Thinking about becoming a pilot? Anyone who wants to fly needs to be taught by a competent instructor. If you’re not in the military, you get to choose who will teach you, and it’s a much bigger decision that it first seems to be. Like in all things, you can have a great flight instructor or horrible one, and it makes a world of a difference.
Remember back to middle school or earlier. You had some instructors who were great and others who should have been run out of the school five minutes after they entered their first classroom. This same level of variability exists among flight instructors.
Before getting into the characteristics of a horrible or great flight instructor, let’s consider briefly the two main types of flight instructors.
The most common type of flight instructors you’ll run across are Certified Flight Instructors, commonly known as “CFIs.” These people are legal to teach you everything you need to know to get your pilot’s license. This includes the part of pilot training that’s done on the ground and that in the air, too.
Ground school includes aerodynamics, meteorology, procedures, dealing with emergencies, and regulations. The latter include everything from how often an airplane needs it engine inspected to when you may fly without using a radio to what kinds of airspace aren’t legal for your flight.
Flight training includes everything within the airplane, whether it’s on the ground, rolling on that ground, or in the air. Obviously, flight training includes how to fly the airplane, but also how to interpret the instruments, how to “fit in” with other air traffic, and much more.
CFIs have the power to sign you off for solo and, more importantly, to sign you off to take a flight test for your license. By the way, sometimes a license is called a “certificate.”
Other types of instructors include Ground Instructors, who are empowered to teach ground school but not to do actual, in-airplane Flight Training. Ground instructors can sign you off to take written aviation tests.
This article will only consider CFIs.
What Makes a Great Flight Instructor?
Lots of elements go into making a great flight instructor, so we will discuss a few of them here.
All pilots are required to keep current in several areas, and CFIs also have special currency requirements. To be “current” means that the pilot or CFI must have experienced or be tested on certain things within a specified time period prior to flying. If a CFI is not current in everything required of him or her, he is not legally permitted to instruct.
Main areas of pilot currency include flying time and experiences, aviation knowledge, medical status, and passenger-carrying minimum requirements. Here’s an example of a passenger-related requirement: For a pilot to take one or more passengers flying in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions, the pilot must have made three takeoffs and landings within the previous 90 days. Can a person fly as pilot-in-command without having made these takeoffs and landings? Sure. But that pilot may not have a passenger in the airplane.
There are additional requirements for pilots authorized to fly under IFR (under Instrument Flight Rules). Most CFIs are so authorized, so they must be IFR current, too.
A great flight instructor will communicate well with their students. Particularly in aviation, if you are not perfectly clear about what your CFI has said, you need to clarify immediately. That happens once in a while, but if it is habitual, you might consider looking for someone else to help you learn to fly.
Here’s an example: I once had a particularly-interesting CFI (she was the first female pilot of a Goodyear blimp). We were on an instrument flight, and she looked out the window to check for any ice accretions. The great thing is that she verbalized what she was doing rather than simply checking and leaving it like that. This is part of the finesse a CFI can exhibit if they are a great flight instructor
Not all CFI-to-student communication sounds like normal human communication. Sometimes the CFI must scream at you! Why?
Flying requires an extreme ability to concentrate and to multitask, and this is real multitasking. The pilot must divide his or her attention into what are called “timeslices” (a word I borrowed from computer engineering) so several simultaneous events are controlled by the one pilot-in-command.
The concentration required to do this is so intense sometimes that the pilot cannot process auditory input from the CFI. Translation: The pilot may not hear what the CFI has said (maybe something like “you need to put in flaps now or the airplane could drop out of the air”). So even a great flight instructor must break through this concentration by screaming. BTW, it works!
Learning to fly requires many hours of instruction. Being in the cockpit with someone you can’t stand can interfere materially with your ability to learn to fly. Even though considering “caring” as a desirable CFI characteristic sounds a little touchy-feely, it affects noticeably one’s progress and satisfaction with the rather demanding task of learning to fly. This extra touch can separate a great flight instructor from the rest of the pack.
It should go without saying that the CFI needs to be at least good, if not a great flight instructor. He or she must be able to impart the knowledge and experiences for the student so one learns how to do things properly. At the same time, the CFI must be able to fly that airplane and operate all of its systems competently to do things like demonstrate systems or even to save the day if the student does something really stupid or dangerous.
Unlike renting a car at Hertz, pilots cannot simply go to an airplane rental outfit, pay money, and grab an airplane and take off. One must “check out” in each airplane one wants to fly, and that’s always done by a CFI.
I had a CFI once who did not know a major function of the autopilot of the airplane in which I was checking out, and I lost a lot of advantages as a result of having to figure the stuff out on my own, after my check-out flight, with nothing but some poor written guidance.
There’s an elite group of flight instructors in the USA who are credited as Gold Seal Flight Instructors. These people have exhibited a very high level of flight training activity and meet stringent criteria set by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). It isn’t easy finding a Gold Seal Flight Instructor, but if you can get one, you’ll be in great hands. That said, they don’t necessarily need this certification to be a great flight instructor in their own right.
What Makes a Horrible CFI?
I know, this is the section you really wanted to read. Fasten your seat belt.
Obviously, a horrible CFI can be someone who fails at any of the above positive characteristics (except the Gold Seal designation – these are very difficult to achieve, and few CFIs are in a position to apply for it). But there are so many ways to be bad that I want to share with you some experiences I have had as a pilot flying with horrible CFIs. Before that, please note that, for the most part, I have flown with a great flight instructor. I’m just going to describe some of those who did not make the grade.
Private pilots must be re-tested every two years; it’s called a BFR (Biennial Flight Review). Not too many years ago, I needed my BFR and began with an apparently-highly-qualified CFI. For the ground component of the BFR, this CFI sat by his desk and fired questions at me of great, obvious import (like going over airspace designations and requirements) and what seemed like trivia (like what a particular esoteric map symbol meant). For some questions, I did not know the answer, so I asked him what the answer was. He did not know. Several times. I was not impressed.
I have also been in situations where I would ask a CFI an aviation-related question and he or she would tell me that he/she did not know the answer. That is good! The great flight instructor will later find and report the answer, and does not claim aeronautical knowledge falsely.
Instrument pilots must meet certain recency requirements. For just one example, to be instrument-current, an instrument-rated pilot must have flown at least one holding pattern within the last six months. If an instrument pilot does not meet all such requirements, the pilot must “get current.” One way to do this is to take an IPC (Instrument Proficiency Check) with a CFI. I signed up to do that.
The CFI I got, with whom I had never flown, decided that all holds must be hand-flown (no use of autopilot). That part was okay; it’s the way most IPCs happen anyway. But he also decided that all holds had to be completed within 5 seconds of the target time. On a windy day. Since there are virtually always rather inconsistent winds aloft, there is always some variation between the target time and the actual time. Not for this CFI. He had me fly over 15 holds until I accidentally nailed the time. Some of my holds that failed his criterion were on the order of 7 seconds off instead of 5. A great flight instructor would understand that differing conditions changes things in real time, however this particular instructor did not.
This was what I would call obsessive. BTW, I’m also a psychology professor.
The Distracted CFI
Sometimes student pilots or pilots doing necessary training/testing such as an IPC need to fly “under the hood.” The hood is a device which limits the view of the pilot to the instrument panel. The pilot wearing a hood cannot see out the windows.
Any time a pilot is flying under the hood, the FAA requires that another pilot, often but not necessarily a CFI, must be sitting in the other front seat to scan for traffic (other airplanes) and to take over the controls if necessary to keep the flight safe. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume it’s a CFI watching out and ready to save the day.
When you’re flying under the hood, your life depends in part on the CFI’s outside visual scan. Once, while I was flying under the hood, I believe that I saw a CFI read a text message he had received on his cell phone. That’s a death-defying move and heralds a Horrible CFI. A great flight instructor will never be distracted from the task at hand.
The Obsessive-Compulsive CFI
One of my CFIs during my initial instrument training complained to me that I did not fold my aeronautical charts carefully enough. He did this while I was in the midst of flying under the hood, handling heavy downdrafts that kept us from maintaining level flight, communicating with ATC (Air Traffic Control), and attempting to navigate and otherwise keep the airplane flying correctly. This absurd complaint/insult was way out of line. Flight students need to be respected and treated as the hard-working, paying customers they are. There is no reason to point out minor details such as that with no bearing on the actual flight itself, and a great flight instructor understands that.
The Incomplete CFI
This section relies heavily on my personal opinion, and I recognize that some would disagree with me here.
This same CFI had an odd philosophy of teaching students (like me): He decided to handle all radio communications throughout training until the very last training segment.
This might sound like a good idea in that it permits the student to focus on the acts of flying, navigating, managing power and systems instead of talking with ATC. However, real flying requires that the additional layer of complexity of radio communications needs to be extremely well-integrated into the flying “whole.” I have been flying for over 30 years and, in my opinion, radio communications need to be integrated into the flying syllabus months before the student pilot is signed off to take the flight test. I believe a great flight instructor is there to back you up and teach you as you need it; not coddle you through your training with them until the very end.
Conclusion and Observations
CFIs are pivotal in the aviation-training world, and there is an infinite array of things that they can do right and wrong. The reality is that, if you have been studying with a CFI for more than a couple of flights, it’s hard to “break up” if you find that he or she isn’t up to snuff.
The most appropriate response is usually to discuss with the CFI what you need to change to remain comfortable with him or her, but that is often difficult or unworkable.
Fortunately, only a small minority of CFIs fall into the “horrible” group. Just keep in mind that if you are a flight student (not in the military) and are unhappy with your CFI, you do have choices and can find a great flight instructor.
Ready to soar in your aviation career?
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Counseling, and Computing; Aviator; Novelist; Actor; Researcher; Business, Educational, and Computing Consultant. Focused on teaching areas such as aviation, psychology and computing to make them more fun, understood, and approachable.