Have you noticed a rapid turnover of CFIs at your airport lately?
When airlines are hiring — as they are now — many CFIs who are strictly building time disappear as soon as they meet the minimum requirements for the airlines.
Many “time-builder” CFIs are less than committed to teaching flying. They do little more than read PowerPoint slides when presenting a ground school and will drop everything – including students and other responsibilities – when they get an opportunity to gain Pilot In Command time in a multiengine or complex aircraft.
Other CFIs, while they may intend to move on to other aviation jobs, do their best to be good teachers because they realize that they are gaining experience beyond numbers in a logbook.
Then there are CFIs for whom instructing is a career and not a means to an end.
The career instructors take great pride in their teaching skills, as well as their flying, but, like the time builders and experience builders, they too may reach their limits and move on.
WHY DO CFIs QUIT?
The burnout rate for instructor pilots is high. Cockpits make terrible classrooms. They are cramped, too hot or too cold and loud. Teaching someone to fly is stressful because it can be a life-threatening situation. And, because many businesses see flight instruction as an entry-level job, the pay is often poor with no benefits. CFIs may spend hours on the ground between students, waiting for walk-in clients, but they aren’t compensated for this time, even if they do administrative duties that benefit the school.
Given these conditions, is it any wonder that many CFIs, when facing increased financial obligations, quit flying to find more lucrative employment, often outside aviation?
“I think the secret to retention is treating flight instructors as the professionals that they have demonstrated themselves to be, which means better salaries, better employment conditions, and more respect for the individuals who deserve it,” says Rusty Sachs, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors. The organization, created in 1967, is dedicated to raising and maintaining the professional standing of the flight instructor in the aviation community.
One way the organization does this is through the Master Instructor Designation program, which was created in 1997. The program recognizes instructors dedicated to teaching. Unlike the FAA’s Gold Seal program, which is a one-time event, the Master designation must be renewed every two years. The Master Instructor designation is a national accreditation based on a system of advanced professional standards, as well as peer review.
THE HOBBS DILEMMA
Another thing that goes against the retention of instructor pilots is the fact that some flight schools pay CFIs by the Hobbs meter only, not by the amount of time they spend with a student. For example, although the CFI has spent two clock hours with the student, just 1.2 of that was in the air. The CFI is only compensated for the 1.2 hours.
“That’s not how it should be,” says Sachs, and draws a comparison between CFIs and other professionals, such as tennis or golf pros. In those cases, if the lesson is slated to begin at 3 p.m. and goes to 5 p.m., the clock starts running at 3 p.m. The pro gets paid for the entire two hours.
“Because some schools do not charge for this ground time, or charge less for ground time than flying time, there can be the impression that ground instruction is less important than in-flight instruction,” he says. “That attitude has to change. The pedagogical aspect of flight instruction is at least as important as the pilot in command aspect and every minute spent with a student, whether it be doing ground school or preflighting an aircraft or flying, is of equal value to the learning process.”
Another thing that leads to high turnover is the attitude of flight school management. “Too many schools treat flight instructors as if they are interchangeable parts,” Sachs says.
The flight training industry is its “own worst enemy,” according to Dorothy Schick, owner of TakeWing, a flight school and flying club at Hobby Airport in Creswell, Ore. Schick is a Master Instructor who garnered national attention when the Oprah show did a segment about her business and the value of having a job that you love. “There are some very good people who become CFIs with low hours who have the capacity to teach and care about what they do, but they are fighting against the corporate culture,” she says. “Some of the bigger flight schools that train the most pilots and that need the most CFIs tend to turn out the most CFIs, but then they pressure them to move on as soon as they can. They pay them low wages and when they turn these people out, hopefully they have turned out a good quality instructor, but this causes the dilemma of a CFI shortage.”
Ultimately, it’s all about money, says Rod Machado, noted aviation author, humorist and a flight instructor with more than 8,000 hours teaching experience. “The fact is that many folks would love to become full-time flight instructors, but there just isn’t enough of an income in it for them to support their family. Making $10 to $15 an hour just doesn’t cut it for the average flight instructor unless he’s taken a vow of celibacy, resides in a VW van, has a lot of blood to sell and lives off the plant life in the air. The FBOs and educational institutions that are retaining a cadre of full-time flight instructors are now paying them enough to make a living and providing benefits, too. How can they do this? It’s Economics 101. They simply charge their clients more money. In fact, one local Southern California flight school is considering charging $85 to $100 an hour for primary flight training, while paying their CFIs $50 an hour.
“On the other hand, if a person is just a bit creative, he or she can develop a flight instruction business that will pay him or her well,” he continues. “For instance, there are individuals in this business who are making $500 or more per day for their highly valued flight training skills. These are typically independent flight instructors who’ve mastered the complexities of specific airplanes, such as Malibus, Bonanzas, P210s, etc. They are expert in these machines and people will pay for that kind of knowledge. I know several of these flight instructors and they’re all highly professional, highly motivated and have good business skills — and if they don’t have good business skills, then they copy the behavior of those folks who do. They all work for themselves, which means they keep what they make. The reason they can do this is because their reputation is their advertising, and it keeps them busy with a steady supply of students. Equally important, these instructors are willing to travel to the client to do flight training instead of waiting for the clients to come to them.”
ATTRACTING AND RETAINING CFIs
The trick to attracting more people to the profession may have to do with the people you target to be instructor pilots, says Greg Brown, an author and six-time Master Instructor. Brown suggests that instead of aiming the training toward people who want jobs at the airlines, schools should focus on the people who are already spending a great deal of time at the airport and love flying.
“These people have already earned their private pilot and their instrument tickets, which are probably the most difficult ones to get,” he says. “These are the people who have jobs outside of aviation that pay the bills, and who are the most enthusiastic at the airport and spend a lot of time at the FBO. These are the people who are always scrounging money to fly. Some of the best instructors in general aviation are the ones that do it part-time because they love it. They will continue to do it for many years.”
Flight schools can attract these people by offering a training package that combines the commercial and CFI ticket, says Brown.
“The written tests for the commercial and CFI tickets in airplanes are almost identical, as are the in-flight maneuvers. Under a Part 61 program, it would be simple to put together a combined course of the commercial and initial CFI,” he says. “The clients can do the flying for the commercial from the right seat and they can pass all their written tests at the same time. By doing the commercial ticket flying from the right seat, they save time and money and would become CFIs rather rapidly.”
Another suggestion for the retention of instructors is a tiered pay scale.
“Some schools actually charge more for their more experienced instructors or the instructors who hold the Master Instructor designation,” Brown says. “Clients don’t mind paying more for these people because they want someone with more experience and with a commitment to aviation.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
At the 2001 Women In Aviation convention, Brown and Schick gave a presentation on becoming a career flight instructor. Brown asked the audience if they remembered the names of the airline captains who had flown them to the conventions. A murmur went through the crowd. “Who was your first flight instructor?” Brown asked and the air was filled with names.
Having that kind of impact on someone’s life can be rewarding in itself, says Schick.
“We all know flight instructing can, to some people, be exceedingly boring after so many hours around the patch,” she says. “You need to realize that each person you train is an individual and make the most of that time with that person. Over time people can lose that feeling of ‘I am making a difference’ if they are at a flight school that doesn’t encourage that. That’s one of the benefits of being a member of NAFI — the support system. I know, as a member, I am working with people who are professionals and we can talk about things that are above and beyond the basic elements of flight instruction.”
“Taking someone who doesn’t know a thing about flying and training them to the level of private pilot is easily one of the most rewarding experiences any teacher can have,” says Machado. “I can’t think of any other profession where you can see and measure the results of your teaching immediately, from moment to moment and landing to landing. In addition to this, you get to put your teaching skills on the line every time you solo a student. Not only do you make your student a product of your own thoughts, you gain tremendous confidence in your own ability as a result of watching your students grow. In my opinion, this is why young flight instructors seem to develop confidence at a much greater rate than folks who just fly airplanes from place to place. Figuratively speaking, as a flight instructor, your students become miniature versions of you, while you spread your aviation DNA — Da Nowledge of Airplanes — throughout the aviation community as a result of your teachings. Anyone who enjoys the idea of making a contribution to aviation can certainly find this idea deeply rewarding. At the end of the day, when a flight instructor leaves the airport, not only has he or she experienced all the pleasures associated with flying an airplane, but they’ve also helped someone else experience those same pleasures, too. That’s what makes flight instruction so meaningful to me.”
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