How to Become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)

By Pilot Institute
Posted on June 16, 2020 - 7 minute read

So you think that you want to be a CFI, or Certified Flight Instructor. Perhaps you have decided that teaching people to fly would be a fascinating career, since you love flying. Maybe you just want to be paid to fly, and this is one way to do it. Or you could be working towards your ATPL, or Air Transport Pilot’s License, and you think that flying instruction would be an excellent way to build the hours you need.

Whatever your reasoning, you need to understand that training to be a CFI is an extremely long, hard road. It takes a substantial amount of time, costs a fair amount, and is not easy, even if you find it enjoyable. Let us take a look at all the issues involved.

Qualifications needed before you can train to become a CFI

Before you can begin to train as a flight instructor, you need to obtain both a private pilot’s license (PPL) and a commercial pilot’s license (CPL).

If you are reading this, the chances are that you already have a PPL, and it was doing that which gave you the flying ‘bug’. But if that is not the case, you need to know that it will probably take you far more than the specified minimum number of hours to qualify as a private pilot. Theoretically you can get a PPL in 40 hours, but most students need around double that number, for all sorts of reasons. So bear this in mind when considering the time and money involved.

To get a CPL, you need between 190 and 250 flying hours, depending on the type of flying school you are using. To explain briefly, Part 141 schools require a minimum of 190 hours, while Part 61 schools specify a minimum of 250 hours. In general, Part 61 schools are local flight schools that are not necessarily career-oriented, while Part 141 schools are usually larger, more structured programs, often emphasizing professional pilot training.

If you want to be a flight instructor the difference may not matter that much, but the amount of time and money required to get your CPL may make a lot of difference to you. So you need to choose your school carefully.

Then of course you will need to do a fair amount of ground school training for both the PPL and CPL, and pass the tests at the end of it all.

So overall, there is quite a lot to do before you can even begin to train as a flying instructor.

The Flying Instructor Course

You will probably be relieved to find out that you only need a minimum of 25 hours of flight time to become a CFI. If you wish, you can also become an instrument certified flight instructor, or CFII, which of course takes additional training. But you can consider that later on. 

You will also need to do a large amount of ground school studying. Although theoretically you can do this preparation alone, in practice you will need to factor in paying for a substantial number of hours, to prepare you for the difficult exams at the end of the course. The FOI (Fundamentals of Instruction) Exam and the FAA Certified Flight Instructor Knowledge Exam cover a wide variety of topics, including the learning process, effective teaching elements, training techniques, and so on.  In addition you will need to revise everything you have learned up until now, including all private and commercial license topics. Indeed, almost any topic you can think of related to flying could be included in these exams.

None of this sounds that difficult, especially if you say it quickly. But in fact the flight instructor course is often said to be one of the most difficult flying courses there is. Think about it – you will need to learn to fly from the right hand seat, demonstrate every lesson in detail, and explain it to your student – or during the course, your very experienced instructor – at the same time. You will need to devise lesson plans, and instruct a ‘student’ (actually your instructor), plus evaluating their performance and coaching them on any mistakes. You will also have to brief your ‘student’ before each flight, and debrief them as the end of it. There is a lot to learn. And essentially you will role-play until you are comfortable teaching any student in any scenario.

Finally you will be ready to take your instructor checkride. Now, by this time you will have done a lot of check rides before, so you may not be too worried. After all, you know what to expect, don’t you? But be aware that the CFI checkride is known to be the most grueling of all of them, and many instructors have endured many hours over multiple days before passing. There is a lot of material to cover, and some examiners like to go over each detail on the ground to ensure you’re adequately prepared. Others will cover a few items and, if satisfied, will move on to the flight. But don’t skimp on anything. Be prepared as much as is possible. Furthermore, the examiner is testing to see what kind of instructor you will be, so dress appropriately, explain everything in detail, and make safety briefings a priority.

I still remember my own instructor checkride, very well indeed. I absolutely hated it! It was so, so hard. In fact, I struggled so much that I asked for permission to take a break and come back on another day. The second time I was better prepared, and I passed it. But it really was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

Can you make a good living as a CFI?

As a flight instructor, you can train pilots, conduct flight reviews, and issue the endorsements needed for pilot certificates, ratings, knowledge tests, and checkrides.

It used to be the case that CFIs were notoriously badly paid, and few people did the job as a fulltime career. However, with the current shortage of flight instructors, pay and benefits are rapidly going up. If you are good at your job, you can make a fairly decent living as a full-time flight instructor. But of course it will never compare with the airlines in terms of remuneration. ~so if high pay is a priority for you, particularly after so much training, this may not be the career for you.

However, for many people the pay is secondary. They just want to get paid to fly, and this is quite a good way to do it. No one would pursue a pilot’s license if they didn’t love flying, and the opportunity to actually make a reasonable living doing something you love is an opportunity not many people are lucky enough to have. So if this sounds like you, that may well be reason enough to go for it and become a CFI!

Instructing to build hours

For some pilots, however, instructing is merely a stepping stone on the path to an airline position. You need to accrue a very large number of hours to get an ATPL, and the jobs in which you can do this as a CPL are limited. Of course, you can be a photography pilot, do banner towing, crop dusting, take up skydivers, or a number of similar jobs. But there are really not that many options for CPLs, and in practise there are often far too many people chasing the few jobs which exist.

So you may be left with two options: pay for all the hour building yourself, which is expensive, or become a flying instructor. And every year, many prospective airline pilots qualify as CFIs and start instructing, just to build hours. Of course, this will work, and can be a very quick way to gain the flying hours you need. But there are many pitfalls – read the next section for details…

A CFI is a ‘people person’

A CFI is a teacher as much as a pilot, if not more. To be a flight instructor, you need to like people, and enjoy working with them as much as you enjoy flying. Instructing is not easy. You will be dealing with all sorts of individuals, some of whom will take to flying like the proverbial duck to water, but many of whom will struggle with the PPL course. You will need to enjoy the challenge of working out the best way of teaching every type of student.

Indeed, the job can even be dangerous at times. You may have dual controls, but hovering over the controls and grabbing them at the first opportunity is the sign of a bad instructor – or at least a very inexperienced one. You need to let students learn by their mistakes, though of course you will take over before any catastrophes occur. But that is sometimes a very fine line.

Some people love instructing for just these reasons. They find it intensely rewarding to watch a student finally ‘get’ something you are trying to teach them. To these people, that is one of the main rewards of instructing.

But if you are not a people oriented person, you may simply find instructing difficult and frustrating. And if you are doing it primarily to build hours, and don’t enjoy it, you really might be better off doing something else. Instructing under these circumstances won’t be good for you,and it certainly won’t be good for your poor students. They deserve better!

Are you really sure you want to do this?

So now you need to take a long hard look at things and decide if this is something you really want to do. For you, will instructing be a challenge or a chore? Do you like people as much as you like flying? Will you actually enjoy the ups and downs of an instructing career? If not, then you would really be far better off doing something else in the aviation world.

If, however, the above hasn’t put you off, then instructing may be just the career for you. Some of us love it; I certainly did! So if you think you will, then go ahead and undertake the long training road to becoming a CFI. And good luck!

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