Eye of Experience #24:
The Role of the Flight Instructor
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.
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 commercial pilot.
Think 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.
You Get What You Pay For...
I 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 lives.
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).
Unfortunately, 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.
Another 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 decent living.
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.
Not 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.