Pilots like talking about flying almost as much as flying itself. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way that pilots could actually get paid to talk about flying? There is—all you have to do is become a ground instructor.
Ground instructors are covered under Subpart I of FAR Part 61 (see 61.211 to 61.217). They may perform ground training in the aeronautical knowledge areas required for a pilot certificate, for flight reviews, and they may provide recommendations for know-ledge tests. They are authorized, within the limitations of their ratings, to endorse the logbook or other training record of a person to whom they have provided the ground training or recommendation.
The largest demand for ground instructors is in teaching ground school courses. Flight instructors, as a rule, prefer to fly rather than spend time teaching in a classroom—and flight schools often hire ground instructors to work the academic side of instruction. Ground school classes are commonly held in the evening, when more students are available to attend. The length of the course may vary, but 14 to 16 weeks is typical.
Teaching ground school is personally rewarding as well as practical. You share in the experience of helping people learn to fly. Sometimes students will ask questions or share concerns with a ground school instructor that they are afraid to discuss with their flight instructor, and the ground instructor assumes the duties of an armchair psychologist, best friend, cheerleader, or parent. A ground instructor also will learn about flying from his or her students. They will ask questions to which you don’t know the answer. Why isn’t pressure in a venturi higher instead of lower? Why isn’t the length of the shortest runway of an airport published on a sectional chart—wouldn’t a pilot want to know more about that than the longest runway?
When you don’t know the answer, say so—and get the answer for next time. Students will be surprised at first that you may not be able to answer every question, and some questions may not have a precise answer. Indeed, teaching them that not everything in flying is formulaic and there are gray areas is part of the course, even if it’s not on the syllabus.
There are several more tangible benefits. The first, of course, is pay. Usually this is not terribly high, particularly if you count the hours spent preparing for lectures when you probably are compensated only for the time spent in in the classroom. The good news here is that the more often you teach the same course, the less time you have to spend preparing, so your “pay rate” goes up with experience—sort of.
Teaching a ground school course also will make you a better pilot. When was the last time you reviewed how to recover from a spin? Or thought about light gun signals? Precisely calculated the distance required for a takeoff roll? Being a ground instructor will force you to keep current on knowledge areas that otherwise may become rusty. And you’ll have to know everything in greater detail than you did when you took your private, instrument, or commercial checkride—the level of explanation that will suffice with an examiner on checkride day will not cut it in a classroom.
So, what do you need to do in order to earn a ground instructor certificate and exercise the privileges thereof? In addition to the typical FAA requirements (be at least 18 years of age and be able to read, write, and speak English), you must pass at least two FAA knowledge tests—or more, depending on the certificate you wish to earn. For the basic ground instructor certificate you must pass the Ground Instructor—Basic Knowledge Test as well as the Fundamentals of Instructing Knowledge Test. If you are a teacher or otherwise meet the requirements in Part 61.213, you are exempt from the latter exam.
An advanced ground instructor certificate requires a few additional test questions, and is a good investment of your time. With the advanced certificate, you gain additional privileges—such as being able to provide ground training in the aeronautical knowledge areas for any rating under Part 61, except for an instrument rating (that requires an instrument ground instructor rating). You'll need an endorsement from an “authorized instructor” to get started; thereafter, show employment as an instructor every 12 months—or take an approved flight instructor renewal course.
Just as flight instructors spend a considerable amount of time studying how people learn and how best to teach them, the same principles apply to ground instruction. An excellent reference to study is the FAA's Aviation Instructor’s Handbook; commercial publishers produce similar texts.
The typical ground school class. A ground school course typically is taught in a classroom environment, using a lecture format. If speaking to an audience is something you’re comfortable with, talking to a classroom full of student pilots should present no problems. But if this intimidates you, tools such as public speaking classes will help. Check out the course catalog from your local community college and sign up. (Consider using those speech class assignments to develop actual ground school lectures, so you can gain feedback from class members. You also might generate some interest in flying lessons among your classmates.)
Rehearsing lectures is invaluable. Present your talk to other pilots or school personnel first, and solicit their opinions. Another good way to gauge your effectiveness is to video record a practice (or real) session. Technology plays an increasing role in any type of academic instruction. What used to be accomplished with text or simple images gave way to video and now is also available in user-interactive formats on computer, with increasing amounts being delivered online. Classroom instruction has also advanced and, depending on the sophistication of the flight school you work with, you may need some training in order to utilize the available technology. On the other hand, most primary flight schools are not exactly rolling in money; a black/white board and an overhead projector could be the extent of what’s available.
Finding a job. So you’ve passed the knowledge tests, assembled a syllabus, and stocked up on visual aids (see “Show and Tell,” this page). You’re ready to roll. Where do you start? First, check with flight schools in your area. Larger institutions, particularly those operating under Part 141, will have ground schools. They may have the entire syllabus and support materials ready to go—all you will need to do is get familiar with their setup.
Smaller flight schools will have less formal arrangements, or may not have a ground school program at all. Also, don’t think there’s no need or demand for a ground instructor if a class is already in the works—a flight instructor teaching such a class may be more than willing to turn the class over to a ground instructor.
A small flight school without a ground school course can be a good opportunity—or a challenge. If no ground school is being taught, the reason may be that nobody is interested in teaching one—in spite of demand. Other flight schools prefer to have their flight instructors provide individual ground training. In this instance a prospective ground instructor can present some crunched numbers to make a good case, because a ground school can cover the academic aspects of flight instruction for much less, lowering the cost of a pilot certificate and thus increasing the prospective customer base.
Some flight schools, particularly those with rental aircraft as well as flight training devices, may offer a “pay once, come back as often as you like” approach. The incentive here is that students who already have their ratings can come back to class for refresher training, which makes them safer pilots when renting airplanes.
In addition to selling the need for the class, you may have to sell yourself as an instructor. Like a CFI, a ground instructor will be teaching people about flying, and poor teaching could contribute to a serious accident. A flight school should check the qualifications of its employees carefully; if one doesn’t, you probably don’t want to be associated with it.
A flight school may not be willing to hire you if you’re just starting out. Offer to assist the instructor currently teaching the class. Instructors can always use help with tasks ranging from helping students gather weather information to planning cross-countries, and tutoring. Do well in this role and the flight school will remember you as the person to hire the next time it needs a ground school instructor.
Somewhere there’s a flight school that needs you. Start studying for the knowledge tests and putting together lesson plans. Teaching ground schools and tutoring students is not to be taken lightly—teaching anyone about flying is a serious business—but done properly, it should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. And you’ll be a better pilot for it.