CFI to CFI
Be your own boss
Av-Marketing 101 for the freelance instructor
Somebody somewhere made the profound observation that "everything in life boils down to marketing." While that may be oversimplifying just a bit, there is indeed some truth to that statement-even in the world of the freelance flight instructor.
The classic definition of marketing is, "Defining the needs of a specific market segment and developing a plan to supply those needs at a profit." This means that we aren't going to run out the front door with our new CFI ticket and start looking for someone to teach to fly. First we're going to figure out what our market is and then what it wants, rather than simply try to sell the fact that we know how to teach people to fly.
Most freelancers don't have the option of serving a market larger than their local area because, among other things, most of them have a day job and instruct around the edges of it. That doesn't mean, however, that they shouldn't develop a marketing plan for their instructional work.
Look around at your local airports and find out what is and isn't being offered. There could be a bunch of flight schools offering primary flight training. If you're looking for part-time instructional work doing basic flight instruction, the schools themselves may be your primary market. Besides, for all practical purposes, established flight schools probably have cornered the primary flight training market unless they've made so many customers mad that their reputation works to your favor.
If you want to work on your own, however, the flight schools represent competition, and setting up any business is always easier when it's working in a marketing niche where there is a known demand that no one else is fulfilling. Often, flight schools don't meet a local demand because the demand is so low that it's not cost-effective to spend capital or time to do so. Most flight schools concentrate on the basic certificates and ratings. This, however, does not mean that just because they are giving private pilot/commercial/ instrument/multiengine training that there isn't a place for you to do your freelance thing right along side of them. All you have to do is use your imagination.
Flight schools make most of their money working a known training pipeline: They suck a student in the bottom end of the pipe and spit her out the other end as a pilot. There is a certain finality to getting the ticket and it's sometimes hard for the student to go back to the school-unless it's to work on another rating. For that reason, flight schools seldom get involved in that initial period of confidence-building that a new private pilot experiences.
New private pilots and pilots with new instrument ratings always go through a period where they are just a little apprehensive. They know that the FAA considers them pilots but sometimes they aren't convinced. They don't have the same degree of confidence in their abilities as the feds do.
This shows up the most when a new pilot is faced with making a long cross-country. We're not talking thousands of miles here; it may only be a few hundred miles, but it's a flight that has to be conducted without an instructor to help plan or execute the flight. This lack of confidence opens a window of opportunity for an instructor, and all he or she has to do is be in the airplane. We're going to call this kind of instruction "confidence training," for lack of a better term.
VFR confidence flights
If a new pilot knew that he or she could make a phone call and have an instructor ride along and just monitor the flight without spending a fortune, many would do it. Basically you'd be there as a security blanket. You're not instructing as much as you are sitting on the right seat, not making a sound, like an onboard computer that's programmed to keep the student in the envelope and out of trouble. The possible down side is that you have to be free to travel when the student feels like traveling.
IFR confidence flights
Confidence training for new instrument pilots can almost always be sold because those first few solo IFR flights can be terrifying to the newbie. New IFR pilots are never overjoyed at the prospect of flying solo and having to try alone all that new stuff they learned. The ideal situation has you flying on "soft" IFR days, where neither you nor the student is getting the devil scared out of you. At the same time, however, reserve the right to say it's a no-go if things don't look good ahead. While the student thinks an instructor can do anything, we know better. It's no fun to be out there plodding along in a Cessna 172 watching the ice build up.
Every airport has or should have someone who is always available at short notice to give a couple of hours of IFR recurrency or proficiency training. This is really fun instruction because the pilot you're working with already knows how to fly instruments, but he's rusty.
Most pilots put off the flight review until the very last minute. So, if you let it be known that you're available for flight reviews you can count on calls in the evening that go something like, "I just realized my flight review is overdue and I'm supposed to leave town tomorrow afternoon. Can you ride with me in the morning?"
For that kind of flight you can, and should, charge a premium. What's the old saying? "A lack of planning on your part shouldn't constitute a crisis on my part."
Complex, high-performance endorsements
Flight schools usually offer transition courses for both complex and high-performance endorsements, but it is a perfectly appropriate niche for the freelancer. Pilots seem to think you're a specialist if you're known for that kind of work. Unfortunately, getting the appropriate airplane can be a minor problem, since, as a freelancer, you or the student will have to rent, and in some places that's hard to do.
An alternative is to buy a complex/ high-performance airplane and set up a one-airplane operation. That increases the cost burden, but it also is a legitimate way to write off a good portion of the costs of a personally owned airplane (consult a tax professional if you have any questions or concerns). You'll need to conduct a good analysis of how many hours you have to fly to make up the difference between normal and commercial insurance. Most of the time, if the insurance company knows that you are giving only dual instruction and you're flying only with certificated pilots, the premium increase isn't too bad.
When you're analyzing your local area for instructional niches that aren't being serviced, don't go off the deep end. Don't, for example, jump into hot-air balloon instruction. There are other specialty areas that do make sense, especially if you're looking for a way to underwrite the cost of owning a specialty airplane.
- Aerobatics: Akro can be sold as an adventure for thrill-seekers, as upset training, or as formal aerobatic training. Aerobatics always has a certain amount of interest in the local pilot community, but the level is difficult to judge. It takes something around 30 to 40 hours a month to completely support the airplane, but it's possible. Something like a Citabria or Decathlon can be used for both aerobatics and tailwheel training.
- Tailwheel: There always seems to be a trickle of demand for tailwheel training. You can easily keep busy flying five or more hours a week, which translates to about 10 hours total invested. For many freelancers, that's plenty. In some areas-especially in the Sunbelt-if you do a little advertising you'll be turning students away.
Another possibility is to approach every flight school in the area and offer to provide spin training for their CFI candidates. That lets them off the hook because they probably don't like doing spins anyway, and it saves wear and tear on their gyros.
There are lots of creative ways to make money in the cockpit without investing in an airplane.
- Post-grad course. Offer a 10-hour course that includes lots of heavy crosswind landings-one of a new pilot's biggest worries. You can make the course as exotic as you want and include some serious short-field work or maybe some marginal VFR training. The more exotic you make it, the more popular it will become, and the more you can charge.
- Avionics training. Just about everyone who has ever tried to understand an instruction manual for any of the high-end avionics suites would be happy to buy a few hours of live instruction to shortcut their confusion. This could be a winning specialty, but you'll need to become intimately familiar with the very latest avionics boxes as they become available. You might even be able to promote the instruction through local avionics shops.
- Specialty checkouts. Some airplanes, especially the vintage birds like Globe Swifts, homebuilt airplanes, and some of the aerobatic specials (Pitts, for example), have enough of a questionable reputation that an instructor could set up a training operation focused on teaching students to really know and enjoy that specific airplane. This could even include in-depth, edge-of-the-envelope training in something like Beech Bonanzas or even Cessna 182s. The key is to focus on teaching every nuance of a given airplane. This, of course, assumes that you know all those nuances. Don't try to teach what you don't know.
Getting the word out
Here, too, the name of the game is to get creative. You can use a personal computer to make high-quality flyers and brochures that can be duplicated for pennies apiece. Done right, they make the amateur look like a pro. Done wrong, they have the reverse effect.
Face-to-face sales are always the most effective, but going door to door isn't the answer. Standing up and speaking to any group that will listen, however, does work. Every locale has a number of pilot organizations that meet periodically. These may be pilot associations, EAA chapters, or even an airport advocacy group. Come up with a compelling presentation and call around. Don't limit your efforts to your local airport; hit those in surrounding areas as well.
Print a bunch of postcard-sized, professionally designed notices on postcard stock. They should clearly tell what services you provide, and they should be on every bulletin board at every airport within an hour's flying time. If you're offering something special, like tailwheel checkouts or short-notice flight reviews, this is tremendously effective. People will travel to get unusual or need-it-right-now training.
Make sure the same verbiage that you have on your notice is running in the ad section of the local EAA or flying club newsletter. As a normal rule those are free.
Don't spend money on newspaper advertisements. Pilots seeking your services aren't going to look for them in the newspaper.
The Internet is rapidly becoming a major player in marketing specialty flight instruction. For one thing, it reaches out past your local area and makes you a national player, even though most customers will be local. Also, the various chat groups give you a forum in which you can raise your profile and let more people know you exist.
A well-designed Web site is important. In fact, you can use it as a calling card. If people want to know what you do, how much you charge, etc., just give them your URL. Make sure your business cards include it prominently.
As a freelancer, you have to visualize yourself as a small businessperson and act accordingly. Be professional in everything you do, be creative in your marketing approach, and you'll have more than enough work to keep you busy.
Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 36 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.
By Budd Davisson