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.

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I become quite upset when I hear a youngflight instructor announce that he/she is just teaching until a “goodjob” or a “better job” in aviation comes along. I want you toknow – there is no higher calling for an aviator than to be a reallyfirst-class, professional flight instructor. There is no better job! And I usethe term “professional” in its broadest sense – the individual neednot be a full time teacher. A truly dedicated part-timer can be just asprofessional as the one whose only occupation is teaching flying. A part-timeflight instructor who is teaching because he/she loves to fly and wants to passon the joys of aviation is making a much greater contribution than the one whoconsiders teaching an unpleasant but necessary chore on the career track.

There has been a gradual evolution in the attitude the aviation community hastoward flight instruction from the time when I was a student and we worshippedour instructors (after all, this guy could not only fly, but he could also teachme to fly), until today, when instructing is generally considered the bottomrung on the aviation ladder. In other words, the position of CFI has worked itsway down from one of preeminence to that of bottom barnacle in the ranks of thecommercial pilot.

Forming Habits

PPL PTSThinkabout this for a moment. There isn’t a high-time captain operating one of thoseflying condominiums across the big puddle, there isn’t an astronaut who steppedon the moon who didn’t start with a primary instructor from whom he/she acquiredthe habits that have carried forth throughout his/her entire career. Thetop-notch professional instructor sets an example for his students by his or heractions – 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 iscarelessness, the result will be a former student who, down the line, will findhimself in serious trouble because of his neglect of detail which he learnedfrom the primary instructor. On the other hand, the product of the careful,thorough flight instructor will be a careful pilot. This is why the primaryflight instructor is so very important in the aviation community.

The Pedestal

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’ma 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 astudent go all the way through his training without realizing that I was the guywho 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 untoitself. When they began to bless some designees with the authority to issueinstructor certificates, I told my wife that I wasn’t sure I wanted thatresponsibility. Her reply was, “You turn instrument pilots loose in theairspace, don’t you?” My answer to that was, “Yeah, but if I make amistake, it is only one individual, but if I should make a mistake with aninstructor applicant the result could extend to generations of pilots!”

There was a long period, extending over many years, when the FAA was the onlysource for the certification of flight instructors during which it was almostimpossible for an instructor applicant to pass on the first attempt. They putwhat was first a rating on the pilot certificate, then a separate certificate upon a pedestal and made the applicant reach for it. And I’m not sure this is abad thing. Being a flight instructor carries with it a very heavy burden ofresponsibility, and it is indeed fitting that an applicant for a CFI certificatebe made aware of this fact. If the instructor certificate is made extremelydifficult to attain, the responsibility that goes with it is forcefully broughtto the attention of the applicant.

Low Rates

You Get What You Pay For…

A CFI pauses after a successful flightIhave heard many instructors say they are only teaching until something bettercomes along. Perhaps the degradation of the place of the flight instructor inthe scheme of things has come about as a result of the vast number ofinstructors who are marking time, using their CFI certificate as a steppingstone in their own careers. What they are doing is building time in order tomake themselves attractive to the air carrier or corporate employers, and theyare doing it at the expense of their students! They don’t like to teach, theydon’t want to teach, and they view teaching as an unpleasant but necessary chorealong the way to a “better job.” This is a built-in flaw in theaviation education system. And along with this time-building attitude comes thecheapening of the pay for flight instruction. The time-building instructor iswilling to work for nothing or next to nothing in order to put more time in hislogbook, and of course the student gets what he or she is paying for. I know ofno other profession in which the individual invests so much time and moneybecoming qualified and then is compensated so meagerly. I have had clients,airplane owners who would think nothing of spending mega thousands of dollarsfor some useless toy to add to the panel of their airplane, and who complainbitterly at the fee charged for the instruction that might very well save theirlives.

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 someoneelse pay for his/her flying. This one insists on demonstrating each maneuverover and over again without permitting the student to manipulate the controls.In this situation, the student can’t learn anything (except perhaps how well orbadly the instructor can fly – personally I’m a fraud, just a tired old manwhose students never get a chance to see how well or badly I fly).

… Professionalism

ProfessionalismUnfortunately,the student who shops price fails to realize that he or she is getting just whatis being paid for. I have known students taught badly by an absolutely terribleinstructor who swore by him, believing him to be among the very best. As anexaminer, I got to see the quality of the product of the instructors who sent metheir students. This evaluation of the quality of instruction could not beaccomplished on the basis of a single applicant. The world’s worst instructorcould have a natural for a student. One who taught him/herself to fly while theCFI sat there and prevented the student from committing suicide. The applicantthen 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 inthe world can pour his/her heart and soul into a poor student, finally give upin despair and send the student in. Whether the student blunders his/her waythrough 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 thesame CFI, the examiner can judge the quality of training. The truly dedicatedprofessional charges a fair, but fairly high rate for his/her time andexpertise, and is worth every penny of it. Again unfortunately, the primarystudent doesn’t know the difference. As far as the student knows, theinstruction being given is standard quality because the instructor iscertificated and wouldn’t be teaching if he or she was not qualified. Only afterexperiencing more than one instructor, or observing several instructors at work,does the student have a basis of comparison.

Money Driven

CashAnothersource of bad instruction is the instructor who is money driven. This individualcares 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. Ifan individual enters the business of flight instruction with the idea that he’llget rich, he’ll go broke in a hurry. But if he starts out with the concept thathe’ll knock himself out to serve his clientele, by inadvertence he’ll make adecent living.

I have operated a flight school for a great many years on an airport where ahuge amount of training goes on. At one time there were no less than 17 (that’snot a typo) approved flight schools on the field, not counting the freelanceinstructors and shade-tree operators, and I’ve seen them come and go over theyears until there are only a half dozen left today. Both the ones who cut ratesand the ones who were in it for the money fell by the wayside, but while theywere operating they did damage to the good operators who are doing all they canto help their students along.

Rewards

I enjoy teaching. In another life, many years ago, I spent three yearsteaching in a huge liberal arts university, and in each class of 30 or sostudents there would be one or two who made it worthwhile – students who showeda spark. But with flight instruction every student is there because he or shewants to be, and they are eager to learn. There’s nothing I know of that one canteach where he or she gets as dramatic a demonstration of his/her teachingeffort 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, thestudent literally lights up as he/she exclaims, “Look, it works!” Thegratification 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 joyof flying is rewarded in ways other than monetarily. The experience of watchingone’s students develop and grow as aviators is more than mere payment forservices. Of course, the monetary compensation for instructing is not onlywoefully inadequate; it is backwards! For the most part advanced instruction(commercial, instrument, multiengine, etc.) is compensated at a higher rate thanprimary instruction, and advanced instruction is much easier. After all, theadvanced student already knows how to manipulate an airplane, and can much morereadily relate to what the instructor is imparting. Therefore, even though theinvestment on the part of the instructor is greater in becoming qualified toadminister advanced instruction, the compensation for the primary instructorshould probably be greater, rather than less.

Potential Liability

CFI and student prepare for a lessonNotonly does flight instruction carry with it a heavy weight of responsibility, butit also has an enormous potential for liability. It is literally impossible toobtain 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, withplaintiff attorneys laying in wait. Personally, I decided long ago that if Iwanted to reap the rewards of instructing, I would simply have to assume therisk, and that’s how I view my job. I’ve been lucky, for in a career that hasextended well over 50 years I have managed to dodge the bullet. I’ve never beensued – yet. However, in my work as an expert witness I have seen some trulyfrightening things – lawsuits against flight schools and instructors. My flightschool was sued once and our insurance carrier paid out the policy limits. Themanufacturer of the airplane was hit for a mega thousand-dollar judgment, andthe accident was strictly the fault of the pilot. The fact situation was quitesimple. The airplane made an intersection takeoff from a short runway on a hotday, 600 pounds over gross weight, staggered into the air, stalled, and on therecovery experienced a secondary stall, crashed and burned, killing all fourpeople aboard. It was absolutely incomprehensible to me that this could happenwith that pilot at the controls. He was a highly experienced pilot, with areputation for being exceedingly careful. Of course we weren’t the primarytarget of the lawsuits. The “deep pockets” were in the trousers of themanufacturer, who, incidentally made a perfectly good airplane, but neverthelesspaid out several millions of dollars.

As far as insuring against the potential liability that goes with flightinstructing, you should know that there’s just no way one can buy enoughcoverage whatever the premium might be. Mention the word “airplane” toa 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 notusually the CFI and/or the flight school, but rather the manufacturer, soassuming 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 ofaviation compensate me beyond measure.


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