'll make a
I have operated a flight school for a great many years on an airport where a
huge amount of training goes on. At one time there were no less than 17 (that's
not a typo) approved flight schools on the field, not counting the freelance
instructors and shade-tree operators, and I've seen them come and go over the
years until there are only a half dozen left today. Both the ones who cut rates
and the ones who were in it for the money fell by the wayside, but while they
were operating they did damage to the good operators who are doing all they can
to help their students along.
I enjoy teaching. In another life, many years ago, I spent three years
teaching in a huge liberal arts university, and in each class of 30 or so
students there would be one or two who made it worthwhile students who showed
a spark. But with flight instruction every student is there because he or she
wants to be, and they are eager to learn. There's nothing I know of that one can
teach where he or she gets as dramatic a demonstration of his/her teaching
effort as is the case with flight instruction, particularly primary instruction.
When a student is hung up on one of those classic "learning plateaus"
and the instructor turns the key that gets the student over the hump, the
student literally lights up as he/she exclaims, "Look, it works!" The
gratification that one receives from this kind of response is beyond price.
The instructor who is teaching for the love of teaching or to pass on the joy
of flying is rewarded in ways other than monetarily. The experience of watching
one's students develop and grow as aviators is more than mere payment for
services. Of course, the monetary compensation for instructing is not only
woefully inadequate; it is backwards! For the most part advanced instruction
(commercial, instrument, multiengine, etc.) is compensated at a higher rate than
primary instruction, and advanced instruction is much easier. After all, the
advanced student already knows how to manipulate an airplane, and can much more
readily relate to what the instructor is imparting. Therefore, even though the
investment on the part of the instructor is greater in becoming qualified to
administer advanced instruction, the compensation for the primary instructor
should probably be greater, rather than less.
only does flight instruction carry with it a heavy weight of responsibility, but
it also has an enormous potential for liability. It is literally impossible to
obtain insurance coverage adequate to cover the liability the instructor faces,
should he or she err in a sign-off, and you don't even have to err, with
plaintiff attorneys laying in wait. Personally, I decided long ago that if I
wanted to reap the rewards of instructing, I would simply have to assume the
risk, and that's how I view my job. I've been lucky, for in a career that has
extended well over 50 years I have managed to dodge the bullet. I've never been
sued yet. However, in my work as an expert witness I have seen some truly
frightening things lawsuits against flight schools and instructors. My flight
school was sued once and our insurance carrier paid out the policy limits. The
manufacturer of the airplane was hit for a mega thousand-dollar judgment, and
the accident was strictly the fault of the pilot. The fact situation was quite
simple. The airplane made an intersection takeoff from a short runway on a hot
day, 600 pounds over gross weight, staggered into the air, stalled, and on the
recovery experienced a secondary stall, crashed and burned, killing all four
people aboard. It was absolutely incomprehensible to me that this could happen
with that pilot at the controls. He was a highly experienced pilot, with a
reputation for being exceedingly careful. Of course we weren't the primary
target of the lawsuits. The "deep pockets" were in the trousers of the
manufacturer, who, incidentally made a perfectly good airplane, but nevertheless
paid out several millions of dollars.
As far as insuring against the potential liability that goes with flight
instructing, you should know that there's just no way one can buy enough
coverage whatever the premium might be. Mention the word "airplane" to
a jury and they immediately want to start handing out money in vast quantities.
In the lawsuits resulting from a general aviation accident, the target is not
usually the CFI and/or the flight school, but rather the manufacturer, so
assuming the risk is not too risky for the individual instructor.
All in all, for me it is well worth it, for the rewards of sharing my love of
aviation compensate me beyond measure.
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this
column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That
way others may benefit from your input.