Darren Smith, Flight Instructor
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What  it Takes to Be a CFI

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, April 2006
CFI Navigation:  General Info CFI Certificate | CFI Ground School SyllabusTactics for the Professional CFI | Technical Presentations | Sample Budget while in Training | Things Flight Instructors Worry About | CFI Liability | What it Takes to Be a CFI | Advice to the New CFI | Learning Modality

If you build it, they will come.  Its the same with this website.  When I started it in 2002 with a simple 20 page business card for a renewed effort to do flight instruction full time, I never thought all these years later I'd be hearing from CFI hopefuls as well as newly certificated flight instructors all around the country.  The two central themes from these folks are:
1. what does it take to become a CFI and
2. how can I ever keep up with this now that I'm a CFI. 

A pilot's education starts with a predictable rhythm.  Study, lesson, review, study, lesson, review, study, written exam, lesson, review, review review, checkride. Phew. Its over.  After 2-3 more checkrides, these pilots start to think about the Ph.D of flying... the flight instructor certificate.  All the myths surrounding the CFI start to become fears.  The pilot who had never failed a checkride faces the thought of failure since this is the hardest certificate to get.  Unfortunately the stats back up some of the fear.  In one FSDO area, initial CFI applicants succeed only 18% of the time.  The pass rate is low for a few reasons.

The first reason for the low pass rate is that our industry wants this to be difficult.  This isn't the slam dunk of a private pilot certificate.  This certificate is different than all others.  It allows you to  train, endorse, sign-off, check, and examine students.  That's a whole lot of responsibility.  CFIs are the gatekeepers in the system.  Together with inspectors/examiners, we create the future airline captains who will fly our loved ones around.  As a result, we must use the very best methods to train these pilots.  See related article on CFI Liability for the level of professionalism required to do this job.

The second reason is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the certificate is meant to be. The CFI is not a pilot certificate, its a teaching certificate.  As such, the requirements include a thorough understanding of adult learning.  That curriculum in the FAA handbook, "Aviation Instructor's Handbook" (FAA-H-8083-9) as well as the FAA written test "Fundamentals of Instruction".  It takes a different kind of skill to teach flying, especially for low time pilots who are still trying to figure out some of the basics.  Flight instructors are very busy in the cockpit. The flight instructor's job includes 1) overall safety of the flight, 2) monitoring the student, 3) mentally flying the aircraft, 4) watching for traffic, and 5) actively teaching.

The third reason for low pass rates on the CFI checkride is an underestimation of what it takes.  While some pilots look at the flight instructor certificate as a stepping stone, the requirements of the rating demand a level of skill beyond the commitment of some CFI hopefuls.  This checkride requires the ultimate in preparation and quality training programs are rare and few.

Getting Started

Step One:  get the 2 written exams out of the way.

Step Two: a good start to studying for the CFI rating is to obtain the PTS for the Private, Commercial & CFI certificates.  Then get a hold of various FAA handbooks like the FAR/AIM, AC 00-6 Aviation Weather, AC 00-45 Aviation Weather Services, Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9), Aircraft Weight & Balance Hbk (FAA-H-8083-1), Student Pilot Handbook (FAA-H-8083-27), Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25), Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3A) and its predecessor AC 61-21, Flight Training Handbook. Along with these materials come a whole pile of advisory circulars which you can find online as you need them.  Start with the Private Pilot PTS and go through each page.  For each task, write down three possible oral exam questions and the answer with source information.  Do this for each task in the Private, Commercial and CFI PTS.    Other resources to put in your bag of tricks:
  • AOPA Instructional Safety
  • FAA AC61-65D Endorsements
  • FAA AC61-67 Stall/Spin awareness
  • FAA AC61-91H Pilot Proficiency Award Wings
  • FAA AC 90-66A Airport Traffic Patterns
  • FAA AC61-98A Pilot Currency
  • FAA AC 90-42F Radio Procedures
Step Three:  Get a copy of Jeppesen's Private Pilot Manual.  Read it cover to cover.  Memorize certain sections.  Sleep with it under your pillow.  Take it to the beach.  Open it at lunch.  Take the review questions from each chapter and do two things: 
1. practice answering it orally, then
2. go back to the books and find the official FAA answer, write it down with the source.

Step Four:  Get right seat proficient in all the private pilot and commercial maneuvers.

That's just a start.  Now you can enter one of the accelerated training programs with confidence you'll succeed. Now that we've answered the first question lets answer the second question.

Staying On Top of Your Game

After working so hard to obtain your flight instructor certificate, there is a real danger of losing it all. Add to it the uncertainty, the lack of confidence in what you're doing, and the performance anxiety and you've got a real basket of problems.   The fears are reality and demonstrated by the author of this email:

I am writing to you for advice. I am a brand new CFI having my certificate for six months now. I have a full time day job and instruct evenings and weekends. The problem is I often sometimes feel like I am a fake or a fraud. I know that my FAA inspector was very thorough and did not just give me the certificate. I feel confident enough in my own flying abilities, I just sometimes doubt myself as an instructor. Many times when I meet other more seasoned instructors I feel that they are so much more knowledgeable about material  which can be intimidating. I find myself often having to look up ground school material myself before a lesson because of disuse of the material. It seems like some of the other instructors never forget anything that they learned in the past. I just want to be the best that I can possibly be and feel confident about it. Thanks, Roy

In order to overcome these challenges, Roy needs to plug into two things:  1. a resource/support system and 2. his career as a flight instructor.  One of the things I learned early on is the need to connect with other flight instructors as colleagues.  They are a source of information, challenge, and help.  Another thing I learned early on was, "Every dollar you will ever make is because of a relationship."  Building those relationships with superiors, colleagues, students, and customers is a way to build and strengthen your network.  That network can be more important than all of your skills because of the resources you'll need.  The second need is to connect with your career as a flight instructor.  Your primary mission is to provide the very best flight instruction possible.  To do that, there are six primary areas of concentration in your efforts to further your career:
  • Safety
  • Marketing
  • Teaching Excellence
  • Personal Excellence
  • Business Practices
  • Future Career Growth
Ideas for developing yourself in each of these six areas is presented in the related article: Tactics for the Professional CFI .

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All content is Copyright 2002-2010 by Darren Smith. All rights reserved. Subject to change without notice. This website is not a substitute for competent flight instruction. There are no representations or warranties of any kind made pertaining to this service/information and any warranty, express or implied, is excluded and disclaimed including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability and/or fitness for a particular purpose. Under no circumstances or theories of liability, including without limitation the negligence of any party, contract, warranty or strict liability in tort, shall the website creator/author or any of its affiliated or related organizations be liable for any direct, indirect, incidental, special, consequential or punitive damages as a result of the use of, or the inability to use, any information provided through this service even if advised of the possibility of such damages. For more information about this website, including the privacy policy, see about this website.