Learning to fly most any aircraft requires you to work one-on-one with a professional pilot called a certificated flight instructor—which refers to the FAA credentials that this person must hold. You may have worked closely with an instructor when you learned to drive, scuba dive, ride a horse or any number of similar activities, so you know that choosing the right person to guide the way is critical to your success.
A flight instructor must go through a regimen of training that meets a number of specific standards, as well as pass two written exams and a practical test given by the FAA or other aviation authority. Any instructor who passes the initial level of qualification can train private pilots in the category and class (airplanes with one engine, for example) of their certificate. But the quality of training that person received—and what he or she has done with that experience—varies widely. You will find instructors who have gone through certification as relatively new pilots in order to advance towards a lifelong aviation career; or you may find older pilots who have taken on the role as instructor following thousands of hours flying as an airline or corporate pilot. You may also encounter a CFI who has made teaching their profession, one who has worked within a flight school or training organization for their career.
As a longtime instructor myself, I can assure you that each of these CFIs can give you a great learn-to-fly experience. Part of determining whether you have found a good instructor lies within your interaction with them, so I strongly recommend you interview a few candidates before you choose one.
The first instructor you work with could feel like the perfect match, but make sure that personality isn’t all that’s driving the relationship. Good instructors will demonstrate their attention to detail through use of a syllabus (or standard course of training), their preflight preparation, and feedback to you during the post-flight briefing. A couple of red flags: If an instructor takes you out to the airplane without any preflight discussion or ends the lesson when the engine stops and rushes on to the next student.
The best instructor does you no good if you cannot arrange time with them that fits your schedule. Some “high-demand” instructors fall into this category, and often, they can recommend someone of similar quality who can give you the attention you deserve.
You may hear that a good instructor charges more for their time or some instructors won’t charge you for ground-training time. It’s a false economy to follow this latter route because those instructors who value their time also tend to value yours and feel compelled to produce excellent results in a shorter overall period. You will not only end up saving money but also receive a richer training experience.
In a nutshell, there are five key areas to consider when choosing a great flight instructor.
Interview several instructors on the ground before you fly. You will spend a lot of time with this person; you probably won’t be best friends, but you should have a pleasant relationship. Talk with other clients as well to gain the full picture. Ask the instructors you interview questions about why they got into flying and why they chose to instruct at this given point in their careers. You could ask what percentage of the students they’ve taught passed on their first check-ride attempt, or how they intend to support a student who hits a plateau or pause in their study.
Go beyond personality and check attention to detail: Do they use a syllabus and assign you study material? Are they prepared for every flight? Do they conduct preflight and post-flight briefings? You can ask about the syllabus up front during your interview. If the answer is, “What syllabus?” then you can essentially take your business elsewhere. Even if the instructor uses one of their own creation—or the school’s—that’s an indication of structure within the training that will serve you well.
Ensure your instructor will stay available to train on your schedule, but be willing to try someone new who can deliver when you want to fly. If the instructor explained that he or she plans to move on at some point to the airlines or other jet job, ask how that transition will be handled. It’s not as much of a shock or interruption to your training if you both know and plan for the change in advance.
Expect to pay for all of the time the instructor spends with you—ground and flight instruction—just like you would any other professional, such as your attorney or doctor. Your time on the ground with the instructor can be of more value than the instruction given in flight—especially if your instructor uses a good debriefing tool to review the flight. There are several flight-tracking and associated programs on the market, so your instructor need not take many notes during the flight but still will be able to review each segment with you. It’s invaluable time spent when done right, and that’s why you should consider mentioning use of similar tools to your CFI if they don’t use them already.
Be open to an instructor who might not match your demographic but lets their quality of training shine through. Case in point: As a young pilot, I didn’t fly with another female pilot, of any age, until after I held a CFI ticket of my own. The decision was made for me because there were very few women flight instructing when and where I trained. My instructors did not look like me in the mirror, and a few were decades older than me. However, this never got in the way—so common ground can be found, even if you’re initially skeptical about your instructor’s age or background. Sometimes those differences make for enhanced training, as opposed to being a liability.
Regardless of whether you took the time to go through every step mentioned here, you could still run into a mismatch. We can help you with this, too, in “What If I Don’t Like My Instructor?” By following our advice, you can mitigate the chances of that happening—and focus on your training.
5 Ways to Find a Great Instructor
- Interview a few instructors before you settle on one.
- Look at the instructor’s use of learning tools, such as a syllabus and good briefings.
- Expect an instructor to be willing to train on your schedule.
- Treat your instructor as a professional in terms of their time—and yours.
- Be open to an instructor outside of your demographic.
This story appeared in the Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine