License to Learn

In defense of low-time instructors

June 1, 2011

Rod MachadoSeveral months ago, I wrote “ License to Learn: The Limited Flight Instructor Certificate” (February 2011 AOPA Pilot). The article produced many positive comments, but one fellow wrote to express his dismay about permitting private pilots to become limited flight instructors (or sport pilots to become sport pilot instructors). Without requiring the instrument rating and commercial certificate, he argued, we were lowering our standards for instructors. Unfortunately, his choice of words betrayed a planet-sized misunderstanding about pilot certification. To understand his position, let’s review the essential points of that article.

Starting in 1956, for a period of approximately six years, the FAA offered private pilots the opportunity to obtain a limited flight instructor certificate (LFIC) without requiring a commercial certificate or instrument rating. The LFIC required a minimum of 200 hours of flight experience and the equivalent of commercial pilot skills and knowledge. The FAA intended the LFIC to be nothing more than a means of evaluating the competency of those who might eventually apply for a full flight instructor certificate. The FAA discontinued the LFIC when it became satisfied that its examiners could successfully assess a CFI candidate’s competency directly. My intent in writing that article was to support revival of the LFIC and the newly created sport pilot flight instructor certificate (SFIC), which requires a sport pilot certificate and a minimum of 150 hours of flight time.

The writer said he was disappointed at the lowering of standards he felt was implied by my recommending the FAA revive the LFIC. Had he said he was disappointed in the lowering of flight experience for the LFIC or the SFIC, he would have had a more logical argument. The fact is that there is no lowering of instructional standards in regard to certifying a LFIC or SFIC. Why? Applicants for both certificates are required to pass a practical test based on the practical test standards (PTS). Therefore, if it’s standards by which both instructor applicants are being evaluated, then flight time becomes less relevant as a measure of an applicant’s ability. Of course, this assumes that the FAA’s evaluation process (the instructor checkride) accurately assesses an applicant’s knowledge and skill level.

Even back in the early 1960s, the FAA found its testing process to be quite effective in evaluating the knowledge and skills possessed by flight instructor applicants (thus the impetus for eliminating the LFIC). And this was way before the practical test standards even existed. Therefore, the argument about a reduction in standards in applicants having less flight experience is difficult to support. The PTS for the SFIC (and the LFIC if it ever comes back) contains the exact same maneuver and knowledge requirements as the full-fledged flight instructor certificate, except for those areas in which sport pilot instructors are not required to teach (i.e., commercial maneuvers).

If the writer had chosen a lowering of an applicant’s experience level (total flight time) as his main concern, he still wouldn’t have a strong argument. Consider that under Part 141, today’s CFI applicant can actually earn a flight instructor certificate with a minimum of 190 total flight hours (even less if you count allowable simulator time). That’s 10 hours less experience than the LFIC applicant needed in the past. No, it’s not an increase in standards or experience that necessarily makes for a good instructor. It’s something far more important that determines how well a flight instructor teaches—I’m speaking of his or her character.

Good teachers aren’t a product of their university training as much as they are the culmination of the personal qualities they’ve acquired. In other words, it’s the character of the individual—his or her inborn traits, personality, motivation, values, and so on—that ultimately determines how well he or she teaches. Yes, training is important, but so is character. The same applies to flight instructors. Send two individuals of equal experience through instructor training—one whose character lends itself well to teaching and one whose character doesn’t—and you’re not likely to end up with the same caliber of instructor. That should be obvious. That’s why the FAA’s allowable “minimum” flight time with which flight instructors are certified is less relevant than that instructor’s character in determining how well the person teaches.

You might argue that an instructor rated with less total flight time can’t teach you as much as one with thousands and thousands of flight hours. If that’s your concern, then consider that a limited or sport flight instructor could, conceivably, teach you at least as much as they know. Wouldn’t that theoretically qualify you for a sport or limited flight instructor certificate?

Sure, most pilots would prefer an experienced instructor of good character. But believing that low-time instructors (of good character) are incapable of teaching well is like believing that you can purchase deep-fried pork skins and reassemble the pig in your apartment. It’s just not true. I would much rather be on the receiving end of flight instruction from a highly enthusiastic but low-time flight instructor than from a high-time instructor who’s so unenthusiastic about teaching that he needs smelling salts to inspire a postflight review.

Rod Machado is a certificated flight instructor with more than 8,000 flight hours. Visit the author’s blog.