License to Learn

The limited flight instructor certificate

February 1, 2011

A Polish immigrant visited his local flight surgeon to take a third class medical exam. The doctor had him stand in a specific spot, then pulled down a chart showing the letters: CVOKPTNXZYKV. The doc said to the Polish immigrant, “OK, can you read that?” The Polish immigrant replied, “Read it? Heck, I know the guy.” Sometimes what you look at is not what you see.

That happens to me when I look at a private pilot, because I don’t see just a private pilot. I see someone who, with more experience and the proper training, could easily be a capable flight instructor. And this person wouldn’t need an instrument rating or a commercial certificate to instruct, either. You’re no doubt thinking, “Rod’s wheel is spinning, but his hamster is dead.” Well, before you get too comfy with that judgment, let me try and convince you that my position isn’t all that radical, and why it would be something that could help rejuvenate aviation.

On August 23, 1956, the FAA began offering something known as a limited flight instructor certificate (LFIC) to noninstrument-rated private pilots. An applicant for the LFIC needed a minimum of 200 hours total time, needed to meet commercial pilot skill standards, had to demonstrate the ability to teach the appropriate maneuvers in the category of aircraft in which he or she wished to instruct, and had to demonstrate that students could fly safely under his or her supervision. If the LFI held the certificate for at least one year and trained five pilot applicants successfully, he or she could convert the LFIC to a permanent certified flight instructor certificate (CFI). The LFIC disappeared as a certificate option on May 24, 1962.

If you think that the FAA eliminated the LFIC because it finally came to its senses, think again. The FAA intended the LFIC to be nothing more than a means of evaluating the competency of those who might eventually apply for a CFIC. The LFIC was eliminated when the FAA became satisfied that its examiners could successfully assess a CFI candidate’s competence directly. It’s important to keep in mind that the LFIC wasn’t eliminated because LFIs produced less qualified students, either.

If you’re thinking that the LFIC could only have existed in the 1950s and 1960s, but would have no place in today’s complex airspace environment, I have a surprise for you. It turns out that we now have something similar to the LFIC. I’m speaking of the sport pilot flight instructor certificate (SFIC), whose minimum requirements are a sport pilot certificate and 150 hours of flight time. The instructor applicant must simply demonstrate his or her ability to teach to the standards set forth in the Sport Pilot Practical Test Standards to obtain the SFIC.

Clearly, the SFIC indicates the FAA’s belief that properly trained sport pilots are capable of teaching others to fly competently and safely in light sport aircraft. Back in 1956, the FAA also believed the same thing about properly trained private pilots who became LFIs. If we keep in mind that the FAA didn’t eliminate the LFIC because of poor instructor performance, then we can reasonably conclude that properly trained 200-hour, noninstrument-rated private pilots can competently and safely prepare students for the private pilot certificate. That’s why I’m suggesting that the FAA consider reinitiating the LFIC. Yes, the LFIC should come with many restrictions, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The question you’re probably asking is, “What’s the payoff for reviving the LFIC?” I was hoping you’d ask. Over the years I’ve met many private pilots who wanted to teach their friends and family members to fly, but who had no need or desire to undergo the same training required by those pursing a professional pilot career (i.e., the instrument rating and commercial certificate). The LFIC benefits aviation by allowing it to inherit an entirely new class of enthusiastic teachers whose main ambition is to share their love of flying with others and not just to build flight time. As a result, we’re also likely to add an older, and by definition wise, class of aviation ambassadors to our instructor ranks. Can you think of anything that more directly supports the flight training industry? I can’t.

The objections? Given the information I presented, there certainly is no basis on which one can argue that LFIs produce less qualified students. One might argue that today’s aviation knowledge is too complex for private pilots to adequately teach. But that doesn’t explain how sport pilot instructors—those who may start out with 50 hours less flight time than an LFI—are permitted to teach nearly all the same knowledge that private pilots are required to learn. The only other objection is that LFIs would deprive the CFI of his or her share of students. If one believes that flight training is a zero-sum game, that might be a valid concern. I believe that reviving the LFIC would actually attract those who might not otherwise have an interest in or find access to flight training, as well as help retain those who quit training because of poor instructor performance.

I’ve sung nothing but praise for the FAA in developing the sport pilot instructor program. Now I hope they’ll also see the limited flight instructor certificate as a viable option for those who simply want to teach, and not fly as professional pilots. The evidence to date suggests that this can only help aviation, and certainly not diminish it.

Aviation writer and professional speaker Rod Machado has been flying since 1970. Visit the author’s blog.