Certified Flight Instructor: Want to Learn? Then Teach!

Getting your CFI certificate is not only a great way to build flying hours and “earn while you learn,” it’s a fun job!

Vern Weiss

There is an old Latin principle, docendo discimus, that means the best way to learn is to teach. And it is very true. When you think about it, don’t you understand things better when you describe them to someone else? So often completing a task is rote and done without giving thought to the individual components of a task. However when you describe how something is done it becomes set in your mind. The difference between flying and explaining how to fly is subtle but important. When you fly there are cues you respond to and actions you do intuitively and without much thought. But when you explain to someone how to fly it requires that you stay one step ahead of what that individual is doing and preparing for whatever is necessary to do next. When beginning your ground training you may have noticed that some of the material was purely memorized and recalling facts required dipping into your memory for some trick you may have devised to help you remember things (i.e. “east is least, west is best”) But when you are explaining something theoretical you will find that your are planning your presentation to a student in building-block fashion which makes your own flow of understanding much easier.

CFIs find after they begin instructing that they themselves begin to understand things better. This comes naturally from watching others’ techniques, mistakes and formulating answers to questions from the student. The certified flight instructor may have had some of those same questions but never chose to think the answers through. Of course, it is not expected that you will have the answer to everything and when faced with a question that a CFI cannot answer, the best response is always, “I don’t know but I know where to find the answer.” Then you look it up, explain it to the inquirer and you’re better prepared for when the question arises again; and it will!

The amount of self-satisfaction that a person gets when watching a student succeed, whether you’re talking about someone completing their first solo or a student you’ve signed off passing a checkride, it’s a gift that comes back to you, the instructor. When you are able to mold and guide a student through all the elements of achievement necessary for success your own expertise is validated which feels pretty good.

Achieving a CFI certificate requires some training that, up until now, you most likely have not experienced. As a pilot you are responsible for the safe conduct of your flight however CFIs are additionally responsible. Because of this, during your CFI checkride you will be required to demonstrate many of the maneuvers to the standards in the PTS. In addition, CFIs are required to have spin training, or more accurately, spin recovery. It sounds a lot more difficult than it is and when your own flight instructor is planning your lesson that will include spins, a thorough explanation of what will occur will precede the instructor’s demonstration. When the controls are handed over to you, your instructor will very closely monitor everything that is going on and will take over should things begin to look troublesome. But the up-shot is that when you’ve actually recovered from one of aviation’s most serious situations you will feel infinitely more confident as a pilot.

The experience you gain from teaching in an airplane is enormous but there are other reasons that make it a good career move. Most notably, as a CFI YOU are considered to be the pilot-in-command even though you may have barely touched the controls during a given training session! And what does this mean? Naturally it means that if anything happens you will be the principal respondent to an FAA or NTSB inquiry. However there are other rewards.

Additional Benefits of Becoming a Certified Flight Instructor

For one thing, you are legally authorized to log the flight time which will follow you the rest of your career! Yup…when it’s time to get your Airline Transport Pilot certificate that hour of dual you gave to someone way back when will still count toward the 1,500 hours you need now for your ATP.

Another benefit of holding a CFI certificate is what it says to a prospective employer and even what it can mean off in the future after you are a captain on a Boeing 777. To a prospective employer a CFI says…no, SHOUTS…that you are dedicated beyond just meeting the minimum requirements to be a pilot. It says that you are serious about your aviation career. Professionalism and attitude always mean a great deal to a prospective employer.

But let’s get back to that future day when you’re in the left-seat of a Boeing 777. Does a CFI certificate qualify you for such a position? Of course not. But what it does do is meet one of the requirements for becoming an instructor or check airman for that airline. In the corporate environment it is also very helpful to become an aviation manager, director of operations or chief pilot because one of your tasks will be to qualify your pilots and you’ll likely need a CFI certificate to do this.

The Certified Flight Instructor Certificate

Other than the FAA medical certificate, the CFI is the only certificate that is issued with an expiration date. The valid period for a CFI certificate is 2 years whereas you know that your pilot’s license is good for life. What happens when the 2 years are up? First you must complete a CFI renewal course no more than 3 months prior to the expiration of your CFI certificate in order to renew it. This may be accomplished in a number of different ways. Some prefer to attend one of the CFI renewal clinics sponsored by many organizations throughout the country. Others prefer to complete the entire course online or via correspondence. The important thing to remember is that the actual course completion and application for renewal cannot be more than 3 months before your CFI expires. You will hear a lot of grumbling from CFIs about this requirement but the fact is that aviation and regulatory policies are changing constantly and this is an important way of keeping up with the information you need to be a flight instructor. There are other ways to renew a CFI certificate that are less popular such as taking another check-ride but the CFI refresher course is most favored. Other “freebies” for renewing your CFI certificate include obtaining an additional instructor rating on an existing CFI certificate (i.e. you hold a CFI-Airplane and then get a CFII instrument instructor rating) or by signing off 10 people for check-rides during the previous 2 years with an 80% pass rate on first attempt. Often the FAA principal operations inspector for an air carrier will renew a CFI just on the basis of knowing someone who is an instructor for that airline.

Can anyone become a certified flight instructor? You bet! All you need is a commercial license and instrument rating. In fact some people have taken their commercial pilot check-ride from the right seat and were awarded not only their commercial license but also a CFI-Airplane following that single check-ride!

Another economic nicety is that you can legally give flight instruction holding only a 3rd class FAA medical certificate! In the event that a CFI is teaching an already-licensed pilot who holds a medical you do not need any medical certificate at all!

Whether you are motivated to plunge in fully to build flight time leading to a career or if you like the idea of flying but cannot really afford to do it, flight instruction can provide a solution for both. We’re hearing a lot today about a pilot shortage however the shortage of flight instructors cuts even deeper. There are so many opportunities for CFIs working either full or part time for established flight schools. Many CFIs prefer to remain independent and give instruction without affiliating with any flight school. Sometimes instructors find a comfortable situation with someone who has bought an airplane and prefers to have a certified flight instructor riding along with them. And the beauty of it all is that you are paid doing what you love to do!

Salaries for a Certified Flight Instructor

Most full time flight instructors earn an average of $18,000 to $40,000 per year. Part-timers can augment their income from another job by bringing home an additional $100 to $200 per week from instructing. Then again there are large flight schools that offer sign-on bonuses and salaries reaching $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Airline and FAA Part 142 flight training centers pay their instructors $75,000 to $120,00 per year to train pilots in advanced high performance and transport category aircraft.


As you can see there are many reasons to consider getting a flight instructor certificate. While it often is helpful to ask instructors what it’s like to be a certified flight instructor remember that every instructor’s motivation may be different from yours and it is important to look at all the benefits both long- and short-term and how they might fit into your plans. But aside from all the reasons stated in this article, there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of doing what you love and knowing that, as the instructor, you are controlling the show while someone is paying you to enjoy it.

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