Safety Publications/Articles


The Freelance CFI

Why does the world look down upon the word freelance? If you attach the word freelance to anything, it seems as if the perceived quality of the final term is lowered.

Whether it's a freelance instructor, a free-lance writer, a freelance house painter, or a freelance anything, the world sees the word freelance and has some sort of irrational psychological response to it that primes people to look for faults in the individual's performance. It's almost as if they are thinking, Freelance? If he was any good, wouldn't he have a regular job doing this? Of course, freelance means a lot of things, and it doesn't necessarily mean part-time. Perhaps independent instructor is a better term.

Freelance flight instructing, whether full-time or part-time, has to be approached as if it is a job just like any other. The only difference is in the work schedule. In fact, you may be able to walk away from your regular job at five o'clock and not think about it again until the next morning. The freelancer's mind - especially that of those doing it full time - is never completely off the clock. The line between job and life is blurred to the point of no distinction.

Most freelance flight instructors, however, have a regular day job and instruct part-time. This may well be the best of both worlds because they have a paycheck that gives them the financial freedom to teach flying on the side. However, no one should ever view part-time flight instructing as something that you shut out of your mind when you're not doing it. Teaching someone to move about in the third dimension is about as serious as you can get. You have to approach each hour with the goal that your students will walk away saying they just received the best flight instruction they've ever had.

There are two sides to the freelance coin: the student and the instructor. It's important to structure your freelance activities in a way that permits both you and your student to come away with exactly what you expect out of the time spent. If it isn't balanced, then one side will feel cheated. You have to come away with enough money and personal satisfaction that you feel as if the time was well invested. The student has to feel as if all of your focus was on making him a better pilot and he should see measurable progress in his abilities. Within certain limits, if you give superlative instruction, the student won't object to a higher hourly fee. If, however, you give lackluster instruction, no fee is low enough that the student won't feel cheated.

There are some key concepts, over and above the flight instruction itself, that can help a freelance instructor not only be more successful at what he does, but also minimize the stigma of being a freelancer and not part of an established flight school.

Code Of Conduct

A freelance instructor has to hold himself to a higher standard of conduct. If an instructor at a flight school is late, the student just chalks it off to a tight flight schedule. If a freelancer is late, the student chalks it off as typical freelancer behavior. If a flight school instructor is dressed a little sloppily, the student just thinks he's a slob. If a freelancer does the same thing, it reflects on the type of instruction that the student expects from him. Here's a checklist of guidelines to make the freelancer appear more professional.

  • Timeliness - don't be late. If you are running late, call your student and give him or her a head's up.
  • Dress neatly - be clean and well-pressed and don't wear a T shirt that says "No Fat Chicks." A tie, however, may be overkill.
  • Organize your instruction - don't ask, "Now, what was it we covered last time?" Keep a notebook that chronicles each student so you don't lose track.
  • Schedule realistically - if this is a part-time gig for you, lots of other things (family, job, etc.) are vying for your time so make sure you can keep the schedule you've set for your student.
  • Charge competitively - if a person is using you, as opposed to a regular school, it may be because you either offer something he can't get elsewhere or her schedule won't let her work with a regular school. Either way you have a right to charge at least what local schools charge and maybe a little more.
  • Clarify charges ahead of time - don't surprise the student with an extra charge for ground school or anything else that wasn't discussed. Have your charges in hard copy form and make sure your students have it before the first lesson so there are no surprises.
  • Don't fudge the charges - read the Hobbs or your watch fairly and make sure the student knows whether or not you're rounding up to the next tenth.

Highly Developed Work Ethic

Freelancers don't have the luxury of being able to choose their hours - not if they want to prosper. A freelancer has to schedule his days and/or weekends at the whims of his client base. This means one of two things: Either he or she forfeits control of his life, which is necessary to maximize income, or he sets certain time parameters, e.g. "I'm sorry, but I don't instruct on Sundays," knowing it is costing him money. Sometimes it's a tough call.

Even tougher, especially for the part-timer, is the pressure of working two jobs and living two lives. When you leave your day job, you may be pretty beat up and not crazy about facing a student in an airplane. This presents another tough call: It's not good to instruct when your brain is frazzled, but at the same time you knowingly scheduled the flight at a time when you knew eight hours of your brain's duration would already be used up. Does this mean you schedule only on weekends? Maybe.

But what about your family? What about your social life? These are all part of the "fun" of part-time flight instruction. Something has to give and, if you're going to be a professional, it can't be your student, so you must schedule accordingly - but still manage to keep harmony in your household.

Financial Astuteness

You will not be making enough money as a primary flight instructor. That is a basic fact of life that's difficult, or nearly impossible, to change. You can, however, mitigate the damage through pricing and scheduling.

If you live an average distance from the airport (let's say 20 minutes) and you schedule one hour with one student, it's going to take you about 2.2 hours to fly that one hour, including drive time to the airport, preflight briefing, post-flight briefing, getting in the airplane, etc. If you're charging $25 an hour, that means you just made $11.36 an hour for the time invested. What does your local Burger King pay? Maybe flight instruction doesn't make sense. What if you bump it to $35 an hour? Now you're at $15.90 and barely out of the slave labor category.

What if you schedule two students back-to-back? That eliminates 40 minutes of drive time and 15 minutes of readying the airplane. Now you're putting about 3.5 hours into two hours of flight instruction and at $35/hour you're making $20 an hour. Feels a lot better, doesn't it? Now what if you fly 1.1 hour per hop rather than one hour? You just got a raise to $22 per hour. Fly three students and it jumps to $23 per hour or more.

And then there are the tax implications. Although we're not experts in the field, if you're driving to the airport to give instruction, the mileage is probably deductible. Part of your home office may be de-ductible. Money spent on aviation reference books certainly applies, as do rental fees for airplanes for proficiency flights. Talk to your accountant about this. Smart tax accounting could yield a sizeable addition to the whole flight instruction bundle.

Oh, by the way: Fight the urge to take payments in cash in the hopes that you'll dodge Uncle Sam. Bad idea! The taxes are small, and the resulting peace of mind is huge. Just be smart and don't give old Sam any more than his fair share.

Marketing Your Skills

Word of mouth is a lousy way to get students as a freelancer. It takes forever to build up a local reputation, and even then, they won't come knocking on your door often. Instead, get proactive and go looking for students. At the same time, look at the market and think about ways you can approach it differently.

Giving primary flight instruction is often the hardest way to go because that puts you nose-to-nose with the local flight schools. Besides, giving someone his or her private pilot certificate on a part-time basis is a long, drawn-out commitment. It's often better to seek some narrow niche instruction where the competition is less and where it is usually possible to charge a premium for your services. We'll first discuss some of the niche markets, then suggest ways to reach them.

  • Biennial flight reviews - Giving BFRs is a quick and easy way to schedule a few hours. And you know every pilot in the area needs the service. Set yourself up as the easy-to-reach, always-available, go-to person for a BFR.
  • Instrument currency/copilot - Giving an entire instrument rating is a long commitment often impossible to keep on a part-time schedule. However, if every instrument pilot in the area knew you were available to give a few hours of proficiency training or an instrument proficiency check, it would be much easier to schedule. Also, just offering to fly copilot with newly rated instrument pilots on their first actual instrument flights would let them see you as offering a security blanket until they're ready to do it on their own.
  • Multiengine training - All short-term ratings like the multi ticket are good to do, but in this case, you might have to either buy or lease an airplane or work out a deal with a local rental outfit.
  • Tailwheel endorsements - Get yourself a low-buck, Citabria 7ECA and there's a good chance you'd be the only tailwheel training school in your area. Ditto basic aerobatics. It's a lot more complicated than using someone else's airplane, but the airplane will pay for itself. Of course, this assumes you're capable of instructing in a taildragger and can get appropriate insurance.
  • Spin training - No, you don't need parachutes and you don't need an aerobatic airplane, but you do need access to a spinnable airplane. This could be tied in with tailwheel endorsement training.
  • Specialty avionics - We're aware of a handful of freelance CFIs who have developed excellent reputations - and command top dollar - for training owners in the operation of high-end panel-mount avionics, like the new Garmin and UPS Aviation Technologies stacks. And then there's the question of how you tell people you're in business. This will require some imagination on your part.
  • BFRs - Since every pilot needs the service, the more folks you talk to, the better. Hand out your card at meetings of the local pilot group, flying club, or EAA chapter. Go to all fly-ins and safety seminars and spread the word. Make up professional-looking, but small, announcements and put them on every bulletin board on every airport in the area. Watch incoming e-mails for pilot e-mail addresses and send out periodic e-mails letting them know that you exist.
  • Instrument currency - A lot of the above applies to marketing your instrument instruction, but you can also spend a Sunday collecting N numbers of instrument-type airplanes, researching their owners through the FAA database, and mailing them postcards offering your services. The same goes for marketing your multiengine currency skills.
  • Tailwheel endorsements - Many local flight schools might like to offer you students for this type of training in exchange for a cut. Also, if you set yourself up to teach spins and upset training, which most flight schools don't like to do, you may find yourself spinning your brains out fulfilling their CFI students' needs for the spin logbook entry.
  • Specialty avionics - Your local avionics shops are an excellent source of referrals. In fact, you may be doing them a favor, as most shops are not staffed to provide a lot of training support. But master these new boxes first if you want to succeed.

Being a freelance anything is an adventure in insecurity, but it is also one of the most interesting and often rewarding forms of flying. Unless you chose to, you're never doing the same thing, day after day. You can choose the type of flying that you want to do by defining the niches in which you want to operate.

Freelancing does have its downsides. For one thing, you're not covered by anyone's insurance; there's no health plan or workers compensation; and you have none of the safety nets offered by a regular job. You have to provide those yourself. At the same time, however, you can't be fired. For many, that offers a security of its own that, when combined with the satisfaction of doing a good job and doing it your way, makes every aggravation worth it.

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

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