Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

CFI To CFI

Tackling CFI issues

Considering the responsibilities, obligations, and central role CFIs play in furthering aviation education and safety, as well as the future of aviation itself, it is surprising how little is available in the way of practical advice for performing those important duties. The FAA has laid down clear requirements for earning flight instructor credentials and oversees the federal aviation regulations (FARs) and practical test standards (PTS) to guide instructors once they are on the job.

These materials, however, along with the flight instructor knowledge test and Fundamentals of Instruction exam, hardly present the realities of working as a flight instructor.

Your Employer

Your employer can be understanding, caring, and appreciative of your talents and efforts - or hard to please, unappreciative, and inflexible in its demands on your time. Sometimes employers make contradictory demands like requiring you to be available anytime, day or night, but they do not want you to derive your primary income from flight instructing. They can require you to be in the office for six hours a day with no income, just in case a potential customer walks in. They can even thwart your ability to earn a living by mandating your rate of pay. If you are not directly employed by a training facility it is illegal in most jurisdictions for your hourly rate to be determined by anyone but you. However, most flying clubs make instructors charge what the club wants and not what the instructor wants.

What if you produce in-depth written training materials and checklists, hold an FAA instructor Gold Seal, and have an excellent student pass rate - but your employer does not notice, care, or appreciate those facts? What if you are working with other flight instructors who have a miserable student failure rate, an accident hidden in their records, or one who failed his own flight instructor checkride three times before finally limping through it on his fourth attempt? This kind of information can easily be hidden from potential students who will not know whether a flight instructor is good or poor until they are only the latest of that substandard instructor's students to fail a practical test.

Yes, you may be frustrated that your employer, people at the airport, and students simply feel "a flight instructor is a flight instructor," but all potential students should have a clear, honest, and complete picture of the people whom they are considering to entrust with their dreams of flight. Your employer should appreciate and notice your efforts, skills, impressive safety record, materials, and excellent student pass rate. If it does not, a private discussion should be initiated with a nonconfrontational approach to acquaint your employer with these facts. Substandard flight instructors should be dismissed. If they are not, it says more about the training establishment than the CFI.

Pay

It is sometimes hard for employers or students to believe, but most flight instructors do need that pay. Sometimes, they really need it. And pay issues are the number one reason many good instructors abandon the profession in search of greener pastures.

Pay for flight instructors can vary radically (from less than $10 per hour at some Part 141 schools to $60 per hour and beyond in the specialized freelance market of major urban areas). If you work as an employee of a flight training establishment, your pay will be mandated by a mutual agreement and you will receive a paycheck. Freelancers, while legally allowed to determine their own hourly rate for instruction, sometimes find their pay rate mandated by the flight training establishment that controls the airplanes, or by local market forces.

Other CFI pay issues are less monumental, but they do need to be addressed. Your time is valuable, and you should not sell yourself short. If a student wants to "deviate" during the scheduled lesson you should not go off the clock. If a student wants to break for lunch in the middle of a long cross-country flight, he or she should not expect you to simply turn off the meter. CFIs should insist on being treated and compensated like the professionals they are.

Bounced checks will come the way of every flight instructor sooner or later. If the student quickly corrects the situation, the instructor need not be overly concerned unless it becomes a recurring event. Too much resistance or a lack of acknowledgment of responsibility to quickly correct the situation, however, should signal the end of the relationship - once the account is settled.

Some instructors obligate students to sign an agreement covering minimum lesson times, late cancellation fees, no-show fees, and the like. If this can be avoided it should, because it can start off the relationship with an abrogating and formal outlook that can initially hinder the trust required in a good instructor/ student relationship. In 11 years of flight instructing I have had to contend with several bounced checks, but in each case the student quickly corrected the situation. And if a student is 30 minutes late, provided it is not a constant problem, I would charge for the actual time of the lesson. Finally, if a student cancels within 24 hours for a nonemergency, I will give him a pass the first time but subsequently require compensation for lost revenue. Frequent late cancellations are usually evidence of other "issues" about to surface.

Instructor Issues

Flight instructors themselves can bring up delicate interpersonal relationships and issues which they will have to skillfully negotiate. What if you send a student to do a stage check with another instructor, and the student wants to leave your tutelage and continue with the other CFI? Perhaps a student earns a private pilot certificate with you and then chooses another instructor to earn his or her instrument rating.

What if the reverse is true? A student you take up for a stage check decides to drop his primary instructor and continue with you as his new CFI. Should you refuse his request, talk him out of it, or discuss the situation with the instructor he intends to leave? Should you "take him," chalking it up to the odds? Will this situation create an awkward or even hostile working environment? The short answer is that a student can change instructors any time for any reason, although doing so without telling you is immature and rude. Confident flight instructors with a solid record will handle a student's instructor change, in either direction, without faltering from their professional demeanor.

As in any profession, some CFIs are more skilled and successful than others, and negative - even hostile - feelings can arise. Most instructors are mature enough to control any jealousy or feelings of inadequacy, but when a person is not, he must not be allowed to slander or intimidate. If your record is good, and it should be, you should not hesitate to advertise it on business cards, club Web sites, etc., even if it makes those with weaker credentials uncomfortable. After all, more than anyone else, students are hurt by being subjected to substandard flight instruction.

Student issues

Student pilots can be hard-working, voracious pupils who rapidly advance or are casually interested and frequently frustrated. Flight instructors must accept the fact that no two people are the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach to giving flight instruction will shortchange you and your students. Be open-minded and patient with students who are slower to grasp concepts and skills, particularly if they show effort and enthusiasm. If their enthusiasm wanes, discuss their goals and progress. If you maintain an assertive attitude toward your instructor duties and responsibilities, few students will waver. However, people can progress at radically different rates, so you must be prepared to employ radically different levels of patience and creativity to see students through. If a student puts in the effort and sincerely pursues his training, spare no effort to help him safely and successfully earn his certificate.

Of course, learning plateaus require imaginative solutions, but all CFIs must quickly learn to negotiate this frequent training issue. If a student cannot seem to progress, many options are available. Try going around the particular roadblock, returning when tangible success is realized elsewhere. Do not mistake slow progress for a lack of progress. Patience is a requirement of all flight instructors.

If a student absolutely cannot progress and/or displays unmistakable signs that he cannot earn a certificate or rating, you should inform him of your assessment. Of course, he can pursue a second opinion, and he should if he feels he has not been correctly evaluated. Remember, I am talking about people whom you absolutely cannot imagine ever being able to recommend for a practical test, not those who can't seem to get short-field landings.

Students can be slow to respond to your phone calls during the winter and overwhelm you with demands on your time and schedule during the summer. This can be very frustrating in both cases, so insist that students are decisive and clear about their intentions regarding flight training.

I have found that if a student cancels lessons again and again, it is usually a sign that his interest is waning and he does not really want to continue with flight training. Again, querying the student about his goals will reveal his attitude about flight training. Sometimes just advising the student to take a short sabbatical can relieve some of the pressure and allow for reflection.

Smaller but still very important issues face flight instructors every day. Frequently students will not read their assignments, or review FARs, or make copies of their medical certificates. Make it clear that aviation requires compliance with federal law, continued paperwork and logbook updates, and, in general, a great attention to detail. Even small resistance to these realities can be telling in how students progress and perform during training and as certificated pilots. Explaining this to a student who is slow to comply will usually convince him to get the job done.

CFIs will face many more issues that are not discussed here - insurance, student "interviews," "professional students," poorly equipped and -maintained training aircraft, the time-builder label, flying clubs that require multiple out-of-pocket aircraft checkouts, students who pressure you to let them solo or take checkrides before they are ready, etc. These should be addressed on a case-by-case basis employing the good judgment and skills that you drew on to earn your credentials.

Working as a flight instructor is a great and satisfying experience that allows you to play a major role in guiding a person toward the realization of a major dream. Almost all flight instructors and students are serious and dedicated to achieving the same goal - a well-trained and skilled pilot who employs the lessons and experiences from solid training to pass his checkride and fly safely as a certificated pilot thereafter. There are frustrations and issues that all flight instructors will encounter in their quest to meet these goals. Since so little published material is available in to guide flight instructors through these issues, we all must learn on our feet. A dose of patience, good judgment, and common sense will come in very handy.

By David Montoya

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