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Oops, I became a CFI

I wanted to do something "interesting"

Some folks dream of a career as a child and, through years of careful planning and hard work, realize success. I especially admire such organized people because I’m definitely not one of them. Early on, my professional goals were simple: Don’t sit at a desk; do something interesting.
Illustration by Dan Page
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Illustration by Dan Page

In college I chose to study mathematics despite no inkling of where that might lead. A friend invited me to take an actuarial exam, and since I had no better plan that Saturday morning, I joined her. That was rather fun, so I decided I would become an actuary. But the weekend I graduated, one of my professors pulled me into his office and said, “You really ought to go to graduate school.” After I said I’d consider applying the following year, he insisted, “No, you need to go now.” In front of me, he picked up the phone and called the graduate director at his own alma mater, and by the time he put the phone down he said, “You’re going!” Six weeks later, I started my graduate studies, which led to life as a mathematics professor. I remain grateful for the invitation that changed my life in such a wonderful and profound way.

I teach at Sewanee: The University of the South, one of the very few liberal arts colleges (to date I’ve only found one other) in the country that has an airport on its campus. While I only intended to fly privately with my family, I earned an instrument rating and commercial certificate as a way of upping my skills for a life of safe flying. One day my mentor Bill Kershner, an aerobatics instructor based at my airport, said, “Why don’t you become a flight instructor?” I loved studying aviation as well as the idea of sharing it with others, so I took his suggestion and earned my CFI certificate just one year after the private with no real plan beyond that.

Bill introduced me to the faculty at the University of Tennessee Space Institute where I helped with research projects, served as a spin demonstration pilot, and took graduate classes in aeronautical engineering. Seeing mathematical applications in aviation made me fall in love with mathematics all over again, and I’ve since incorporated them in my classes at the university.

I get a front-row seat to see the wonderful instruction that happens. Alas, sometimes I am also left disappointed.During that time, I flew with Bill regularly because I thought he needed me to be pilot in command, as he didn’t have a medical certificate. I didn’t realize he was preparing me to take the reins and continue the tradition of aerobatic instruction at Sewanee. Since his passing in 2007, I have had the most amazing experience flying with everyone from student pilots to professional pilots, and many have become my friends. My “job”—a term that just doesn’t seem right—is to constantly learn more about aviation and find interesting ways to share that with others. To be sure, I learn from every student I have.

I am the world’s luckiest person to have bumbled my way into such a fun and satisfying career. Every day I do something different, and I get to dive into new topics and delight in my own “aha” moments as much as those I encourage for others. And, most important to the earlier me, I don’t often find myself sitting at a desk—and I do interesting things.

Have you thought of becoming a flight instructor? When I make that suggestion, I often hear pilots say, “There is just so much to know!” Yes, that’s true, but you don’t have to know it all. I enjoy the idea that there is always something new to learn. Curiosity is the potential for knowledge, and the learning process is exciting. “I have no idea—let’s look that up!” demonstrates a healthful approach to students, and in no time you’ll be surprised at all you do know.

I also hear, “I just don’t have the time to be a full-time CFI.” Well, you don’t have to. Specialized courses are often shorter-term commitments but are still very much needed in aviation. Courses like spins, aerobatics, emergency-upset training, tailwheel, mountain flying, technically advanced avionics, IFR finish-ups, and real-world IFR experiences are just a few of the areas that are perfect for the part-time instructor.

As a designated examiner now, I get a front-row seat to see the wonderful instruction that happens. Alas, sometimes I am also left disappointed. Often aviation has it backward, as flight instruction is seen as a steppingstone to a professional flying career. It’s not that excellent instruction can’t happen this way; rather sometimes it just doesn’t. As flight instructors, we are aviation’s ambassadors. We show how aviation can provide a rewarding career or an exciting addition to another one.

I invite you to consider adding flight instructor to your own “jobs.” Perhaps you’ll relate to my story or be inspired by another flight instructor in your community who also accepted the invitation and became an “accidental CFI.” What are you waiting for?

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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