License to learn: Everybody wins

The ultimate value of CFI flight time

December 1, 2012

Rod Machado

In August 2013, the FAA will require that some newly hired Part 121 flight crewmembers have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, an ATP certificate, and at least 50 hours of multiengine flight time. While my limited superpowers (and my inability to look fashion-worthy in a cape) prevent me from doing anything about this regulation, we should all be interested in how it will affect the way aspiring commercial aviators acquire their pre-ATP experience. The answer will have a lot to do with the availability of top-notch flight instruction and whether or not this FAA mandate achieves its ultimate goal—better airline pilots.

Believe it or not, the flight training community is experiencing a shortage of flight instructors. We’re even hearing of FBOs closing their doors several days a week because they can’t find instructors to teach their students. Given that aspiring airline pilots will soon need 1,500 hours of flight time, it’s likely that many of these individuals will turn to flight instruction to gain the experience they need. Voilà, more flight instructors.

“But wait,” you say, “CFIs with an eye on an airliner bucket seat make poor teachers.” In my opinion, that’s like believing that preignition is the ability to see sparks from the future. It’s not necessarily true. A flight instructor’s career ambition has very little to do with how well he or she teaches. I’ve known many time-building CFIs who taught very well, and some who didn’t. The single factor that separated the good from the bad wasn’t their aspiration to fly an airliner. Instead, it was their character, their mental and moral qualities. The Greeks had it right, character is destiny.

But the bigger bottom line here has to do with whether or not flight instructors ultimately make better airline pilot candidates. I say they do, and I’m not alone.

Several years ago, the chief pilot of a Florida-based regional airline told me that she only hires general aviation CFIs for flight crew positions. She said that competent CFIs who have given more than 1,000 hours of dual generally have a deeper understanding of flying basics than pilots with similar backgrounds and 1,000 hours of hands-on stick time but no instructional experience.

This very wise chief pilot understood a very important fact about teaching. In order to teach you must constantly learn. It is far more difficult to teach someone else a skill than it is to just know that skill for yourself. As a CFI, you have to think at length about what each aviation skill is and about how best to explain it in many ways so one of those ways always makes sense to the student with whom you’re flying.

This ultimately makes CFIs uniquely prepared to step up to the rigors of Part 121 flight. Why? Because, while very few things about flying big airplanes pertain to flying small ones, almost everything about flying small airplanes pertains to flying big ones. The Florida chief pilot noted that capable CFIs also have learned how to get along with other people and have a ready-made base upon which to build essential cockpit management skills.

General aviation instructors with 1,000 hours of dual have seen nearly every scenario imaginable (and a few unimaginable) associated with stalls, uncoordinated flight, bounced landings, balked approaches, botched crosswind attempts and so on. They’ve had to deal with the effects of density altitude, weight and balance, and fuel and weather limitations—in an underdog, underpowered, and sometimes unforgiving airplane. And this says nothing about the need for good stick and rudder skills to properly fly these machines. The only yaw dampers you’ll find in small airplanes are sticking out of a pilot’s pants.

Competent CFIs don’t just watch. They think, analyze, and deeply understand the core skills of
flying—because that’s what they must do in order to teach. While their hands aren’t always on the stick, their minds are always on the flying. Not just the how, but also the why of aviating.

While I’m not in favor of unnecessary pilot regulation, I’m sure that the 1,500-hour/ATP minimum rule for Part 121 pilots isn’t the end of the world as we know it—that usually involves frantic ship building, missing zoo animals, and a fair amount of water. Instead, guided by the invisible hand of market forces, the FAA’s newest regulation just might help general aviation find an increased supply of competent and capable instructors while ultimately bringing valuable skills and wisdom to the flight decks of commercial airliners.

Everybody wins.

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