I’ve recently crossed this milestone four years after having gained my Flight Instructor rating in February 2018. Logged time excludes ground instruction, remote instruction via Zoom and supervising solo flights – the latter make up around 20% of a typical PPL course. It’s trivial compared to the 20,000 hours or more that some GA instructors have accumulated, but perhaps more than many casual part-timers. Of this, about a third has been IR or IRR instruction, at least half delivering the initial PPL course, and the rest a mix of introductory flights, SEP renewals, club checks and refresher training.
Although I’ve logged all my dual instructional flights, I don’t record how many students I’ve sent first solo or on QXCs. I really couldn’t say exactly how many PPL, IMC or IR students I have put forward for test. Some have been exclusively instructed by me, but a fair number have also been taught by others and many will have had at least a progress check with another instructor at some stage. I’d guess somewhere around 20 or 30, with each one feeling like a major achievement. Skill tests are as much a test of the instructor as they are of the student, and I don’t recommend anyone for test unless I believe they are competent and they feel they are ready. It is very satisfying when a student does pass, even more so when you hear how they have progressed and made good use of their new privileges.
Combining instruction and pleasure flights
My average annual flight time is around 400 hours, of which some 40 to 50 are the private/pleasure flights that I document on this blog. I believe it’s really important to mix real-world GA touring with instructing, otherwise you might overlook the evolution of how longer GA trips are conducted. It’s been especially educational to compare experiences in other countries – from flight planning and ATC to how local clubs and regional airports handle visitors.
This wider experience highlights that while the UK does have some advantages, there are definitely several quirks that seem outdated to me. Partially owning a GA aircraft also raises awareness of current issues such as the ongoing changes to maintenance regulations, the difficulties in sourcing spare parts and consideration towards investing in longer term issues like paintwork or avionics.
Induction to a new club or flight school
Once qualified, each of the clubs that I have instructed at has required an induction flight with the Head of Training. These are important not just to satisfy the club that you are up to standard and share their ethos but allow you to be “standardised” to the same procedures and methods of each club. There are often some minor differences which are best aligned between instructors so as not to confuse students. Examples include when to turn carb heat off in the circuit or when to turn on/off the landing light or pitot heat. Admin procedures also vary, with most having some online booking system alongside paper student records. Inductions for new students vary widely with an emphasis on capturing details (and signing any membership or disclaimer forms). You’ll need to know how (and when) students are expected to pay, how charges are calculated and be able to deal with the simpler queries about pricing.
There will be an ATO or DTO training manual and/or Flying Order Book that explains much of the operational running of the school. These have generally been of high quality in the schools I’ve instructed for, but that isn’t always the case and they can easily become out-of-date as regulations evolve. I wonder how many still refer to EASA qualifications or training courses. It can be helpful (even if a little irritating) for the Head of Training to have a new instructor point out a few minor issues with the documents, but feedback has generally been welcomed since it reinforces the fact that someone actually reads the the manuals and that they can be of use.
Supervision varies between being left almost entirely on your own through to discussing specific issues or difficulties with other instructors and the Head of Training. In the early stages, you would expect more oversight but subsequently it is really quite flattering to be considered good enough to be left to your own devices to instruct, and even to send students solo at your discretion. I felt this happened quite early on in my instructing career, and I am grateful for the trust that those CFIs placed in me.
Sales and scheduling
At most clubs, Flight Instructors have to be quite self-organised and self-promoting. Potential new students will appear from time to time, and you need to act as an enthusiastic sales person to encourage them to commit to train (and do so with you). Most of my students have been highly motivated and enthusiastic – it’s great to be a part of their journey – and respect your time. A few simply see you as part of a service available to buy on demand, perhaps because they haven’t appreciated the business arrangements and how you fit into it. One or two regard the revalidation hour for their SEP rating or annual club check more as an imposed inconvenience, and can get quite upset if their performance isn’t considered up to scratch.
The arrangement at most flying clubs is that instructors are self-employed on a zero-hours basis – no fly, no fee. If you can’t fly for any reason – weather, aircraft under maintenance, airport closed, aircraft booked by other members – then no lessons = no fees. Few have any cancellation policy, so if your student is unavailable at the last minute then you have no recourse. I do have sympathy for students with good reasons for late cancellations (e.g sudden illness, called up for unexpected military/work duties etc.). I’m less sympathetic when it’s more of a personal preference/convenience and/or the student simply hasn’t bothered to cancel the lesson as soon as they knew. Some have paid my fees regardless. I have become more cautious about booking up multiple sessions in advance with those who are likely to cancel.
On the other hand, several students can be very flexible about arranging or re-scheduling their slots at short notice and if you are pro-active, then you can often backfill to cover cancellations. I’ve even swapped lessons to accommodate IFR and VFR at different times of day in line with the weather. Inevitably, this isn’t always possible and you will end up with unexpected days at home. It’s a bigger problem for my IR students, who typically want multiple full day instruction in blocks in their own aircraft, but we won’t know how exactly many days until the training is finished.
Some clubs/schools have an administrator who will handles scheduling, and this is a godsend for the instructor who can focus on the task rather than constantly messaging/phoning between lessons.
Flight instructors at busier schools will fly more than I do – I’ve been constrained by technical issues, weather, student cancellations and an imbalance with more instructors than students. However I instruct more each month than all the other instructors combined at one club. Elsewhere an excess of instructors has led to fewer bookings which made it not worth the commute.
Flight instructors generally like being in the air, and I’ve come across several who focus on delivering instruction almost entirely in the aircraft. A few students have commented that I appear unusual in giving a pre-flight briefing (so they know and understand what to expect) and a post-flight debrief (often quite short, but helpful to clarify next steps). I also make a point of explaining the full structure of a PPL course, including all the theory, medical and FRTOL requirements at an early stage so that students know what they are getting into.
PPL students are required to pass nine theory exams for which some not inconsiderable study is required. Self study comes more easily to those with more recent experience (i.e. younger students fairly fresh from school or university) and something of a shock to older pupils. Many flight instructors aren’t that interested in delivering ground instruction and generally leave students to get on with it themselves. Few schools seem to be setup to deliver ground instruction which would be an obvious substitute for bad weather cancellations. Instead, we recommend reading the self-study course material, sign up to one of the online commercial providers (EasyPPL, QuizAero, Bristol Ground School etc.) and especially use the question banks. There is quite a lot of exam technique required, working out what each question is asking (they are quite convoluted at times), prioritising the easy questions first, double checking every answer with extra attention to detail. This part of the training has been tightened up in recent years with the introduction of e-Exams and a completely rewritten question bank. I wish I could say that the new questions were all wonderful and appropriate, but they have to test the official syllabus and therefore some less relevant aspects remain.
Therefore my own groundschool instruction is often limited to explaining the PPL course structure to new students, giving a long briefing prior to the first navigation lesson, and preparing students for test. I have found that remote instruction (see below) to be very useful for mastering the more complex avionics equipment, especially for Radio Navigation at PPL and IRR/IR level.
The Flight Instructor industry mix
It’s common in the USA for aspiring airline pilots to instruct after gaining their CPL/IR in order to reach the minimum 1,500 hours required prior to airline type rating training. I read a statistic that there are some 12,000 active flight instructors in the USA, of which 8,000 are in this pre-airliner pilot phase for around two years and almost all stop instructing as soon as they reach their target. The remaining 4,000 instruct for much longer periods, either as their primary job (instructors are paid more) or in semi-retirement.
In the UK, there is quite a split between commercial pilot training organisations who employ salaried instructors at reasonable pay rates and clubs/PPL schools who mostly engage instructors on an ad-hoc self-employed basis. I haven’t seen a breakdown or scope of UK flight instructors, but it will differ because UK and European airlines don’t require 1500 hours to become a commercial airline pilot.
Typical pay rates are £35 for a flight hour that takes at least two hours to deliver, £45 to £50 per flight hour for IMC/IR. I charge a day rate for full day IRR/IR (or dedicate one-to-one PPL) training. I believe that schools that pack in too many lessons per day while also asking instructors to ferry/clean/refuel aircraft can result in poorer quality training, delivering lower value for money to their customers. None of the schools I currently work for has that ethos, and I often fly three lessons a day (four if trial lessons, two if full IFR training). I’m doing this mainly for my own satisfaction rather than to become rich, although I this it not unreasonable to expect an income that does more than just cover costs and is above minimum wage. I think most PPL instructors I’ve met have other income streams to compensate for the low pay, while some schools do charge/pay more in areas where they are in short supply.
Wide variety in student background and experience
For me, variety is the spice of life, and I have been very pleased with the wide range of students that I’ve taught. These range from youngsters of 15 up to pensioners over 80, passengers who have never flown before, students who couldn’t read an altimeter up to commercial 787 jet/ex-RAF and even an Airbus type rating examiner. Students come from all walks of life: IT specialists and medics seem to have a bit more cash than other professions, but I’ve flown with builders, students, estate agents, architects, website designers, program managers, aeronautical engineers, police, tank commander, cavalry, trauma nurse and an abseil instructor. Those with professional pilot experience include commercial airline pilots, some who want to regain their SEP rating and really enjoyed the freedom of being fully in control again. ATC students tend to know their colleagues on the other end of the radio, and at first find it strange to be requesting rather than issuing clearances.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. I think it’s also true for flight instructors!
Strangely, it’s not the stalls or unusual attitudes that carry the greatest risks. Generally speaking, such manoeuvres are well briefed, planned and executed. Perhaps less so if the student adds power rather than reducing it in a spiral dive, which prompts a quick reaction.
Thankfully I’ve not been involved in a serious incident such as a forced landing, engine failure or crash. The worst was a propstrike when a large helicopter hover taxying behind tipped us up while still on the ground, which wasn’t our fault.
Students often make mistakes or errors of judgement, so you have to be vigilant pretty most all of the time. This ranges from missing items from the checklist, skipping the power checks completely, misunderstanding ATC instructions (or saying “ready for take-off”), not setting the altimeter (a much bigger deal for IFR training), poor height keeping (especially in the circuit with helicopters 300 feet below), remaining tuned to the wrong/old DME station (so your distance to destination is completely wrong), losing height/direction when distracted (I love looking out the window at those times, waiting for the student to look up), not aligning the direction indicator, losing situational awareness (e.g. requesting a direct circuit join from 4 miles when still at 4,000 feet).
The more serious ones I recall were confusing the carb heat and mixture controls, which made the regular carb heat check “interesting” when the engine almost stopped; dumping all the flaps prior to adding power for a go-around; applying rudder rather than aileron correction for a crosswind landing so that we almost landed sideways; attempting to descend live side into the circuit; turning downwind for final approach in a practice forced landing (I confess to having done that one myself).
Remote Flight Instruction
I’ve explored using Zoom to deliver remote instruction (coaching) to students who have their own simulators at home. This isn’t limited geographically and has included those from Canada, USA, Sweden, Norway and Indonesia. The idea is to prepare students and complement the instruction they may get in real aircraft – compensating for any bad weather, winter pre-flight training and is particularly good for procedures and avionics equipment familiarisation. It’s particularly effective and efficient to teach the real-world operations of more advanced avionics kit. I’ve acquired a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Garmin products (G1000, GTN650, GNS430, G5 etc), Trig and older but popular Bendix/King equipment.
Students can arrange remote sessions with me (typically evenings, weekends) via my Contact Form
Could you be a Flight Instructor?
Several pilots have approached me for advice about becoming a Flight Instructor. The pre-requisites include a certain level of competence as a pilot, a thirst for knowledge but most importantly an ability to adapt instructional technique to match the needs of individual students.
Before embarking on the training, try to find one or more potential employers. Some schools insist on training their own instructors, re-enforcing standardisation and a common ethos. Others have a strong preference for specific FIC course providers. Ask what your terms of employment will be, what support you can expect, how long it might take to become unrestricted etc. Your employability increases significantly after becoming unrestricted.
To commence a Flight Instructor course, you’ll need to have a PPL licence, current SEP rating and Class 2 medical. CPL pilots can start with 200 hours total time, while PPLs require 300. There will be a competence check at the start of the course to assess your flying skills, so it’s worthwhile practicing or having one or two lessons with an instructor beforehand to sharpen up. A full Flight Instructor course takes about six weeks full time, which can be split into two or three blocks as I did. While you don’t need to sit any theory exams, you’ll be restricted to LAPL only instruction if you don’t and this severely limits potential scope for employment. Compensate for that by ensuring your FI Assessment of Competence also includes a CRI rating which will allow you to do more. The CPL or ATPL theory exams are not trivial as you can read from my experience, and you may want to make a start on them before taking the flight training.
I’m pleased that I didn’t leave it too late in life to qualify as an instructor and hope to have a good few more years enjoying this aspect of flying before I hang up my headset.
Total PIC: 1789:10
Total Instruction Given: 1054:10
Total Time: 2000:20