If you haven’t noticed, the regional airlines are facing a massive shortage of pilots. Most new hires are instructors at colleges, academies, and local flight schools, and flight schools know those instructors will be gone in fewer than two years. Having quality instructors who can be relied upon to stay at the school and offer some continuity is a dream many schools are unable to fulfill. Retired pilots are a great source of untapped potential.
Getting back into instructing is not difficult. If you were a flight instructor before flying for the airlines and have let your instructor certificates expire, the FAA requires that you take a checkride to reinstate the privileges. There’s no need to take a knowledge test, and no minimum training time is required. If you’ve never instructed, you’ll have to start from the beginning. That means taking the flight instructor and fundamentals of instructing knowledge tests, and a checkride. Although it could change at any time, currently the FAA is assigning CFI checkride applicants to local designated pilot examiners.
Instructors with current certificates have the easiest avenue. You can simply show up and start teaching. But it’s not a bad idea to take a CFI refresher course to make sure you are current on the regulations, airspace, TSA requirements, and all the other general aviation minutiae that you likely ignored from your Boeing 737 cockpit.
It’s also important to get reacquainted with light aircraft. David Johnson retired from Continental Airlines during its merger with United in 2010, and got back into instructing about a year ago. “It’s been interesting to learn to not flare at 50 feet or go down final at 140 knots,” he said. Usually only a few hours is required to become comfortable again, although certain things will always be different from the structure of a professional flying operation.
Johnson said the most difficult part of the transition back to general aviation is the different attitudes on safety, weather, and operations. “The airlines are much more safety conscious, and more conservative about maintenance and weather. GA pilots are more willing to accept—or maybe they don’t recognize—risk.” He mentioned the difference in response to something simple such as a cockpit light. At the airlines he would write up the squawk, call maintenance, and it would be fixed. In GA he said the first question in that case is always, “Can we fly without it?”
Flight school owner and retired FedEx pilot Ken Hammerton welcomes retired pilots into his instructor ranks, although he cautions that it sometimes isn’t what they expect. Hammerton explained that at the airlines, everything is made to ensure the flight crews are taken care of, so the flights run as scheduled. The hotels are nice, the shuttles are prearranged, there are wake-up calls, and the maintenance and dispatch are done in advance. “The airline pilot is spoiled,” he said. At the school, “We have to work!”
The rewards can make the work worthwhile. Hammerton spends most of his time running the school and doing stage checks, but he enjoys watching students develop over time. The school took on international students during the recent downturn, and today it still has students from Asia, Africa, and a few from Europe. “When you think of a kid coming from another country and English isn’t their primary language, they come here inexperienced and leave multiengine instructors. To see them evolve is really gratifying for us.”
Johnson instructed prior to flying professionally, and he said even then he enjoyed it. He loves being around aviation again. And now he gets to set his schedule and do the type of instruction he finds most rewarding. Most important, he feels like he is giving back. “It’s good to know that the knowledge I gathered isn’t just flushed because I retired. It’s still useful.
“Plus,” he said, “It beats sitting on the couch watching CNN or Fox News all day.”
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