Flight Instructors... And Unicorns?
I have a Flight Instructor friend that shares the same enthusiasm for tailwheel and vintage aircraft. We have both done a fair share of freelance work, and end up in many hangars around the Northeast, flying some interesting aircraft, to say the least. Usually, the owners of these aircraft or hangars see our excitement to teach, 90% of the time a job offer shortly follows. Yet, this time for my friend it wasn’t so much a job offer, but more of a question.
“You CFI’s are like Unicorns nowadays, huh?” Said the line manager to my friend, “it’s like you people are some sort of mythical entity.” “Mythical?” I can somewhat agree, while my main job has me working with a top-notch group of flight instructors, I also see other schools that have a huge clientele base, with little to no employees. Why is this happening? I have to be brutally honest, there are multiple reasons, and some of them make me itch a little.
A young newly minted CFI usually has a pretty standardized mindset, and when you think about it, it has been fed to them multiple times through their training. “Get your CFI Certificate, gain hours, get out and into an RJ.” Sure that sounds great for some, but what about making the most of your whole career? Flight instructing included. The old story goes, there was once a flight instructor that had an overly motivated student, the flight instructor didn't give that student any attention and left for the regionals. That student climbed the ranks, fast. There he was on the other side of the table interviewing that same flight instructor for a position at the majors. How do you think that went for the non-caring CFI?
The day the FAA Safety Inspector handed me my certificate, he told me that from that moment I now have a lasting and impactful career. That reverberated with me. An ATP was long ways away, but I am making a difference working in aviation… right now. I think about it every day when I am teaching, no matter what the subject I am teaching is. I also make it a point to stay in regular touch with my ex-students, and make myself an open source for them whenever they have doubts on something. I know that I wish I had something like that going through my primary training.
Secondly, many flight instructors have this mindset that they aren’t going to make any money, and this is just a hobby (or a stepping stone,) and in return do not pursue it as a career option. How untrue this is, the trick to this is marketing you. You are now technically a licensed 61 flight school? Specialize in something, and something you love sharing. Tailwheel, Aerobatics, Seaplanes, Experimental aircraft, the list of possibilities goes on. There are people making good money providing a wide array of pilots some sort of specialization. Yet, the recent college graduate with a CFI does not know this. Sitting in the break room I realized many of them assume the right seat in the Cessna is the only position in this side of aviation.
Joe Clark was a Professor of mine while I was attending college, he has lectured to NAFI members more than a few times about this. I took his advice of buying a set of “decent” business cards and tacking them up on corkboards in every airport, restaurant, anything within a 50NM radius of my home base. The results were astounding; in my first few months as a CFI I was charging $60 an hour to lecture pilots twice my age in their own airplanes. I was making more than an RJ guy, plus I got to see my family every night.
Sure, there are frustrations, just like in every teaching job. But for someone like myself, the pros outweigh the cons. You get to see someone succeed, start their career, or just plainly have fun. If you make connections, that warbird you’ve always wanted to fly is within reach. Many times I met a warbird owner that simply wants to a flight review in their aircraft, the best part is they want to pay you to do it.
Lastly, what we teach is different for multiple reasons: the inherent risk of flying itself poses intimidation in many new instructors, which makes them want to leave sooner. Our jobs can sometimes be inconsistent, and we have to be somewhat flexible if the weather becomes poor, or our students have to do late night flights. However, I notice that in this time of the industry, flight schools are bending over backward to ensure their CFI’s know that they can make their own schedule. I always got a chuckle when the Chief Pilot of a large 141 flight school told his CFI’s, “do you think your schedule will be flexible, and your job less risky, flying an RJ?”
In conclusion, are we flight instructors unicorns? Some mythical entity that is no longer present in the world? Sure. I believe if more instructors, especially us “young” guys, knew the power and privilege our certificates hold, there would probably be more of us in it for the long haul, even if it was only part-time. While many argue there is no way to fix flight training, I disagree. Many student pilots are taught from the beginning that if they get their CFI Certificate, build time, and leave, the cycle is complete. That’s not the case, and if we train our students about the joys of teaching and the neat benefits, we may see many more long-term CFI’s in the near future.