From Student to Sensei: On Becoming a Flight Instructor

The most common and traditional approach to finding work as a low-time pilot is to get your flight-instructor certificates and start teaching other new pilots to fly. Pixabay

One of the most challenging chapters of an aviation career comes right after earning one's commercial pilot license. You've just invested a lot of time and effort and a whole lot of money into successfully completing your flight training, yet your license alone is not enough for many flying jobs. To build your experience and advance your career, you must first find work as a low-time pilot. There are several options, but the most common and traditional approach is to get your flight-instructor certificates and start teaching other new pilots to fly.

One of the chief advantages of instructing is that it is possible to build flight time very quickly, especially at busy flight schools in areas with good weather. You may have opportunities to fly complex, high-performance and multiengine aircraft. The experience is surprisingly valuable; you learn a great deal through the process of teaching various subjects and observing and correcting others' mistakes. It is remarkably satisfying to see your students struggle and succeed as you mold them into capable aviators. On the downside, instructing tends to pay less than other flying jobs, the hours can be long and irregular, and student pilots are virtually guaranteed to put you in uncomfortable situations from time to time.

Effective instructors must have several underlying qualities. They must be capable communicators who are able to break down and explain complex subjects in easily understood sentences. They must be infinitely patient. They must be sensitive to their students' needs and willing to put them above their own comfort and convenience. They must be neither prone to conflict nor shy about giving constructive criticism. They must maintain a high level of knowledge, but be humble enough to admit when they do not know something. They must be able to remain continuously vigilant while appearing calm and confident in their students' abilities. If this does not describe you, there is no shame in concluding that flight instructing is not your thing and seeking an alternate path. There are a number of other jobs open to low-time pilots: banner towing, skydiver driving, aircraft ferrying, and pipeline and fire patrol, to name a few.

The first step to teaching is earning one's flight instructor certificate, or CFI. This involves learning to fly from the right seat, learning to teach and increasing one's aviation knowledge to a "Ph.D." level. There are several written tests, and the CFI oral and practical exam are considered among the hardest check rides in all of aviation. Many choose also to train for their instrument instructor (CFII) and multiengine instructor (MEI) certificates immediately afterward; others wait until they have some instructing experience. The CFII and MEI are not as difficult to earn as the initial CFI, and they are valuable for getting hired at the busiest flight schools.

Once you have your instructor certificates, you can either hang out your shingle at the nearest airport or apply for a job at a flight school. Independent instructors usually make a better hourly rate but tend to fly far less unless they enjoy a strong reputation or develop a niche. There are frequent job openings for instructors at local FBOs, collegiate aviation programs and busy flight schools that specialize in accelerated instruction. When choosing where to apply, consider not only pay and benefits but also how much you can expect to fly, the school's safety record and whether it operates complex and multiengine aircraft. Hunt down one or two current instructors and get their opinion. Are they happy instructing there?

You will never forget your first few hours of instructing - you'll feel like the blind leading the blind! It's important to take it slow and be extra thorough. Be honest with your students about your experience level, and let them know this means you may be more conservative than other instructors. Seek out senior instructors and get their feedback. Better yet, your school might have a formal mentorship program. Over time, you will gain confidence and instructing will feel much more natural. When this happens, it is easy to let your guard down. Stay vigilant! It is far too easy for your career to take a terrible turn in the blink of an eye. Don't let the siren song of an approaching airline job distract you from the important job at hand. Your students deserve your undivided attention.

Some people enjoy instructing so much that they never leave. Others move on to greener pastures but keep their hard-earned CFI certificates current and do a little instructing on the side. With the right approach, you'll enjoy your time as an instructor, you'll build valuable experience and years later you will look back on your teaching years fondly. There are few more pleasurable experiences in aviation than watching your former students grow and blossom as they pursue their own aviation careers and hobbies.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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