I'm the meat grinder that takes ground-bound people with a dream in on one side and produces aviators out the other side. Now let's get into what I had to do to have the privilege of doing so.
If you've picked an instructor, you might be wondering how they know all that cool stuff. Or, if you've got your license and are thinking of becoming an instructor yourself, you might be wondering what you have to do to pass on the wonders of flight to a new crop of pilots. Today's blog post will answer some of those questions.
To become a regular flight instructor (meaning not a Sport Pilot Instructor) in an airplane, here is a simplified list of the basic requirements per 61.181 in plain English:
- Commercial or ATP pilot certificate
- Instrument rating
- 18 years old (which you had to be to get a commercial certificate anyway)
- Pass the FOI (Fundamentals of Instruction) and FIA (Flight Instructor Airplane) written exams [Note: the FOI is waived if you already have a ground instructor certificate, and I'll get into more detail about the ground instructor certificate later in this post]
- Get spin training (don't let this deter you--it's more fun than you might think!) and an endorsement saying you completed it
- Get an endorsement saying you've been trained in the fundamentals of instructing
- Get an endorsement saying you're prepared to take the checkride (just like you had to get an endorsement for your private and commercial checkrides)
- Pass what will probably be the longest oral exam of your life and then the flight portion
It took about an hour to do my spin training in a 172. We did five spins: the instructor demonstrated one to the left, I did one to the left, he demonstrated one to the right, I did one to the right, and then he had me pick which direction I wanted for the last one. The 172 is a lot harder to keep in a spin to the right than to the left, so I did my final one to the right. If you can get your spin training in a Tomahawk or an aerobatic plane or something that doesn't recover pretty much on its own like a 172 does, I'd highly recommend it. Even after spin training, I was still left wondering what would happen if one of my students got me into a spin in one of our light sports because doing spins in a 172 is almost like cheating: if you just let go of the controls it turns the spin into a dive. Eventually one of my students did get himself into an incipient spin during a power-on stall (that's why you don't try to pick up a wing with aileron--if you're close to the stall, pick the wing up with rudder!) and I was able to stop wondering. Turns out spin training wasn't just fun; it was useful. Its main utility was in letting me remain completely calm as the wing dropped sharply and the nose quickly pointed itself at the ground, because I'd seen worse. (I also learned that the CTLS also recovers as soon as you break the stall, just like a 172.) You don't get to do spins on your checkride unless you failed your checkide by getting into a spin, so enjoy it while you can.
If you want to continue on to the CFII, the instrument add-on probably won't take more than a few hours, especially if the flight school you're working with has trained CFII candidates before and have an idea what the examiner's series of approaches is likely to be. At ATP, I got 3 flights and then the checkride. The FAA reserves first crack at examining all CFI initial candidates, so it's likely you'll get an FAA inspector assigned by them when you first become an instructor. When you go for your instrument add-on, you are no longer an "initial", so you can use a regular DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) for that. You need either a CFI or an MEI before the CFII because your flight instructor certificate is a certificate of its own (it's your pilot's license number with "CFI" at the end of it) and has its own single-engine or multiengine ratings. Once you get one of those, then your CFII is basically an addition of instrument instruction privileges to your flight instructor certificate, just like you add an instrument rating to a private or commercial pilot certificate. So it's possible to be a CFII without being a CFI if you got your MEI first. That just means you could only give instrument instruction in multiengine aircraft. That's why people who call themselves CFII only are technically incorrect: the CFII does not necessarily include the CFI. For a period of about two weeks, I was an MEI/CFII without being a CFI. For those two weeks, in the eyes of the FAA, I could teach someone to shoot approaches in a twin to ILS minimums with a 200 foot ceiling, but I couldn't legally teach them to putter a tiny Cessna 150 around the pattern on a clear blue day.
And, while I'm being pedantic:
1. No one should ever sign a logbook "Joe Q. Instructor, 1234567CFII 12/13". There is no such thing as a certificate that ends in "II". The instructor certificate is "1234567CFI" and that certificate has instrument instruction privileges on it. It doesn't mutate into "1234567CFII" at any time, no matter how well you did on your CFII checkride. When I give instrument instruction, I put (I) after my certificate number, but that's only to show the future examiner that the instruction was indeed given by an instrument instructor so it does count for the required hours for the instrument rating checkride (or IPC). I'm not going to make him query the FAA's airman database just to verify that I'm a "double-I" just because of my own pet peeve.
2. It's the same thing with a medical certificate. A First Class medical doesn't "become" a Second Class after six months: it's still a First Class but now only allows the holder to exercise the privileges of a Second Class. As an instructor, you only need a Third Class to instruct with a student pilot aboard. You can fly all day with a certificated pilot without a medical (for example, giving a BFR for someone who is current with a valid medical) because they are eligible to act (and are) PIC during the entire flight.
3. The term is "Certificated Flight Instructor". There is no such thing as a "Certified Flight Instructor". The FAA certificates airmen, it doesn't "certify" them. The difference to the average Joe is nil, but to lawyers it's enormous.
I'd say that about 90% of the work involved in becoming a flight instructor is book work, since you've got to have an in-depth knowledge of all the subjects in order to teach them to someone else. If you're like me and you like getting into the hows and whys of aeronautics and maneuvers, it will be time-consuming, but it will also be fun for you, especially if you want to do it at your own pace anyway.
Incidentally, I only went through Airline Transport Professionals because I had an instructing job waiting for me; if I had been doing it the way I preferred, I would have taken my time. Someday, when I have the time, I'll get more into what it was like cramming an entire CFI course into only two weeks with them. In the meantime, if you're considering doing the same and can't wait some indefinite amount of time, Ron Rapp wrote a very detailed account of his experience with ATP that starts with Day One and goes to the end of the course. Due to the standardized nature of their program, his story is quite similar to the experience I had with them in Atlanta. In fact, it's so similar that I could have written this snippet from Day Four verbatim myself: "The folks who are in the preceding class are currently in the second week of this 14 day program, and they look like they’ve been run over by a truck." My conclusion on the program as a whole is almost identical to his entry for Day Five as well, probably because our backgrounds going into the program were also quite similar.
You can start on the book work at any time (the sooner the better, because you can't know too much to become an instructor!), and almost all the books you need you already have for free either through the FAA's website or if you use ForeFlight on your iPad. Read and study the AIH (Aviation Instructor's Handbook), PHAK (Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge), AFH (Airplane Flying Handbook), and study the private and commercial PTS to where you can recite the standards from memory. (You'll need to know the private because that's what you'll be teaching to initial students, and you'll need to know the commercial because that's what level you'll have to perform to on the checkride.) For the CFII, read the IFH (Instrument Flying Handbook), the IPH (Instrument Procedures Handbook), and know the Instrument PTS and you'll be golden.
I'd actually highly recommend getting a ground instructor certificate first. You have to take the FOI (Fundamentals of Instruction) for either it or a CFI initial, and that material all comes from the AIH. You then take either (or both--I did both) the Advanced Ground Instructor (AGI) written and/or the Instrument Ground Instructor (IGI) written. The AGI is mostly like your commercial written over again except questions can be pulled out of any category, not just airplane. I got a couple of helicopter questions, one or two on airships, one on ultralights, etc., but about 90% of it was airplane or general questions you've already seen before on your CAX (Commercial Pilot Airplane) written. The IGI is pretty much identical to your instrument written. Once you take the FOI and AGI and/or IGI, all you have to do is set up an appointment at the FSDO (Flight Standards District Office--basically a branch office of the FAA; go here to find the one closest to you), take the results to them, and they give you a ground instructor certificate (at no cost to you). The two big advantages of doing it that way are 1. you are studying this material anyway, so it helps you out (and the IGI and FII--Flight Instructor Instrument--are practically identical, which gives you even more practice) and 2. when you go for the oral portion of your exam, the examiner is allowed to skip Area of Operation I of the Flight Instructor PTS! The FAA considers Area I to have been covered by the process of getting the ground instructor certificate and therefore removes it from the PTS matrix if you already have an AGI/IGI, so you can save yourself some grilling at the oral. Since you had to take the FOI to get it, when you go for your initial checkride, you give the examiner your ground instructor certificate to copy in lieu of your FOI written results (since the FSDO keeps them). Sure, it's an extra $150 or $300 spent (depending on whether you took one or both writtens), but it's worth the investment in my opinion. (I intentionally left out the BGI because it's merely a stripped down, category-specific version of the AGI. I think the difference between the two isn't enough to make it worth going for the more restricted BGI instead of the AGI. If you're going to do the work anyway, you might as well go for the AGI.) If you ever want to become a Gold Seal instructor, you need at least one of these anyway, and you'll already have it knocked out in that case.
Whether or not you got that ground instructor certificate, you'll still have to write up lesson plans for your CFI binder and deliver at least one ground lesson as part of the oral portion. You can (and in fact, are highly encouraged to) create lesson plans for all of the maneuvers before the checkride and use them to teach from during the oral. (In fact, at ATP, we weren't even allowed to get signed off to take the checkride unless we showed them that we had all the lesson plans already done as part of our pre-signoff checklist.) The AIH has a lesson plan template in it. Use it, because no examiner will ever say "I don't like your layout" if you're using the FAA's way of doing it. You can go above and beyond the template, as long as everything in the template itself is there. The first few will take a while to put together because you're doing a lot of research, figuring out what's important and what level of detail would just confuse a student pilot, and putting jargon into your own words and adding your own insights, but after a while you'll be knocking out several an hour. The rest of your "CFI binder" is composed of whatever supplementary material you think might be useful in explaining concepts. For example, I have diagrams on how a constant speed prop system works, a nice article on what manifold pressure actually is, reproductions from the AFH on what the ground reference maneuvers look like, flash cards on runway signs, and a ton of other materials (mostly free handouts I've accumulated from FAA seminars, etc.) in it. By the time I was done, it was about four inches thick. Depending on your style, you may use that binder for your entire teaching career. However, if you're like me, your binder has migrated to the iPad and now consists mostly of dozens of links to YouTube videos, references to the PHAK/AFH/etc., and the lesson plans in electronic format.
During my oral, I had to give a lesson on teaching the Vmc Demo (because my initial was the MEI instead of the CFI) and the accelerated stall. The examiner told me to teach him those, then said he'd be back in 30 minutes to see what I had prepared. This was the closest I came to busting my test, because about halfway through my presentation he said, "Stop. Look, I know what this means and I can see that you know what this means, but if I'm a student pilot that just came off the street, I'd probably have no idea what you're talking about." So I took a deep breath, stepped back from the board for a few seconds, and reverted to my natural teaching style, which leans heavily on metaphors and similes referencing things people already know about. People already know about birds, so I used them in analogies when getting into more technical details. He was quite satisfied after that.
The only other time he looked displeased was when he asked me what the tolerances for some maneuver were (I can't remember exactly which one) at the private level and I said, "I think it's +/-100 feet" [or something like that] and he said, "How are you supposed to teach this if you don't even know what the standards are?" I said, "OK, it's +/-100 feet." I was right (and even when I said it the first time I was already 95% sure I was right), and we continued. The biggest lesson from that was that you should be projecting CFI authority at all times during your checkride. Remember back to your student pilot days? Back then, CFIs were these magical creatures that were 10 feet tall that knew all and could bail you out of any situation you might get yourself into. That's what you should be projecting during the checkride: that you know this stuff so well that you can make anyone else know it well, too. In fact, last month our FSDO had its annual flight school meeting where DPEs and flight school representatives spend the day together giving each other feedback. All of the DPEs said that the problem they most consistently saw from CFI candidates was the reluctance to take charge of the checkride. Instead of replying to a question with, "THIS is the answer blah blah blah," they'd timidly reply, "Umm, this?" Everyone knows that even on a private checkride, the candidate is PIC, but the student doesn't have enough experience to overcome the awe of the examiner and fumbles and mumbles. At the CFI level, you should be willing and able to speak with authority. Even if you get tripped up on something that you're not sure about, say, "HERE'S where we can get the FAA's official opinion" with authority and then flip straight to it. No one person can know everything about flying, and no reasonable examiner expects you to. However, an examiner will certainly expect you to have the knowledge of where the answer is. If you're not sure, it's probably in the PHAK. The oral portion of my initial was about 5 hours of rapid-fire questions. When he heard the FAA terminology he was looking for, he'd cut me off mid-sentence and go on to the next topic. We covered at least 100 topics, and I think I only had to crack my references open twice (both times it was the PHAK).
The flight portion of your CFI initial is identical to your commercial checkride (except you'll probably have to do almost all of the maneuvers instead of a smaller selection) plus you'll have to do an accelerated stall demonstration (Area XI-D; those aren't on any other PTS you've had), which is basically just an intentional stall during a steep turn. The big difference is that instead of a conversation like this that you had on your commercial checkride:
Examiner: "Give me a chandelle."
You: "OK." [You clear the area and do a chandelle.]
the CFI checkride is like this:
Examiner: "Give me a chandelle."
You: "OK. The first thing we do before any maneuver is clear the area to make sure there isn't any other traffic. We'll do this with a 90-degree turn to the left, followed by another 90-degree turn to the right (or vice-versa). As we're turning, we're looking for other airplanes. [As you're clearing the area, you continue by saying] Then, once we get back on our initial heading, we'll first bank the airplane and establish 30 degrees of bank. Then once we've got our bank in, we'll start increasing our pitch up to about 15 degrees [or whatever is appropriate for your aircraft] so we reach our 15 degrees nose up at the same time we've turned 90 degrees. Once we pass the 90 degree point, we'll hold that pitch constant the rest of the time and we'll start working out our bank so that our wings are level at the same time we've turned 180 degrees. We'll know we did a good job if the stall warning horn is going off as we're leveling out, because that means we've wrung out all the performance the plane can give us. So, in short, for the first half we're getting our bank then it stays constant while we adjust our pitch, and for the second half we're keeping our pitch constant and changing our bank. Any questions? No? OK, here we go. [Start maneuver and say] First I'm establishing my bank, and now I'm bringing the nose up. We're at the 90 degree point, our bank is still 30 degrees and our pitch up is at maximum. I'm keeping that nose up as I start leveling out the wings, and you'll notice that I need more and more back pressure to keep that nose up as the plane slows down. [Stall warning] So, we've rolled out on the heading opposite the one we started on, our stall warning baby seal is getting squashed, and we've gained 300 feet of altitude [or whatever your plane gets], so now we'll recover by holding this heading and altitude as we get our cruise speed back."
So all you're doing is chattering away the whole time. It's harder than it sounds, but after a few hours of practice it will feel as natural as anything else. I've gotten to the point now where flying by myself almost seems strange because I'm not hearing my own voice in my headset explaining what I'm doing. The other difference is that you're doing all this chattering from the right seat, so you've got two adjustments to make at once. Just like talking, once you get used to it, it's natural. I'm probably better at landing from the right seat than I am from the left seat now, but it's been so long since I've been in the left seat that I haven't had a chance to test that hypothesis.
Becoming an instructor is one of the most rewarding things you can do in aviation, and having a good instructor is something you'll always remember. I learned more about flying in my first 50 hours of instruction than I did in the 300 hours of flying I had done before then. Having to explain something to someone instead of just doing it makes you pick apart why you're doing what you're doing and tests whether you really understand what you're doing in the first place. It's increased my skills to the point where I'll occasionally surprise my students by seeing things when they think I can't possibly tell. For example, when working with a pre-solo student in the pattern, once we're downwind I very rarely look out the front until we're close to turning final. They probably think I'm just staring out the side window going along for a ride. In reality, I'm looking just ahead of the wing, with the end of the wing just off the center of my vision so the nose is in my peripheral vision. I can tell just from the angle of the wing to the horizon what their airspeed is, and I've taken more than one person by surprise by asking (with my hands not even on the stick), "The controls feel mushy, don't they?" They'll look down at the airspeed indicator and see they're 10 knots too slow and think I'm magic. All I'm doing is seeing the wing too close to parallel to the horizon when it should be about 4 degrees down (or whatever angle is appropriate for the plane we're in). I'm flying the wing instead of an instrument. Other times I'll say, "You need more left rudder" when they're turning to the base leg while still looking out the side. They're astonished that I can tell that without looking at the ball until I explain, "You see how it seems like you're have to drag that nose along? That's because you need more left rudder after pulling the power out for the same reason that you need right rudder when you put power in on takeoff." All I'm doing is seeing that nose yaw to the right out of my peripheral vision. It's not magic; it's just experience I've gotten by being able to step back and get the big picture as an instructor instead of the tunnel vision all student pilots (including me, back in the olden days) have. Being able to see all the pieces and their relation to one another is, to me, fascinating.
Being able to watch the light bulb come on in my students or fellow pilots is gratifying. Recently, I flew with a certificated pilot who has had his license for a couple of years but still isn't happy with the consistency of his landings. His landings themselves were satisfactory, but he wanted to work on being able to consistently land on the spot he picked on the runway instead of sometimes being too low or sometimes landing 3,000 feet down the runway. (By the way, one of the surest signs of a good pilot is that they're not afraid to keep learning after they get their certificate, so they'll occasionally bring an instructor up with them to work on getting even better. That's also the reason the FAA requires a flight review every two years.) After half a dozen times around the pattern, seeing how changing the pattern width, the time (and amount) of pulling the power out, the timing of flap extension, the maintenance of the proper airspeed, and all the other factors that go into a stabilized approach change where you end up, I could see the light bulb go on for him. Our last five times around the pattern we ended up right on the 1,000 foot markers every time without throttle-jockeying on final, and as we were taxiing back to the ramp after the last one, he said, "That was a very useful flight today." That made me quite happy, because that's exactly what my job is: to take "normal" people and make pilots out of them and to take pilots and make even better pilots out of them. Now he enjoys flying even more because he can worry less about where the landing is going to be. It's no longer a random hand from the deck of cards handed out by the aviation gods: he understands that each and every approach is something he has full control of the whole way down.
The point of the last two paragraphs is that when you're looking for an instructor, the most important, number one, biggest and most deciding factor is that they should truly care whether you are learning or not. If you don't feel your instructor cares whether you understand, or they don't present the material in a way that makes you understand and aren't willing to present it in a different way, find another instructor. A good instructor is as much a psychologist as a pilot, and I've had to find other approaches on the spot to figure out a different way to explain something. No matter how good a pilot they may be, if they don't care about making you a good pilot too, then you should find someone else. Don't give up on flying, though! I have yet to find someone I couldn't turn into a pilot; all I've found is some people that will take longer than others. It's my job to turn you into a pilot; all you have to provide is the desire, motivation, and willingness to do the hard work it involves. That means you and I work as a team: you have to be willing to do the reading, studying, chair flying, and being prepared to learn during your lesson and I have to turn that motivation into aviation.