Safety Pilot: The apprentice

June 1, 2008

Executive Director Bruce Landsberg has been a flight instructor since 1973.

Long before The Donald’s televised escapades and firing tantrums, apprenticeship was used as a systematic approach to teach tradesmen.

It’s perhaps best known in the construction industry where electricians, carpenters, and plumbers typically spend years both in academic and on-the-job training to really learn their jobs. There’s a similar formal process for doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Aviation’s apprentice system is integral to learning to fly, whether you plan to become a professional pilot or not.

Some pundits run down the state of flight instruction and blame new CFIs. Many of these critics haven’t instructed in years or have independent sources of wealth that allow them to instruct on occasion without their economic survival depending on it. Too many have forgotten that we all start as apprentices. Practical and economic solutions are not easy.

The most common way to become a professional pilot these days is to become a flight instructor first. Few can afford to get the necessary ratings and then pay for additional hours of flight time out of their own pocket. But with a flight instructor certificate, one can learn a lot on the job. The hours are long; the pay isn’t great; benefits are typically meager or nonexistent; and the working conditions are often hot, cold, bumpy, and occasionally dangerous. But a working CFI gains critical experience. In other words, it’s an apprenticeship.

It has not always been so. In the early days of aviation, the instructor was looked upon as the source of knowledge and likely one of the most experienced pilots on the airport. They typically owned the flight school and charter business, perhaps ran the airport, and were steeped in aviation. Their apprenticeship was largely served before they began teaching. Sometime in the early 1970s the situation changed. Getting a professional flying job without military experience was difficult. The airlines insisted on several thousand hours of jet time, and charter jobs had similar requirements. With a surplus of ex-military pilots, highly skilled and trained at taxpayer expense, why wouldn’t an airline hire the best of the best? So civilians aspiring to a professional career got the extra certificate allowing them to teach and started on the long road to the left seat of a big airplane. Supply vastly exceeded demand and the training industry got used to cheap labor even as the real cost of flying increased.

After a new CFI does the instruction gig, if they’re talented and the industry isn’t in a funk, they may get picked up by a regional airline, go corporate or charter, and start phase two of aviation’s apprentice program in the right seat. The rub is that many people who want to become professional pilots don’t want to teach and aren’t very good at it. Today, it’s a CFI seller’s market as the airline hiring minimums fall to several hundred hours with new instructors spending six months or less in the training apprenticeship. The qualifications to get hired are largely market driven and can change in a fuel-driven flash.

This compounds the problem that many CFIs don’t even get experience as CFIs. If the law of supply and demand works in this market, the current instructor scarcity may improve CFI working conditions, at least temporarily. Some colleges, universities, and flight schools do pay well, and some even offer a signing bonus, but these are the exception. Don’t count on the aviation industry to significantly improve the lifestyle of full-time flight instructors.

But perhaps we have more tools in the kit besides just the CFI to teach flying. Learning to fly is intense, time consuming, and should be fun. It’s also very labor-intensive, and that goes way beyond just the time spent in the cockpit. So, what if we modified the role of the instructor? Suppose the CFI didn’t teach so much of the basic knowledge, the academics of aviation. Distance learning, eLearning, online education, computer-assisted training, whatever you’d like to call current educational technology, is rapidly changing the learning process.

The kids already get it. Interactive online courses, and DVDs, and inexpensive flight-simulation programs, can assist students at all levels to learn on their own. It certainly doesn’t replace the instructor, but allows CFIs to do more of the things they like to do, which is fly. Incidentally, this is not a new idea—Cessna pioneered the concept with Cessna Pilot Centers more than 30 years ago, and delivery systems have improved dramatically since then. Sporty’s, King, Jeppesen, ASA, and many others all have a system to prep the student before getting to the airport. With a good system, one becomes a little less dependent on the individual CFI.

But wait! You wanted to learn to fly, and now you’re stuck in front of a computer. Many CFIs who want to fly jets are thinking exactly the same thing when they’re teaching ground school. Essential parts of the lesson can be severely shortchanged. The new CFI needs those critical upgrade hours, and spending ground time teaching basics doesn’t get them out of the salt mines any sooner, so the natural tendency is to rush the briefing and ground prep which invariably leads to more time spent in the aircraft. That’s not bad for the CFI, but the student pays both literally and figuratively, in slower progress—a major impediment to achieving their goals.

Some students think they’re supposed to learn in the aircraft. Many CFIs and flight schools endorse that because it generates Hobbs time and cash flow. The student enjoys flying and so does their CFI, so why not? If you’ve got the money and the time to burn, then have at it. But there’s a better way. The preferred method is to learn on the ground and develop the skill in the air. That’s how the professionals do it. No jet-transition course or airline-training program puts crews and instructors in aircraft until pilots know the basics of the aircraft and the avionics. That’s not quite like learning to fly from ground zero but we’re looking for alternatives.

For example, if we’re going to learn about the traffic pattern, how to enter, how to talk, and how to configure the aircraft, doesn’t it make sense to let students get all that into their heads beforehand? Ditto holding patterns and instrument approaches. Computer-assisted learning does all this but, admittedly, some of the programs make watching congressional budget hearings on C-Span seem pretty exciting. Look around until you find something that works well for you. There still needs to be some ground instruction/briefing from the CFI, but this will cut back on it significantly. This doesn’t address the lousy business practices or the lack of enthusiasm or experience that some flight schools and instructors may have.

And after learning all the academics that apply to the upcoming lesson, you and your CFI should spend some quality flight time out in the real world applying it, learning weather, and the curves that cross-country flying will throw at pilots rather than in the artificial world of the traffic pattern and the practice area.

As for how to pick a good instructor or flight school, AOPA has some great online resources on its Web site. Good instruction is worth the money and these resources will help you to identify high quality from merely high prices. I’ll also make a blatant plug for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s free online courses. Learn before getting into the cockpit.