Think about this for a moment: who taught the first pilots how to fly? “Ground school” for the Wright brothers may have consisted of studying available information from balloon pilots and other sources, then extrapolating their best theories on how that would apply to fixed wing flight. Their “flight training” was a self-taught process of testing theories and learning from failures.
Lucky you – you’ve had the benefit of learning the aeronautical theories and hands-on skills from many a wise flight instructor and now you’re considering paying it forward, logging flight time to put toward the next step in your career, and making some cash in the process.
They say the best teachers are the best students and that if you want to really develop your skills in a certain discipline, the best way to do it is to teach it.
So, let’s look at what a flight instructor does, how much money they can earn and the steps you’ll need to take to become a flight instructor yourself.
What does a flight instructor do?
Certified flight instructors (CFIs) guide students through the process of becoming a pilot and keep them safe while doing it. They teach both the academics of ground school and the mechanics of real-life flight. Like a schoolteacher, a CFI spends time outside the “classroom” developing lesson plans and preparing visual learning aids.
As a flight instructor you use the adult learning methodology – explain, demonstrate, imitate, practice – to build your students’ hands-on skills.
You first explain how to execute a skill like flaring prior to landing. Then you demonstrate the skill for the student and have the student imitate the skill (perhaps by talking you through the maneuver or mimicking your motions as you perform the skill). Once the student has imitated the skill, you allow them to practice doing it while you coach and serve as a safety net. Finally, once they are ready, you sign them off for solo flights and continue to serve as a ground-based mentor.
How much money can you make as a flight instructor?
Just how much can you expect to earn as a CFI? Well, that depends on where you’re located. According to ZipRecruiter’s most current stats, the typical nationwide range is between $50,000 and $73,000 with the average American flight instructor taking home $65,870.
Want to know what your earning potential looks like in your current location (or decide if it would be worth it to relocate)? Use the “add location” function on ZipRecruiter’s Flight Instructor Salary page to view average salaries by state, city, or even zip code.
Are you ready for adventure and open to relocation anywhere in the country? Scroll through the complete state by state list of average hourly wage and annual salary for flight instructors. Think you’ve found a good deal? Check the 2020 cost of living calculator to see how far your money will go in your new town vs your current one.
Is it hard to become a flight instructor?
Earning a flight instructor certificate is different from all the other pilot certificates you have gotten thus far because when you take your check ride, the examiner isn’t simply checking to see if you have the knowledge and skills necessary to be a safe pilot at the level you’re testing for. This time they are more focused on whether you are a good teacher. You have already demonstrated your piloting abilities, but do you have what it takes to transfer that cerebral and practical knowledge to students in a replicable manner? During your CFI check ride, the examiner will seek to answer these questions. This makes for perhaps the longest and most challenging check ride you have experienced.
Ryan Huber, a flight instructor in Mesa, AZ, speaks on the truth about flight instructing and shares his personal experience. Ryan says that being a flight instructor is “a lot of hard work day in and day out.” He says that the transition from student to instructor is challenging at first. Instead of having someone in the right seat to be your safety net, you are now responsible to be that safety net for your student.
Ryan highly recommends becoming a CFI saying that it makes you an exceptional pilot. Being a CFI “keeps you ahead of the airplane. There is nothing else like it because you have to understand what your students are going through and predict things before they happen. [You have to be] way ahead of the airplane, well ahead of what the student’s thinking and coordinating many things at the same time – multitasking in a way that you have probably never done before.”
Are you ready to take on this challenging yet rewarding career? Here’s how to get started.
How do I become a flight instructor?
1. Confirm your eligibility
To hold a CFI certificate, you must:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be able to read, write, speak and understand English
- Hold either a commercial pilot certificate or an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate
2. Confirm your medical certificate is current
Since you have your commercial or ATP certificate, there should be no issues, but before you sign up for your CFI check ride, make sure your medical certificate is current.
3. Study for & pass the FAA written exam and Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) Exam
The CFI written exam is similar to others you have taken, just with a broader scope. It encompasses everything from the recreational, private and commercial levels.
You will also be taking a second written exam called the Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI). The FOI tests your knowledge of instructional topics like the learning process and training techniques.
4. Develop your lesson plans
As a CFI, you need to create lesson plans that align with the FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS). The plans you develop now as part of your training and testing process can be used in the future, so put plenty of time and effort into them. Consider your visual aids and remember the power of a good chart, drawing, diagram or model to help you illustrate and explain a concept to your students.
Pro Tip: Review the FAA’s Aviation Instructor’s Handbook and take note of the basic principles for how to become a good instructor.
5. Role play with a more experienced instructor
By the time you get to your check ride, you want to have developed confidence and ease with delivering your lesson plans and guiding a student through the learning process. Confidence comes with practice, so your CFI instructor will play the role of student. They will have you practice sitting in the right seat where you will explain and demonstrate maneuvers, then coach and evaluate your “student.” You will have a chance to practice teaching the ground school portion of your lessons as well to prepare you for the real thing.
Pro Tip: Study the Airman Certification Standards (ACS), keeping in mind that this is primary resource you will be using to gauge your students’ level of preparation for their check rides.
6. Pass your check ride
You’ve been through the check ride process plenty of times, so you know it can be an all-day event. Well, brace yourself because the CFI check ride is certainly an all-day event and may even turn into a multi-day event. There is simply a lot of information and a great many topics that your examiner needs to cover.
Denverpilot described it best in one of the Pilots of America forums:
“They have to figure out in a few short hours whether or not you can fly (the least important part - you've already demonstrated that multiple times by then), instruct on the ground, find ways to convey and clarify concepts, show you can evaluate and teach those concepts in flight, allow the pilot to make mistakes while still being ultimately responsible for everyone on board's safety, and do it all in a relatively professional manner.”
During the check ride, your examiner will be playing the role of student. Remember to give a thorough safety briefing and to explain each topic thoroughly and clearly. Pay attention to what your “student” is doing at all times and ensure that they are performing safe and legal maneuvers.
Above all, remain professional and engaging. Think back to your favorite flight instructors – the ones who knew how to explain a challenging topic or coach you through a tricky maneuver – and emulate them. Remember that one of the most rewarding parts of being a CFI is the chance to share the joy of flight and mentor the next batch of flight students.
Ready to take the plunge and become a flight instructor? PilotMall.com offers a fine selection of educational material. Check out our collection today: Flight Training Material: Certified Flight Instructor.
ASA Teaching Flight offers many ideas and techniques for instructors to keep their students inspired, encouraged, confident, and competent on their road to earning their wings.