The Pilot's Lounge #19:
Why Flight Instruct? — Because You May Be Able to Make a Difference ... and a Living

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Flight instructing can be one of the most frustrating and difficult roles in aviation. It can also be one of the most gratifying and rewarding. Those who work to impart their years of knowledge and experience to students at all levels are on the front lines of aviation safety and they shoulder great responsibilities. AVweb's Rick Durden takes a close look at the highs and lows of flight instructing. Have you got what it takes?

The Pilots LoungeOne of the regulars here at the Pilot's Lounge went through an interesting process recently. Armando made the decision to obtain his flight instructor certificate. He has a full time job that pays reasonably well so he probably isn't going to change careers. Some of the other regulars thought he was crazy to spend the money to get what is generally considered to be the most difficult certificate to obtain. They continue to work him over pretty hard, even now as he is working on the certificate, claiming that he is spending a few thousand dollars for no good reason. Old Hack even told him that CFI stood for Crazy (something or other, there was some background noise at the time and I missed it) Idiot.

There Are Drawbacks To Being A Flight Instructor

I did a lot of listening to the naysayers and to Armando as he weighed the pros and cons of getting a tough ticket that may or may not generate a financial return. It caused me to ask myself why in the world anyone would become a flight instructor other than to simply build flying time in the process of moving onto something else in aviation. In a time when the people of our country are getting wealthier but giving substantially less to charities — yes, generally being more and more greedy — the idea of becoming a flight instructor "just" to instruct strikes some as pointless.

MoneyIt is a sad fact of aviation life that a flight instructor's pay rate can be abysmal. Not long ago one of the major training colleges advertised for instructors in the national aviation press and offered well under $10 per hour for the privilege of teaching students at that school. There are FBOs that pay minimum wage for instruction given in the air and less or nothing for instruction while on the ground. As a result, their instructors hustle the students into the airplane, start the engine to get the Hobbs meter recording time and then brief the flight. The quality of the resulting instruction is obvious. Even if an instructor can somehow manage to give 1,000 hours of dual in a year, an income of less than $10,000 in return for the skills and education he or she has amassed is nothing short of insulting. For those who jump in to say that an average work year for a U.S. employee is 2,000 hours, it must be pointed out that a flight instructor who manages to spend 1,000 hours in an airplane giving dual in one year will also have to be the one who puts the coffee pot on in the morning when he or she opens the office and shuts the lights off at night, because with weather, mechanical problems, scheduling difficulties and the like, that instructor will spend a lot more than 40 hours a week on the job while getting paid for only a fraction of time spent at the airport.

CFI and studentFlight instruction, particularly at the primary level, is just plain hard work. Any instructor who has given six to eight hours of instruction in the airplane in one day, along with the associated half hour before and after each flight, is going to have spent from twelve to sixteen hours on the job. That person will be pretty wiped out at the end of the day. Primary instruction is probably the toughest type of instruction (not the most dangerous, the toughest). The instructor is dealing with students for whom almost everything in aviation is new and so must help the initiate absorb a tremendous amount of foreign material as well as adjust to and make sense of brand new sights, sounds and sensations in an amazingly short period of time in the air. Then that sucker, err, instructor, gets to decide when to turn the novitiate lose after putting his or her own certificate on the line with a signature.

Instruction in the ab initio programs that are proliferating seems to be particularly unrewarding. I've spoken with a fair number of instructors who teach in those programs and who have expressed extreme frustration with an inflexible syllabus that is strictly geared to the practical test standards and seems designed to turn out one-dimensional, mechanical pilots who meet only the minimum standards so that they can be plopped into the right seat of a commuter airliner. I hear of students who have never experienced a full stall and never landed on a grass runway nor faced a crosswind anywhere near the demonstrated value for the airplane. Worse, too many of the "drivers" (and yes, it is still the most degrading term by which you can refer to a pilot) who are graduated from those programs are shockingly arrogant; an unforgivable emotion in aviation, for a true pilot knows that the sky is absolutely unforgiving of those who combine aeronautical ignorance with the vice of boldness.

JusticeFinally, there is a concern about personal liability. While lawsuits against instructors are exceedingly rare, they have happened. When an instructor signs off a pilot he or she asserts that the pilot is capable of handling the airplane without doing violence to it or its occupants and has the judgment to know when the portents advise parking the airplane and aviating another day. Realistically it is impossible for an instructor to be perfect in analyzing every pilot with whom he or she flies, so if a signed-off pilot then rolls an airplane up into a ball, there is a concern that someone will attempt to point the finger at the flight instructor who blessed the union of that pilot and airplane. Insurance coverage for instructors is not cheap and that which is available may not provide adequate coverage. For the pilot who has managed to acquire a few assets the question is: Why risk them by instructing?

It is certainly no surprise there is a shortage of instructors.

So Who In The World Is Foolish Enough To Instruct?

Now I understand what many call aviation's Catch-22: Crazy people cannot be allowed to flight instruct since they pose a danger to themselves and others; however, anyone who wants to flight instruct is, by definition, crazy....

As Armando went through his process of making the decision whether to become an instructor, I found that I was reflecting on the reasons I continued to instruct on a part-time basis and I talked with some instructors I respect about why they started and continued to instruct. Here are a few of the reasons instructors keep instructing.

Free Flying Time...

Not surprisingly, a large number of flight instructors originally got the rating so that they could amass flying time without being charged for it. Several mentioned that the whole concept of getting paid to fly was pretty wonderful to consider after spending so much to get where they were in aviation, therefore they decided to become a CFI. Everyone I spoke with said that the free flying time motivator wore off in a hurry, though. They discovered that instruction was substantially more work than they anticipated. Interestingly, those who quit instructing did so almost immediately upon acquiring the hours necessary to move into something else in aviation. Given the pay provided most instructors, it's not surprising that there has to be something more that keeps them working with pilots.

...Just A Little Bit of Respect...

A CFI pauses beside his student's plane after a successful session.As a new instructor, it's great the first time a pilot with more flying time asks your opinion and listens to it. It is intrinsically rewarding for your opinions to be given some degree of respect around the pilot's lounge. Most instructors — not all, of course — have managed to absorb a bit more aeronautical lore than the average pilot and have pretty good insight into problems or challenges pilots face. While giving free advice may very well be giving away something only as valuable as its price, a lot of instructors have found it gratifying to be sought out for information that they have acquired through hard work and study. There are a few instructors who let this go to their heads and become insufferable know-it-alls. Fortunately, they are not a majority and I am told there is a special circle in hell for them.

...The Pure Pleasure of Watching A Student Learn...

Probably the intangible benefit that keeps instructors doing the job through icy cold mornings and endless trips around the pattern is the simply joy of watching someone learn. Seeing the absolute delight emanate from a student who has just greased on a landing after trying to squeeze juice out of a plastic control wheel while struggling with heading, airspeed, flare height and a little crosswind, is to feel some of the deepest satisfaction a person can experience. Knowing that you, the instructor, with just a few words of direction, correction and encouragement, were able to create the environment in which that student could learn to do something he or she desired so much, is to be nearly as pleased as the student. You probably didn't know it when you were a student and sweating bullets on short final, but if you had a good instructor, he or she was every bit as eager for you to do well as you were. An instructor who finds that he or she enjoys helping all sorts of different people achieve their goals is very likely going to stay with flight instruction even after there is no need to build up any more flying time, and is going to charge enough to continue to instruct as regularly as possible.

...You May Find That You Enjoy Teaching A Great Deal...

GA Team 2000 logo — Learn To Fly!In many flight schools, as in the military, it is not uncommon for the wet-behind-the-ears recent graduates to stay on as instructors for a time. A certain percentage resent it. They put in their time to build hours, put the checks in the boxes for the students in the training program and go home at the end of the day to do anything but think about flying and their students. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a certain percentage revels in the opportunity to instruct. They are the ones who spend part of their evenings getting ready for the next day's students, who are seen sitting on the bench by the ramp with students at the end of the day still working with the students, or stop by the airport bar for a beer with their students so they can keep talking flying. They are the ones who are the first to admit they learn great deal from their students even as they are teaching. Those instructors also realize that they really learned to feel an airplane once they became instructors and are eager to see what else they can learn on the next flight and what they can share with their students. They are the ones who lose weight during the first 100 hours they give dual because they are applying body English to try and help the student on crosswind landings. They are the ones who insist on more than the bare minimums at ab initio schools and make sure the students have seen a full stall and can recover and know how to keep the ball right in the center all the time so they will do it when it really matters. They are the ones who schedule sessions of dual to fly to flight breakfasts so students can experience a congested mix in a traffic pattern and land on a grass runway and then can just walk around among the little, old airplanes scattered on the grass and experience the soul of aviation. They are the ones who turn out pilots who truly fly, rather than drive, airplanes. And there will never be enough of them.

CFIs work to make sure pilots are comfortable flying in all weather conditions.The new instructor learns about, and often becomes fascinated by, human nature. For me, most experiences in that process were pleasant, some weren't. I saw determined students who had budgeted so closely that I learned to plan the lesson to the tenth of an hour on the Hobbs meter because the student just plain couldn't afford it if I misjudged and got us back a tenth or two over the allotted time. Those students read voraciously, showed up for lessons prepared and got the very most out of every minute. At the other extreme, I met businessmen who wouldn't read the lesson materials and paid me to sit and read it to them. I flew with rogues who were absolutely convinced that they knew much more than I (sometimes they did) and that they couldn't learn a thing at all from an instructor (rarely true). These types left me angry and frustrated after each session. I worked with pilots returning after years of inactivity and shared their visible pleasure as the memories came flooding back when the controls came alive in their hands. I met charlatans who tried to fly and then ran out on their bill at the FBO and I flew with brilliant students in a university flying club who could make the collection of aluminum parts I'd been shoving through the air fly with a smoothness and ιlan that I ached to emulate.

...Lasting Friendships Formed

When I talk with other instructors about why they instruct, a common theme is the friends they have made because of it. Many described lifelong, close friendships they developed. One became friends with a student who did some investing on the side, he taught the student to fly, the student taught him to invest. That instructor is now very comfortable financially. The three men who stood up with me when I got married had all been students of mine at one time or another. They are, 20 years on, still some of my best friends. One of them married one of his students. It must have been a good match — after that he became a Naval Aviator and a Blue Angel and they are still married. Because I'd been his instructor, once he joined the Blues I was lucky enough to spend some time around that fascinating group of people, an experience that was very rewarding. I've shared extremely satisfying times with primary students as they made their first unassisted landing, with instrument students the first time the needles stayed inside the doughnut on an ILS and once, while flying with an instrument instructor student between layers of cloud as the sun rose and turned the world to gold, I turned to see him mesmerized by the spectacle and asked, "Tell me, Dan, why do you fly?" Those times and those friends remain treasures. They happened because I became a flight instructor.

A Chance To Effectively Share The Passion of Flight

Most of us fly because we are addicted to it. The sky and the machines we use to traverse it fascinate us. We have utterly lost ourselves to flight. While away from airplanes we daydream about them. We mentally soar with the airplanes we see, even rudely interrupting conversations to watch airplanes pass. When we detect someone who might be interested in flight, we immediately want to share our experiences with him or her.

Teach a student to share a sunset like this is but one benefit of becoming a CFIAs an instructor you have a chance to not only share the joy of flight, but to do so effectively. Part of that difficult training to become an instructor is learning how to read people to communicate with them on the appropriate level and how to give an initial ride that doesn't cause the prospective pilot to get a second look at lunch during flight or run howling from the scene after it. We've all run across the well-meaning boob whose idea of showing someone about flying consists of steep turns, stalls and generally terrifying the prospect as he shows off how macho he is. Or the person who is going to "help" a student by taking him flying and "pounding" on him. Good instructors are also good aviation salespeople. They show what flight can be and encourage someone new to aviation to take those next steps and learn to fly. They do it in a non-threatening way that allows the prospective pilot to experience the wonders of flight in his or her own way.

You Might Be Able To Reach Someone...

As an instructor you may have the chance to have some input to that rogue pilot that you know is just plain dangerous. At some point, he or she has to come in for a flight review. That may very well be the opportunity for you to actually make a difference and get through to the pilot in a way that causes him to see what he is doing and make some changes. There are no guarantees; the rogue pilot is one of aviation's nasty little challenges to all of us and I've written about just how awful it can be to try and reach one. However, you may save some lives that you couldn't even hope to reach if you were just another pilot at the airport looking on in askance as the nut did something dumb yet again. You have the opportunity to actually make a difference.

...You Deserve To Get Paid For Affecting People's Lives...

Another CFI pauses before a training flight.A lot of instructors have gotten into the habit of not allowing the amount they get paid even come close to keeping up with inflation. I'm guilty; at $40 per hour I now get less than I did, allowing for inflation, 20 years ago. Flight schools have, until the instructor shortage, been able to get away with paying their instructors insultingly low wages. Yet, there are a few instructors out there who make it a career. They enjoy instructing. They do a good job of it. They also decided to make a living wage as a CFI. Tennis pros charge at least $50 per hour to teach someone in short pants how to hit a ball across a court. There is absolutely no reason that a person who takes others' lives in hand should charge a cent less to teach them to fly. Interestingly, the instructors who do charge rates consistent with those of tennis pros have waiting lists of students. People will pay for excellence. Those instructors also spend time promoting aviation because they realize what only a few younger instructors have figured out, that part of the job is selling aviation.

...There Are Ways To Reduce Liability Exposure

An instructor working for an FBO has one nice little benefit: It is probable that if there is an accident that the FBO is going to get sued, not the individual instructor. There is a legal term known as respondent superior that means the employer is liable for the mistakes of the employee. I have never, ever seen a lawsuit in which an instructor that worked for an FBO was sued individually. As an instructor you may want to get together with your local FBO and work out something mutually beneficial. The FBO gets a good instructor (although it is going to have to pay you at least what the local tennis clubs pay their pros) and you get insurance coverage and stronger protection against getting sued personally.

In general, whether an instructor works for an FBO or is self-employed, the best protection against a lawsuit is to be quite conservative. While it is the subject for another column, a practice of only signing off pilots for ratings or checkouts or flight reviews if you are personally satisfied that the pilot meets your standards for knowledge, skill and judgment — all of which had better be higher than what the FAA requires — AND you make a very careful record of everything you did with that pilot in your log and the pilot's, will go a long ways toward protecting you in the event of a potential lawsuit. If you do not consider the pilot's performance acceptable for a flight review or an airplane checkout you simply make an entry in the pilot's logbook that you gave dual in specific areas and stop there. If you see a serious deficiency in any area and you have any concern that the pilot will go fly anyway, note the observed deficiency in both books. Good records will help defend against an accusation of improper instruction and have been known to prevent suits from being filed when the plaintiff's attorney found out that the evidence was not going to be favorable to the pilot who had crashed.

A Chance To Give Something Back

Face it, almost anyone who has experienced the lure of flying for any time at all is consciously aware that he or she has been given a gift, an wondrous opportunity to see and do things so very few of those who beetle across the earth ever imagine. Most of us want to give something back to aviation. If you are the sort who wants another person who might be receptive to the pull of the sky to experience the magic of flight, that desire, in itself, is reason enough to instruct. I think you will be glad you decided to instruct.

Armando, good luck finishing up your CFI. I hope it proves to be emotionally and financially rewarding to you. A lot of us here in the Lounge are pleased you will be joining the CFI ranks soon.

See you next month.