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CFI/Flight Instructor - Is There A Difference? Which Are You? Which Do You Need?

by Jim Trusty ©2004
Reprinted with permission from author Jim Trusty

Yes to question number one 'there is a difference' and make your own decision to numbers two and three. First let me begin by saying that a certificated flight instructor (CFI) is a certificate that is issued by the FAA and a Flight Instructor is a teacher who loves what they do and works regularly at it.

That little distinction between the two is ever-widening as we lose more and more of the basic student base. The airplanes are getting smarter, faster, and certainly more complex, and our avionics packages are on the way to providing pilotless flying privileges to the masses, which makes the demands placed on the average instructor never-ending.

What you must decide before you make a decision for one or the other is simply, 'What are my needs?' Remember that we have FAA certifications for eight types of flight instructors and three types of ground instructors. Your needs may be from basic instruction for your initial pilot certificate to recurrency/transition training in your chosen new aircraft and everything in between, including Knowledge Test preparation and ground training. My personal view of all the different things that a flight instructor can actually do and do well should be limited by them personally. For me, it is simply too time consuming to stay current and proficient in every niche.

I personally love teaching instrument flight, doing recurrency/transition training in a limited number of aircraft, and Flight Reviews for just about anyone. Don't let cost chase you away from someone who is qualified to meet your needs, although it has to be a consideration. Flight instruction is a business and is probably this person's only source of income.

A demonstration by the instructor of what you need is more valuable than all the words that can be spoken. My thought has always been that you can make your mouth say anything and still not be skilled enough to prove it in the air. A full layout of time, energy, money, schedule, routines, and what is expected of each person involved can easily be worked out before any agreement is reached - and should be.

Not too many years ago, once you got your CFI ticket, you were a CFI from that time on, simply because nothing ever changed in this chosen field of aviation. The same basic student, the same few airports real close by, the same trainer aircraft to fly before and after you became a pilot, the same paperwork, and the same check rides. Everything was the same. The changes started to accumulate in the mid 80's with the advent and use of a makeshift syllabus called the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for each and every certificate and rating offered by the FAA. This was a major step forward in training and examination that was slowly accepted by most involved in aviation.

It finally came to pass that newly licensed instructors were teaching one way and the old timers were doing things the old way. The same could be said of Designated Pilot Examiners (DPE) and FAA Inspectors on their respective check rides. The next big change was the slow introduction of advanced avionics to assist us in finding airports we had absolutely no trouble finding before with Non-Directional Beacons (NDB) or Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range (VOR) or simply Pilotage and Dead Reckoning.

Finally we have been introduced to some new designs in airplanes that really require more skill, quicker reactions, different techniques, and a whole new set of numbers and speeds. We then got Global Positioning System (GPS) and all of a sudden we were light years behind the panel knowledge curve.

If you are an instructor, are you keeping up with all these changes? Do you really have to? Let's look at some statistics of my own. Most of my students now own their own airplane, have the most sophisticated electronics in the marketplace, have an Instrument ticket, and they actually expect me to know everything about anything that has taken place over the past few years so that I can answer their questions and pass on that information to them. In the last 12 months, I have flown with 41 people in 25 different airplanes and I had to ask myself, was I up on everything? NOPE! But I knew where to find it . . . and quickly, too.

As flight instructors of this century, we were quickly becoming much, much more than safety pilots or riders in the sky. Then 9/11 took place and flying suddenly became a lot harder for everyone. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) are everywhere, can't fly in this zone, no-fly areas, don't fly over or near this and that. Insurance has gone sky high and student starts have hit rock bottom. With the airline furloughs, we suddenly have a few more instructors to help us cope with fewer students.

What to do? Some options include an old buddy of mine at a nearby airport who only takes student pilots, in a Cessna 152, and keeps them in the patch forever. He makes $15 an hour and is happy. Some have accepted all these changes and developed a niche like me and they try to do one thing, do it well, and stay up to date with whatever is required.

What about you? Anyone that flies needs an instructor on occasion - recurrence, flight reviews, instrument proficiency checks, night flying checkouts, or you fill in the blank with a need of your own. As an instructor, what you are going to do as a professional in aviation is entirely up to you. What and how much is your choice. Select, study, advertise, and DO IT! We know what is going to be asked of us as teachers. We have the time to prepare, we have to desire to perform and we have those skills, so let's teach!

If you have a need for the services of an instructor, the onus is on you to be selective. No one knows more than you exactly what you need from an instructor. Ask, look, question, demonstrate, and then select on performance.

If I can answer any questions for you, either instructors or those needing a teacher feel free to contact me and I'll listen and try to help. I've been here for a long time and survived, and for the most part my clients are all happy. This merger can work with just a little conversation from both parties. Expect to make a mistake on occasion and when it happens, fix it, repair it, or drop it and move on. This isn't brain surgery - it's just two people riding around in an airplane.


Jim Trusty was the FAA/Aviation Industry National Flight Instructor of the Year (1997) and the first-ever FAA Southern Region Aviation Safety Counselor of the Year (1995). He still works full-time as a Corporate Pilot/Flight and Ground Instructor/FAA Aviation Safety Counselor/Published Aviation Magazine Writer. You have been reading his work since 1973 in over 100 publications worldwide.

NOTE: Permission required from the author to reprint this copyrighted article.

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